In his introduction to Malory Works, a set, or series, of Sir Thomas Malory’s Arthurian romances and which includes Malory’s The Tale of King Arthur, Eugene Vinaver notes Malory’s great contribution to literature, and to England, as well as Malory’s supposedly criminal bent:
On Sir Thomas Malory’s life little is known, and what is known does not contribute much to the understanding of his character. he was a soldier, at one time loyalist, at another a rebel, and ….[h]e belonged to a an old Warwickshire family and both his father and grandfather had been persons of consequence in the county. In 1433 or 1434, when he was in his early twenties, he came into his father’s estate at Newbold Revell; in 1436 he served in the train of Richard Beauchamp at Calais … and in 1445 he was member of Parliament for Warwickshire. But if we are to believe the records, some five or six years later he became a hardened law-breaker…. His last recorded arrest took place in the winter of 1460.
Nothing is known about his release, but in the autumn of 1462 we find him among the knights who followed the Earl of Warwick on a military expedition to Northumberland…. Malory died on 14 March 1471, and his burial near Newgate suggests he died a prisoner, unpardoned by the king.
It was during this last imprisonment, probably the longest, that he completed what he himself described as ‘the whole book of King Arthur and of his noble knights of the Round Table–a series of Arthurian romances which on 31 July 1485 appeared at Caxton’s press in Westminster under the title of Le Morte Darthur. ( Vinaver, 1970. Introduction to Malory Works, p.p. v-vi)
In his introduction, Vinaver then reveals that, “According to the preface” of the 1485 edition of Le Morte Darthur,
Caxton was asked by ‘many noble and dyvers gentylmen of thys royame of Englond’ why he had not hitherto produced a book about King Arthur, a great English king who ‘ought moost to be remembred emonge us Englysshemen tofore al other Crysten kynges’. This reminder, so Caxton tells us, coupled with his own conviction that Arthur was not a fictitious character but a real king, prompted him to publish such romances of King Arthur and his knights as had ‘late ben drawen oute briefly into Englysshe’; not only as an account of Arthur’s reign, but as a record of ‘the jentyl and vertuous dedes that somme knyghtes used in tho days, by whyche they came to honour’. The preface refers to Malory as the author of the work, but does not say who he was, and all that one can learn about him from Le Morte Darthur is contained in a short paragraph at the end of the volume. In biding farewell to his readers Malory begs them to pray for his ‘good delyveraunce’, declares that ‘this book was ended the ninth yere of the reygne of King Edward the Fourth’ (i.e. in the year which began on 4 March 1469), and gives his name as ‘Syr Thomas Maleore, knyght’. But a manuscript of his works discovered in 1934 shows that his printer had taken care to delete several passages of similar character…. ( Vinaver, 1970. Introduction to Malory Works, p. vi)
In her article for “Arthurian Romance,” (Arthurian Romance-About.com Education) Esther Lombardi writes:
Although Malory was known as a man of violent temperaments, he was the first English writer to make prose as sensitive an instrument of narrative as English poetry has always been. During a period of imprisonment, Malory composed, translated, and adapted his great rendering of Arthurian material, which is the most complete treatment of the story. The “French Arthurian Prose Cycle” (1225-1230) served as his primary source, along with the 14th-century English “Alliterative Morte d’Arthur” and the “Stanzaic Morte”. Taking these, and possibly other, sources, he disentangled the threads of narration and reintegrated them into his own creation. (Lombardi, Arthurian Romance, accessed 14 Jan 2016)
I also found the following piece on the net:
Elizabeth Bryan speaks of Malory’s contribution to Arthurian Legend in her introduction to Le Morte D’Arthur: “Malory did not invent the stories in this collection; he translated and compiled them…Malory in fact translated Arthurian stories that already existed in thirteenth-century French prose (the so-called Old French Vulgate romances) and compiled them together with at least one tale from Middle English sources (the Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur) to create this text.” (Bryan (1994), p. viii-ix. Le Morte d’Arthur, wikipedia, 15 Jan 2016)
About Malory, Vinaver writes that:
