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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Prose Fiction
III. Malory
By Dr. G. H. Maynadier
SIR THOMAS MALORY is unique among English writers. His famous “Morte d’Arthur,” which came from the press of William Caxton, the first English printer, in 1485, he completed probably in 1470. Thus he wrote at a time when the printing press was beginning to make the various European languages less changeable than they had been when a gentleman’s library might consist of but a single parchment manuscript; he was near enough to our own day to be the first English author whose work can now be read with enjoyment and yet without special study. Save for an occasional word which one must look up in a glossary—like the obsolete wood, meaning frenzied—a page of Malory, despite its archaisms of grammar and expression, is as intelligible as one of the latest magazines or novels. Nevertheless, when he wrote, the world of European civilization was still narrow materially and intellectually. The Atlantic was its bound to the west; the Sahara, to the south; the Far East was an almost mythical Cathay. The Renaissance had scarcely made itself felt beyond Italy; to all but a very few scholars, the old worlds of Greece and Rome and Palestine were known solely through stories from poetry and history so metamorphosed that King David, Julius Cæsar, and Alexander the Great wore mediæval armor and held splendid court like Capet and Plantagenet kings. In spirit Malory is as much of the Middle Ages as if he had died two hundred instead of two score years before Columbus set out to solve the mystery of the western seas. It is hard to believe that only half a century after his death Englishmen should be reading Homer at Oxford and Cambridge, and Luther translating the New Testament into German; that a few years more, and the leading countries of Europe should be making plans for colonial empire which have resulted in the world-powers of the present. Thanks to his living in just the years that he did, Malory has left us in his “Morte d’Arthur” a work full of mediæval spirit with almost no mediæval difficulty of language, though with a very charming suggestion of mediævalism in style.  1

  Even if the “Morte d’Arthur” had not this charm of style, it would be important in literature as giving the modern world the most easily intelligible mediæval version of what Tennyson called “the greatest of all poetic subjects.” Of the several valuable contributions of the Middle Ages to the general store of European art and thought, none is richer than their mass of legend—stories of saints and martyrs, of many local champions of more or less fame, and of a few who attaining wider fame became great epic heroes of the world. In nearly every case, poetic fame has a basis of historical fact, but most of the superstructure, and all its adornment, is popular story. Such a hero is Siegfried, 1 now the typical representative of the Germanic hero-age, but at first no better known than half a dozen other warriors, like Dietrich of Verona, whose stories grew out of the unsettling migrations of the Germanic peoples in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. Another is Charlemagne, 2 as colossal a figure in mediæval romance as in history is the monarch who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in the year 800. An even greater epic hero of the Middle Ages is Arthur, who is much better known to English readers than the others largely because of Sir Thomas Malory.

  The historical basis of the Arthur-legends is the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain. In the three centuries after the first settlement of the Germanic invaders in that island, the Britons were gradually driven into the mountains of Wales and Cumberland and the peninsula of Cornwall, or they fled across the Channel to turn Armorica into Brittany. Meanwhile they suffered almost uniform defeat. But for a while about the year 500 they won victories that for nearly half a century checked the Saxon advance. Their leader was Arthur, a good general, but probably not a king. Now men much in the public eye attract stories to themselves, as witness the countless anecdotes related of Abraham Lincoln. With peoples of slight civilization, such stories are full of marvels and portents. Thus hero-legends are made; thus the Arthur-legend grew up. Probably immediately after Arthur’s death, popular story began to increase his fame. In the so-called chronicle of a British monk, Nennius, written three hundred years after Arthur’s victories, we have our sole literary glimpse of the romantic hero-legend in the making, for Nennius associates several supernatural tales with the British leader. Presumably among Britons on both sides of the Channel—for Arthur won his victories before the principal migration to Armorica—similar association of marvel and adventure with the national champion was common. By degrees these hero-tales passed to the neighbors of the Britons. Because of their interest and poetic charm they came to be known in both France and England, though always purely popular—“old wives’ tales” beneath the notice of serious writers.
  The Norman Conquest, however, had quickened tremendously interest in everything connected with Britain, even its legendary heroes; and so, early in the reign of Stephen, grandson of the Conqueror, the clerk, Geoffrey of Monmouth, drawing on the store of British legend and altering it freely, ventured to publish his “History of the Kings of Britain,” an alleged chronicle in Latin prose. Here we have for the first time in literary form the story of Arthur, King of Britain, of his wide conquests, and of his death at the hands of traitorous Mordred. Soon other authors, mostly Anglo-Norman or subject to Anglo-Norman influence, began to use material similar to Geoffrey’s. They celebrated Arthur’s Round Table, and various knights whom Geoffrey had not mentioned. By the beginning of the thirteenth century, the stories of Arthur and his knights had become world literature, for Geoffrey’s “Chronicle” and the first French Arthurian romances had been translated or adapted into every language of western Europe. Wherever they went, these stories retained certain common traits. In all was poetic wonder; in all was utter geographical confusion and historical inaccuracy; kings, knights, and ladies were characters contemporary with the authors who wrote about them; instead of the rough manners of the sixth century, there was the polish of mediæval chivalry. And with the exception of Geoffrey’s work, the first Arthur-stories were in verse, and the adventures of different knights formed the subjects of different romances.  4
  In historical inaccuracies, mediæval authors did not change. Nor, for that matter, did post-mediæval authors; Arthur and his knights remain for all time typical romantic representatives of the age of chivalry. But early in the thirteenth century, writers began to turn metrical romances into prose. Then they began to combine the adventures of one knight with another in one romance, till by degrees there grew up vast jumbles of adventure which clumsily tried to give something like comprehensive tales of the adventures of Arthur and all his principal knights. Owing to multiplicity of sources and mistakes of scribes, these composite stories were sometimes contradictory and confusing in the extreme. A late copy of one of them seems to have been Malory’s principal source. Probably he modified this source by information from other manuscripts, and by independent judgment in putting materials together. However that may be, he has by no means brought order out of chaos. Yet, taken as a whole, Malory’s work has some organic structure. It is the best and clearest comprehensive story of “King Arthur and of his Noble Knights of the Round Table” that the Middle Ages have left us.  5

