(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Le Morte d'Arthur (1485)
By Sir Thomas Malory
Book #56 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Compiled between the 1450s and '70s but not published for the first time until 1485, Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur was this scholar and member of Parliament's attempt to collect together all the various myths that existed at the time concerning King Arthur -- stories that almost definitely started with a very real warrior chieftain in southwest England during the end times of the Roman Empire, but that a thousand years of oral history had ended up saddling with a whole series of implausible details, from a main adviser who was a witch to a magical sword given to him by a ghostly woman who lives at the bottom of a lake, even to the idea that he and his generals managed to actually find the "Holy Grail," or in other words the cup that Jesus drank out of the night before his arrest and eventual death. As such, then, and especially with this being put together right at the dawn of movable type, it was this compilation that most influenced the standardization and spread of the King Arthur myth in the 550 years since, both establishing many of its details (such as all the ones mentioned above) and laying the groundwork for more to come (such as the idea of Arthur's wife Guinevere joining a convent after cheating on him, which was introduced to the legend by Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson in the 1880s).
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, obviously there's what I just mentioned, the fact that this volume did more to popularize the King Arthur legend than perhaps anything before or since; and also like I said, along with The Canterbury Tales from these same years, this was one of the very first "bestsellers" in the English language, helping to give the citizens of the Renaissance a better idea of just what a profound thing printed type was destined to be. Unusually for this series, though, perhaps the best argument of all for why this is a classic is that it helped do no less than shape an entire national character; because for those who don't know, back in the 1800s when the countries of Europe started creating national mythologies for themselves for the first time, basically taking these old scraps of Medieval legends and then adding a bunch of new material themselves, it was to King Arthur and the shining Knights of the Round Table that England turned, elevating the half-forgotten stories until they became a metaphor for the very heart of the British Empire itself. (And never mind of course that much of the original legend originated with the French Normans who ruled the British Isles for several hundred years in the Middle Ages; although this did bother JRR Tolkien enough to get him to write Lord of the Rings, his own Europe-free version of a British creation mythology.)
The argument against:
Like many books from this period, the main argument against Le Morte d'Arthur being a classic is simply the arcane nature of its language; for while there's disagreement over whether this should be considered a late form of Middle English or an early form of Modern English, there's no doubt that it's all funny-sounding to modern ears, and constructed not like a three-act narrative tale but more like the "city census meets fairytale" approach of the Christian Bible. ("And then this small king tried to defeat Arthur, but all his armies were slaughtered; and then this small king tried to defeat Arthur, but all his armies were slaughtered; and then this small king..."). Although almost no one denies anymore the immense historical impact that this volume has had, you find plenty of people arguing that it's not worth trying to read yourself, but that you're better picking up a more modern retelling of the myth, such as Tennyson's aforementioned Idylls of the King or Thomas Hughes' 1958 The Once and Future King.
Although I'm glad to have a good dozen or so titles in the CCLaP 100 from before the formation of the modern novel (which is what this essay series in general mostly focuses on), I have to confess that I've so far found most of these pre-Romantic tales a real slog to actually get through, with Le Morte d'Arthur no exception (although I have to confess, it was at least fascinating to see just how closely John Boorman's 1981 blood-and-boobs take on the story, the cheesily transcendent Excalibur, actually hews to this 15th-century original). And that's why I don't have much to say about it, because I only made it through maybe 20 percent of the book before giving up, the same reason I'm not recommending it to a general audience today either. Do yourself a favor and instead pick up one of the thousands of more modern interpretations that have been done of it, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley's feminist take on the legend, 1985's The Mists of Avalon, or the Broadway musical Camelot, whose 1960 premiere is what made the term so synonymous with John Kennedy.
Is it a classic? No
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)