Sir Thomas Malory. Le Morte Darthur. Ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Arthurian literature outside the Welsh tradition is mainly an affair of harmonizing together different traditions. The Historia provides a pseudo-historical framework for the rise and fall of Arthur by placing him within the line of legendary kings of Britain; the Robert de Boron and Vulgate cycles place the fate of the Round Table as part of the greater story of Christianity; even Chrétien de Troyes’s and other romances need two narrative levels—but this time it’s the Arthurian tradition that functions as a backdrop to the story of a particular knight.
What Malory is doing differently from all of the previous Arthurian tales is to give us the “hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table,” that is, he is giving us the story of King Arthur and his knights as an autonomous mythos like the Welsh tales do. King Arthur is the alpha and the omega of the story. There is only a limited number of tales related to individual knights, and they are part of the overall progression of the framing story of Arthur, unlike in the romance tradition where the open canvas of the Arthurian court allows for an infinite number of stories. But Malory differs from the Welsh fragments we have because his Arthur is a rather realistic one compared to the legendary, semi-magical universe of Culhwc and Olwen for example. And he’s not the king of Britain or even of Logres (from the Welsh llogr, denoting England). Arthur is now the king of England and he stands as a model of a righteous, valorous, and just king.
For these reasons, I consider Le Morte Darthur not as the last big medieval Arthurian tale, but rather as the first Modern one. The Arthurian tradition has found its first Reader’s Digest: what readers want is a good tale, with a variety of characters, of situation, and a not too complicated background. Oh, and please cut down on the tapestry of knights errants fighting each other for damsels in distress in order to elucidate the fine points of courtesy, just get on with the plot, please. It’s especially pregnant when you compare similar events in Malory and in the Vulgate cycle: whereas the rise to power of Arthur in Malory is settled when he pulls out the sword from the stone, in the Vulgate cycle he has to fight baron after baron, create complicated alliances, and escape treacheries that will leave deep resentments between kingdoms, operative in the rest of the cycle.
I sometimes imagine Malory as the impatient English gentleman sighing at the laborious Frenchness of all the complicated developments while he’s reading the Vulgate cycle and other books, and just writing bits in shorthands with “etc. etc.” in his notebook. He doesn’t want all of that fastidious refinement, and his book feels sometimes as if he’s a bit of an obtuse reader. But then I think upon the Camelot sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: King Arthur finally comes into sight of “Camelot!” the shining city, but a cut to the musical act sung by the knights of the round table gives him second thoughts, and remembering that “it’s a silly place” just turns back and forgets about it. That’s Malory for you: he’ll have none of that silliness—although that’s what I find deeply funny about Malory himself! What’s more, the cut-and-paste nature of the episodic Monty Python and the Holy Grail is in fact a good reflection of the overall feel of Malory’s book, itself a cut-and-paste from the tradition, with boring bits removed!
In the end, it’s nevertheless a good return to solid ground to read Malory at the tail end of a slew of Continental Arthurian literature. The mode is back to hearing about Arthur because he’s Arthur, and while Malory does not have the mythical horizon that the Welsh tales have, he’s the reason why we still have a living interest in Arthurian literature outside the Middle Ages.