Malory and Le Morte Darthur: History of Text and Editorial Theory
Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur holds a unique position within the literary tradition of British literature—it exists as the first printed English version and one of the most detailed and well-known books documenting the life and times of King Arthur and his brave Knights of the Round Table. For centuries, William Caxton’s 1485 edition of Malory’s text endured as the sole surviving version of Malory’s work. But, in 1934, the discovery of the Winchester manuscript showed a contrasting version of Malory’s Arthurian text. This literary treasure instigated at first curiosity and then eventually criticism. Examination of both the Caxton and the Winchester versions raises the editorial theory issues of authorial intentions, final intentions, versions, and scholarly editing. By applying these concepts of editorial theory to Malory’s two distinct versions of his King Arthur tales, readers can begin to assess and to understand the criticism and the interest generated from these dissimilar texts.
Tales of the legendary King Arthur prevailed throughout Europe beginning as early as the fifth century. Richard White explains in his book, King Arthur in Legend and History, that early evidences of Arthur provide “glimpses of what the real figure of Arthur might have been like….” (White xvi). These “glimpses” of Arthur are referenced and alluded to in Latin chronicles, saints’ lives, and early Welsh tales (White xvi). As Vida D. Scudder discusses in her work concerning the sources of Malory’s King Arthur, this initial period of Arthurian writing focuses on the “origins” of the tales; where the legends originated become just as important as the tales themselves.
Many of the early references derive from British and Welsh historians, like Gildas and Nennius, and discuss the British defeat over the “heathen Saxon invaders” (Scudder 3). While Gildas does not mention Arthur by name and only recounts the raids and the victory over the raiders, Nennius “contains one of the first references to Arthur” and mentions that he was “the war-leader against the invading Saxons” (White 4). This early period of writing attempts to show Arthur as a Christian king, whose stardom comes from defeating invaders and protecting his homeland.
Beginning around the twelfth century, writers supply more elements to the legends of Arthur, making the tales even more complex and interesting. Scudder refers to this period as “that of literary creation” (Scudder 3). She explains that there are three distinct writing styles or phases emerging from this imaginative work: the “pseudo-historical chronicles,” written in prose and verse, that yearn to prove historical authenticity; the “romance-poems” that demonstrate artistic liberties with the tales; and “prose romances” that occur later than the poems and are known as the sources for Malory’s work (Scudder 3-4).
The most notable of the “pseudo-historical chronicles” is the Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniæ around 1136. Geoffrey states in Historia that his work is a translation from an early Welsh document, which has either been lost or never really existed in the first place. Geoffrey’s work focuses on the early British kings as historical individuals, including among them King Arthur. Because of this, Geoffrey’s chronicle is recognized as “the first major contribution to the Arthurian legend, providing a complete account of Arthur’s life in Latin prose for an erudite audience” (White xvii).
Since the Latin language hindered many people from reading the text (other than the well-educated and religious figures of the time), Geoffrey’s Historia was translated into different languages to capture even more readers, including those outside of England. In France, Wace translates Geoffrey’s text into French, thereby creating the “pseudo-historical” Brut. Wace, however, does more than just translate; he approaches the work as a writer and with “literary creation” adds to the Arthurian legend the famous Round Table (White xvii). Following Wace’s direction, Layamon (or Lawman) translates the French Brut into the first English version of Geoffrey’s work, and subsequently, the first English version of the King Arthur tales. Layamon also changes Arthur within his Brut by making King Arthur more like a British war-leader (White xviii). As Scudder notes, these “pseudo-historical” accounts of Arthur are “pseudo” because of the inventiveness of the writers and the translators of the period.
Writers of “romance poems” and “prose romances” also implied the act of creating within their texts. The twelfth century French poet, Chrétien de Troyes, for example, transformed Geoffrey’s bellicose Arthur “into the figure familiar to readers of romance” (White xviii). Chrétien’s tales focus on aspects of chivalry, love, and romance, making the tales demonstrably different from the original writers of Arthurian legends. In Chrétien’s work, King Arthur is no longer the main character of the story; instead, Chrétien focuses his five romances “on the exploits of a young Arthurian knight” (White xviii). Within each “romance poem,” a knight encounters obstacles, danger, and love that he must endure to show his chivalric worthiness. Chrétien’s poems inspired many other writers to focus on other characters or themes, besides those stories concerning King Arthur.
