Sunday, January 22, 2012

Feature Week: Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory

The Arthurian legends, also known as the Matter of Britain, are certainly among the world's most well-known, influential, and important myths. They were very popular all the way through the Middle Ages and remain just as well-known as ever today, probably thanks to the Victorian medievalist revival.

Oddly enough, the stories didn't become really well-known in England until they'd made a big hit in France. During the rise of the ideal of courtly love in the south of France, French minstrels who could tell stirring tales of chivalry and this new mode of love became popular. Poets like Chretien de Troyes found the Arthurian stories of England a perfect vehicle for their theme. They took the fragmented legends, old Welsh stories and the bare-bones narrative of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and built upon them a grand epic cycle in French. Finally, in the 1400s, an English knight named Thomas Malory wrote his own version of the cycle, a comprehensive, first-to-last account reducing the French romances into English and also incorporating some old alliterative English poems and some completely original touches. Le Morte D'Arthur survives in two old manuscripts: one, printed by Caxton in 1485, divides the story into twenty-one chaptered books. Another, discovered in Winchester in 1934, divides the story into eight separate romances with no chaptered divisions.
Whether Malory's epic is one work or a cycle of eight, it remains the definitive English-language treatment of the Matter of Britain. I first tackled it when I was about twelve or thirteen, having cut my teeth, so to speak, on the Roger Lancelyn Green version. I disliked it. It confused me deeply. A couple of years later I tried it again, with a similar result. You see, there seemed to be a fundamental inconsistency in the very fabric of the book, some disconnect in the author's mind.
Ten years later, after discussing the book occasionally with friends (and with Kate in particular), I was ready to try Malory again. I wanted to brush up on Arthurian myth; I was ready to take it on faith that Malory had something to say here; I felt up to the task of finding out what. So I grabbed my two-volume Penguin Malory, a sheet of blank paper, and a pen. I went through our library for resources on courtly love (ah—Ascent to Love by Peter J Leithart, The Viking Portable Medieval Reader) and medieval literature (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature by CS Lewis). I discussed it with Kate. I took many notes. I reflected on what Charles Williams had to say in The Arthurian Torso.
And in the end, I believe I have an answer. Join me this Feature Week as I chew through the meaning of one of the greatest epics in the English language!

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