English 65B/165B:Arthurian Literature
Malory's Morte D'Arthur --1

Thomas Malory and Le Morte D'Arthur

I. Like its author, Thomas Malory, Le Morte D'Arthur represents conflict and artistic resolution at a number of levels:

A. The writer himself, if indeed it is the Thomas Malory generally considered the author, was unstable and conflicted: a one time loyalist soldier, then rebel, then a fugitive from justice, and finally a prisoner. At least the last is true, since he says at the end of The Tale of King Arthur, "This was drawyn by a knyght presoner Sir Thomas Malleorre, that God send him good recover."Despite the disgrace of his own career, Malory espouses and presents the ideal of chivalry, honor, and knighthood.
B. During his life and immediately after, England was also in a state of internal conflict. Malory tells us that he finished writing the book in the ninth year of the reign of King Edward IV (i.e., between March, 1469, and March, 1470). In 1469 the earl of Warwick had turned on his old master, Edward IV; then Warwick and Clarence brought Henry VI back to the throne. During the king's short restoration, Malory died.
C. William Caxton and his edition are also exemplars of conflict and artistic resolution. For thirty years Caxton was a mercer. While serving as Governor of the English nation at Bruges he began a translation of the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy, demand for which, he said, caused him to take up printing. Having set up his press in Westminster ca. 1476, he published over a hundred titles as well as small jobs, such as printed indulgences.
1. In 1483 at the death of Edward IV, his brother, Richard of Gloucester, usurped the throne as Richard III. In 1485 Caxton finished printing Morte D'Arthur eight days before Henry Bolingbroke landed at Milford Haven, three weeks before battle of Bosworth Field, leading to the Tudor dynasty. 2. Caxton had published other works that doubted the historical existence of Arthur, but in the Preface to Morte D'Arthur he argues that Arthur is as historical as the other eight Worthies, resolving the dispute with "evidence."
3. He fails to discuss the author and to identify a patron, probably because of the political risks, but the work he produces indicates his own marked preference for chivalric literature.

D. Malory's work stands at the divide between the medieval and Renaissance period, between the era of script and print. The discovery of offsets of Caxton's type on the Winchester manuscript demonstrates the contact of the two cultures.

II. Malory's Morte D'Arthur itself represents conflict and artistic resolution.

A. It comes at the end of a complex development of Arthurian tales in various modes and genres; heroic-epic, quasi-history, fantasy, and romance.
B. Structure. Malory's reworking and editing of narrative:
1. From the French prose cycle, revision of medieval narratives, creating an interlaced tapestry with a single narrative strand
2. From the English alliterative and stanzaic verse Morte Arthur, editing and prosing of the text.
3. Morte is not a unified novel, rather more an anthology of prose fiction; but Malory clearly intended a "whole book" on the level of plot and of characterizaton, reconciling disparate sources and adding touches of his own.
a. Lots of detours along the way. Like its knights, we are continually sidetracked and re-routed.
b. Generic shifts occur from one tale to the other, as Malory follows his sources.

(1) In Book I, Merlin, from French Prose Merlin ultimately based on Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia, we are in the kingdom of historical romance and Celtic magic.
(2) In Book II, Arthur the Emperor, from English alliterative Morte; in heroic narrative (epic/military/political).
(3) In Book III, Lancelot, mostly from French Prose romance Lancelot.
(4) In Book IV, from lost English tale, Gareth, in world of folktale.
(5) In Book V, Tristram, based on French prose romance, Tristan.
(6) In Book VI, closely following the French Queste de Sant Graal, in world of religious mysticism.
(7) In Book VII, several sources but Lancelot and Guenevere a romance.
(8) In Book VIII, the Morte D'Arthur, from Mort Artu and stanzaic Le Morte Arthur, its mode is elegiac, tragic, epic.