I have to split this up, because after over two weeks of reading I'm having dreams of me having to go to therapy because of reoccurring dreams of being stuck in armor. It's just under 600 pages, and I've finally made it past 300, actually to 310, but I just can't do it anymore. So I'm going to cut it in half, since it's already split into volumes I and II.
The story, especially near the beginning about Arthur, is pretty much the story I'd say most Americans know from Disney's The Sword in the Stone. Merlin disguises Uther to fool Arthur's mother into thinking he's her recently dead husband and thus Arthur is conceived. They marry a few days later, and when Arthur is born he is sent in secret to live with Sir Ector. After Uther dies comes the story of the sword in the stone, the knight who can pull the sword is the rightful king of England. Years later, at a tournament, Arthur forgot Sir Kay's (Sir Ector's son) sword and couldn't get into the house in time so seeing the sword in the stone, he runs up, pulls it out, and gives it to Sir Kay to fight with. Sir Ector recognizes the sword and the knights and barons repeatedly make Arthur pull it out, trying themselves over and over until Merlin and those on Arthur's side get sick of it and the barons try to kill him. Long story short, they fight, Arthur kicks their butts, sleeps with his sister, has a kid by the name of Mordred, and establishes himself as king. Somewhere along the way he gets the Round Table from another king and then we get into the stories of the different knights.
Sir Gawaine begins his career as a knight by refusing mercy to another knight who surrendered and in the process of trying to cut his head off cuts the head off of his lady. He is made to swear an oath to be especially gentle towards ladies to make up for that, and also to never deny mercy to a knight who surrenders. He's not very good at this.
Sir Launcelot loves Queen Guenevere, but despite the fact that literally everyone knows this, Arthur manages to not find out. He's the perfect knight, strong, practically unbeatable, loyal to his king and to his love, courteous, and, yeah, the perfect knight. He's also pretty predictable and flat throughout Volume I (though this changes a bit in the beginning of Volume II). He goes between hating Sir Tristram and loving him after Sir Tristram saves his life. He's interesting in his own way, but too perfect (though I find it odd that the ideal knight is involved in a love affair with his king's wife and remains perfect).
Sir Kay is a moron and a jerk. Arthur sees him as a brother, considering they were raised as such, and so he's one of the knights of the Round Table, but he's really really stupid. He makes fun of everyone, even though he's really not a strong fighter... at all. And he really doesn't learn any better from finding his boot stuck way down his throat.
Sir Gareth is pretty nifty. He's Sir Gawaine's brother (half-brother to Sir Mordred). King Lot of Orkney, I believe, is their father (but it's kinda hard to keep those things straight). He came to Arthur's court leaning on two servants and unarmed and asked for two gifts. The first gift was that he be allowed to remain at the court for a year with food and drink. The second one he would ask at the end of the year. Arthur granted it, and Sir Kay made fun of him and called him Beaumains (fair hands). Beaumains went to work in the kitchen under Sir Kay's orders, and after a year a damsel came asking for a knight to go with her to rescue her lady who was trapped in a tower. Beaumains asked for his second gift, to be knighted and take the quest. He left the court armed with his own armor and confused the heck out of everyone. Sir Gawaine and Sir Launcelot were the only two who didn't make fun of him. The damsel raged on him the whole trip until he proved himself. After several adventures, he finally marries the lady who was trapped in the tower. (Some of the adventures included a conjured knight that the first damsel raised to attack him and prevent him from sleeping with her sister, the lady in the tower, before their wedding night.) Sir Gawaine finally finds out who Beaumains is (still confused how he didn't recognize him, but that's a pretty continuous theme in this story), but Sir Gareth prefers Sir Launcelot's company to Sir Gawaine's because his brother isn't a good knight.
Sir Tristram (Tristan) isn't part of Arthur's court in Volume I, but he has his own story in Le Morte D'Arthur. He's the nephew of King Mark of Cornwell. He started his career as a knight by saving Cornwell, but his uncle hates him. Tristram and Isold are another Launcelot and Guenevere, but with flaws. Tristram royally messes up sometimes, and gets caught doing it. Isold is married to King Mark (who married her to spite Tristram who loved her), but loves Tristram. In one of the more entertaining bits of Le Morte D'Arthur, Tristram is followed and exposed by one of King Mark's knights while lying with Isold. He then proceeds to kill something like ten knights butt naked and make his escape. After several years he marries someone else, though he never sleeps with her, and makes Launcelot his enemy. He makes it back to Tintagel (King Mark's castle) he finds letters between Isold and one of his knights and goes crazy for the hurt. He spends six months, again butt naked, in the forest before he's found by King Mark (who doesn't recognize him), healed, and exposed by a hound of Isold's and therefore banished from Cornwell. He goes on to have more adventures and eventually ends up a prisoner of Morgan le Fay who makes him carry a shield during a tournament of Arthur's. The shield is a dig at Arthur, Guenevere, and Launcelot.
Arthur himself is pretty boring, and when he does things, they're mostly unbelievable, but I suppose that's the romance around him. After securing his kingdom, he gets allies in France and eventually makes his way to Rome and controls Europe. He's a pretty flat character though, and not overly bright.
A few things I noticed; there is a lot of romance about the knights in this book. They fight with honor, even at the cost of their lives. Malory has them removing their opponents helmets when fighting on foot before they kill them, which as far as I've researched might be physically possible, but it would in no way be easy or practical. There are opposing ideals regarding love and loyalty, and it seems like when it's "true love" there are double standards.
I don't understand courtly love. I think at this point I'm not going to figure it out by reading about it. I think I need someone to explain it to me. I don't get it. It seems too contrary to itself.
I nearly forgot Merlin. Merlin gets killed by Nimue fairly early on. He's also not a wizard, he's more of a prophet, and apparently a pervy old man, which is why Nimue killed him.
I think if I was doing research on Arthurian legends, which would be interesting, this might be easier to handle. I think breaking it up into books or chapters might also make it easier. It's not a read-all-the-way-through book by any means. I haven't been daunted by a book in years, heck, I made it through Paradise Lost without getting bored until the end. I'm actually excited to read the poet that's next on my list, and I hate poetry. I was going to try to read this all the way through, but that's not going to happen. It's interesting because it is in Middle English, and the edition I have preserves that. It has modern spellings, which makes it readable for me, but the language as it was is preserved. Caxton, the editor of the oldest copy known, did a horrible job. Chapter breaks are in strange places, chapter titles are mini-reviews, and it's just poorly put together. As a book, if we stuck it in as fiction, it stinks. As a historical text, it's interesting enough. I'd need good incentive to go back and study it though.