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The once and future king, reissued!
on 8 July 2004
The earlier rendition by Keith Baines of Mallory's classic work, 'Le Morte d'Arthur', went out of print, but the demand was such that there was bound to be a press that would pick it up. All hail to Signet for doing so here! They have taken the old text and reprinted it, practically as a photo-stat. Even the pagination has remained the same, but the print face is a bit cleaner than the older copy in a side-by-side comparison (I purchased the Signet edition, thinking it was a revision, when I already had the older Baines edition -- they are the same).
Sir Thomas Mallory was a great one to write the adventures of King Arthur and his knights - a knight himself, he led a life of intrigue and adventure, albeit not one that always lived up to the ideas of chivalry he penned at the heart of the Arthurian legends. Mallory did not invent Arthur; he is one of the principle medieval chroniclers, having time (he was in prison with nothing else to do, after all) to set down in prose stories he'd heard throughout his life. These were popular tales, not always told in the same way with the same details, as is true of most oral legends and transmitted stories, much to the later frustration of scholars and readers. The earliest printing of Mallory's stories had his authorship suppressed by Caxton, one of the better-known publishers of the time.
The earliest Arthurian legends date back as far as the late Roman times in Britain. Controversies abound, but many have settled on a late Roman or Romano-British general named Arturius - however, given the linguistic nature of the name (it is derivative of ruler or leader), it is impossible to know if this was in fact a name or a title, and the legends may be compilations of the acts of many leaders bearing the name. There was also a Welsh leader with the name/title Arddu, 'Dark One', who is sometimes conflated into Arthurian legend. Arthur was celebrated in the pre-Norman times for the order and stability he represented; Arthur was celebrated in post-Norman times for his campaigns against Saxons. Arthur continues to be an intriguing character, today reminiscent of ancient mysteries as well as pagan and new age ideas as well.
In any event, Mallory doesn't attach specific dates to his tales. The book actually consists of many tales. The first is entitled 'The Tale of King Arthur', which introduces the figures of Merlin, Gawain, Uwayne, Pellinore, Morgan le Fay (the Celtic war goddess Morgana, dressed up as Arthur's sister) and others, and includes the sword-in-the-stone event. While this text has been modernised by Keith Baines, there are certain crucial lines left in Mallory's English, including this most famous one:
Whoso pulleth oute this swerd of this stone and anvyld is rightwys kynge borne of all Brytaygne
Following this tale, Mallory includes many of the famous tales in Arthurian legend as stories more or less complete in themselves, but still linking to the other tales. 'The Tale of Sir Lancelot du Lake' is a knight's tale indeed, with no fewer than twenty horseback duels back-to-back. 'The Tale of Sir Gareth' is a similar spirited tale, less well known. 'The Book of Sir Tristram of Lyoness' makes Tristram and Iseult, famous by other writers as well, into lovers, this time with a more happy ending than usual. The lesser known 'Tale of Arthur and Lucius' describes battles and skirmishes with the emperor, but never really captured popular imagination.
Mallory saves the best for last, with three major tales - 'The Tale of the Sangreal', the Holy Grail; 'The Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Gwynevere'; and finally, 'Le Morte D'Arthur'. The tale of the Holy Grail continues into the present day in various fashions; here is contains strange glosses of the Old and New Testaments, as well as a good number of miracles, as one would expect from the Grail. The last tale, the death of Arthur, is probably the most famous, and the best written.
Even though an English knight, the courtly fashion was after a French design for many centuries after the Norman conquest, and this French influence in notable in the stories, from their titles to their plots and characterisations, including the places Mallory uses.
Keith Baines eliminates a lot of needless dialogue from his rendering here, but keeps the plot lines and sequence of action with integrity from earlier manuscripts and recited tales. His translation compares favourably with others, becoming a fairly standard text for good reason. Robert Graves (of 'I Claudius' fame) provides an appreciative introduction to the text. Baines himself was a poet; however, this text, accepted somewhat reluctantly, is probably his best known work.
Arthur lives on into the modern world and beyond. Baines' edition gives it life to carry on, and Signet makes it available.