Sir Thomas Malory (c.1405 – March 14, 1471) was the author or compiler of Le Morte d'Arthur, the first definitive text in English prose relating the tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Le Morte d'Arthur was wildly popular in the decades following its publication, and Malory is generally seen as the primary source for Arthurian legends in the English language. Malory's position in the history of Arthurian literature is a unique one; he did not invent many of the tales that he retells in his masterwork, rather, he borrowed extensively from previous writers who had told versions of the legend, and in particular Malory relied heavily on the French Arthurian poets of the thirteenth century, such as Chrétien de Troyes, and the anonymous author of the Lancelot cycle. Malory, however, did not simply translate the works of previous authors; he re-arranged the structure of the various Arthurian romances, creating a cohesive storyline with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. Moreover, he embellished, revised, and added to the legend as he saw fit, creating a uniquely English version of the tale that remains popular to this day. The Arthurian legend is one of the great works of narrative that reflects on universal themes through the use of symbols, themes reminiscent of the most stirring elements from the Bible, and themes that capture the imagination.
Few facts are certain in Malory's history. The antiquary John Leland believed him to be Welsh, but most modern scholarship and this article assumes that he was Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire. The surname appears in various spellings, including Maillorie, Mallory, and Maleore. The name comes from the Old French adjective maleüré (from Latin male auguratus) meaning ill-omened or unfortunate. He was probably born sometime around 1416 (though some scholars have suggested an earlier date). He died in March of 1471, less than two years after completing his great book. Twice elected to a seat in Parliament, he also accrued an impressive list of criminal charges during the 1450s, which included burglarly, rape, sheep stealing, and attempting to ambush the Duke of Buckingham. He escaped from jail on two occasions, once fighting his way out using a variety of weapons and swimming a moat. He was imprisoned at several locations in London, but was occasionally out on bail. He was never brought to trial for the charges that had been leveled against him. In the 1460s he was at least once pardoned by the king (Henry VI), but more often, he was specifically excluded from pardon by both Henry VI and his rival and successor, Edward IV. It is clear, from comments Malory makes at the ends of sections of his narrative, that he composed at least part of his work while in prison. His description of himself in the colophon to Le Morte d'Arthur has led to speculation that he may have been a priest, though this is not widely considered:
I pray you all, gentlemen and gentlewomen that readeth this book of Arthur and his knights, from the beginning to the ending, pray for me while I am alive, that God send me good deliverance, and when I am dead, I pray you all pray for my soul. For this book was ended the ninth year of the reign of King Edward the Fourth, by Sir Thomas Maleore, knight, as Jesu help him for His great might, as he is the servant of Jesu both day and night.
According to Sir William Dugdale's Antiquities of Warwickshire, Sir Thomas Malory was a knight in the service of Richard Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick, and that he fought alongside his lordship at the siege of Calais in 1436. Furthermore, according to Dugdale's account, Malory was made a knight of the shire in 1445 and died on March 14, 1471. He was buried in the Chapel of St. Francis at Grey Friars, near Newgate, where he had once been imprisoned.
Malory likely started work on Le Morte d'Arthur while he was in prison in the early 1450s and completed it by 1470. Originally Malory intended Le Morte d'Arthur to be the title of only the final book of his cycle; he calls the full work The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table. His printer, William Caxton, may have misunderstood the author's intentions when naming the book. Many modern editions update the spelling and some of the pronouns from Malory's original Early Modern English, but otherwise leave the text as it was written.
The first printing of Malory's work was made by Caxton in 1485; 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 followed at intervals down to the time of the English Civil War: William Copland's (1557), Thomas East's (1585), and William Stansby's (1634), each of which manifested additional changes and errors. Thereafter the book went out of fashion until the time of the Romantic revival of interest in all things medieval.
Le Morte d'Arthur follows the general arc of other Arthurian romances that had been written anywhere from several decades to several centuries before Malory's time. The earliest recorded version of the Arthurian legend dates from eleventh century Wales, where tales of a mighty king who had fought successfully against the Roman legions were widely popular, with references appearing in a number of poems and songs. It is likely that these early versions of the Arthur legend were preserved in Welsh folksongs and culture to which Malory may have been privy. The first major printed source for Arthurian stories, however, would emerge out of thirteenth century France, with the works of Chrétien de Troyes serving as one of the most notable influences on Malory's version of the tale. Chrétien de Troyes and other French authors had transformed the Welsh legend of a (possibly historical) King Arthur into a work of pure fantasy, full of magic and medieval themes of chivalry and Christian virtue.
Like the French romances, Malory's version of the legend follows Arthur from his youth, when he assumes the title of king after pulling a magical sword from a stone, all the way until the Knights of the Round Table are disbanded following the adulterous affair between Queen Guinevere, Arthur's wife, and Sir Lancelot. In between, Malory merges the Welsh and French versions of Arthur, presenting him both as a real king who had done battle with the Roman Empire as well as embellishing the story with lengthy sequences of pure romance. Malory's style is eclectic and at times unfinished, as might be expected from an author who composed much of his work while in prison and under the possible threat of death. Le Morte d'Arthur often veers off into tangents, weaving in stories and anecdotes that are often charming and completely unrelated to the story at hand. Through his allusions and asides Malory displays his wide learning, which, in addition to a thorough knowledge of medieval French and English literature, apparently also included some familiarity with Middle-Eastern legends. Despite his asides, Malory retains a basic structure to his narrative that has remained the structure followed by most subsequent versions of the Arthur legend. The work can be broken up into the following sections:
When Le Morte d'Arthur was published some 15 years after Malory's death, it became an overnight success. Although few critics would argue that Malory was the most talented writer of his generation—his style is too often untidy and his work suffers from an overall roughness—he is undoubtedly a capable master of the English language. In literary history, Malory is perhaps more important for the content of his work; in the decades and centuries following his death, Le Morte d'Arthur would become a favorite work among those interested in medieval literature, both for its comprehensive scope and for the clear and accessible style of Malory's prose. Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, T.H. White, and other poets and authors who would either be inspired by the style of Malory's Arthurian tale, or would attempt directly to imitate it, have cited Le Morte d'Arthur as a major influence. Certainly no study of medieval English literature would be complete without treating the subject of King Arthur, and in that regard Malory remains the most authoritative and admired source.
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