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.”
He called the full work The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table, but Caxton instead titled it with Malory's name for the final section of the cycle. Modernized editions update the late Middle English spelling, update some pronouns, and repunctuate and reparagraph the text. Others furthermore update the phrasing and vocabulary to contemporary Modern English. Here is an example (from Caxton's preface) in Middle English and then in Modern English:
- Doo after the good and leve the evyl, and it shal brynge you to good fame and renomme.
- Do after the good and leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good fame and renown.
The Middle English of Le Morte D'Arthur is much closer to Early Modern English than the Middle English of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. If the spelling is modernized, it reads almost like Elizabethan English.
The first printing of Malory's work was made by Caxton in 1485. Only two copies of this original printing are known to exist, in the collections of the Morgan Library & Museum and the John Rylands Library. It proved popular, and was reprinted, with some additions and changes, in 1498 and 1529 by Wynkyn de Worde who succeeded Caxton's press. Three more editions were published before the English Civil War: William Copland's (1557), Thomas East's (1585), and William Stansby's (1634), each of which contained additional changes and errors (including the omission of an entire leaf). Thereafter the book went out of fashion until the Romantic revival of interest in all things medieval; the year 1816 saw a new edition by Walker and Edwards, and another one by Wilks, both based on the 1634 Stansby edition. Davison's 1817 edition, which was promoted by Robert Southey, was based on Caxton's 1485 edition or on a mixture of Caxton and Stansby. Davison was the basis for subsequent editions until the discovery of the Winchester Manuscript.
Caxton separated Malory's eight books into 21 books; subdivided each book into a total of 507 chapters; added a summary of each chapter and added a colophon to the entire book. Malory's eight tales are:
- The birth and rise of Arthur: “From the Marriage of King Uther unto King Arthur that Reigned After Him and Did Many Battles”
- King Arthur's war against the Romans: “The Noble Tale Between King Arthur and Lucius the Emperor of Rome”
- The book of Lancelot: “The Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lac”
- The book of Gareth (brother of Gawain): “The Tale of Sir Gareth”
- Tristan and Isolde: “The Book of Sir Tristrams de Lyons”
- The Quest for the Holy Grail: “The Noble Tale of the Sangreal”
- The affair between Lancelot and Guinevere: “Sir Launcelot and Queen Gwynevere”
- The breaking of the Knights of the Round Table and the death of Arthur: “Le Morte D'Arthur”
Most of the events in the book take place in Britain and France in the latter half of the 5th century. In some parts, the story ventures farther afield, to Rome and Sarras (near Babylon), and recalls Biblical tales from the ancient Near East.
The Winchester Manuscript
In June 1934, during the cataloging of the library of Winchester College, headmaster W. F. Oakeshott discovered a previously unknown manuscript copy of the work. Newspaper accounts announced that what Caxton had published in 1485 was not exactly what Malory had written. Oakeshott published “The Finding of the Manuscript” in 1963, chronicling the initial event and his realization that “this indeed was Malory,” with “startling evidence of revision” in the Caxton edition. Caxton's text and the Winchester manuscript derive separately from an earlier copy. (Having said this, microscopic examination revealed that ink smudges on the Winchester manuscript are offsets of newly printed pages set in Caxton's own font, which indicates that the same manuscript was in Caxton's print shop.) The “Winchester Manuscript” is believed to be closer on the whole to Malory's original. In addition, it does not have the book and chapter divisions for which Caxton in his preface takes credit.
The Malory scholar Eugène Vinaver examined the manuscript shortly after its discovery. Although Oakeshott was encouraged to produce an edition himself, he ceded the project to Vinaver. Based on his initial study of the manuscript, Oakeshott concluded in 1935 that the copy from which Caxton printed his edition “was already subdivided into books and sections.” Vinaver made an exhaustive comparison of the manuscript with Caxton's edition and reached similar conclusions. In his 1947 edition of The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, he argued that Malory did not write a single book, but rather a series of Arthurian tales each of which is an internally consistent and independent work. However, scholars including William Matthews pointed out that in his later tales Malory, a skilled redactor, introduced references to the earlier ones, suggesting that he had wanted the tales to cohere better but had not sufficiently revised the whole text to achieve this.
The Winchester manuscript has been digitised by a Japanese team.
Style and Themes of Le Morte D'Arthur
The publication of Chaucer’s work by William Caxton was a precursor to his publication of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Where the Canterbury Tales are in Middle English, Malory extends “one hand to Chaucer, and one to Spenser” constructing a manuscript which is hard to place in one category. Like other English Prose in the Fifteenth century, Le Morte D’Arthur was highly influenced by French writings, but Malory blends these with other English verse and prose forms. Although Malory hearkens back to an age of idealized knighthood, jousting tournaments, and grand castles to suggest a medieval world, his stories lack any agricultural life, or commerce which makes the story feel as if it were an era of its own.
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.
There is an artful way in which Malory portrays Arthur by revealing him to us only by how others are affected by his actions. This creates a man whom we cannot define, but still stands as the center of the legend, and lets our mind move from him to the scenes around him.
The themes of love and war, “are fundamental to the work of Sir Thomas Malory. Religion—the third of the great epic themes—is admittedly and nobly subordinated; only at the end, Guinevere, in expiation of her guilt in destroying the Round Table, becomes a nun; and Lancelot, for love of her and not for the love of God, takes on himself the habit of perfection.” It has been declared that, “Malory recreated an epic story from romance,” because of his inclusion of the mysterious and magical elements in a depiction of a world with which Malory’s contemporaries are familiar. Through the format of a knightly romance provides, “an idealized version of the life of the knightly class; it is the warrior’s daydream, designed for recreation (or “solace”), not instruction (or “doctrine”), and representing the average sensual man’s point of view.” The forms of romantic characters used in order to create the world of Arthur and the Round Table, “consist almost entirely of fighting men, their wives or mistresses, with an occasional clerk or an enchanter, a fairy or a fiend, a giant or a dwarf,” and “time does not work on the heroes of Malory.”