BORN: c. 1410, Newbold Revel, Warwickshire, England
DIED: 1471, London, England
Le Morte d'Arthur (1485)
Thomas Malory is recognized as a towering figure of medieval English literature. His masterwork, Le Morte d'Arthur (1485), is the best-known treatment in English of the tales of the exploits and deeds of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Fought in Hundred Years' War Malory's birth date is uncertain, but believed to be just before 1410. He was probably the son of John Malory, esquire, of Newbold Revel. As a young man, Malory served with the Earl of Warwick's forces in France. England had been at war with France since 1337 in what came to be known as the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453). The conflict was over territories controlled by the English in France. At the war's end, England was expelled from the continent except for Calais.
Criminal Activities Malory succeeded to his father's estate in 1433 or 1434. Far from being the sort of man likely to write what William Caxton called a “Noble and Joyous book,” Malory was a ruffian of the most extreme kind. He was indicted for theft in 1443 and served in parliament later in the decade. He is next heard of in 1450, when he evidently embarked upon an appalling career of rape, robbery, and brutal violence. All together, this “servant of Ihesu [Jesus] bothe day and nyght” (as he claimed of himself) was to spend years in prison for his crimes.
The most damaging document relating to Malory is the memorandum of an inquisition held at Nuneaton in 1451. Therein, it is stated that on January 4, 1450, Malory led an attempt to murder Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham. A few months later, he raped Joan Smyth of Monks Kirby, and the following week he extorted one hundred shillings from Margaret Kyng and William Hales. He raped Joan Smyth again on August 6, stealing forty pounds Sterling in goods belonging to her husband. On August 31 he extorted twenty shillings from John Mylner.
Almost a year later, on June 4, 1451, Malory and five others stole seven cows, two calves, a cart worth four pounds Sterling, and 335 sheep from a Warwickshire farm. He was arrested a month later and placed in custody, but he broke out of prison by swimming the moat. The very next day, he reconvened his band of abettors. That night, he led an attack on Coombe Abbey, stealing jewels, cash, religious objects, and other valuables. The next night, he returned to Coombe for more booty, this time inciting a riot in which he may have personally beaten the abbot bloody with a stick.
Imprisoned In spite of the seriousness of the charges brought at Nuneaton, Malory was never brought to trial for the crimes enumerated in the memorandum, though he was summoned in March 1452 to answer charges not sufficiently explained the year before. For a time, he apparently continued his criminal enterprises, jumping bail in 1454 to avoid felony prosecution. He was subsequently imprisoned in Colchester, but escaped and was recaptured and sent to Marshalsea Prison. Malory was called before the King's Bench on January 16, 1456, and released on a royal pardon. He was sent to Ludgate, a debtor's prison, and released on bail in 1457.
Wrote Book While in Prison Malory soon was returned to prison, again at Marshalsea. His last recorded arrest came in 1460 when he was sent to Newgate Prison. It is believed that he completed Le Morte d'Arthur while serving time there. Nothing further is known of him until 1468, when he was specifically excluded from King Edward IV's general pardon of August 24. Malory died in March 1471, probably of the bubonic plague (a deadly bacterial infectious disease that was responsible for millions of deaths during this period), while still serving time at Newgate.
Works in Literary Context
Arthurian Background It is Malory who gave Arthur to England, and who shaped the legend adapted into Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1855–1885) and T. H. White's The Once and Future King (1958). Arthur began as little more than a tribal chieftain. He was elevated by Geoffrey of Monmouth (who still claimed to be writing history) in his Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1138) into a great and tragic hero whose queen is coveted by Mordred. The story grew to huge proportions through the vast prose romances, a “Holy Grail,” a “Lancelot,” a “Merlin,” and a “Death of Arthur” written in France in the thirteenth century.
Mythic Quality Malory knew these French sources, but it is his vision that gives the Arthurian legend its mythic quality, as he tells of men (and women) who are doomed because they love each other too much. It is likely that Malory began his reworking of this material with a rather pedestrian handling of a story of Arthur at war, the book that turns up finally as Book 5, the story of the war between Arthur and Emperor Lucius. This book, different in kind and mood from the rest of Malory's output, is based on a native source, the fourteenth-century Alliterative Morte Arthure, rather than the French romances that support the rest of the work. In this tale, Arthur and his knights seem much more warriors than courtiers, and there is little sense that Malory put his individual stamp on these characters.