The “prose romances” also incorporated the acts and the upholding of chivalry by knights in King Arthur’s court. The infamous, French prose collection known as the ‘The Vulgate Cycle’ (circa 1250) includes many tales discussing these noble knights, as well as integrating the life and death of Arthur into the collection: The Story of Merlin, The Prose Lancelot, The Grail Quest, The Death of Arthur, and The Book of Arthur (White xxi). The Death of Arthur, or MortArtu, is the final part of ‘The Vulgate Cycle’ and probably the most well known. Its notoriety is established first by changing Geoffrey’s narrative of Arthur’s death by including Lancelot into the script and then by becoming “the basis for various English accounts of Arthur’s final wars, notably the stanzaic Morte Arthur” (White xxi). This “creative period” within Arthurian writing exemplifies the impact Arthur had on French writers and the impact French writers ultimately had upon the Arthurian tales.
While the French felt a connection to the legends of King Arthur, the British identified with these tales on a more personal and national level. English writers “tend to display Arthur in a more positive light than do their French counterparts” (White xxiii). Arthur in English works is seen as dedicated, noble, and virtuous-—not the greedy, warmonger of the French Arthurian tales. Moreover, the English writers of the medieval period seem just as interested in Arthur as in the other knights. The English alliterative Morte Arthure (late fourteenth century) presents poetically Geoffrey’s last section of his Arthurian story, focusing on Arthur’s death and also adding Arthur’s dramatic dream of Fortune’s Wheel (White xxiv). The title of this work establishes the idea that for many English writers the Arthurian legend and tales should begin and end with stories of Arthur.
Like the alliterative Morte Arthure, the English stanzaic Morte Arthur (circa 1350) is concerned with the death of Arthur and focuses on his demise on account of Mordred’s treachery. This work is a translation of MortArtu, but is much shorter than its French counterpart (White 419). According to Scudder, “translation and adaptation” is the third period of Arthurian literary history and last through the fifteenth century (Scudder 4). As English writers took advantage of this innate interest in Arthur’s life and death, they adapted and translated the French works into English. Scudder explains that it was “not France, the land which glorified him, but England, the land on which he shed his glory, is Arthur’s natural background” (Scudder 5). English writers embraced the legendary stories of Arthur throughout Europe and molded them into their own language and customs.
Sir Thomas Malory performed this act of adapting and translating by relying on tales from ‘The Vulgate Cycle,’ Chrétien’s tales of Arthurian knights, the alliterative Morte Arthure, and the stanzaic Morte Arthur for his work. Following with the English tradition of Arthurian writing, Malory “prefers to eulogize Arthur, although he makes Lancelot and Tristan the main heroes of substantial sections in his romance” (White 491). What Malory has done in his treatment of the Arthurian tales is to adapt the “romance poems” and “prose romances” into “a form accessible to contemporary readers” (Vinaver Works iix). Malory uses the English medieval spelling of words and creates an Arthurian romance embodying both the French prose writing style and the positive English perception of King Arthur.
Malory’s Arthurian tales is celebrated as the best and the most complete account of the stories concerning King Arthur and his knights. His work is also regarded as the first attempt to create an extensive piece of fictional prose. Moreover, Malory is praised by some critics for dismissing the lengthy, poetic rhetoric found in the alliterative verse and transforming the tales into a more concise, literary prose form that does not include all the rhyming schemes. The outcome of Malory’s adaptation of the prior Arthurian tales combined with his own stylistic characteristics produced a work that was “artificially constructed to demonstrate concepts of sovereignty, courtesy, knight-errantry and salvation” (Whitaker 7). Thus, Malory created a King Arthur worthy of his English readers, while continuing the high standards of English medieval writers.
Skepticism, however, surrounds Malory’s authorship of these tales. The name of Sir Thomas Malory comes from Caxton’s prologue and the author’s own colophon at the end of the work. However, there is no conclusive evidence as to which Malory is being referred to in these sections. Historically, researchers have concluded that there are three Malories that were alive at the time this work was written. One Malory of Newbold Revell is noted as a prisoner during the years the tales were completed. Vinaver seems to believe that this is the Malory that was the “knyght presoner” mentioned in the explicit following The Tale of King Arthur as seen in the Winchester MS (Malory Works 180). He was incarcerated for numerous crimes, including theft, attempted murder, extortion, and rape. It seems almost impossible for a man of such low morals to create tales envisioning a king with high moral and virtuous standards. However, Vinaver points out that during the time of the fifteenth century there was a distinction between acting moral and presenting morality: “…there is no real reason why a man totally unaffected by the accepted code of behavior should not have been as sensitive as Malory was to their poetic and human appeal” (Vinaver Works xxviii-xxix). This Malory may have been imprisoned for immoral crimes, making him possibly even more capable of understanding the humanistic qualities of the King Arthur characters.
