Le Morte d’Arthur

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Themes and Colors
Honor and Chivalry Theme Icon
Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Journeys and Quests Theme Icon
Women: Weakness and Power Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Le Morte d’Arthur, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon

Le Morte d’Arthur begins with a search for an unknown king, one who, by the workings of fate, will be the only one able to pull the enchanted sword Excalibur from the stone. In this case, enchantment ensures that the true king will be properly identified, but as is often the case in Le Morte d’Arthur, trickery—magical and otherwise—also disrupts social norms and confuses more than it reveals.

Like Arthur, Sir Gareth, another knight, is also seemingly without a past as he first makes his appearance, and his several quests can be understood as an attempt to prove himself—that is, prove his true identity as an honorable, chivalrous knight (and one with noble blood). The book shows just how much many will risk in this society to prove their identity to themselves and to others. At other times, however, identity cannot be so easily pinned down—and this is especially the case among the knights, who in battle are covered with armor and only identified by their shields or “colors,” which can be easily changed. Because of the various levels of concealment at work in the kingdom, Arthur does not really know where he comes from even after being anointed king. He unknowingly sleeps with his half-sister Margawse as a result, leading to a whole host of fated complications. The tragic element of mistaken identity is also evident in Balin and Balan’s fight to the death: they both kill each other and realize only at the moment of death that they are brothers.

While mistaken identity can often be an element of tragic fate, at other times such mix-ups are a consequence of conscious trickery. The book seems to hold the view that men are particularly vulnerable to the tricks of women: Launcelot, for instance, is tricked into sleeping with Elaine of Corbin, while Merlin is tricked into being magically sealed in a cave by the woman he loves, Nimue.

With all these examples of trickery and mistaken identity, the reader is on constantly shifting ground, never quite knowing which characters are which and who means what in the book. As a kind of literary masked ball, these stories show such trickery to be entertaining, to be sure, especially as Malory’s characters often purposefully disguise themselves in order to confuse or impress others. But Malory is also writing at a tumultuous moment in English history, when the members of warring dynasties often switched sides and alliances, so Malory’s emphasis on trickery also reflects a broader insecurity with people’s identity in society.

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Trickery and Mistaken Identity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Trickery and Mistaken Identity appears in each book of Le Morte d’Arthur. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Trickery and Mistaken Identity Quotes in Le Morte d’Arthur

Below you will find the important quotes in Le Morte d’Arthur related to the theme of Trickery and Mistaken Identity.
Book 1 Quotes

And when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:— Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.

Related Characters: King Arthur
Related Symbols: Excalibur
Page Number: Vol 1, 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Not long after King Uther's death, Merlin has told the Archbishop of Canterbury to gather all the knights of the kingdom together for a great tournament: he declares that God will reveal who should lead the kingdom, though he doesn't give any other details than that. After the attendees celebrate Mass, the first miraculous event takes place - the appearance of a grand sword sticking out of a stone. It is significant that the miracle meant to herald and establish the next rightful king of England is based on a sword, since in this society the ability to fight well and to triumph in jousting is a sign not just of physical might but also of spiritual honor and worth.

The path by which the next king of England is decided also depends on an understanding of identity particular to this time, place, and culture. According to this, one may be the rightful king of England even without knowing it: it is by completing a task set out in advance that one does not just become worthy of a label, but proves that he bore this identity (i.e., royal bloodline) all the while.


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Book 7 Quotes

I took none heed to your words, for the more ye said the more ye angered me, and my wrath I wrecked upon them that I had do withal. And therefore all the missaying that ye missaid me furthered me in my battle, and caused me to think to show and prove myself at the end what I was; for peradventure though I had meat in King Arthur’s kitchen, yet I might have had meat enough in other places, but all that I did for to prove and assay my friends, and that shall be known another day; and whether that I be a gentleman born or none, I let you wit, fair damosel, I have done you gentleman’s service, and peradventure better service yet will I do or I depart from you.

