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Malory, Sir Thomas (140?–1471) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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Thomas Malory was the author, translator, editor, compiler, and genius behind Le Morte Darthur . His work, which has had a considerable impact on the cultural   history of English-speaking countries since 1485, represents the best of the synthetic, creative tradition of late medieval England. The facts of his life in many ways remain a mystery. The text of his work solicits prayers on the author’s behalf from his readers, and the Malory manuscript tells us that he was a “knyght presonere.” All else remains speculation.

While several Thomas Malorys have been identified, the scholarly world has generally settled on the so-called Kittredge-Hicks Malory, Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel. Nagging doubts have persisted, however, because of aspects of his character. This Sir Thomas Malory was born sometime between 1400 and 1410, the son of Sir John Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire. In 1434 Sir John died, and Thomas Malory inherited the family estates. In 1436 he fought at the siege of Calais in the retinue of Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick. Clearly, Malory’s family was of some consequence in Warwickshire. However, criminal records on the man himself intermingle with his military career. In 1443, he was apparently indicted for theft in the substantial amount of forty pounds. The charge was not proved, for Malory and his apparent accomplice, Eustace Burnaby, did not appear in court to deal with the charges. Sometime around this period he married a woman named Elizabeth, who bore him two sons, Robert, who died in his youth, and Nicholas, who survived.

Malory was undoubtedly popular in Warwickshire, for, in 1445, he was chosen as one of the two knights of the shire and served in Parliament at Westminster for the year. Despite his popularity, he was back in trouble virtually immediately. During the period 1450–51, he was putatively involved in attempted murder, robbery, cattle raids, rape, and extortion. He was imprisoned at Coleshill and escaped. After his escape he was alleged to have robbed a Cistercian monastery. He was arrested in 1452 and imprisoned. In 1454, he was released on bail and went on a cattle raid. He also stole personal property and was imprisoned in Colechester. Through a series of legal manipulations, he was released from Marshalsea through a royal pardon and sent to Ludgate, which was ordinarily a debtor’s prison. On 13 October 1457, he was released on bail until 28 December, with heavy penalties pending if he did not return. On 28 December he was recommitted to Marshalsea. He was imprisoned again in 1460 at Newgate. His career during this period can only be described as marked by rapine and violence. For the next ten years, the Newbold Revel Malory drops out of sight generally. It appears that he was excluded from two general pardons granted by Edward IV in 1468. It is speculated that he was in prison when he finished Le Morte Darthur between 1469 and 1470. He apparently died on 14 March 1471, likely due to plague and while still in prison. In The Indian Summer of English Chivalry , Arthur B. Ferguson notes that the late medieval interest in romance in England was sparked by a craving for traditional, old-fashioned values. The career of the Newbold Revel Malory hardly presents a portrait of a very true and perfect knight. It is not surprising, then, that the search has continued for other candidates.

In 1966, William Matthews reviewed the evidence for all previous candidates for the authorship and suggested a new one. Basing his arguments on the text of Le Morte Darthur , Matthews suggests that the real author is “another man of the same name.” Matthews suggests that the predominance of northern linguistic elements in the text and the availability of sources and other material point to Sir Thomas Malory of Hutton and Studley. While very little information is available on this candidate, Matthews builds a case that seems logical on its surface. It will have to stand the test of time and further investigation by historians and literary scholars of the sort the Newbold Revel Malory has previously attracted. Until Matthews’ arguments are elaborated by further investigation or until additional candidates come forth, the Newbold Revel Malory, with all his warts, remains the most likely candidate for authorship.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

As previously noted, throughout the last 500 years, Malory has had his detractors, but they have always been eventually shouted down by his proponents. Besides those who challenge the work on moral grounds, others have raised questions about its unity because Malory worked from a complicated and diverse set of English and French sources. Eugéne Vinaver, Robert H. Wilson, and C. S. Lewis, among others, all dealt with the question of unity. Lewis’ perspective is perhaps the most useful. He indicates that in one sense it does not matter whether Malory had “any intention either of writing a ‘single work’ or of writing may ‘works.’” He goes on to suggest that the unifying feature is Arthur and his knights and their character consistency. D. S. Brewer has suggested that Le Morte Darthur is sui generis and that it has qualities of older cyclical romances.

In similar fashion, the nature of the romance tradition in Le Morte Darthur has come under scrutiny. Larry D. Benson has argued for the “realism” of the   romance. Typically, readers have seen the work as the epitome of romance and romance traditions. Discussions about Malory’s sources continue. A major event in source studies occurred in the earlier part of the twentieth century, when H. Oskar Sommer published the Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances and made readily available some of the sources that Malory had used. Sommer, Wilson, Vinaver, Benson, and numerous other later critics have helped us to understand Malory’s creative process as he constructed Le Morte Darthur . Other questions relating to social ethics abound. What is the tension between courtly love and chivalry? Is chivalry itself a benevolent or outmoded aspect of society? Questions involving characterization in the work have also recently been raised. Did the characters actually evolve, or are they static? As early as 1934, Robert H. Wilson attempted to resolve questions about characterization in the work, but more remains to be done.

A particularly noteworthy aspect of Malory’s appeal is his prose style. Working from diverse sources, he integrated plot and character through a distinctive rhetorical voice. Field has noted Malory’s tendency to use “narrative without description” (see Romance and Chronicle , 36–38) as one of his most important techniques in adapting his sources. He also softened the epic violence of some sources, as well as deleting prolix descriptions from others, in forging a unified compendium of Arthurian romance.

All of these matters relate to the single most important question now current among Arthurian scholars with regard to Le Morte Darthur . Is it properly titled Le Morte Darthur or more properly titled Works? Matthews argues that the Caxton version is the “best text,” and his arguments are persuasive. Despite the efforts of new critics and others to eliminate authorial intention from consideration, Malory’s design for Le Morte Darthur remains at the forefront of critical debate.

Malpighi, Marcello [next] [back] Mallory: Circumstantial Evidence

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