It was this obscure knight-prisoner who ‘drew’ from the books of King Arthur, of Lancelot and of Tristan the one work of real poetic value in the whole field of modern Arthurian fiction. Arthurian chivalry was to him something more concrete and specific than an example of ‘noble and virtuous deeds’. He thought of it primarily as an example of loyalty to a great cause, and of Arthurian romance as a record of the heroic past of England. His first work, The Tale of King Arthur and the Emperor Lucius, which in the final arrangement was given second place, was based upon the English alliterative Morte Arthur. It was 6th story of Arthur’s victorious campaign against the Emperor of Rome–an epic inspired by a long tradition of chronicles. But Malory soon discovered the attraction of chivalric adventures proper. In the French romances of the thirteenth century–those voluminous prose works to which he referred as his ‘French books’–he found characters who, while they wore the same armour and fought as vigorously as did the heroes who had defended Arthur’s kingdom, showed no patriotic ambition. The tasks they assumed, often at the instigation of Arthur himself, were at times more difficult and hazardous than those of any epic hero; yet they behaved throughout as though their sole intention had been to earn praise for their valour. For many long months, perhaps years, Malory followed their tracks borrowing his materials from such books as …the Suite du Merlin, the Tristan de Leonois, and the prose Lancelot (which included La Queste del Saint Graal and La Morte le Roi Artu)–and occasionally supplementing these with his own comments on what he called ‘the high order of knighthood’. But in his last and greatest work–The Most Piteous Tale of the Morte Arthur, based partly on the French romance and partly on an English stanzaic poem–the heroic ideal is revived again, this time in terms of the ‘dolorous death and departing’ of the great protagonists of Arthurian romance. The series ends as it began, with a tale of heroic deeds performed in the service of a great Kingdom. (Vinaver, 1970. Introduction to Malory Works, p. vi-vii)
Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, which includes his Tale of King Arthur and other of his works of Arthurian nature, is the literary source of the Arthurian legends as we most know them today.
Le Morte d’Arthur was first published in 1485 by William Caxton, and is today perhaps the best-known work of Arthurian literature in English. Many modern Arthurian writers have used Malory as their principal source. (Le Morte d’Arthur, wikipedia, 15 Jan 2016)
Until the discovery of the Winchester Manuscript in 1934 at Winchester College, the 1485 edition printed by William Caxton was considered the earliest known text of Le Morte d’Arthur and that closest to Malory’s translation and compilation. Modern editions are inevitably variable, changing a variety of spelling, grammar, and/or pronouns for the convenience of readers of modern English. (Le Morte d’Arthur, wikipedia, 15 Jan 2016)
Elizabeth Bryan, 1994:
The Arthurian characters and tales act like litmus, responding to the issues, aspirations, and anxieties of readerships in every different time and place that they touch. But Arthurian narratives can also act on the cultures that reproduce them, whether expressing an idealizing national wish about the “Camelot” Kennedy administration in the early 1960s, or articulating English King Edward I’s symbolic kinship with the Welsh in hopes of military advantage in the late 1200s…. — Bryan (1994), p. x (Le Morte d’Arthur, wikipedia, 15 Jan 2016)
These and other controversies [providential historiography vs. Christian penance, courtly love vs. adultery] operating within the accumulation of tales and genres lend some force, ironically, to Caxton’s claim that readers should look to this text for moral example. Caxton instructed readers of this narrative of knights’ adventures to “Doo after the good and leve the evyl, and it shal brynge you to good fame and renommee.” It is ultimately the enormous complexity of conflicting demands that will engage moral sensibilities of readers of this text. — Bryan, (1994), p. xii (Le Morte d’Arthur, wikipedia, 15 Jan 2016)
I think my sense of right and wrong, my feeling of noblesse oblige, and any thought I may have against the oppressor and for the oppressed came from [Le Morte d’Arthur]….It did not seem strange to me that Uther Pendragon wanted the wife of his vassal and took her by trickery. I was not frightened to find that there were evil knights, as well as noble ones. In my own town there were men who wore the clothes of virtue whom I knew to be bad….If I could not choose my way at the crossroads of love and loyalty, neither could Lancelot. I could understand the darkness of Mordred because he was in me too; and there was some Galahad in me, but perhaps not enough. The Grail feeling was there, however, deep-planted, and perhaps always will be. — John Steinbeck. (Le Morte d’Arthur, wikipedia, 15 Jan 2016)
In his writings, Sir Thomas Malory acknowledges Tintagel as the place most important to Arthurian romance. In Book I, titled “Merlin,” in The Tale of King Arthur, Malory tells the history of Arthur’s early life, specifically naming Tintagel Castle as the place where Arthur was conceived and born, and by implication as the place where Arthur’s parents lived, and so tying Tintagel Castle and the present-day ruins to Arthurian romance and the name of King Arthur for all time.