Influence The width and variety of response to Le Morte d'Arthur suggests the strong appeal of the work to a variety of readers. As the single greatest repository of Arthurian legend in English, its influence upon poets, novelists, and scholars has been tremendous. Equally, Le Morte d'Arthur has stirred the imaginations of generations of readers whose love of the Round Table and all it represents is abiding.
Works in Critical Context
Malory's masterwork, Le Morte d'Arthur, is esteemed on several counts. It is a mirror of medieval culture and manners, a seminal work of English prose, and a narrative of enduring entertainment value. Yet Le Morte d'Arthur remains an enigma. Scholars are at odds about authorship, source material, authorial intention, narrative structure, and thematic content. Whatever puzzles it presents, however, Le Morte d'Arthur is an acknowledged literary milestone. In the words of critic William Henry Schofield, it is “the fountainhead of [English] Arthurian fiction.”
Two Key Editions According to a statement at the end of the book, Le Morte d'Arthur was completed in “the six yere of the reygne of kyng edward the fourth,” that is, between March 4, 1469, and March 3, 1470. It first saw print on July 31, 1485, in the workshop of William Caxton. Caxton's edition is divided into twenty-one books and 506 chapters. Caxton's was the only version known until 1934, when W. F. Oakeshott discovered a manuscript of Le Morte d'Arthur in the Fellows Library of Winchester College.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Malory's famous contemporaries include:
John Lydgate (1370–1451): Monk and poet who was one of the most prolific English authors of the fifteenth century. His translations include the Troy Book (1412– 1420).
Johannes Gutenberg (1400–1468): German printer credited with the invention of moveable type that revolutionized the printing industry.
Joan of Arc (1412–1431): A national hero of France who led the French army to several important victories during the Hundred Years' War before being martyred.
Henry VI (1421–1471): King of England for much of the fifteenth century, overseeing the end of and England's loss in the Hundred Years' War.
Christopher Columbus (1451–1506): Italian explorer credited as being the first European to land in the New World.
The Winchester text parallels the Caxton version closely except for the section treating Arthur's war with the Roman emperor Lucius, but it is a decidedly distinct text nonetheless. The manuscript, which was apparently copied during the 1470s or early 1480s, is divided into ten parts, forming five larger units, corresponding to Caxton's Books I–IV, V–VII, VIII–XII, XIII–XVII, and XVIII–XXI. The manuscript was edited by Eugene Vinaver in 1947 as The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Its relationship to Caxton's version is not altogether clear and is the subject of ongoing discussion. All that is known for certain is that the manuscript did not serve as printer's copy for Caxton.
Controversy The chief controversy about Malory studies concerns the structural unity of Le Morte d'Arthur. As early as 1594, Sir Walter Raleigh criticized the “inevitably rambling structure” of the work. He claimed that “to attain to a finely ordered artistic structure was beyond Malory's power; the very wealth of legend with which he had to deal put it beyond him, and he is too much absorbed in the interest of the parts to give more than a passing consideration to the whole.” Two decades later, George Saintsbury viewed Malory as a “compiler” as far as the narrative of Le Morte d'Arthur is concerned.
The discovery and publication of the Winchester Manuscript enriched the discussion. In the introduction to his edition of the text, Vinaver set forth revolutionary views. He maintained that, far from being a continuous narrative, Le Morte d'Arthur is a series of eight “separate romances.” Caxton, he added, produced it as a single book under a “spurious and totally unrepresentative title.” Hence Vinaver formulated the new title, The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, to reflect this view. Vinaver's contention set the stage for a scholarly battle that has continued.
Vinaver himself never wavered from his conclusion, and his many writings on the subject won him powerful supporters. His critics, however, have pointed to Malory's own words as evidence of the unity of the work: “I pray you all, gentlemen and gentlewomen, that read this book of Arthur and his knights from the beginning to the ending.” “This book” and “beginning to the ending” suggest, it has been claimed, a continuous narrative, not a series of independent tales. Internal evidence concerning continuity is often cited, but it is generally ambiguous and has been variously interpreted.
