In This Article Thomas Malory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Malorian Manuscripts
  • Unity Debate
  • Authorship and Authorial “Biographies”
  • Genre and Style
  • Centralizing Impulses and Fractured Identities
  • Chivalry: Social Identity
  • Chivalry: Martial Violence
  • Gendered Identities and Desires
  • Time Past and Time Future

British and Irish Literature Thomas Malory
by
Thomas Hahn, Leah Haught
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0135

Introduction

From the moment of its first appearance in print (1485) through to 2017, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur has held its place as the default retelling of Arthurian romance in English. In language that is robust, colloquial, and often moving, it delivers a vivid account—even a celebration—of knighthood as a code of honor, a vehicle for male prowess, a source of adventure, a force for same-sex fellowship, and a platform for passionate heterosexual attachments. At one and the same time it portrays Arthurian chivalry as the highest achievement of its ideals—“such a felyship of good knyghtes shall never be togydirs in no company” (Le Morte Darthur, 2004, p. 658)—and as inescapably self-destructive. Surviving in both a medieval manuscript and mechanically manufactured print, the Morte blurs the conventional breach between medieval and modern, the unique culmination of a medieval genre, and one of the first forays into nostalgic, past-gazing medievalism. William Caxton, England’s first printer, reports in his preface that publication of the Morte was driven by a nationalist impulse on the part of “many noble and dyvers gentylmen” (Le Morte Darthur, 2004, p. 814) to have in their hands some reliable, complete, and engaging account of the English Arthur. Yet from the beginning, and through the four additional illustrated editions that appeared in the next hundred years, this colossal mass-produced artifact must have targeted diverse and dispersed audiences, non-noble readers who would spend money to possess this sprawling account of the Arthurian legends. Malory reaches his readers by relying on the simplicity of spoken language, offering long passages of dialogue and direct address. He often deploys parallel and paratactic phrases (joined by “and” and “but”). His prose style achieves a leveling effect, refraining from distinguishing characters by distinctive speech patterns and presenting actions and motives even-handedly, without a glance at analysis or consequences of sometimes glaring contradictions. The Unity Debate highlights academic readers’ uneasiness with these discontinuities, but the sheer size of the Morte implies that few pre-20th-century readers would have tried to digest the “hoole book” in its entirety. Instead, its encyclopedic abundance, its promise of all things Arthurian clearly encourage serial or selective reading on the model of chivalric surfing, and they may help explain the ease with which authors from the 19th century to the present have dipped into Malory and produced “modern” rewrites.

General Overviews

The successive revisions of Vinaver’s 1947 edition (in 1967 and 1990, with P. J. C. Field) and then Field’s 2013 reediting of the manuscript (cited under Based on Winchester) attest to a continuous churning in the understanding of Malory from the mid-20th century. Malory scholarship in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has witnessed or precipitated a major renovation in his stature: moralists such as Roger Ascham had regarded the Morte as “toyes” that might rot the character of “a yong jentleman, or a yong mayde” (Shepherd 2004, p. xxix), and from the 17th through the 19th century Malory remained mainly a book for antiquarians and enthusiasts (see Illustrated Editions and Editions and Scholarly Translations). Malory’s standing as a shadowy non-curricular author emerges in Oakeshott’s account of discovering the Winchester Manuscript: he relates that he had not previously read Malory and had to run out and purchase a copy of the inexpensive Everyman edition to check the text (Bennett 1963). The Modern Language Association’s online bibliography lists only thirty scholarly publications on the Morte between 1884 and 1976; the next decade alone saw 146 publications, and the totals for the three succeeding decades through 2016 are 170, 243, and 179. The wide-ranging overview of Benson 1976 (which connects Malory to chivalric pageants, tournaments, and other popular institutions) coincides with a profound shift in literary studies, whereby teachers and scholars sought meaning not only in aesthetic excellence but also in social impact and cultural patterns. The essays collected in Bennett 1963 and Takamiya and Brewer 1981 document an ongoing dialogue and dissent with Vinaver’s learned presentation of Malory as a series of separate translations of French sources (see Unity Debate). Benson 1976 contextualizes the Morte in the multifaceted world of late medieval chivalry, while Riddy 1987 and Batt 2002 provide full-scale appreciations of Malory’s backgrounds, techniques, narrative strategies, audiences, and literary achievement. Edwards 2001 returns to the relations between the Morte and its sources, offering a vision of translatio that is cultural as well as linguistic, while Wheeler, et al. 2000 likewise acknowledges and assesses the divergent responses to the authority of manuscript and printed traditions. In many ways Archibald and Edwards 1996 attempts to take account of and map out the avalanche of scholarship that had appeared in the previous twenty years, providing a sound overview up to that point. Finally, the online Luminarium represents a kind of crowd-sourcing of Malory, making available a variety of mainly non-scholarly, open-access resources.