Related Characters: Sir Gareth (Beaumains) (speaker), King Arthur
Page Number: Vol 1, 251
Explanation and Analysis:

Beaumains has traveled much of the country with the anonymous damsel, attempting to prove himself and help her on her "adventure." Beaumains has conquered a number of knights quite impressively, but has still been subject to the damsel's regular insults and mockery. Finally, the damsel begins to acknowledge that she is somewhat impressed that Beaumains has endured all of this berating so stoically. Here Beaumains attempts to explain himself. He claims that he transferred his anger and frustration towards her onto the men against whom he fought. Indeed, her dismissal of him made him more eager to prove what a strong and chivalrous knight he was. 

For Beaumains, this kind of test is similar to what he put himself through as a menial kitchen boy at King Arthur's court - although he comes from a powerful family, it was important for him to prove his worth on his own, by setting a series of challenges and quests for himself, and completing them under a false identity, without the help of others or his own noble name. As a result, Beaumains has only underlined how he was worthy of great worship all along, even if his true identity remained unknown to others. Finally, he may be frustrated by the damsel, but as a woman she is particularly prized as someone whose admiration and respect he wants to provoke.

Book 10 Quotes

Sir, she said, wit you well that ye be a prisoner, and worse than ye ween; for my lady, my cousin Morgan le Fay, keepeth you here for none other intent but for to do her pleasure with you when it liketh her.

O Jesu defend me, said Alisander, from such pleasure; for I had liefer cut away my hangers than I would do her such pleasure.

Related Characters: Alisander (speaker), Morgan le Fay
Page Number: Vol 2, 74
Explanation and Analysis:

Morgan le Fay has spirited Alisander away to her castle and has given him a sleeping potion. When he wakes up, he meets the rightful owner of the castle, Morgan's cousin, who shares Morgan's evil plans with Alisander. Alisander is shocked and angry - he vows never to accede to Morgan's desires. While other women in the work are shown to be naturally seductive to men, who fall in love with them without any power over their feelings, Morgan is portrayed as actively scheming in her personal relationships. In a similar way, she renders men powerless against her tricks and schemes, but the power she has over them is described not as romantic but as frightening and suspicious. As a result, Morgan becomes an extreme case of the power women can have over men in general. Despite their relatively marginalized position in a world that values physical strength and a patriarchal royal line, women in this culture are able to exert a certain amount of power in private affairs - something that many men find threatening.

Book 18 Quotes

For ever, said Arthur, it is a worshipful knight’s deed to help another worshipful knight when he seeth him in a great danger; for ever a worshipful man will be loath to see a worshipful man shamed; and he that is of no worship, and fareth with cowardice, never shall he show gentleness, nor no manner of goodness where he seeth a man in any danger, for then ever will a coward show no mercy; and always a good man will do ever to another man as he would be done to himself.

Related Characters: King Arthur (speaker)
Page Number: Vol 2, 425
Explanation and Analysis:

During a tournament called by Arthur, Arthur’s knights had begun to perform quite well against those of Launcelot, so Gareth had decided to disguise himself and fight with Launcelot’s group, helping to regain some of the ground lost. After the tournament, when Arthur learns what Gareth had done, he is gracious rather than angry. He takes the opportunity, indeed, to make a general proclamation on the proper behavior of knights during a fight that turns out to be unequal.

Arthur considers it proper for a knight to join his friend (or indeed, any knight deemed "worshipful" in his reputation) when he sees that the friend is in danger or fighting against unfair odds. For an honorable knight, the possibility for any other honorable knight to be shamed – not just himself – should be enough motivation to help. Such knights are to be contrasted with more cowardly knights, and Arthur claims that the shamefulness of such knights is only confirmed by the fact that these knights fail to show mercy to or come to the aid of others. His final statement – that one should act towards others as he would want to be treated himself – seems to stem from the "Golden Rule" of the New Testament of the Bible, where Jesus’s teachings expressed the same sentiment.