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Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure: Introduction

The romances in this volume are two of the best and most important of our surviving Middle English romances. Each deals with the last years and death of King Arthur, and yet in tone, style, characterization, and especially in plot the two poems are sharply contrasting works. They reveal two quite different aspects of the medieval Arthurian legend, and they exemplify the best of two distinct romance traditions.

The Alliterative Morte Arthure ranks just after the works of the Gawain-poet among the finest products of that late medieval literary movement that we call the "Alliterative Revival." It lacks the delicacy and balance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but the vigor of its narrative, the epic sweep of its action, and its coolly realistic presentation of fourteenth-century warfare lend the poem an interest of its own. The King Arthur of this poem is neither the "somewhat childish" romance king who appears in Sir Gawain nor the helpless cuckold he so often seems in French romance. He is a warrior king, shifting his troops about, sending out skirmishers, and ever ready to do battle himself.

This is primarily a poem of battles, and there are no better accounts of late medieval warfare than we find in this poem. Nor are there any more sobering reminders that all was not heroic and romantic in this age. The poet's account of the siege of Metz (lines 3032-43), with his description of the results of a medieval bombardment (from slings and catapults), reminds us all too sharply of more recent horrors. Yet our poet is finally more interested in the fates of men than of armies, and he has a keen eye for psychological facts. His description of Mordred's momentary repentance (lines 3886-96) is a marvelous touch, unprecedented in Arthurian tradition (in which Mordred is never treated with such sympathetic understanding) and worthy of a place alongside some of the best passages in Chaucer. Each reader will find his own favorite passages, for the Alliterative Morte Arthure well deserves the high reputation it has among specialists, who, because of the difficulties of the text, have thus far constituted almost its only modern audience.

The Stanzaic Morte Arthur is a very different narrative. It is a brilliant condensation of the French prose romance (La Mort Artu) which, along with the Stanzaic Morte Arthur itself, was the source of Malory's last two tales, "The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere" and "The Most Piteous Tale of the Morte Arthur." Writing a century before Sir Thomas Malory completed his own Morte Darthur, the unknown English romancer achieved many of the virtues that we associate with Malory's later work and produced a relatively tight and fast-moving narrative. The French Mort Artu is a leisurely and complex narrative, characterized by an elaborate network of episodes and by a full treatment of the psychological and philosophical implications of the action. The author of the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, like most English romancers of his time, was less interested in psychological abstractions. He reduced the material he inherited from the French to about a fifth of its original length, producing a work that succeeds because of its lean and rapid narrative and that gains force because of its more obvious focus upon the actions themselves. Yet the author does not omit completely the psychologizing that characterized his French source. As any reader of Chaucer knows, the literature of the later fourteenth century, marked by a new interest in individual feelings, is often (as in The Second Nun's Tale or even parts of Troilus) what we might now call a sentimental literature ("Pitee runneth soon in gentle heart" is one of Chaucer's favorite sayings). Tears flow freely in this romance (as they do in the Alliterative Morte Arthure), but the compression of the narrative prevents the sentiment from becoming excessive. The poet's interest in the feelings of his characters humanizes them, just as his omission of the philosophical interest in Fortune, so important in the French, focuses the tragedy upon the real people caught in a real web of tragic circumstances.

Although these two romances deserve wider audiences primarily because of their literary value, they are also of great importance from the standpoint of literary history, because of the traditions they represent and because of their later influence. Most readers of English literature know the Arthurian legend only from the work (or works) of Sir Thomas Malory. Malory's great synthesis of earlier romances shaped the Arthurian legend for later English writers - for Spenser, for Milton, for Tennyson, for Mark Twain, for writers and readers of our own day; Malory's genius was such that almost all subsequent English treatments of Arthurian themes have been based on his work.

