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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Sir Thomas Malory (d. c. 1470)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ernest Rhys (1859–1946)
 
THE ONE certain thing about Sir Thomas Malory is, that he wrote the first and finest romance of chivalry in our common tongue,—the ‘Morte d’Arthur.’ Beyond this, and the testimony that the book affords as to its author, we have little record of him. That he was a Welshman, however, seems highly probable; and his name is certainly of Welsh origin, derived as it is from Maelor. That he was a clerk in holy orders is likely too. It was usual to distinguish vicars at that period and later by the prefix “Sir”; and various clergymen of the same Christian name and surname as his may be traced by old tombs, at Mobberley in Cheshire and elsewhere. Bale, in his interesting Latin chronicle of 1548, on ‘Illustrious Writers of Great Britain,’ speaks of his “many cares of State,” it is true; but church and State were then closely enough allied to make the two things compatible with our view of him. Bale’s further account is brief but eloquent. Our romancer was a man, he tells us, “of heroic spirit, who shone from his youth in signal gifts of mind and body.” Moreover, a true scholar, a true man of letters, who never interrupted his quest “through all the remnants of the world’s scattered antiquity.” So it was that Malory was led to gather, from various sources, all the traditions he could find “concerning the valor and the victories of the most renowned King Arthur of the Britons.” Out of many materials, in French and Latin, in Welsh and Breton, he shaped the book ‘Morte d’Arthur’ as we now know it; working with a sense of style, and with a feeling for the tale-teller’s and the romancer’s art, which show him to be much more than the mere compiler and book-maker that some critics have been content to call him.  1
  A word now as to the dates of Malory’s writing, and Caxton’s publishing, the ‘Morte d’Arthur,’ and we turn from the history of the book to the book itself. In his last page,—after asking his readers to pray for him,—Malory says in characteristic words, which again may be thought to point to his being more than a mere layman: “This book was finished the ninth year of the reign of King Edward the Fourth,… as Jesu help me, for his great might; as he [i.e., Malory] is the servant of Jesu both day and night.” The period thus fixed brings us approximately to the year 1469, and to the ten years previous as the probable time when the ‘Morte d’Arthur’ was being written. Caxton published it in 1485, and then referred to Malory as still living. Hence he and his noble romance both fall well within that wonderful fifteenth century which saw the rise of English poetry, with Chaucer as its morning star,—
  “—the morning star of song, who made
His music heard below,—”
and the revival of Greek learning. It is significant enough, seeing their close kinship, that romance with Malory, and poetry with Chaucer, should have come into English literature in the same period.
  2
  As for Malory and his romance, there is hardly a more difficult and a more delightful undertaking in all the history of literature than that of the quest of its first beginnings. Principal Rhys has in his erudite studies in the Arthurian Legend carried us far back into the early Celtic twilight,—the twilight of the morning of man and his spiritual awakening,—and shown us some of the curious parallels between certain Aryan myths and the heroic folk-tales which lent their color to the “culture-hero,” Arthur.  3
  To examine these with the critical attention they require is beyond the scope of the present brief essay; but we may gather from their threads a very interesting clue to the “coming of King Arthur,” in another sense than that of the episode so finely described by Tennyson. We see the mythical hero carried in vague folk-tales of the primitive Celts, in their journey westward across Europe, when the traditions were attached to some other name. Then we find these folk-tales given a local habitation and a name in early Britain; until at last the appearance of a worthy historical hero, a King Arthur of the sixth century, provided a pivot on which the wheel of tradition could turn with new effect. The pivot itself might be small and insignificant enough, but the rim of the wheel might have layer after layer of legend, and accretion after accretion of mythical matter, added to it, till at last the pivot might well threaten to give way under the strain. Not to work the metaphor too hard, the wheel may be said to go to pieces at last, when the turn of the romancers, as distinct from the folk-tale tellers, comes. The Welsh romancers had their turn first; then their originals were turned into Latin by quasi-historians like Geoffrey of Monmouth; carried into France, given all manner of new chivalric additions and adornments, out of the growing European stock, by writers like Robert de Borron; and finally, at the right moment, recaptured by our later Welsh romancer, Malory, working in the interest of a new language and a new literature, destined to play so extraordinary a part in both the New World and the Old.  4
  The art of fiction and romance displayed by Malory in making this transfer of his French materials, is best to be gauged by comparing his ‘Morte d’Arthur’ with such romances as those in the famous Merlin cycle of de Borron and his school. To all students of the subject, this comparative investigation will be found full of the most curiously interesting results. Besides Malory, we have English fourteenth-century versions of these French romances; notably ‘The Romance of Merlin,’ of which we owe to the Early English Text Society an excellent reprint. To give some idea of the effect of this translation, let us cite a sentence or two from its account of Merlin’s imprisonment in the Forest of Broceliande; which may be compared with the briefer account in the ‘Morte d’Arthur.’ Sir Gawain hears the voice of Merlin, speaking as it were “from a smoke or mist in the air,” and saying:—
          “From hence may I not come out,—for in all the world is not so strong a close as is this whereas I am: and it is neither of iron, nor steel, nor timber, nor of stone; but it is of the air without any other thing, [bound] by enchantment so strong that it may never be undone while the world endureth.”
  5
  This is not unlike Malory; but a little further study of the two side by side will show the reader curious in such things how much he has improved upon these earlier legendary romances, by his process of selection and concentration, and by his choice of persons and episodes. On the other hand, we must concede to his critics that some of his most striking passages, full of gallant adventure gallantly described, are borrowed very closely. But then the great poets and romancers have so often been great borrowers. Shakespeare borrowed boldly and well; so did Herrick; so did Pope; so did Burns. And why not Malory?  6
  It is sufficient if we remember that romance, like other branches of literature, is not a sudden and original growth, but a graft from an old famous stock. To set this graft skillfully in a new tree needed no ’prentice hand; in doing it, Malory proved himself beyond question a master of romance. His true praise is best to be summed up in the long-continuing tribute paid to the ‘Morte d’Arthur’ by other poets and writers, artists and musicians. Milton, let us remember, hesitated whether he should not choose its subject for his magnum opus, in the place of ‘Paradise Lost.’ Tennyson elected to give it an idyllic presentment in the purple pages of his ‘Idylls of the King.’ Still later poets—Matthew Arnold, William Morris, and Swinburne—have gone to the same fountain-head; and in painting, the pictures of Rossetti, Watts, and Sir Edward Burne-Jones bear a like tribute; while in music, there is more than a reflection of the same influence in the works of Wagner.  7
  In all this, one may trace the vitality of the early Aryan folk-tale out of which the Arthurian legend originally took its rise. Sun-hero or “culture-hero,” Celtic chieftain or British king, it is still the radiant figure of King Arthur that emerges from the gray past, in which myth is dimly merged into mediæval romance. In Malory’s pages, to repeat, the historical King Arthur goes for little; but “the ideal Arthur lives and reigns securely in that kingdom of old romance of which Camelot is the capital,”—his beautiful and fatal Guinevere at his side, and Sir Galahad, Sir Launcelot, and his Knights of the Round Table gathered about him. And if there be, as Tennyson made clear in his ‘Idylls,’ a moral to this noble old romance, we may best seek it in the spirit of these words in Caxton’s prologue, which make the best and simplest induction to the book:—
          “Herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin. Do after the good and leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good fame and renown. And for to pass the time this book shall be pleasant to read in; but for to give faith and belief that all is true that is contained herein, ye be at your liberty.”
  8
 
 
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