Critical Concerns through the Centuries The structural unity of Le Morte d'Arthur is such a dominant critical concern that other matters might seem relatively unimportant, but this is far from being the case. From its first printing onwards, readers and critics alike have embraced the work. Initially, commentators were at pains to demonstrate the historical veracity of Arthur and the Round Table. Caxton devoted nearly half of his preface to this matter, while William Stansby included a brief introduction to his 1634 edition in order to “confute the errours of such as are of an opinion that there was never any such man as king Arthur.”
It was not until the late nineteenth century that Le Morte d'Arthur was “discovered” as a major work of literature. Before then, commentary focused more on the entertainment value of Le Morte d'Arthur than on anything else. It took the textual pioneer H. Oskar Sommer and the aesthetic critic Andrew Lang to bring Le Morte d'Arthur into the mainstream of English literary history. Early commentators on the artistry of Le Morte d'Arthur viewed the work in practically ethereal terms. In the 1910s, Vida D. Scudder, a major early promoter of Malory, concluded: “Malory's style is truly ‘the man.’; It belongs to no school, is the result of no tradition. It is a gift from above.”
Since Scudder's time, critics have explored many further aspects of Le Morte d'Arthur. The “moral paradox” of a criminal author having written a work on “love, curtosye, and veray gentylnesse” has emerged as a major concern, while such smaller issues as novelistic elements, characterization, allegorical imagery, “courtly love,” time patterns, formulaic language, neologisms, and dialogue in the work have been treated repeatedly.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Malory's work was one of the earliest and most influential versions of the Arthurian legend. Here are some other versions of King Arthur's life and deeds:
Idylls of the King (1856–1885), poetry by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson's cycle of poems relies heavily on Thomas Malory's work, with some expansions and changes.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), a novel by Mark Twain. This novel is a modern reworking of the Arthurian legend that introduces the idea of time travel.
The Once and Future King (1958), a novel by T. H. White. This novel offers a personal reinterpretation of the Arthurian legend, updated for relevance in post–World War II England.
Responses to Literature
- Could any of Malory's female characters serve as role models for modern women? Write a paper that outlines your conclusions.
- In what ways did Malory's personal life affect how he constructed his version of the Arthurian legend? Was he drawn to the Arthur story because it mirrored or differed from his life? Were there other myths or legends that his talents might have been useful for retelling if he had lived longer? Write an essay that offers your conclusions.
- In the late nineteenth century, Mark Twain imagined what it would be like for a modern-day American to time-travel back to King Arthur's day in his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Write a story that shows what an American of the twenty-first century would make of Arthur's court.
- Chivalry is an important concept in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Write an essay that gives your personal definition of chivalry and explains your view on its place in modern society.
Bennett, J. A., ed. Essays on Malory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.
Benson, Larry D. Malory's “Morte d'Arthur”. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Bradbrook, Muriel C. Sir Thomas Malory. London: Longmans, Green, 1958.
Dillon, Bert. A Malory Handbook. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.
Field, P. J. C. Romance and Chronicle: A Study of Malory's Prose Style. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1971.
Ihle, Sandra Ness. Malory's Grail Quest: Invention and Adaptation in Medieval Prose Romance. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.
Lumiansky, R. M., ed. Malory's Originality: A Critical Study of “Le Morte d'Arthur”. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964.
Matthews, William. The Ill-Framed Knight: A Skeptical Inquiry into the Identity of Sir Thomas Malory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
McCarthy, Terence. An Introduction to Malory. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1988.
Pochoda, Elizabeth. Arthurian Propaganda: “Le Morte d'Arthur” as an Historical Ideal of Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971.
Reiss, Edmund. Sir Thomas Malory. New York: Twayne, 1966.
Riddy, Felicity. Sir Thomas Malory. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1987.
Whitaker, Muriel A. Arthur's Kingdom of Adventure: The World of Malory's “Morte d'Arthur”. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1984.