However, there was an English Arthurian tradition before Malory, and the two romances in this volume provide the best introduction to this tradition. One should say "traditions," for these two romances embody two distinct versions of the life and death of King Arthur. The Alliterative Morte Arthure is in the tradition of sober chronicle history, which stems ultimately from Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain. Our poet, of course, used other sources as well, but his fondness for precise dates, his use of real place names, and his comparative lack of interest in the supernatural lend his poem the air of chronicle rather than romance. So does his lack of interest in matters of love and courtly manners. Honor is more important than courtesy in his poem; Gawain is a great warrior, not a famous courtier, and Lancelot is only a young and fierce knight, with no hint of interest in Guenevere (or Waynor, as she is called in this poem). Guenevere's desertion of Arthur seems more a political than an amatory act, and Arthur is infuriated rather than heartbroken at her betrayal.

The Stanzaic Morte Arthur represents a different tradition, more familiar to modern readers, one in which the emphasis is more romantic than historical. Arthur is the lord of the fictional Camelot (a place never mentioned in the alliterative poem), and his most important campaign is in Lancelot's legendary kingdom of Benwick rather than at Metz or Milan. When he goes to the Isle of Avalon, it is not because there are skilled surgeons there who try and fail to cure his wounds, as in the alliterative poem, but because the three strange ladies come to take him away in a magic boat. One can detect the skeleton of the historical tradition embedded in the plot of the Stanzaic Morte Arthur: while Arthur is engaged in a foreign war, Mordred, his steward, usurps his kingdom; Arthur returns, and in a final battle he and the traitor are both killed. This is the basic plot of both the stanzaic and alliterative poems. What the alliterative poet adds expands but does not essentially change the action. In the stanzaic poem, the tale of the love of Lancelot and Guenevere has been superimposed on the basic plot. The focus is shifted to the clash of loyalties and internal divisions within the Round Table itself; the significant foreign war is now that between Arthur's forces and Lancelot's, and Arthur's death is now due as much to the feud between Lancelot and Gawain as it is to Mordred's rebellion. Mordred is changed from the principal (and largely unmotivated) villain to simply one more element in the complex circumstances in which all the characters are trapped.

Sir Thomas Malory must have read a good many English romances before he turned to the French prose romances that were his main sources for the Morte Darthur. However, the only two English romances we can be sure he read are the two romances in this volume. Apparently Malory's first attempt to write an Arthurian romance of his own was what is now the second tale in the Morte Darthur, the "Tale of Arthur and the Emperor Lucius." This is a straightforward modernization, with relatively few changes, of the first half of the Alliterative Morte Arthure. As Vinaver has shown (in the introduction to his edition of Malory), Malory's adaptation of the alliterative poem had a profound influence on his style, and though he next turned to French sources, his experience with the alliterative rhythms of this romance is apparent throughout his later work.

The last romances Malory wrote were the last two tales in the Morte Darthur, "The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere" and "The Most Piteous Tale of the Morte Arthur." Though his principal source for these tales was the French Mort Artu, Malory again turned to English romance and drew on the Stanzaic Morte Arthur. When the English and French versions differed, he almost always preferred the English version, and occasionally he carried over into his own work the exact wording of the stanzaic romance. Probably the influence of the stanzaic poem is even deeper than this, since Malory's handling of his other French sources - the way in which he condensed and modified the plots - shows that he seems to have been following the example of the Stanzaic Morte Arthur.

We cannot be sure exactly where or when the two romances in this volume were composed. Probably both were written in the North Midlands area of England in the fourteenth century, the Stanzaic Morte Arthur around the middle of the century, the Alliterative Morte Arthure toward the end, probably around 1400 or so (see note to line 3773). These, however, can be only guesses. All we can say for sure is that the unknown authors produced works of exceptional merit that have a unique importance for English literary history.

The two romances in this volume represent two distinct stylistic traditions. The Alliterative Morte Arthure belongs to the "Alliterative Revival," the literary movement that begins in the middle years of the fourteenth century and that includes such important writers as William Langland and the author of Gawain and the Green Knight. The Stanzaic Morte Arthur is written in the more common eight-syllable, four-beat line of English romance, a line that derives ultimately from French models. Despite its foreign source, this is a simpler, more popular style than that of the alliterative romance, and the author of the Stanzaic Morte Arthur probably intended his work for a somewhat wider and less sophisticated audience than the alliterative poet aimed for.

