Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2082
Article abstract: Combining French prose, Arthurian romances, and some English materials with stories of his own invention, Malory set the Arthurian legend in its enduring form in Le Morte d’Arthur.
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The problem in writing the biography of the most famous author of Arthurian stories is that it is not known with any certainty who he was. At one time or another, scholars have championed no fewer than nine Thomas Malorys, but perhaps only three of those men deserve serious attention.
The primary conditions for establishing the author’s identity come from the text of Le Morte d’Arthur itself. Modern scholars have available to them the first printed edition, produced in 1485 by William Caxton, and also in the late fifteenth century manuscript version, found in the library of Winchester College in 1934 by Walter F. Oakeshott. “Syr Thomas Maleoré, Knyght” tells his readers that he has completed the work in the ninth year of the reign of Edward IV (that is, March 4, 1469, to March 3, 1470) and asks them to pray for his “good delyuerance” from prison. In the “explicit,” the formal statement ending the first of the eight tales that make up the whole book in the Winchester manuscript, Malory again suggests that he is a knight prisoner. Thus, one knows that the author was a knight, was of an age to write the work in 1469-1470, and was a prisoner of some sort. That the printer Caxton knew so little about Malory suggests further that Malory had died by the time the book was printed, or before July, 1485.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, the man who was thought to have best met these qualifications was a Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire. George L. Kittredge had made this identification most forcefully in his influential article “Who Was Sir Thomas Malory?” written in 1896. As Kittredge and other scholars supported this choice of the Warwickshire Malory with further evidence in later publications, the link appeared to become increasingly sound. Some scholars began to treat it as established fact; Sir Thomas Malory was the author and a man by that name and rank could be identified who seemed to meet the qualifications; therefore, Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel had written Le Morte d’Arthur. In many ways, he fit the part. This Malory was a member of an old Warwickshire family; he had served for a quarter of a century in the wars in France, following Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, a mirror of chivalry to his contemporaries; and he had been a Member of Parliament for Warwickshire in 1445-1446.
Yet there were troublesome aspects to this identification, for the Warwickshire Malory was at least accused of committing a remarkable series of crimes between 1450 and 1460. The list of charges included attempted murder, rape (twice, against the same victim), cattle raiding, extortion, and raids on an abbey. He was imprisoned eight times and twice escaped dramatically. Could this man actually have written the great chivalric tale of Arthur and his knights of the Round Table? Could a man who seemed so immoral have produced what many readers considered a moral book? Some scholars tried to excuse Malory, arguing that he had been simply indicted, not convicted. Others merely shrugged off the charges as evidence of the vigorous acts of a man living in a violent age. Eugène Vinaver, the editor of the standard edition of Le Morte d’Arthur, frankly stated that the morality of the author was not the same issue as the morality of his artistic work.
Until 1966, those scholars troubled by the “morality issue” or, more generally, by the identification of the Warwickshire knight with the author had no strong opposition candidate. In that year, however, William Matthews criticized the case for the leading candidate and advanced a previously unknown Thomas Malory who came from Hutton Conyers in Yorkshire. He supported this Malory from the north of England by pointing to northern elements in the Winchester text—in vocabulary and usage, in a preference for northern geographical locations, and in a frequent use of northern romances as sources. That this Thomas Malory could not be proved either a knight or a prisoner presented obstacles, but Matthews argued that “knight prisoner” might mean “prisoner of war.” Some scholars found these arguments appealing; few found them convincing. Specialists, for example, have cast doubts on the validity of the linguistic evidence. Yet the question of identity, formerly more or less considered settled on the Warwickshire knight, once again seemed to be a matter for debate.
The likelihood of further debate increased in 1981, when Richard R. Griffith reopened a case for a candidate from Papworth St. Agnes, a tiny village in Cambridgeshire on the border with Huntingdonshire. This Thomas Malory had been considered as long ago as 1897 but had been dismissed ever since. Griffith thinks the dialect, age, and political affiliations of the Cambridgeshire Malory fit the author perfectly. He argues that his candidate was briefly imprisoned before his execution (for reasons of politics, not crime) in September of 1469 (Malory’s prayer for good deliverance thus being in vain). Griffith suggests that this Malory had access to the one library in England likely to have contained all the French romances that went into Le Morte d’Arthur. Though there is no incontrovertible proof that this Malory was a knight, Griffith makes a plausible case that he possessed the status so crucial to his identification with the author.
Supporters of the traditional author, the Warwickshire knight, have continued to advance and modify their case. P. J. C. Field, for example, having eliminated a claim for a second Warwickshire knight, a Thomas Malory of Fenny Newbold (by proving that Newbold Revel and Fenny Newbold were simply two names for the same place), has clarified the birth date of Malory, altering the chronology for his entire career. Field suggests a birth date of about 1416, putting the Warwickshire Malory in his mid-thirties and early forties when imprisoned and about age fifty-five when he died in 1471. This chronology eliminates the idea of Malory’s long wartime service with that great knight, the Earl of Warwick, but it provides a chronology that fits the author quite well.
Whoever Sir Thomas Malory the author was, his enduring achievement was the writing of Le Morte d’Arthur. Yet this work has no more been free from controversy than its author. Two issues in particular have attracted attention and generated debate. In the nineteenth century, many scholars concentrated on identifying Malory’s sources and began to debate the issue of his originality. By the twentieth century, scholarship on Malory had tended to focus instead on the structure of Le Morte d’Arthur and debated the issue of the unity of the work.
