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A GREAT WORK PRUNED A BIT TOO HARD FOR COMFORT
on 18 January 2007
Of all the works of Early English literature from the Gawain and Pearl poets through Gower and Langland to Chaucer and on to Spenser, Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur is probably the best known and possibly the least read. Unlike all those, it is a prose work. It was written by a knight who seems to have been a rather dubious character and who was apparently not too concerned about the laws of chivalry he upholds in his book. Indeed, it seems likely that his masterwork was written while he was in prison and there is certainly a distinct note of sympathy whenever he describes the conditions of various knights and damsels who are themselves imprisoned.
One of the chief reasons for the book's early success was that it was taken up and printed by William Caxton within 15 years of being written and proved one of the earliest bestsellers of the print era. Its continuing influence on literature and the arts in the succeeding centuries is surely down to Malory's invigorating prose style and his superb narrative thrust. Without it there would be no Idylls of the King, no Once and Future King, no Camelot, never mind no Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Spamalot.
Malory plundered a multitude of sources from across mainland Europe as well as Britain as the basis for his book. But he was probably the first to draw together the many varied strands and traditions of Arthurian legend into one work. It is in some ways still a loose collection of different stories - The Tale of Gareth, the Tale of Lancelot, the Book of Sir Tristram, the Tale of Arthur and Lucius (which sets it historically in the latter days of the Roman Empire) and so on. But particularly towards the end of the book where we find the greatest of the stories - the divided loyalties and the moral and ethical dilemmas of The Book of Sir Lancelot and Gwynevere, the spiritual highs but also the dispiriting breakup of the Round Table in the Quest for the Grail and the final betrayal and death of Arthur himself in the Morte d'Arthur - there is a superb cumulative sense of tragedy driving to its inevitable end that is overwhelming.
This Oxford edition scores by using a sensible conflation of the Winchester manuscript and Caxton's printed version. The modernisation is, on the whole, accurate and readable, preserving the rhythms and tone of Malory's virile prose. However, it loses points for a somewhat excessive abridgement. Yes, I know there are a multitude of tourneys and fights that become repetitive and include `too much information' about the details and intricacies of fighting that were clearly fascinating to Malory but are not that interesting to modern tastes. These and other fairly savage cuts do disrupt the rhythms and pacing of Malory's writing that are more relaxed than contemporary concentration spans demand and should be accepted on their own terms.