However, the author of the Stanzaic Morte Arthur selected an unusual and rather difficult stanza for his poem. It is an eight-line stanza riming abababab. There are variations from this, as there are from his normal eight-syllable line (the first stanza rimes ababcbcb and variant stanzas, such as lines 361-67, do appear), but in general the poet adheres to this rime scheme, which requires two sets of four riming words for each full stanza. Such a stanza is easy enough for a lyric poet to handle (and it appears in a number of relatively short Middle English poems) but it raises real difficulties in a long narrative poem, and it is not surprising that no other romancer attempted to use it.

Our poet was able to use it successfully because he adopted a number of traditional devices that eased his task of handling this stanza. He uses a relatively limited set of stock rimes, some of them several times over. Launcelot du Lake, for example, almost always rimes with sake, take, make, or wake. The relatively rare word neven ("to name") almost invariably rimes with heven, steven ("voice"), and seven. In addition to stock rimes such as these, the poet frequently uses imperfect rimes. In lines 528-35, for example, the word life rimes with swithe, kithe, and blithe. This is not due to carelessness, for the same group of rimes appears several times in the poem. Nor does it seem to be due simply to including assonance within his definition of rime, since he also frequently rimes vowel sounds that are not exactly the same; he makes no clear distinction between open and closed vowel sounds and he is willing to rime words such as dere and were, as in the opening lines of the poem.

Such a use of rime has a definite advantage, not only for the poet but for the reader, since it helps to de-emphasize the rimes and to keep them from intruding too often upon the consciousness of the audience. As the reader will discover, the rimes remain well in the background and do not impede the narrative. That is not always the case in Middle English romance.

The sound texture of the Stanzaic Morte Arthur owes almost as much to alliteration as to rime. The earliest modern critic of this poem, the eighteenth-century bibliographer Humphrey Wanley, wrote that our poet "useth many Saxon or obsolete words, and very often delighted himself (as did the author of `Piers Plowman') in the Chime of words beginning with the same letter as (that I may give one example) `For well thee wist withouten ween."' Examples of this delight in the chime of alliteration can be found in almost every stanza in the poem, beginning with the opening lines:
Lordinges that are lef and dere
Listeneth, and I shall you tell. . . .
This fondness for alliteration and the frequent use of alliterative formulas (such as wo and wele) is not unusual among the authors of the riming romances, but the man who wrote the Stanzaic Morte Arthur seems particularly fond of the alliterative style, and one suspects that he could have cast his poem in the alliterative meter if he had so chosen.

In purely alliterative poems, such as the Alliterative Morte Arthure, there is no rime at the ends of the lines. Instead, each line falls into two half-lines which are united by alliteration - the identity (or near identity) of the initial sound of stressed syllables. In the first half-line most often two, but sometimes three, words will alliterate. In the second half-line usually only one word will alliterate. The alliteration always falls on a word that bears metrical stress; there are two (sometimes three) stressed words in the first half-line, and two (almost never three) in the second half-line. The number of unstressed syllables can vary considerably:
Now grete glorious God through grace of Himselven
And the precious prayer of His pris Moder
Sheld us fro shamesdeede and sinful workes,
And give us grace to guie and govern us here
In this wretched world, through virtuous living
That we may kaire til his court, the kingdom of heven. . . . (lines 1-6)
The reader need not worry too much about the metrical pattern; if one reads the lines aloud deliberately (but not too slowly) with slight pauses at the ends of the half-lines and with attention to the sense, the stresses will fall where they should.

