Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Lee, Alison

2nd Supervisor

Toswell, M. J.



Over the course of the nineteenth century, Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century work of Arthurian romance, Le Morte Darthur, underwent significant reevaluation, from being warily considered a trivial, morally problematic text to being hailed as a national epic with a central place in the English canon. This shift in Malory’s status coincided with the rise of an increasingly competitive and unabashedly aggressive model of imperialism in the 1870s, which historians conventionally term New Imperialism. At the same time, a new model of masculinity emerged, one that bemoaned the “decadence” of the modernized, leisurely man and that celebrated the hypermasculine ideal of the “savage” and the “barbarian.” It turned to “primitive” models of masculinity which it located in non-Western cultures such as the Zulus, and in the past, celebrating the heroism of ancient Greeks and Romans, Viking warriors, and medieval knights. I argue that Malory’s ascent to canonical status was largely due to this rise of ultranationalism and atavistic masculinity. Le Morte Darthur provided England with a prestigious, national epic to rival other European nations, and its presentation of chivalric masculinity became the inspiration for the imperial masculinity promoted by the British Empire’s champions, including writers like Rudyard Kipling, Sir H. Rider Haggard, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I examine Kipling’s consideration of empire, progress, and heroic masculinity in Puck of Pook’s Hill, where he explores these issues in the context of medieval English history. I then look at the genre of Victorian romance, focusing specifically on King Solomon’s Mines and Sir Nigel, examining the ways in which these works dramatize masculinist fantasies of English gentlemen reverting to “primitive,” medievalist masculinities as an antidote to the “effeminized” masculinity of fin-de-siècle England. I conclude with T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, an unorthodox reworking of Le Morte Darthur that uses Malory’s narrative to critique the militarism, imperialism, and chivalric masculinity of the New Imperialists. Throughout the thesis, I examine the trajectory of hegemonic forms of masculinity, imperialism, and medievalism, over a span of nearly a hundred years, as they intersect with the reception and adaptation of Sir Thomas Malory’s chivalric ideals.

Summary for Lay Audience

My thesis examines chivalry in the British Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Victorian Era in England saw a heightened interest in the legends of King Arthur and in the ideals of medieval chivalry. Consequently, the fifteenth-century work of Arthurian romance, Le Morte Darthur, began to be celebrated as a foundational masterpiece of English literature. This period also saw the rise of a movement that historians conventionally refer to as New Imperialism, an explicitly aggressive and competitive model of imperialism that saw European empires frantically attempt to colonize as much of the world as possible. A New Imperialist Britain, desperate to expand its territory and to fight off the armies of rival powers, needed men to fight and die for the empire, and this aggressive imperialism soon saw the rise of a more aggressive model of masculinity to support it. New Imperialist writers, such as Rudyard Kipling, Sir H. Rider Haggard, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, saw the modernized, “civilized” man as “decadent” and “effeminate,” and they sought a remedy to this perceived weakness by turning to the heroic masculinity of the past. This “primitive” masculinity could be located either in non-European cultures or in the European past, and their literature often celebrates the “savage” masculinity of the Zulu warrior alongside the Viking and the medieval knight. In this thesis, I look at how writers of this period participated in this “rebirth” of chivalry, engaging with a form of masculinity that was inspired by Le Morte Darthur, and how their works shaped the way people viewed the Middle Ages and chivalry. I examine the trajectory of this New Imperialist chivalry, over the span of nearly a hundred years, from its rise in the 1870s to its decline after the Second World War.