[HIT befel in the dayes of Uther Pendragon, when he was kynge of all Englond and so regnde, that there was a mighty duke in Cornewaill that held warre ageynst hym long time, and the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil. And so by meanes kynge Uther send for this duk, chargyng hym to brynge his wyf with him, for she was called a fair lady and a passynge wyse, and her name was called Igrayne. … (Malory, The Tale of King Arthur, p. 3)
When the duke of Tintagel (whom Malory does not distinguish with a personal name as did Geoffrey of Monmouth,) and his wife, Igrayne, came to the king, the king saw how lovely the duke’s wife was, and desired her for himself. Igrayne warned her husband that her honour was at stake, and asked if they could leave immediately, in secrecy, and ride all night to speedily return to their own castle, Tintagel, in Cornwall
And in lyke wyse as she saide so they departed, that neyther the Kynge nor none of his counceill were ware of their departing. Also soone as kyng Uther knewe of theire departying soo soddenly, he was wonderly wrothe; thenne he called to hym his privy counceille and told them of the sodeyne departyng of the duke and his wyf. (Malory, The Tale of King Arthur, p. 3)
Uther’s council advised him that he should demand of the duke that he and his wife return to his presence immediately or face the consequences of having “mighty” war made upon him. The duke refused. So the king sent the duke “playne word” to get ready for the king to come and “stuffe hym and garnish hym, for within forty dayes he wold fetche hym out of the biggest castell that he hath.” When the duke heard this warning he immediately prepared his two strongest castles, one of which was called Tintagel, and the other of which was called Terrabyl, and he put his wife Igrayne in the castle of Tintagel, and himself in the castle Terrabyl, and which was well protected by his armies and lookouts. Then Uther came in great haste with his hosts of men and attacked the castle of Terrabyl, “and there was grete warre made on bothe partyes and moche people slayne.”
Then Uther fell sick. Sir Ulfius asked Uther why he was sick.” ‘I shall telle the,” said the kynge. ‘I am sick for angre and for love of fayr Igrayne, that I may not be hool.” Sir Ulfius went to the king’s great wizard-advisor Merlin and asked for his help for the king. Merlin then came to the king and offered Uther his help to gain access to Igrayne’s bed that very night so that Uther might take her for his own. This, on the condition that the king must swear “upon the four Evangelistses’ to hand the child that would result from the union to Merlin. The king agreed, and he also agreed to abide by Merlin’s instructions to wait until Merlin returned to fetch him. ” ‘Now make you redy,’ said Merlyn. ‘This nyght ye shalle lye with Igrayne in the castel of Tyntayll,”’ and he added that he would disguise Uther as Igrayne’s husband, and Uther’s knight Ulfyus as the duke’s knight Sir Brastias, and himself as another of the duke’s knights, Sir Jordanus, so that they could gain easy entry to Tintagel Castle, and Arthur would have full access to the duke’s bed and Igrayne without any trouble whatsoever. “But,” warned Merlin, “wayte ye make not many questions with her nor her men….”
Meanwhile, having seen for himself seeing how King Uther had himself been riding out for the siege on the castle Terrabyl, the duke of Tintagel left the comparative safety of Terrabyl, and rode out himself, into the fray, and was subsequently killed. So by the time the lusty Uther was in the duke of Tintagel’s bed taking his pleasure of the duke’s wife Igrayne, the duke had been dead for at least three hours gone, and unknown to herself and Uther, Igrayne was already pregnant with Arthur. But then, when she finally heard of her husband’s death and learnt of the time he had died, Igrayne wondered who it was that she had lain with, and who had the likeness of her lord, but she mourned privately and held her peace nevertheless, and married Uther who much desired to make her his queen immediately.