The emphasis on Malory’s sources focused first on his numerous French sources (such as the Prose Tristan and the Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal, both written in about 1230) and only later considered his English sources (such as the alliterative Morte Arthure, which also dates back to about 1230). The emphasis on sources coincided with the tendency during the nineteenth century to consider Malory a “mere” translator or compiler, rather than an author of much originality. Yet, increasingly, scholars began to describe Malory as a conscious artist, selecting and adapting his sources, creating from their immense diversity and bulk a set of Arthurian stories that above all bear the stamp of his own originality and style. From the complex French tales, with their elaborately interwoven incidents (using a technique called intertwining, or entrelacement), Malory wrote a long story of eight sequential, cumulative, major sections (as in the Winchester manuscript, though there are twenty-one books as printed by Caxton), culminating in the dramatic collapse of the fellowship of the Round Table.
The question of originality led to the discussions of unity more common in twentieth century scholarship on Malory: What was the structure of Le Morte d’Arthur? Did Malory intend and achieve a unified work of art? Vinaver placed such questions at the forefront of discussion by giving his 1947 edition of the work (based on the Winchester manuscript) the controversial title The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Although Vinaver softened his views in a second edition published in 1967, he considered Malory primarily a translator of French Arthurian tales and argued that he actually adapted eight separate romances, not a single book. This latter contention was hotly debated for at least the following two decades. Robert M. Lumiansky and Charles Moorman vigorously argued that in Le Morte d’Arthur Malory shows clear intent of linking the eight tales and that he succeeded in making them a unified book. The views of Vinaver’s critics appear most clearly in a volume edited by Lumiansky and significantly titled Malory’s Originality: A Critical Study of Le Morte Darthur (1964) and in Charles Moorman’s The Book of Kyng Arthur: The Unity of Malory’s “Morte Darthur” (1965).
The uncertainties and the scholarly debates about Sir Thomas Malory and his work must be considered, but they should not obscure his achievement and importance. It is through Malory and his great book (or books) that English-language readers know the stories of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Sir Lancelot, Sir Gareth, and Sir Tristram, and of the Quest for the Holy Grail, the Round Table, and Camelot. In telling these stories, Malory has delighted his readers for hundreds of years. As Vinaver wrote:
Perhaps none of this would have seemed real to us if so much of it were not conveyed in a form which in a very true sense creates its own substance, a prose both crisp and resonant, blending the majesty of epic eloquence with the freshness of living speech. How strange and yet how instructive the contrast between the appeal of the work to English readers and the neglect into which the Arthurian legend fell in the country where it found its first poetic expression! . . . [Malory’s] magic spell . . . had revived in English prose the quests of Arthurian knights, the epic grandeur of their grim battles, and the “piteous tale” of the fall of Arthur’s kingdom.
Bennett, J. A. W., ed. Essays on Malory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963. Seven essays by various scholars debating significant aspects of Malory’s work.
Field, P. J. C. “Sir Thomas Malory, M.P.” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 47 (1974): 24-35. Supports the Warwickshire candidate proposed by Kittredge over Matthews’ Yorkshire candidate. Shows that there were not two Warwickshire Malorys.
Field, P. J. C. “Thomas Malory: The Hutton Documents.” Medium Aevum 48 (1979): 213-239. Argues that there was only one Sir Thomas Malory alive in 1468-1470, and this is the Warwickshire Malory.
Griffith, Richard R. “The Authorship Question Reconsidered: A Case for Thomas Malory of Papworth St. Agnes, Cambridgeshire.” In Aspects of Malory, edited by Toshiyuki Takamiya and Derek Brewer. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 1981. Elaborate argument for the Malory from Papworth St. Agnes.
Kittredge, George Lyman. “Who Was Sir Thomas Malory?” Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature 5 (1896): 85-106. The essay which placed the Warwickshire Malory in the front rank among contenders for authorship of Le Morte d’Arthur.
Life, Page West. Sir Thomas Malory and the Morte Darthur: A Survey of Scholarship and Annotated Bibliography. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980. An indispensable guide to all topics concerning Malory and all scholarship before 1980. The annotated bibliography lists nearly one thousand items; the introductory essay provides a highly useful survey of scholarship.
Lumiansky, Robert M. Malory’s Originality: A Critical Study of Le Morte Darthur. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964. Eight essays by different authors, each examining the function of an individual tale in Malory’s book as a whole.
Malory, Sir Thomas. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Edited by Eugène Vinaver. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. 2d ed. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967. The standard edition. Oxford also published a one-volume paperback edition in 1971, minus the introduction, critical apparatus, index, and bibliography, but including a revised glossary, summaries of Vinaver’s original commentary on each romance, and explanatory notes.
Matthews, William. The Ill-Framed Knight: A Skeptical Inquiry into the Identity of Sir Thomas Malory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966. Matthews’ attack on the Warwickshire Malory as author and his case for the Yorkshire Malory.
Moorman, Charles. The Book of Kyng Arthur: The Unity of Malory’s “Morte Darthur.” Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1965. Incorporates a number of his articles published earlier, discussing important aspects of Malory and themes of his work.