Although a vast body of Arthurian legend, fable, and romance existed (in works such as the Latin Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the French verse romances of Chrétien de Troyes, and the English Layamon’s Brut) before Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Malory was the first writer to give unity and coherence to this mass of material. Popular for centuries after its publication by William Caxton in 1485, Malory’s collection of Arthurian tales served as inspiration to many later writers such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Idylls of the King, 1859-1885) and T. H. White (The Once and Future King, 1958). In addition, Malory is credited with being the first English writer to use prose with a sensitivity and expressiveness that had hitherto been reserved to poetry.
Other literary forms
Le Morte d’Arthur is the only work attributed to Sir Thomas Malory. It was published in 1485 by William Caxton, England’s first printer. The 1485 edition, for centuries the only source of Malory’s tale, is a continuousnarrative of twenty-one “books,” though at the end of some books that clearly complete a larger grouping or “tale,” Caxton included “explicits” (concluding comments) by the author. These explicits indicate that Malory may have intended the work to be organized in a fashion somewhat different from that of the published version. A manuscript of Le Morte d’Arthur discovered in 1934 at Winchester Cathedral indicates that Malory did not write it as a single long work, but rather as a series of eight separate tales, each of which deals with some aspect or character of the Arthurian legend.
Any assessment of Sir Thomas Malory’s achievement as a literary artist is inevitably bound up with a judgment of the form of Le Morte d’Arthur: Is it a single story or eight separate tales? As critic Stephen Knight points out, this question of form is central to critical inquiry, for “if we are not clear whether we have before us one book or eight, or something in between, then our attitude towards the work or works must be obscure and tentative.”
That Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur should be considered a series of separate works is argued by Eugène Vinaver, editor of the modern standard edition, conspicuously titled The Works of Sir Thomas Malory (1947, 3 volumes). Vinaver argues in the introduction to his edition that the unity that scholars have found in Le Morte d’Arthur was imposed by Caxton and not intended by Malory. Vinaver’s edited text, based on the Winchester manuscript, restores many passages excised by Caxton in the 1485 edition. Vinaver’s opinion has been challenged by several critics, most notably by R. M. Lumiansky, who has argued that even in the Winchester manuscript one can see a unity of design and a progression from early to late tales, suggesting that Malory himself conceived of his eight tales as forming a single work.
Although this issue has been debated at length, it has not been settled with any real certainty, and any final judgment of Malory’s talents as an original artist may remain in abeyance for some time. Yet, whether one considers the Caxton edition of Le Morte d’Arthur, where a stronger sense of unity is prevalent, or the Winchester manuscript, from which the argument for eight separate tales can be made more forcefully, one can see an unmistakable unity imparted by the ordering of the tales.
Malory’s story moves progressively from the birth of Arthur to his assumption of kingship and defeat of all opposition, through the numerous stories depicting the adventures of knights in service to him, to his death at the hands of his traitorous, illegitimate son, Mordred. This kind of chronological progress is noticeably absent in the romances that Malory used as sources for his work. In the romances, especially that amorphous collection known as the French Vulgate cycle, from which Malory borrowed much of his materials, there is often little sense of direction or completeness to the knights’ adventures. From the modern reader’s point of view, Malory deserves special credit for unifying these disparate tales and arranging them in an order that lends motivation to certain characters’ actions and—perhaps more important—gives the reader a sense of the...
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Archibald, Elizabeth, and A. S. G. Edwards, eds. A Companion to Malory. Woodbridge, England, 1996. Part of the Arthurian Studies series, this volume examines the Arthurian legend in Malory’s seminal work. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Bennet, J. A. W., ed. Essays on Malory. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1963. A collection of seven essays by such outstanding Middle English scholars as C. S. Lewis, Derek Stanley Brewer, and W. F. Oakeshott. Included is an essay on art and nature by Eugène Vinaver, one of the most prominent Malory scholars of his day, written in the form of an open letter to C. S. Lewis, which responds to many of the points made by Lewis in his own essay in this collection (“The English Prose Morte”). A lengthy examination of chivalry in Le Morte d’Arthur is also included.
Benson, Larry D. Malory’s “Morte Darthur.” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. Four aspects of Malory’s work are examined in a work concerned chiefly with the context in which Malory wrote: a discussion of the relationship of the genre of Le Morte d’Arthur to Arthurian legend and traditional romances; the structure of Malory’s work particularly as it relates to the English romance; a historical perspective on chivalric traditions and chivalry in Malory; and a detailed literary and historical interpretation of the tale of the Sancgreal, the book of Sir Lancelot and Guinevere, and the death of Arthur.
Falcetta, Jennie-Rebecca. “The Enduring Sacred Strain: The Place of the Tale of the Sankgreal Within Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.” Christianity and Literature 47 (Autumn, 1997): 21-34. Discusses the Grail’s effects on three levels: its association with sensuous trappings, its effect on the main characters of the...
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