Thenne quene Igrayne waxed dayly gretter and gretter. So it befel after within half a yere, as kyng Uther lay by his quene, he asked her by the feith she ought to hym whos was the child within the body.'” Igrayne was afraid to answer, but Uther told her not be afraid, to tell him the truth, and he would only love her the more for having done so. … ‘Syre,’ saide she, ‘I shalle telle you the trouthe. The same nyghte that my lord was dede, the houre of his deth as his knyghtes record, ther came into my castel of Tyntigaill a man lyke my lord in speche and in countenance , and the two knyghts with him in lyknes of his two knights Barcias and Jordans, and soo I went unto bed with him as I ought to do with my lord; and the same nyght, as I shal ansuer unto God, this child was begotten upon me.’ ….’That is trouthe,’ said the kynge, ‘as ye say, for it was I myself that cam in the lykenesse. And therfor desmay you not, for I am fader to the child,’ and he told her all the cause how it was by Merlyns counceil. Thenne the quene made grete joye whan she knewe who was the fader of her child. (Malory, The Tale of King Arthur, p. 5-6)
Then Merlin came to the king to say that it was time to think about the safe nurturing and upbringing of the child when it was born, and as the time for the birth was drawing close it was also time for the king to remember his promise to hand the babe to Merlin as soon as it was born.
‘Wel,’ said Merlyn, ‘I knowe a lord of yours in this land that is a passing true man and a faithful, and he shal have the nourysshyng of your child; and his name is sir Ector, and he is lord of fair Iyvelode in many partyes in Englond and Walys. And this lord, sir Ector, lete hym be sent for for to come and speke with you, and desire hym yourself, as he loveth you, that he will put his owne child to nourishynge to another woman and that his wyf nourisshe yours. And whan the child is borne lete it be delivered to me at yonder pryvy posterne uncrystened.’….So as Merlyn devised it was done. And whan syre Ector was come he made fyaunce to the kyng for to nourisshe the child lyke as the kynge desired; and there the kyng graunted syr Ector grete rewadys. thenne when the lady was delyverd the kynge comaunded two knyghtes and two ladyes to take the child bound in a cloth of gold, ‘and that ye delyver hym to what poure man ye mete at the posterne yate of the castel.’ So the child was delyverd unto Merlyn, and so he bare it forth unto syr Ector and he made an holy man to crysten hym and named hym Arthur. And so syr Ectors wyf nourished hym with her owne pappe. (Malory, The Tale of King Arthur, p. 6)
About two years after these events King Uther sickened and died, and then the realm was “in grete jeopardy long while,” for many a lord who was mighty of men made it clear that they themselves desired above all to become king. But then, against all-comers and the mightiest lords in the land who would so desire to king, Arthur was proclaimed to be legitimate of birth, and so, being the legitimate and only son of Uther, and who was blessed by Uther in the name of God as well as in his own name, to be the legitimate king of the whole realm. Still the mighty barons of the realm would accept this, and made great war: “Then stood the reame in grete jeopardy long whyle, for every lord that was mighty of men made hym stronge, and many wende to be kyng” (Malory, The Tale of King Arthur, p. 7). So Merlin went to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, on the advise of Merlin, called all the lords of the land and all the gentlemen of arms to come to London at Christmas “upon payne of cursyne, and for this cause, that Jesu, that was born on that nyghte, that He wold of His of his grete mewrcy shewe some miracle who shold be rightwys kynge of this reame” (Malory, The Tale of King Arthur, p. 7).
By the miracle performed by God through his only son, Jesus, all the lords, all the barons, all the mighty men of arms of the realm bore witness to the fact that King Uther’s only son, Arthur, was alone the true king of the whole realm. Out in the churchyard, in front of all, Arthur revealed that he had been chosen and blessed by God as the rightful ruler for he alone was able to draw the mighty sword Excalibur from the great stone that was in the churchyard of the greatest church in London–which church that was exactly, Malory does not say, he only says: “whether it were Powlis or not the Frensshe booke maketh no mencyion….” (Malory, The Tale of King Arthur, p. 7).