Despite the code of the Round Table and the strong urgency for chivalry, many of the knights display immoral behaviors: Lancelot commits adultery with Guinevere, Balyn performs the Dolorous Stroke, Gawain kills a fellow Round Table knight. Arthur himself is so full of rage and jealousy that he banishes Lancelot and dies at the hands of his own son. In some ways, this concept of a “knyght presoner” producing the King Arthur tales makes the authorship of the work seem romantic. If this Malory can present tales of honor and chivalry as well as tales of treachery and deceit, he must understand and have personal knowledge of corruption and redemption. This Malory, therefore, comprehends the true capacity of humanity—the good and the bad.
Yet, it is still difficult to discern accurately which Malory is the author of the English Arthurian text. P. J. C. Field discusses the identity of Malory in his book The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory. Field even admits that “no direct evidence has yet been put forward to link any of the Malories with the Morte Darthur” (Field 4). His book seems to suggest that no amount of research will provide a direct connection between one of the Malories and the work. Since there is no conclusive evidence of Malory’s true disposition or if the actual writer of these tales was really Malory, most scholarship focuses on the text itself and the two distinct versions of Malory’s King Arthur.
Controversy surrounds the texts of King Arthur, making it difficult for scholars and readers alike to determine the reliability and authorial intention of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. By first examining William Caxton’s edition, it is possible to speculate his role in the creation of Malory’s text. Caxton printed this book in 1485 and took the title from the last tale in the collection, “The Death of Arthur.” Along with this editorial decision, Caxton added a prologue, table of rubrics, and a colophon to the work.
Many scholars also believe that Caxton edited Malory’s tales, compiling all the stories into one large “continuous text” (Matthews Morte xviii). As an editor, it seems Caxton took some liberties with Malory’s text. While the work focuses mainly on the life and trials of King Arthur and his many knights, not his death exclusively, it appears erroneous for Caxton to title the work as if it focuses just on Arthur’s death. However, Caxton may have just been following tradition, as some of Malory’s sources are also entitled the death of Arthur.
Likewise, arguments erupt concerning the exclusion of certain tales as well as the abridgment to some of Malory’s stories. John Withrington points out in his article “Caxton, Malory, and The Roman War in The Morte Darthur” that Caxton’s version of Malory’s work more than likely substitutes Malory’s original text. By using examples from William Matthews and R. M. Lumiansky, Withrington tries to disprove their arguments showing that Caxton had utter control over Malory’s work. Acting as a true editor and printer, Caxton would inevitably use the issue of cost and printing procedures as a reason to edit some of Malory’s original text. Furthermore, Withrington indicates that while all writers revise in some form (extracting and inserting texts at will), including Thomas Malory, “the evidence amassed to date appears to point nonetheless to Caxton himself as being responsible” for the condensed tale of the Roman War and other revisions throughout Malory’s work (Withrington 364). Caxton must first be recognized as a publisher, and as such he will ultimately make changes that he, not necessarily Malory, deems fit for the publishing of the text. Caxton’s power as both publisher and editor automatically creates editorial theory concerns and questions, especially with the notion that he combined all the stories into one, long continuous work.
Debates arise as to whose decision it really was to produce Malory’s work as it has been perceived for centuries. Did Caxton play with the original version of Malory’s text as previously discussed? Did Malory mean “to write…a single unified work” (Matthews Morte xviii)? These questions plague both editors of Malory and editorial theorists. But, for centuries, Caxton’s version of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur existed as the sole framework for Arthurian tales, as well as for subsequent editors to utilize in their own Malory editions.
In 1934, however, a different version of Malory’s King Arthur tales was discovered at the Fellows’ Library of Winchester College by W. F. Oakeshott. Following his discovery, Oakeshott wrote an article identifying the major differences between Caxton’s edition and this new manuscript, as well as explaining the significance of this work upon the literary world: “The evidence of this manuscript will clearly be the highest importance to any future editor of Malory…” (Oakeshott). This new version revealed eight connected tales and presented the stories as a series of smaller works. The Winchester manuscript (Winchester MS.) refuted the 1485 Caxton edition by presenting Malory’s Arthur tales as separate and yet associated stories, not as one large, single piece of work. So, a new question emanates from the Winchester MS.: did Malory mean “to write a connected cycle of tales or a single, unified work” (Matthews Morte xviii).