  Like the other principal Round Table stories, the story of the Grail came from ancient folk-tales, if not from the mythology, of the insular Celts. Both British and Gaelic Celts knew tales of life-giving or healing vessels analogous to the Grail; and they frequently associated with such a vessel a spear and sometimes a sword. There is even a tale of Irish fairies who had a caldron from which no man ever went away unsatisfied, a spear, a sword, and a “stone of fate” that is perhaps related to the stone “hoving on the water” from which Galahad draws his fated sword. Explanations of the way in which pagan talismans of old Celtic story changed into objects of Christian significance in mediæval story can probably never be more than conjecture. There is no doubt, though, that after the Grail story was incorporated in the great Arthur cycle about 1175, the tendency was to make it more and more significant of mediæval Christianity, perhaps because the mysterious vessel called Grail suggested the sacred mystery of the sacramental cup. So Percival, a good worldly knight, the first hero of the Grail, was superseded in the early thirteenth century by Galahad, invented by an unknown romancer for the sole purpose, apparently, of being an ideally ascetic hero. Already the Grail had become the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper, and symbolical of the Communion Cup. A long account had been written of its journey from Palestine to Britain, which is not included in the “Morte d’Arthur.” Marvels in the story were explained after the fashion of the scriptural interpretation of dreams. Sir Lancelot, Galahad’s father, was made to “come but of the eighth degree from our Lord Jesu Christ.” And among the many monkish grafts on the old pagan tree was that so-called “wonderful tale of King Solomon and his wife,” and their three spindles, and Solomon’s ship, all of which is not so “wonderful” as senseless.
  If Malory’s version of the Grail legend is characteristic of mediæval romance in introducing the superstition and ignorance of mediæval Christianity, it introduces also its mystical beauty. Galahad in his incomprehension of human temptation may lack human sympathy, but he is a very fair picture of innocent youth when, led by “a good old man, and an ancient, clothed all in white,” he comes to sit in the siege perilous, in red arms himself and a “coat of red sendal,” and “a mantel upon his shoulders that was furred with ermine.” He must be a very hard-headed agnostic or insensitive puritan who is not awed by the “alighting” of “the grace of the Holy Ghost” on the knights when the Grail appears miraculously at Arthur’s court, and impressed by the celebration of the Mass at Carbonek and Sarras.  7
  Also in secular ways, Malory’s Grail chapters are typical of mediæval romance. The institution of “courtly love”—that is, a knight’s unquestioning obedience to his lady, such as we see in Lancelot’s devotion to Guinevere—the obligation to the vows of knighthood, with its ideals of frankness, chastity, courtesy, and service to all who are weak and suffering, and also the forgetting of these vows in the heat of human passion—all this may be found in Malory’s chapters of the Grail, as in the rest of his “Morte d’Arthur.” As Caxton 3 says in the oft-quoted words of his Preface to Malory’s book: “Herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardyhood, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin.” But the general impression of it all is of good rather than evil, “of many joyous and pleasant histories, and noble and renowned acts of humanity, gentleness, and chivalry.”  8
Note 1. See “The Song of the Volsungs” in Harvard Classics, xlix, 249ff. [back]
Note 2. See “The Song of Roland” in H. C., xlix, 95ff. [back]
Note 3. H. C., xxxix, 20ff. [back]


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