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The Alliterative Morte Arthure is a 4346 line Middle English poem, retelling the latter part of the legend of King Arthur. The poem is one of the most significant works in the short-lived revival of alliterative verse in the 14th century.

History

The author of the poem is unknown. In his history of Scotlandmarker, Andrew of Wyntoun mentions a poet called Huchoun ("little Hugh"), who he says made a "gret Gest of Arthure,/And þe Awntyr of Gawane,/Þe Pistil als of Suet Susane" [great history of Arthur,/And the Adventure of Gawain,/The Epistle also of Sweet Susan]. This "Gest of Arthure" has been claimed to be a reference to what is now known as the Alliterative Morte Arthure; but the fact that the Morte Arthure seems to have been written in a East Midlands dialect, the fact that Huchoun may have been Scottish, and the dialect of the extant Epistle of Sweet Susan, which appears to be that of North Yorkshire, all argue against "Huchoun"'s authorship.

The only manuscript source for the Morte Arthure is the Lincoln or Thornton manuscript written sometime in the mid 15th century by a scribe called Robert Thornton, who clearly copied an older text, now lost.

Contents

The story is adapted from books IX and X of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. It contains numerous episodes which are not in Geoffrey's work such as the round table and suggests either the poet using other works such as Wace's Roman de Brut or Layamon's Brut—where the table is first mentioned—or at least a familiarity with mythology. Some parts do not have a clear source and may have originated with the poet.

Compared to many of the other depictions of Arthur's story, the Alliterative Morte Arthure is a far more realistic version of events. There are few of the fantastical elements which often surround the legend and the story focuses more on Arthur's skill as a warrior king. The stress placed on chivalric duty in the contemporary Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is in the Morte Arthure of a more practical nature and has more to do with personal loyalty. Also the Morte Arthure is less clearly part of the romance genre than Sir Gawain and other Arthurian poems and more like a chronicle of the times. It contains little of the magic and symbolism of these other works, with no mention of Merlin, although it does use the literary device of the dream vision common in courtly romance and Chaucer. Arthur is a more political and also flawed ruler, the story is not just based in a small realm but is always placed within a wider European situation and this Arthur is more clearly Christian than other versions. Arthur also has two legendary swords, the first being Excalibur, and the second one being Clarent, a formal sword, stolen by the evil Mordred, with which Arthur receives his fatal blow.

An example of the differing style of the alliterative version of the story is the treatment of Mordred. He is not simply the villain of the piece as he is in other poems but is a complex character with a varying personality. One mark of the prevalence of Christian morality in the poem is that even Mordred cries and seems to be repentant around line 3886.

Although the majority of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur is closer to the style of Gawain and French versions of the legend, the second part of Malory's work, King Arthur's war against the Romans, is primarily a translation of the earlier alliterative work, although Malory alters the Alliterative Morte Arthure's tragic (and arguably anti-imperialistic) ending into a happy ending, with a clearly pro-imperialistic stance.

References

  1. The Pistil of Swete Susan


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