Eugène Vinaver was working on a scholarly edition of Caxton’s version of Le Morte Darthur in 1934. The Winchester MS. was brought to him, so he could use it in a future publication featuring Malory’s work. With the new manuscript in hand, Vinaver began the difficult process of determining which text was more reliable and which one exhibited Malory’s original intention. He concludes in his edition The Works of Sir Thomas Malory that the Winchester MS. probably reflects Malory’s original intention, while existing as a more comprehensive version of his work:
… while the manuscript was not that used by Caxton, it was in many respects more complete and authentic than Caxton’s edition and had the first claim to the attention of any future editor of Malory. (Vinaver Works viii)
With this proclamation, Vinaver entered into the web of controversy. His version of Malory distinctly shows that “although the manuscript is bound in one volume, it is clearly divided into several sections and each section, with the exception of the last which lacks a gathering of eight leaves at the end, is concluded by an explicit” (Vinaver Works xxxvi). According to Vinaver, Malory’s use of explicits at the end of each section indicates the finis of the tale and implies that each tale is truly separate from one another. Caxton obviously omitted these explicits, desiring a text that is more fluid and controllable for his fifteenth century readers. The Winchester MS. automatically questions both the originality and textuality of Caxton’s edition, while Vinaver himself extends his own scrutiny toward Caxton as an editor of the 1485 version of Malory’s work.
The Caxton printing of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur subsists as two copies: one is in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and the other is in the John Rylands Library in Manchester. These two copies, however, show different “state” of the texts according to Vinaver (Vinaver Works c). Printing procedures, being as they were during the fifteenth century, help to explain many of these differences. Likewise, minor variants occur between some of the lines within these two works. But, these variants tend to generate many questions as to whether or not Caxton ever saw the Winchester MS. If he made changes after one printing of Malory’s work, then why did he not make the necessary alterations to follow Malory’s Winchester version? Either Caxton just dismissed the Winchester version completely, or he was producing his version based upon another Malory manuscript and that manuscript existed only in the above fragmented states. Vinaver tries to answer these questions through his research of both Caxton and the Winchester MS.
Vinaver’s research enabled him to put together one of the first full critical edition of Malory’s work. In his introduction, Vinaver expresses his own frustration over dealing with the Winchester MS.; prior to its discovery, he had spent ten years working with the Caxton version with the hopes of creating a new edition of the book. Because of this, Vinaver appeals to readers and medievalists to open their minds to this new version and to see all the possibilities the Winchester MS. offers to the literary community and Malory’s work as a whole:
Instead of a ‘single work’ subordinate to an imaginary principle of all-embracing dramatic ‘unity’, what we have before us is a series of works forming a vast and varied panorama of incident and character. What their ‘assemblage’ may lose in harmony it gains in diversity and richness of tone, expressive of the author’s real design. (Vinaver Works xii)
The Winchester MS. allows the reader to see beyond Malory’s ability as an Arthurian writer by showcasing each tale and each character as important and evolutionary pieces of his entire work. The characters and tales seems to spin and wind their way throughout each section, exploiting Malory’s use of tone and imagery, something that is missing in Caxton’s version. Vinaver’s investigation with both the Winchester MS. and Caxton’s edition initiates many of the editorial theory issues that critics and scholars have argued over for the past seventy years.
Vinaver is quoted as saying that “textual criticism implies a mistrust of text,” meaning textual critics/editorial theorists are skeptical of texts and assume works are incomplete in their printed form (Greetham 2). With this in mind, Vinaver acts like a textual critic throughout his research of the Winchester MS. As an editor, Vinaver understands the theory behind the practice of editing texts. He is interested in determining Malory’s original intention or authorial intention, while maintaining the favorable reader’s response to the text. D. C. Greetham explains in his article “Textual Scholarship” that, “it is the business of textual scholarship to reconstruct authorial intention” (Greetham 109). Vinaver seems to follow Greetham’s definition closely by examining both versions, deducing that Malory intended to have his tales in eight separate, yet connecting sections. Vinaver’s edition, however, combines both the Winchester MS. and Caxton’s version— supplying words, phrases, and images missing in one version—into a more complete and fluid version of Malory’s text. He does preserve Malory’s original intention by keeping the text in eight segments. By doing this, Vinaver eventually produces a full critical edition of Malory’s work: an edition that is created by means of an “eclectic text” (Greetham 114).
As with multiple versions of a particular work, editors of “eclectic texts” or critical texts become even more involved with the process of editing. G. Thomas Tanselle explains that editors dealing with versions must “decide which of the readings to accept at each point of variation” (Tanselle 33). These decisions are based upon the editor’s judgements of the author and the text in question. Vinaver, having little knowledge of Malory’s life as a writer since the only work from Malory is Le Morte Darthur, relied on Caxton’s version, the Winchester MS., and even the French sources to determine what variants to use and when to use them as he created his version of The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Vinaver’s edition of Malory, therefore, emerges as a “social text” (McGann 75).