  • Archibald, Elizabeth, and A. S. G. Edwards, eds. A Companion to Malory. Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Learned introductions to a variety of sociohistorical contexts appear alongside original readings of the Morte, making this a valuable resource for any student or teacher of Malory. Chapters focused on context cover diverse topics, from Malory’s style to the nature of chivalry and the treatment of women within the larger narrative. Chapters dedicated to textual analysis are organized according to separate tales, with some chapters covering more than one tale.

  • Batt, Catherine. Malory’s Morte Darthur: Remaking the Arthurian Tradition. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-11183-8E-mail Citation »

    Erudite study of how Malory interprets and adapts his French and English sources to create a complex version of Arthurian history that both yearns for and undermines any sense of literary and communal wholeness. Careful attention is paid to how Malory’s “remaking” of the Arthurian legend forecloses any sense of narrative closure, requiring audiences to acknowledge the instabilities within the larger story and to draw on their own expectations and knowledge bases to supply possible resolutions to those same instabilities.

  • Bennett, J. A. W., ed. Essays on Malory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963.

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    Anthology of essays that reflect a variety of interests in and reactions to the Morte, especially as it appears in Vinaver’s 1947 edition (Vinaver 1990, cited under Based on Winchester). W. F. Oakeshott’s description of finding the manuscript upon which Vinaver’s edition was based and the documented debate between C. S. Lewis and Vinaver over the extent to which the Morte should be considered an original work by a single author are among the most-discussed contributions to the volume.

  • Benson, Larry D. Malory’s Morte Darthur. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the first book-length studies that does not centrally engage the debate over whether Malory intended to produce a unified narrative or to make any assumptions about who Thomas Malory might have been. Focuses instead on narrative conventions and 15th-century chivalry as practice, pageant, and fiction, concluding that the Morte bears evidence of cyclic composition and of thematic unity. Closes with close readings of Malory’s last three tales.

  • Edwards, Elizabeth. The Genesis of Narrative in Malory’s Morte Darthur. Arthurian Studies 42. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive and theoretically sophisticated discussion of the symbolic structure within Malory’s reworking of his source materials. Reads the Morte as a 15th-century text that both preserves and responds to Arthurian literature of the 13th-century through its use of symbols and symbolic patterns, a process of negotiation that nostalgically yearns for the past while it simultaneously records the end of an era.

  • Malory, Sir Thomas. Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature.

    E-mail Citation »

    Useful database for general information about Malory and the Morte. Features a selection of biographical materials, as well as readings of the text and its historical contexts written by established scholars and students alike. Provides links to online versions of the text (both in its entirety and as excerpts, including versions in medieval and modernized English), study guides, a list of suggested books for further study, and a filmography of Arthurian movies.

  • Riddy, Felicity. Sir Thomas Malory. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    Brief yet masterful overview of the Morte as a 15th-century romance that like other texts of the same genre and era, reflects a variety of not entirely compatible interests. First chapter functions as an introduction to the historical and generic contexts from which Malory emerges, while the subsequent chapters explore how his treatment of history, good manners, right conduct, and the next world contribute to the instability of his larger narrative project. Excerpted in Shepherd 2004 (cited under Based on Winchester).

  • Takamiya Toshiyuki, and Derek Brewer, eds. Aspects of Malory. Arthurian Studies 1. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1981.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collection of essays that began as a collaboration with Vinaver and turned into a tribute when he died before the book was published. Contributions do not follow a single agenda, nor do they seek to provide complete coverage of the text, its contexts, or its sources. Jill Mann’s “‘Taking the Adventure’: Malory and the Suite Du Merlin” and Lotte Hellinga’s “The Malory Manuscript and Caxton” are influential pieces made widely accessible by this assemblage.

  • Wheeler, Bonnie, Robert L. Kendrick, and Michael N. Salda, eds. The Malory Debate: Essays on the Texts of Le Morte Darthur. Arthurian Studies 47. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    Compilation of essays, some of which were published previously and updated, focused on the textual disputes regarding which version of Malory’s text is most authentic, Caxton, Winchester, or a combination of the two. Multiple perspectives on this ongoing debate are represented, with no formal agreement being reached.

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