And whan matyns and the first masse was done there was seen in the chircheyard ayenst the hyhe aulter a grete stone four square, lyke unto a marbel stone, and in the myddes therof was lyke an anvylde of stele a foot on hyghe, and thereyn stack a fayre swerd naked by the poynt, and letters there were wryten in gold about the swerd that saiden thus: ‘WHOSO PULLETH OUTGE THIS SWERD OF THIS STONE AND ANVYLD IS RIGHTWYS KYNGE BORNE OF ALL EN(G)LOND.’ (Malory, The Tale of King Arthur, p. 7)
Even though Arthur revealed himself to be the rightful king of the realm by pulling the sword from the stone quite easily, when others could not budge the sword from it place by as much as a fraction of a millimetre, the lords of the land did not easily accept Arthur as their king–Arthur had to prove himself time and time again until he was finally accepted by all the mighty lords as the rightful king of the realm, and, so, their king.
Malory was highly influenced by French writings, but Malory blends these with other English verse and prose forms. It is entirely possible that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work was also one of the many resources used by Malory when penning his Tales of King Arthur.
When Geoffrey of Monmouth was writing in the 1100s, the 1230 Tintagel Castle would not have been there and legend would have been his main source of what had happened on the island stronghold.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account makes Tintagel the fortress of Gorlois, husband of Ygerna, the object of Uther Pendragon’s desires. Merlin transformed Uther, so that he looked like Gorlois, and hence tricked Ygerna into making love to him. King Arthur was the result of this subterfuge. Though this is the first reference that link’s Arthur with Tintagel, Geoffrey may have been using earlier legends. Some scholars believe that Tintagel was Camelot itself. And there are also legends that name Tintagel as one of King Mark’s strongholds, which further supports the site as having a history as a Cornish stronghold. (King Arthur, wikipedia, accessed 14 Jan 2016)
King Arthur: A Man for the Ages
Explorations in Arthurian Legends
Previous discussions have focused on writers who have attempted to portray Arthur as historical in nature. We have seen that no matter how hard these writers try, they cannot help but invent conventions because they have so little to go on. Still, their Arthur was a figure of history whose deeds could be rooted in things that actually happened and places that could conceivably be identified.
Geoffrey of Monmouth started the fiction ball rolling with his History of the Kings of Briton, which introduced many fanciful notions, including the idea that Britain had never been conquered by the Romans. Wace introduced the idea of courtly love. It was up to his fellow Frenchmen to elaborate on this theme.
We have seen that earlier tales of Arthur drew on Welsh tales and the events of the times of the writers to portray Arthur differently. Geoffrey of Monmouth has given us the begetting and birth of Arthur at Tintagel ….
Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century, had quite a retinue of Welsh tales to work from …. He made good use of these legends and wholely invented many of his own in introducing Arthur, King of the Britons; his adviser Merlin; Morgan Le Fay; and a host of other conventions.
Echoes of the Welsh tales can be found from the beginning …. (posted 2000, accessed 14 Jan 2016)
The popularity of Geoffrey’s Historia and its other derivative works (such as Wace’s Roman de Brut) is generally agreed to be an important factor in explaining the appearance of significant numbers of new Arthurian works in continental Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly in France. It was not, however, the only Arthurian influence …. There is clear evidence that Arthur and Arthurian tales were familiar on the Continent before Geoffrey’s work became widely known (see for example, the Modena Archivolt) and “Celtic” names and stories not found in Geoffrey’s Historia appear in the Arthurian romances …. (King Arthur, wikipedia 1 Jan 2016, accessed 14 Jan 2016)
Previously, I have said that Malory is arguably one of the greatest English writers of Arthurian romance, and that many scholars turn to Malory’s Arthurian romances as the preferred classics in English literature.
