Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by John W. Hales
Sir Thomas Malory (d. c. 1470)
[Beyond what is stated by Caxton in his Preface to the Morte d’Arthur, and in his Colophon, and what Malory himself says at the end of his compilation, we know nothing of the authorship or of the author of this the most popular English work of the closing Middle Ages. In his Preface Caxton tells us how for certain reasons he at first shrunk from printing a book about King Arthur; but, being at length persuaded by “many noble and divers gentlemen of this realm of England,” he, “after the simple conning that God hath sent him, enprised to imprint a book of the noble histories of the said King Arthur and of certain of his knights after a copy unto me delivered, which copy Sir Thomas Malory did take out of certain book of French, and reduced it into English.” In his Colophon he again mentions Sir Thomas as the reducer of the work into English, and adds that it was by himself “divided into xxi books chapitred, and enprinted, and finished in the Abbey Westminster, the last day of July the year of our Lord mcccclxxxv.”  1
  “I pray you,” runs Malory’s own concluding sentence,—the last part of it, in a kind of metre—the words “knight,” “might,” and “night” rhyming together—“all gentlemen and gentlewomen that read this book of Arthur and his knights from the beginning to the ending, pray for me while I am on live 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 Jesus both day and night.” Edward IV.’s regnal years are computed from 4th March 1461; so Malory’s translation was finished sometime between 4th March 1469 and 4th March 1470, some fifteen years before Caxton printed it. There is a village called Kirkby Mallory in Leicestershire, about five miles north of Hinckly; and we know, on Leland’s authority, that a family of the name held property at Hutton Conyers and also at High Studley, both places near Ripon in the West Riding of Yorkshire. In the north transept of Ripon Cathedral is a monument to the Mallorys of Studley Royal. But with neither of these occurrences of the name can he be certainly connected. His description of himself as the servant of Jesu both day and night might very well mean, and has been taken to mean, that he was in “Holy Orders”; but more probably it simply expresses what all his work illustrates, viz., that he was of a sincerely religious spirit.]  2
  Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur is of high distinction in many ways. It is the largest and completest collection of the Arthurian romances; it is arranged with remarkable skill and judgment; it is written in a style of wonderful simplicity and of wonderful effectiveness; it has been ever since the favourite handbook of all students, poetic and other, who have felt any interest in the Arthurian story and in chivalrous romance.  3
  It is, in fact, a complete Arthuriad. What so many great writers designed, Malory has in his own way accomplished. He tells the tale of the old king from the beginning to the end. There are many episodes, but these are subordinate to the main theme. No doubt he takes his material from the French; but he takes it from various sources, not from any single work which had already done what it was his special purpose to do. So to translate and abridge and to correlate numerous French works that treated of the Table Round in prose and in poetry was an achievement demanding a real artistic sense and power. And, in fact, to this day the only Arthurian epic our literature has to show is this work of Malory’s. For Spenser never reached the properly Arthurian part of the Faerie Queen; Milton never actually took in hand the Arthurian legends, though they so long and so late attracted him; Dryden’s opera of King Arthur just serves to remind us that he never wrote the heroic poem on Arthur which, wisely or unwisely, he for many years meditated; Tennyson himself warns us against looking to him for an epic, when he entitles his Arthurian pieces “Idylls.” Thus our one Arthurian epic is in prose. Some critic has regretted that Malory did not attempt verse; but we may be sure that Malory’s judgment was sound in this respect. He understood well his own limits and the limits of his time, as also his own genius and the genius of his time. A different age would have filled him with a different inspiration. But the latter part of the fifteenth century in England was probably incapable of any high poetic form. And an attempt on Malory’s part to assume a poetic form would probably have been scarcely less disastrous than had Bunyan produced his famous allegory in such couplets as compose its Preface, instead of in the admirable prose which, with his other gifts, has given him a place amongst English classics. The prose of Malory too is admirable. It is spoilt by no tricks or affectations; it is not always thinking of itself, so to speak, or wishing to be thought about. It aims merely at doing its duty as a rendering of its master’s thought. What particularly distinguishes it is its thoroughly idiomatic character. Malory displays a fine instinct in his use of his mother-tongue. It is wonderful to see how this subtle sense led him to the choice of phrases that were to remain always part of the vernacular, his choice, no doubt, improving their chance of remaining so; for there was no more popular book in the sixteenth century than the Morte d’Arthur. Above all, Malory’s language and style exactly suit his subject. In no work is there a perfecter harmony—a more sympathetic marriage—of this kind. This chronicler of knighthood is himself a knight. His heart is devoted to the chivalry he portrays, and his tongue is the faithful spokesmen of his heart.  4

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