Thomas Malory

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 18

Le Morte d’Arthur, published in 1485, is the only work that has been attributed to Sir Thomas Malory.

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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.

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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.

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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 cause-and-effect relationship between certain incidents that is lacking in the “French books” from which Malory says he has “drawn out” his tales.

Malory’s achievement in condensing and organizing his sources has also been a matter of debate. Nineteenth century scholars, possessed of newly discovered Arthurian manuscripts of the twelfth through fifteenth centuries, were divided on the issue. Several noted medievalists branded Malory as a mere compiler; others, equally respected, praised him for his originality. Perhaps the most laudatory comment was offered by George Saintsbury, who claimed that in Le Morte d’Arthur, Malory made a significant advance over the romance tradition by developing a firm sense of narrative purpose, akin to that of the modern novelist. Saintsbury sees Malory exhibiting “the sense of grasp, the power to put his finger, and to keep it, on the central pulse and nerve of the story.” Saintsbury and others, notably W. P. Ker, also praised Malory for his strong, original prose style. T. S. Eliot called Malory “a kind of crude Northern Homer,” a fine prose stylist.

Regardless of the criticisms leveled at Malory’s tale as an artistic achievement in its own right, there can be little question about the importance of Le Morte d’Arthur in literary history. Since its publication, it has stood as the preeminent English-language document to which readers of succeeding centuries have turned to learn of the Arthurian legend. Caxton’s edition was followed by two others early in the sixteenth century, attesting to Malory’s immediate popularity. Intellectuals during the Renaissance may have agreed with Roger Ascham, who commented in The Scholemaster (1570) that the chief pleasure of Le Morte d’Arthur lay in two points, “open manslaughter and bold bawdy.”

Nevertheless, the appearance of still more editions of the work and the numerous references to the Arthurian legend in the literature of the period offer further proof of the influence of Malory’s work long after its publication. When English society developed a renewed interest in chivalric materials and especially in the Arthurian legend, Le Morte d’Arthur was the work to which writers from Sir Walter Scott to Alfred, Lord Tennyson turned as the locus classicus of the legend. It was by comparison to Malory that Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859-1885) and the Arthurian poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Morris, and Matthew Arnold were judged by their contemporaries, and all openly acknowledged their debt to the author of Le Morte d’Arthur.

In part, Le Morte d’Arthur’s influence as a source for Arthurian adventure and chivalric virtue may be attributed to the good fortune of its having been printed, while hundreds or even thousands of Arthurian tales existed only in manuscript until the late nineteenth or even the twentieth century. Nevertheless, even after scholarly and popular bookshelves began to be filled with other versions, Malory’s work continued to be regarded as the premier English rendition of the Arthurian story. In the twentieth century, T. H. White, who had at his disposal both medieval and modern accounts of the legend numbering in the hundreds, turned to Malory for inspiration in writing what is no doubt the most important twentieth century Arthurian tale, The Once and Future King. John Steinbeck, whose accomplishments as a novelist earned him the Nobel Prize, began a modern adaptation of Malory because he wanted to bring to “impatient” modern readers the “wonder and magic” of Le Morte d’Arthur. While the literary purist may question the value of modernizing Malory, one cannot quarrel too much with Steinbeck’s motive, for he speaks truly when he observes that these stories “are alive even in those of us who have not read them.” To write a work that becomes a part of the cultural heritage of one’s country, and a classic of one’s language and literature, is an achievement few writers accomplish; Malory is one of the exceptions.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 804

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 Arthuriad, and its impact on the conclusion of Le Morte d’Arthur.

Field, P. J. C. The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993. A very detailed, scholarly retelling of Malory’s life. Recommended for advanced students and scholars.

Field, P. J. C. Malory: Texts and Sources. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1998. An examination of the sources for Malory and Arthurian tales.

Hanks, Dorrel Thomas, Jr., and Jessica Gentry Brogdon, eds. The Social and Literary Contexts of Malory’s “Morte Darthur.” Woodbridge, England: Boydell and Brewer, 2001. A collection of socio-historical analyses of Malory’s work.

Ihle, Sandra Ness. Malory’s Grail Quest: Invention and Adaptation in Medieval Prose Romance. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. Examines “The Tale of the Sangreal” from Le Morte d’Arthur, looking both to its thirteenth century French source and to Malory’s own structural and thematic adaptation. Gives insight into medieval literary theory and the underlying intentions of Malory’s distinctive Grail quest.

Kennedy, Beverly. Knighthood in the Morte Darthur. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1985. A comprehensive, detailed examination of knighthood and chivalry and a meticulous discussion of Le Morte d’Arthur in this light. Kennedy considers different facets of knighthood, such as “The High Order of Knighthood,” “Worshipful Knighthood,” and “True Knighthood.”

McCarthy, Terence. Reading the “Morte d’Arthur.” Wolfeboro, N.H.: Boydell and Brewer, 1988. An excellent introduction to Le Morte d’Arthur. McCarthy outlines the structure of the work, book by book, with plenty of background and analysis, then offers more in-depth discussions of chivalric tradition, historical background, Malory’s style, and his method of storytelling. He also suggests a selection of passages for closer study to give the newcomer to Malory a representative and manageable introduction to an occasionally difficult text.

Merrill, Robert. Sir Thomas Malory and the Cultural Crisis of the Late Middle Ages. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. An original inquiry into the psychology of the knights of Arthurian romance and the impact of the Round Table on their lives. Traces the formation of medieval institutions and explores the personal and social tensions in the Middle Ages that led to the Protestant Reformation.

Parins, Marylyn Jackson. Malory: The Critical Heritage. 1988. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 1996. An important collection of early criticism and commentary on Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in chronological order, beginning with William Caxton’s preface to the first edition and ending with remarks by influential literary critic George Saintsbury in 1912.

Parry, Joseph D. “Following Malory out of Arthur’s World.” Modern Philology 95 (November, 1997): 147-169. Argues that the final resting place of King Arthur at Avalon is fitting in terms of the narrative’s focus on two types of location that correspond to two concurrent but contradictory narratives of the dissolution of the Arthurian society.

Takamiya, Toshiyuki, and Derek Brewer, eds. Aspects of Malory. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981. Eleven essays on Malory. Examines topics such as sources of Malory, the structure of Malory’s tales, and the Malory manuscript. Eugène Vinaver discusses Malory’s prose style, and Richard R. Griffiths offers a new theory on the author’s

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