1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Malory, Sir Thomas
MALORY, SIR THOMAS, translator and compiler of the famous English classic, the Morte d’Arthur. Previous to the publication of Professor Kittredge’s monograph, Who was Sir Thomas Malory? the identity of this writer remained an unsolved problem. Mr. Sidney Lee, in the Dictionary of National Biography, was compelled to admit that he could find no one of that name fulfilling the necessary conditions. Of direct evidence we have very little; in the concluding passage of the book the author asks the prayers of the reader for “Syr Thomas Maleore knyght,” and states that the book was ended “the ix. yere of the reygne of Kyng Edward the fourth.” Caxton, in his preface, says that he printed the book “after a copye unto me delivered whyche copye Syr Thomas Malorye dyd take oute of certeyn bookes of frensshe and reduced it in to Englysshe”; in his colophon he repeats this statement, adding that he himself is responsible for the division of the work into books and chapters, and that it was printed in 1485. It will be noted that Caxton does not say that he received the book from Malory, only that he had received a copy made by Malory; from this Professor Kittredge draws the conclusion that the compiler was no longer living. The problem then is to find a Thomas Malory who was (a) a knight, (b) alive in the ninth year of King Edward IV. (Mar. 4, 1469–Mar. 3, 1470), and (c) who was no longer living in July (or June) 1485.
All these conditions Professor Kittredge finds fulfilled in the life of Sir Thomas Malory, knight, of Newbold Revell (or Fenny Newbold), M.P. for Warwickshire in 1445. The date of Sir Thomas’s birth is uncertain, but he succeeded his father, Sir John, in 1433 or 1434. Previously to this he had served in France, in the retinue of the earl of Warwick, most probably during the time that that nobleman held the office of captain of Calais. It seems probable that he is also to be identified with a “Thomas Malorie, miles,” who in 1468 was, on account of the part played by him in the Wars of the Roses, excluded with several others from the operation of a pardon issued by Edward IV. As, however, on the death of Sir Thomas on the 14th of March 1470, there was no difficulty as to inheritance, his estates passing to his grandson, he must, if this identification be correct, have come under the general amnesty of 1469. It will be seen, therefore, that so far as it is in our power to state the question this Sir Thomas Malory fulfils all the necessary conditions.
It is interesting to note that the career of the earl of Warwick in France was marked by certain picturesque and chivalric features which might well impress the imagination of a young retainer. John Rous, in his Life of Richard Earl of Warwick, tells us that at a certain tourney held near Calais at Christmastide, Earl Richard appeared three days running in different armour, overthrowing his adversary on each occasion—an exploit obviously imitated from the chivalric romances of the period.
The work with which Malory’s name is connected is an abridged compilation of the great body of Arthurian romance in its latest form. The Merlin (Vulgate and Suite), Tristan, Lancelot, Queste and Mort Artus are all represented, the only branch omitted is that dealing with the “early history” of the Grail, the Joseph of Arimathea and Grand S. Graal. Thanks mainly to the labours of Dr Oskar Sommer, we can now assign the majority of the books to their separate sources, although certain stories, such as the adventures of Sir Gareth under the pseudonym of Beaumains, the handling of Sir Urre of Hungary, and the details of the abduction of Guenevere by Meleagaunt, still remain unidentified. But we do not yet know whether Malory himself was responsible for this selection, or whether he found it ready to hand in a MS., the “Frensshe Booke” to which he often refers. To make such a compilation at first hand, considering the extent of the ground covered, would involve an enormous amount of study and selection, and the access to a very large library—conditions which scarcely seem to fit in with the social position and activities of Sir Thomas. On the other hand it is undeniable that the medieval copyists, at the instance of their patrons, did make compilations from the various romances within their reach, such as e.g. the enormous codex 112 (fonds Franç.) of the Bibliothèque Nationale, which includes large sections of the Tristan, the Lancelot, and the Merlin Suite. Taking into consideration alike what Malory retains and what he omits, it seems most probable that he was in possession, not of complete copies of the romances, but of one or more volumes of compilations from these sources.
From the point of view of matter it must be admitted that the Morte d’ Arthur does not represent the Arthurian cycle at its best, but rather in the period of its decadence; nor does Malory in any way endeavour to overcome the difficulties caused by the juxtaposition of a number of independent (and often contradictory) versions. This is especially noticeable in his treatment of Gawain; in the section derived from the Lancelot and Mort Artus he is a good and valiant knight, “a ful noble knyghte as ever was borne,” in those derived from the Tristan and the Queste, he is treacherous, dissolute, and a murderer of good knights.
The great charm of Malory’s work lies in his style; stately, earnest and dignified, it has lent to the relations between Lancelot and Guenevere a character of truth and vitality in which the French original is wholly lacking. Malory achieved a remarkable feat—he took the Arthurian story in its worst and weakest form and he imparted to it a moral force and elevation which the cycle, even in its earlier and finer stage, had, save in the unique case of Von Eschenbach’s Parzival, never possessed. While genuine lovers of the Arthurian cycle must regret that the romances should only be known to the great majority of English readers through the versions of Malory and Tennyson, it is impossible to withhold from the Morte d’ Arthur the admiration due to an imperishable monument of English language and literature.
See Who was Sir Thomas Malory? G. L. Kittredge (Harvard Studies and Notes, vol. v., 1896); Morte d’ Arthur, ed. by Dr Oskar Sommer (an exact reproduction of the original text in 2 vols.)—vol. iii. a study on “The Sources of Malory.” The sections on Lancelot and Queste are unfortunately very inadequate; for these cf. The Legend of Sir Lancelot, Grimm Library, vol. xii. (J. L. W.)