What some other critics have said:
Vinaver, speaking about critics of Malory’s works and methods–critics such as Sir Walter Scott for instance, who held that Malory’s Arthurian romances were ‘extracted at hazard, and without much art or combination, from the various French prose folios’, says that other critics again “have spoken in Malory’s defence, and some have even claimed with George Saintsbury that Malory, ‘and he alone in any language, had made this vast assemblage of stories one book’ “, and he (Vinaver) writes that
In the light of more recent knowledge neither view would appear to be correct. The French Arthurian prose cycle with its various ramifications was not an ‘assemblage of stories’, but a singularly perfect example of thirteenth-century narrative art., subordinate to a well-defined principle of composition and maintaining in all its branches a remarkable sense of cohesion. It was an elaborate fabric woven out of a number of themes which alternated with one another like the threads of a tapestry: a fabric whose growth and development had been achieved not by a process of indiscriminate expansion, but by a means of a consistent lengthening of each thread. Malory’s adaptation, on the other hand, was far from possessing or even attempting the unity which is claimed for it by the critics. He never tried to reduce his French romances to ‘one story’; the method he used was both more subtle and more drastic. With great consistency … he endeavoured to break up the complex structure of his sources and replace their slowly unfolding canvas of recurrent themes by a series of self-contained stories. It was a delicate and difficult process of unravelling, of collecting the various stretches of any given thread and letting it unwind itself with as few interruptions as possible…. [For example:] If his Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot is, by modern standards, eminently more readable, it is because it consists of three judiciously chosen short episodes which in the French Lancelot were hundreds of pages apart. Dismissing all the intervening matter, Malory makes all these episodes into one ‘tale’: the tale of Lancelot and Lionel, which is concluded by a reunion of Arthur’s court of all Lancelot’s victims who have survived his great strokes. … (Vinaver, 1970. Introduction to Malory Works, p. vi-vii)
In Tales of King Arthur, Malory makes free use of the words “then”, “so”, “and” to carry his stories forward.
In telling his Arthurian tales, because there is so much lengthy ground to cover, Malory uses “so—and—then,” often to transition his retelling. This repetition is not redundant, but adds an air of continuity only befitting for a tale of this enormity. The stories then become episodes instead of instances that can stand on their own. (Le Morte D’Arthur, wikipedia, accessed 15 Jan 2016)
Examining the methods Malory used in his Arthurian romances, Vinaver points out that,
What is surprising is a fifteenth-century author’s instinctive understanding of the principle of ‘singleness’ which underlies the normal structure of a modern work of fiction. Nowhere perhaps is Malory’s comprehension of it more apparent than in his remodelling of the story of Arthur’s death and of the destruction of the Round Table. The central theme is disengaged from all concomitant elements and freed from links with the other branches of the cycle. The events leading to the downfall of Arthur’s kingdom are no longer interwoven with others, and the tragic destiny of Arthurian knighthood is divorced from the earlier account of how the ‘worldly’ knights failed in the quest for the Grail. The final catastrophe becomes a human drama conditioned from first to last by a clash of loyalties and explicable within its own limits. It is Lancelot’s loyalty to Guinevere that causes him, in his anxiety to protect her, to destroy unwittingly the man he loves most–Gareth, Gawain’s brother; and it is grief that turns Lancelot’s truest friend, Gawain, into his sworn enemy and causes the mortal strife. Mordred’s rebellion and the battle of Salisbury Plain are no longer treated as repercussions of extraneous events; they are links in the chain of human actions and feelings developed as the story progresses: fateful shadows arising from the depths of man’s own noblest passions. (Vinaver, 1970. Introduction to Malory Works, p.p. vii-ix)
Bryan, Elizabeth. Introduction. Sir Thomas Malory. Le Morte d’Arthur. By Sir Thomas Malory. Introduction by Bryan, Elizabeth J. (1994). New York: Modern Library. 1994. p. viii-ix. Print. Web. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Morte_d’Arthur (accessed 15 Jan 2016)
Malory, Sir Thomas. Tales of King Arthur in Malory Works. Edited with an introduction by Eugene Vinaver. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. 2nd ed. Print.
Vinaver, Eugene. Introduction. Malory Works. Sir Thomas Malory. Tales of King Arthur in Malory Works. Edited with an introduction by Eugene Vinaver. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. 2nd ed. Print.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur. Introduction by Bryan, Elizabeth J. (1994). New York: Modern Library. 1994. (Pollard text.) Print.
http://www.legendofkingarthur.co.uk/cornwall/tintagel.htm (accessed 14 Jan 2016)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Arthur (accessed 14 Jan 2016)
http://www.reocities.com/CapitolHill/4186/Arthur/htmlpages/historical… (accessed 14 Jan 2016)