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“As the Freynshe booke seyth”: Narrative Authority and Legacy in Malory’s “The Deth of Arthur”

By Lucy Zavitz

The final book of Sir Thomas Malory’s extensive Le Morte Darthur chronicles the deterioration of the Round Table’s once great fellowship and the resulting destruction of the King and his court. This collapse, brought on by prolonged interpersonal and political tensions, demonstrates the instability of the Arthurian world, yet the narrative retains a sense of admiration and deference for the knights and their values. Malory achieves a laudatory air of chivalric dignity throughout depictions of violence and chaos with particular narrative techniques. Though the work is a fictitious romance, it reads almost as a historical text due to the persistent narrative interjections in which Malory refers to source material from earlier books about Arthurian legends. Indeed, these references to the authority of older books appear at several points throughout the entire work, but in “The Deth of Arthur,” they culminate in number, and Malory specifies his source’s French origin (earlier portions of the work called it “the booke”). These frequent mentions of “the Freynshe booke,” fourteen by my count, bolster the authority of the narrator as he depicts Arthur and his kingdom on the precipice of ruin. It must be acknowledged that the actual legitimacy of the book’s citation is somewhat falsified, as the footnote explains, “Malory’s principle sources for this section are the Middle English sMA and to a lesser extent, the French Mort le Roi Artu”; nevertheless, the references remain integral to readings of the text (646, n†). Malory positions himself as a translator, interpreter, and historian, who has privileged access to “auctorysed” books of Arthur and his knights (697). The appearance of historical credibility allows Malory’s narrator to stabilize the bloody chaos he presents as it unfolds. The circumstances in which he invokes “the Freynshe booke” are varied, but they each operate in one of three distinguishable yet interrelated ways: marking especially notable events and actions as (un)certain, validating conflicted or ambiguous emotional responses, and calling attention to the act of recording or producing truth. Malory uses his French source to balance, corroborate, and amend the Arthurian world, unifying legend, author, and reader in celebration of honor and chivalric wholeness.  

As the Arthurian court breaks apart, Malory’s “Freynshe booke” acts as a distilling lens, allowing the narrator to authenticate or disprove events in a period when the authority of King and kingdom is called into question. The deceitfully specified “Freynshe” origin of Malory’s source plays a crucial role in establishing narrative authenticity: as French was “the language of the noble elite in Malory’s England,” its use garners a sense of officiality which “reflect[s] the prestige and gravity of the narrative” (645, n5). Malory uses the phrase, “as the Freynshe booke seyth [hereafter referred to as AtFbs],” as a symbolic seal of legitimacy to affirm a contentious event or secret.1 When Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred reveal that “the Quene and Sir Lancelot were togydits,” Malory invokes the “Freynshe booke” to admit their incriminating affair into the public realm, thereby obliging the otherwise honorable King to take revenge (649). But the seal paradoxically questions the certainty of events too: “[AtFbs], Sir Laurcelot smote Sir Gaherys and Sir Garerth uppon the brayne-pannes, wherethorow that they were slayne in the felde–howbehit, in very trouth, Sir Lancelot saw them nat” (657). It is strange to focus on the minute “trouth” of where Gaherys and Garerth died, but Malory, indubitably sympathetic to his “beste knyght,” Lancelot, uses this detail to cast doubt on what transpires (638). Malory presents information through his French source to feign impartiality and thus construct the appearance of more illustrious narrative authority.