Vinaver tries to create a version that expresses Malory’s authorial and original intention with his work; however, he also establishes his own intention of generating a work that will include mainly the Winchester MS. as well as certain fragments of Caxton’s version. Thus, Vinaver believes he is in some way blending his intention with that of Malory’s, which formulates a social text. According to Jerome J. McGann, it is almost impossible for any editor to produce a work that does not display some aspects of social text characteristics; Vinaver only proves this theory with his edition.
In A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism, McGann further discusses Vinaver and his edition of Malory’s Arthurian tales in relation to the textual concept of authorial intention and versions. As discussed earlier, Vinaver’s edition proves Malory’s “authorial connection” to the Winchester MS, and consequently, a connection to his (Vinaver’s) own version of the text. Vinaver, however, never explicitly states that his version is superior to Caxton’s, but he indicates in his introduction that he feels otherwise: “The Winchester scribes copy their text mechanically and seldom, if ever, attempt to correct it. Caxton, on the other hand, is an editor rather than a scribe” (Vinaver Works cix). Vinaver humbly directs his readers to view Caxton’s version as less grounded in Malory’s true authorial intention: “the scribal text seems less corrupted than Caxton’s, and therefore will also seem closer to Malory” (McGann 82).
Despite this authorial intention issue, Vinaver does not want Caxton’s text to completely disappear out of the literary canon. For five centuries, Caxton’s version influenced the understanding and the impression of Malory’s tales for both readers and critics, and consequently, this version cannot just vanish from memory or existence. Therefore, Vinaver’s edition enters the literary community as a “new version” of Malory’s text: “Vinaver’s edition enters its field, not by supplanting the Caxton text with one that is more ‘authoritative’ (least of all ‘definitive’), but by supplementing it with a new version” (McGann 83). Like all versions of texts, Vinaver’s edition needs to exist as its own work, not challenge the versions prior to it. This version becomes just as important as Caxton’s version was centuries before the Winchester manuscript was discovered.
For McGann, Vinaver’s edition holds a special place in the study of editorial theory: “it appeals to our longing to read texts which come as clearly and directly from the author’s hand as possible” (McGann 84). Editorial theorists desire to know that the author’s intention was upheld throughout a text. Vinaver’s edition seems to bring Malory’s intention to the literary forum, while Caxton’s seems to disregard Malory completely. But, it is difficult to presume what went on between Caxton the editor and Malory the writer five centuries ago. What we can presume is almost of little importance. What we know, however, matters more. We know that the Winchester MS. is essentially a different and possibly a more accurate version of Malory’s work than Caxton’s edition. We know that Malory’s text in the Winchester MS. holds a closer relationship with the author through the explicits.
Therefore, Vinaver’s edition becomes essential in understanding Malory as a writer of Arthurian romances. Caxton’s Le Morte D ‘Arthur also is an integral part of this understanding of Malory. The Caxton version has its place in the literary standard not just because of its historical permanence in British literature, but because of its significance as an alternative version to Malory’s King Arthur tales. As versions, these texts show distinct differences that make each work its own entity, while constantly transforming scholarly studies in Malory, King Arthur, and editorial theory.
Greetham, D. C. “Textual Scholarship.” Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Language and Literatures. Ed. Joseph Gibaldi. New York: Modern Language Association, 1992. 103-137.
Field, P. J. C. The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory. Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 1993.
Malory, Sir Thomas. King Arthur and His Knights. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.
________________. Le Morte D’Arthur. Ed. John Matthews. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2004.
________________. Malory Works. 2nd ed. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
McGann, Jerome J. A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.
Oakeshott, Walter F. “A Malory MS.: The Discovery at Winchester: Variants from the text of Caxton.” Times Literary Supplement 25 Aug. 1934. <http://virtual.park.uga.edu/~jdmevans/public/august.html>.
Scudder, Vida D. Le Morte Darthur of Sir Thomas Malory: A Study of the Book and Its Sources. New York: Haskell House, 1965.
Tanselle, G. Thomas. “The Editorial Problem of Final Authorial Intention.” Textual Criticism and Scholarly Editing. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992. 27-71.
White, Richard, ed. King Arthur in Legend and History. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Whitaker, Muriel A. Arthur’s Kingdom of Adventure: The World of Malory’s Morte Darthur. Cambridge: Barnes & Noble, 1984.
Withrington, John. “Caxton, Malory, and The Roman War in The Morte Darthur.” Studies in Philology 89.3 (1992): 350-66.