THE ''Morte Darthur'' is little read today, which is a great pity. It is a universal and timeless work, its language poetical, stirring, and evocative. At first the style may seem a little difficult to accept, but it grows on the reader, finally enthralling him. It has been too often abridged and bowdlerized, too much discussed and analyzed: It should be left as it is, since its subject is humanity's struggle to attain spiritual goals.
Sir Thomas Malory completed its 21 books, comprising 507 chapters, in 1469. The Caxton Press published it in 1485. Drawing upon Welsh and Breton sources, and especially the ''French Book,'' Sir Thomas made full play with the history as well as the myths which had been woven about these tales since the 6th century when the action here described took place - that is, if it did.
Caxton believed it to be a true account. He was persuaded that the existence of King Arthur and his knights had sufficient witness in the monuments, seals, and other pertinent objects to be found in the cathedrals and abbeys of England and France. He says in his preface that the book ''treateth of the noble acts, feats of arms of chivalry, prowess, hardiness, humanity, love, courtesy, and very gentleness, with many wonderful histories and adventures.''
The great and enduring focus of the story, however, rests on two interrelated themes: the character of Launcelot, who but for one tragic flaw would have been a perfect knight, and the quest for the Holy Grail; both of these portray man's search for holiness. The Round Table symbolizes the world seen from the framework of chivalry (''the character of the ideal knight - disinterested bravery, honor, and courtesy'').
The Quest for the Grail was intended to symbolize ''the search after the secrets of God, unknown in the absence of Grace, and by those who know inexpressible.'' King Arthur set the Quest afoot when he realized that the Round Table with its goodly company of knights was in danger of disintegration. Their adventures, once so fresh and fair, had become in great degree a series of escapades, worldly, rowdy, amorous, full of bravado. Seeking the Grail was to turn their aspirations in quite another direction. That few of them met with any success will occasion no surprise.
Launcelot, as he himself was ruefully aware, was much to blame for this state of affairs. His fatal attachment to Guinevere marred his naturally pure nature, but he seemed unable to break this spell. He longed to heal, and had been successful in this, as were a few others of the Round Table - the Christian era was young and men expected miracles.
King Arthur's hope that the search would purify the Round Table was disappointed; only four knights attained the Grail, and most of the others did not begin to know how or where to look for it. Yet they were all strongly aware of religion, punctilious in religious observance, and frequently attended by holy men in the little chapels in the forests.
All this helps to make the ''Morte Darthur'' (also referred to as ''Le Morte d'Arthur'') so human and readable. The knights are ourselves.
It is also full of humor. Sir Gawaine, for instance, were he not so often engaged in serious situations, is almost a comic character. He never had the least idea of what to do when he started on the Quest, even though he had been the first to vow to pursue it in that pentecostal hour in Camelot when, in the brilliant light that flooded the great hall, ''began every knight to behold other, and either saw other, by their seeming, fairer than ever they saw afore.'' Riding about on his fruitless search, Gawaine falls in with Sir Ector de Maris. They ''complained them greatly that they could find none adventure.'' Gawaine says that he has ''found not the tenth part of adventure as he was wont to do. . . . Truly, I am nigh weary of this quest, and loth I am to follow further in strange countries.'' ''One thing marvelled me,'' replied Sir Ector; ''I have met with twenty knights, fellows of mine, and they all complain as I do.'' They never fathomed the mystery.
But to the four who achieved it: Pelleas, Percival, Bors, and Galahad, the way was clear - difficult, but clear. Launcelot, too, knew very well what he sought, as well as why he could not come to it. Yet he experienced many wonders on his journey toward it, for instance when he was sustained as though by manna. Finally he did come to the place where ''he found a chamber where the door was shut, and he set his hand to have opened it, but he might not. Then he enforced him mickle to undo the door. Then he listened and heard a voice which sang so sweetly that it seemed none earthly thing: and him thought the voice said: Joy and honour be to the Father of Heaven.''
He kneeled down but he was never able to enter, so ''he withdrew him aback right heavy.'' Yet his efforts were not in vain. They avail something for mankind, even though the Round Table never recovered, and King Arthur was slain. We all feel that the account is not truly ended, that it is part of mankind's inevitable triumph: This is why the book lives on.