The symbolic seal of legitimacy transforms literary and internal motivations into an observable history that corroborates the intricate system of moral and chivalric codes essential to the structure of Malory’s Arthurian world. “The Freynshe booke” authenticates points of complex internal conflict by representing them outwardly as recorded fact. For example, Malory uses the book to explain the King’s response to his wife’s adultery: “[AtFbs], the Kynge was full lothe that such a noyse shulde be upon Sir Launcelot and his Quene…for Sir Launcelot had done so much for hym and for the Quene so many tymes that… the Kynge loved hym passyngly well” (647). Upon hearing these rumors Arthur’s initial reaction of denial and resignation is unexpected (and not supported by Malory’s sources),2 especially given the violent uproar eventually caused by the affair; however, Arthur’s continued devotion to his betrayers is necessary to establish the interpersonal and political tensions dramatized in Malory’s Arthurian system. The false citation locates a sense of authority and thus allows the learned narrator to clarify the ambiguous situation. The book thereby becomes a vehicle to interpolate internal motivations as observable reality to coincide with his own vision of knightly codes. This allows Malory to edit the goodness of his characters without deviating in action: “tFBS Kynge Arthur would have takyn hys quene agayne and have benee accorded with Sir Lancelot, but Sir Gawayne wolde nat suffir hym by no maner of meane” (662). Malory uses the perceived legitimacy of his source to blame Sir Gawayne for bloodshed and vindicate the honor of his King. In this way, the narrator is able to intervene in his representation of the Arthurian legend and provide moral commentary disguised as citation. 

Malory uses his source book’s authority to preserve chivalric honor in the wake of death and destruction. But the urge to represent distant history as legitimate and virtuous reveals a preoccupation with the act of record-making: a desire to interact with and preserve the past. The French book is used on several occasions to call attention to the act of making records. When the Pope charges King Arthur to forgive his queen and Lancelot, Malory deliberately mentions that “[tFbs] hit was the Bysshop of Rochester” who bears witness to the official documentation or “bulls undir leade” (664). The inclusion of such a small and irrelevant detail exhibits a special awareness of record-making. These records become increasingly important to Malory’s narrator when he represents death. After Sir Bedivere finds Arthur’s “dede corpse” in the “ermtyage,” the narrator clarifies that he “fynde no more written in bokis that been auctorysed, nothir more of the very sertaynete of hys dethe harde I never rede” (689). The lack of an “auctorysed” source confirming his death suggests a symbolic immortality: Arthur’s reign is unending, not in life, but in the legend it has produced. Malory alludes to “somme Englysshe books” which allege that the remaining knights “wente never oute of Englond,” but dismisses the claim as a “favour of makers” and defers instead to the “[auctorysed] Frynsshe book” which claims that they “wente into the Holy Lande,” presumably to solidify their status as honorable figures (697).3 Malory’s ironic reference to other false story “makers” promotes a sense of self-conscious literary production, and the implied consultation of these records helps to buttress his authority as a selective historian. In the final paragraph, Malory appeals directly to the reader, “I praye you all… that redeth this book of Arthur and his knyghtes… praye for me whyle I am on lyve… and whan I am deed, I praye you all praye for my soule” (698). This urgent plea displays a desire to be remembered after death along with the legend. In calling attention to his source, Malory is able to record himself as a piece of the narrative: as the veiled arbitrator of action and morality.

The references to older iterations of the legend, however fictionalized, contextualizes Le Morte Darthur within a larger tradition of Arthurian literature. The narrator is thus paradoxically distanced from and intimately involved in the characters’ lives; he is an impartial historian, yet wholly connected and reverent of this acute system of chivalric virtues. Malory uses the French book to authenticate, edit, and moralize the tales of King Arthur and his noble knights, and with these textual interactions, Malory inscribes himself into their immortal legend.  


  1. I created this acronym to condense the repetitive (but necessary) phrase and save space for more written analysis. Furthermore, in this concise form, “[atFbs]” and its variation “[tFbs],” become a literal emblem or seal of the authority that I propose the references achieve. 
  2. In Malory’s Contemporary Audience the Social Reading of Romance in Late Medieval England, Thomas Crofts cites Vinavar with this quotation: “Neither the French romance nor the English poem has anything corresponding to this paragraph” (132).
  3. The footnote reports “no record of such authority, French or otherwise; the crusading story is likely to have originated with Malory” (697, n9).

Works Cited

Malory, Thomas, and Stephen H. A. Shepherd. Le Morte Darthur, or, The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of the Rounde Table: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism. Norton, 2004.

Crofts, Thomas. Malory’s Contemporary Audience the Social Reading of Romance in Late Medieval England. D.S. Brewer, 2006.