|Excerpt from the Winchester manuscript.|
Sir. Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is widely considered the medieval high point of the Arthurian legend. The text defines what we today understand an Arthurian legend and brings together many of its precursor elements into a unified and cohesive whole. Written by a minor English nobleman in the years of 1468-70 of Newbould Revel. He completed the text while in prison.
Malory was the first medieval writer who shifted through all of the previous Arthurian Romances with the explicit goal of creating a unified narrative; something not done previously, even in “The Crown” as such texts were more opportunistic and lacked cohesion in their construction. He drew upon the History, Chronicle, and Romance traditions when creating his text and used both French and English sources. He brings together all of the Arthurian tradition’s major plot threads: Arthur’s rise to power and his fall, the individual adventures of knights, the machinations of Merlin, the story of Arthur’s conquest of Rome and the quest for the holy grail, it also has the adulterous love of Lancelot and Guinevere, in addition to the deed of Mordred. This is an accomplishment which had never before been attempted in Arthurian literature up to this point.
Malory wrote his text during the time of the War of the Roses, where two royal houses were fighting over the English throne: the House of York fought the House of Lancaster. Malory, like many people, often switched sides between the two powers as their military fortunes changed; indeed, he is implicated in a plot against one of the sides and is imprisoned.
One of the original features of Malory’s text is the introduction of the Pentacostle Oath which sets the highest standard for virtues living; this is quitting outrage and murder, to flee treason, and to grant mercy to those who ask for it: knights should help woman, due to their limited legal standing but to never rape woman (this last part is actually omitted in the general printing of Malory’s text as part of its wider appeal; Craxnton, the printer, was focused on making money by marketing to an upcoming bourgeois class who would not be well-received if they were instructed to not do something as vile as rape, whereas Malory himself, is focused on making a social critique in his works as part of his reaction to the turbulent time in which he lived). All of this would be mildly ironic if the charges against Malory turned out to be true but could also be as much as a test run of a manner for righting social ills.
In the text itself, though, Malory often breaks the fourth wall to directly address his readers to consider how they stand up to the morals of King Arthur’s time. However, as the story progresses, fault lines within the narrative’s time and the author’s own, collapse and it soon becomes unavoidable fact that the Arthurian concept becomes untenable. Malory’s text mourns chivalry as it exults it.
Many critics would argue that it is Malory’s effort in forming a cohesive narrative out of so much textual material which constitutes his greatest contribution to the Arthurian mythos. Indeed, scholars are sure to keep in mind a line in the sand between ‘before’ and ‘after’ Malory.
Since only the 19th century, there have been thousands of Arthurian adaptations which have used Malory’s text as a basis. Some examples include: Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, T.S White’s The Once and Future King, Marion Zimmer Bradly’s feminist retelling The Mists of Avalon, along with a vast host of movies which cite Malory as a starting point, even if, later, these same texts and others have drifted far from their origination.
Concerning the setting of when Malory’s text was printed, Cranxton appears to have radically altered Malory’s novel; indeed, in a manuscript discovered at Winchester college, what we now know as the definitive version of the tale, it is revealed that the original title is goofed where Cranxton mistook the title of the last section of the text as the title for the whole. Some scholars have attempted to either rename the text to something wholly new or to use the original title which Malory gave it, ‘The Whole Book of King Arthur and the Noble Knights of King Arthur.’ But, seeing as how the text’s title has been out for over five-hundred years, it is unlikely to change.