As shown by the lines above, the poet can take certain liberties with the alliterating sounds. Sh- can sometimes alliterate with s- and w- with v- (though these sounds may have been closer to one another than in Modern English). Moreover, it is a convention of this verse that any vowel sound can alliterate with any other vowel sound:
Ye that lust has to lithe or loves for to here
Of elders of olde time and of their awke deedes. . . . (lines 12-13)
Notice that only the important words (nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs) bear the alliteration. The word "of" in the second line has no part in the alliterative scheme. Words like "of" (or "to" in the first line above) are not ordinarily stressed in speech, and such words are therefore not ordinarily stressed in alliterative poetry. That is why a reader can not go far wrong in getting the stress right by simply reading the lines with attention to the sense.

One characteristic of the alliteration of the Alliterative Morte Arthure is the author's fondness for carrying one alliterating sound through several lines in a kind of tour de force:
But they fit them fair, these frek bernes,
Fewters in freely on feraunt steedes,
Foines full felly with flishand speres,
Fretten off orfrayes fast upon sheldes;
So fele fay is in fight upon the feld leved
That ech a furth on the firth of red blood runnes. (lines 2139-2144)
The poet seems to have an endless stock of alliterating words, and if he stops at this point, it is probably not because he has run out of words beginning with f; only a couple of lines later he begins another series with f.

The alliterative style affects more than the meter. The poets of the Alliterative Revival used the traditional line of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which had disappeared from written records about two centuries before and was revived by a number of poets (mainly living in the West and North of England) in the fourteenth century. Evidently the style of alliterative poetry had been preserved by popular, unlettered poets who continued to compose and transmit poems by oral, non-written means from Anglo-Saxon times until well into the fourteenth century. Verse composed in this manner depends on a heavily formulaic language and a fixed, archaic poetic vocabulary. Even the casual reader of the Alliterative Morte Arthure will soon recognize how much of this old, formulaic style is preserved in the poems of the Alliterative Revival. Half-lines (especially second half-lines) tend to be used over and over in identical (or nearly identical) forms, and the poet makes frequent use of the specialized vocabulary characteristic of alliterative poetry, with its many synonyms for "man" (renk, bern, lede, freke, gome, shalk, etc.) or for the verb "go" (graith, boun, ferk, etc.) Much of the difficulty in a first reading of an alliterative poem is its use of this special poetic diction, consisting largely of words that are seldom encountered outside alliterative verse.

Although the ultimate background of the alliterative style is a popular, non-literary tradition, poems such as the Alliterative Morte Arthure are sophisticated works that were probably addressed to rather limited audiences that prized the verbal dexterity these poems display. The language was difficult even for the average listener in Middle English times, and the poets tended to prefer description and analysis to rapidly moving plot such as we associate with more popular poetry. The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, with its emphasis on action, has a popular appeal quite different from that of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, in which the careful attention to the texture of events, to the description of armor and dress, to the niceties of feasting, to fine points of heraldry, and to the exact details of military campaigns reveals the interests of a leisured and aristocratic audience. The author expects his hearers to understand an occasional French phrase, to recognize his geographical references (at least the European ones), and to share with him an interest that goes beyond the action to the definition of the quality of the action and of the life it represents.

Go To Stanzaic Morte Arthur, Part I
Go To Alliterative Morte Arthure, Part I

Stanzaic Morte Arthur


Harley 2252, fols. 86a-133b; late fourteenth century. (British Library)


Le Morte Arthur, The Adventures of Sir Launcelot du Lake. Ed. Thomas Ponton. London: William Bulmer and Company, 1819.

Le Morte Arthur. Ed. F. J. Furnivall. With prefatory essay by Herbert Coleridge. London and Cambridge: Macmillan and Company, 1864. [Dedicated to Alfred Tennyson. Not printed in stanzas.]

Le Morte Arthure. Ed. J. Douglas Bruce. EETS e.s. 88. London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1903. Rpt. Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus, 1973. [This edition is the basis for most subsequent editions.]

Le Morte Arthur. Ed. S. B. Hemingway. New York: Riverside Press, 1912. [Differs little from Bruce; fuller notes.]

Le Morte Arthur: A Critical Edition. Ed. P. F. Hissiger. The Hague, Paris: Mouton, 1975. [The text differs little from Bruce and Hemingway; notes are scanty.]

Le Morte Arthur. Ed. Shunichi Noguchi. Centre for Mediaeval English Studies. Tokyo: University of Tokyo, 1990.


Alexander, Flora M. "`The Treason of Lancelote du Lake': Irony in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur." In P. B. Grout and others, eds., The Legend of Arthur in the Middle Ages. Arthurian Studies 7. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1983. Pp. 15-27, 227-28. [A discussion of the ironies that create detachment in preparation for the burial of Guinevere with Arthur at Glastonbury.]

Jaech, Sharon L. Jansen. "The Parting of Lancelot and Gaynor: The Effect of Repetition in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur." Interpretations 15 (1984), 59-69. [Examines the parting of Lancelot and Guinevere as a means of unifying themes in the poem primarily through repetition.]

Knopp, Sherron E. "Artistic Design in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur." ELH 45 (1978), 563-82. [Argues the structural coherence of the poem.]

Wertime, Richard A. "The Theme and Structure of the Stanzaic Morte Arthur." PMLA 87 (1972), 1075-82. [Defends the poem's coherence and seriousness of purpose.]

Alliterative Morte Arthure


Lincoln Cathedral 91 (Thornton Manuscript), fols. 53a-98b; c. 1440. (Lincoln Cathedral Library)


Morte Arthure, or The Death of Arthur. Ed. Edmund Brock. EETS o.s. 8. New York, London, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1871; rpt. 1961. [Very close to the manuscript, but with few notes.]

Morte Arthure. Ed. Erik Björkman. Alt- und mittelenglische Texte, 9. Heidelberg: Carl Winters and New York: G. E Stechert and Company, 1915. [Heavily emended, often to improve rhythm or alliteration; excellent notes and glossary.]

The Alliterative Morte Arthure: A Critical Edition. Ed. Valerie Krishna. New York: Burt Franklin, 1976. [An excellent conservative edition with full documentation and notes.]

Morte Arthure: A Critical Edition. Ed. Mary Hamel. Garland Medieval Texts, 9. New York and London: Garland, 1984. [Full apparatus; uses Winchester manuscript of Malory to elucidate the text of the alliterative poem.]


Benson, Larry D. "The Alliterative Morte Arthure and Medieval Tragedy." Tennessee Studies in Literature 11 (1966), 75-87. [Argues that the conflict is between two goods and that Arthur's fall is the consequence of the heroic system that comes into conflict with Christian ideals.]

Eadie, J. "The Alliterative Morte Arthure: Structure and Meaning." English Studies 63 (1982), 1-12.

Göller, Karl Heinz, ed. The Alliterative Morte Arthure: A Reassessment of the Poem. Arthurian Studies, 2. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1981. [Eleven essays on various aspects of the poem.]

Hamel, Mary. "Adventure as Structure in the Alliterative Morte Arthure." Arthurian Interpretations 3 (1988), 37-48.

Jember, Gregory K. "Tone as Meaning in the Morte Arthure." Studies in Medieval English Language and Literature 2 (1987), 95-100.

Keiser, George R. "The Theme of Justice in the Alliterative Morte Arthure." Annuale Medievale 16 (1975), 94-109.

Lumiansky, Robert M. "The Alliterative Morte Arthure, the Concept of Medieval Tragedy, and the Cardinal Virtue Fortitude." In Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ed. John M. Headley (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), pp. 95-118. [Diverges from Matthews and Benson to see the poem as an "exemplum" of fortitude.]

Matthews, William. The Tragedy of Arthur. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1960. [Still the only comprehensive, full-length study of the poem.]

Peck, Russell A. "Willfulness and Wonders: Boethian Tragedy in the Alliterative Morte Arthure." In Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach, eds., The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1981), pp. 153-82. [Examines geometric structure of the plot whereby the second half of the poem, devoted to Arthur's willful decline, mirrors in reverse the first half on his good kingship.]