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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XIV. English Prose in the Fifteenth Century. II

§ 3. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur

Like The Golden Legend, the Morte d’Arthur, the publication of which holds a chief place in Caxton’s work, looks back to the Middle Ages. Based on translation, a mosaic of adaptations, it is, nevertheless, a single literary creation such as no work of Caxton’s own can claim to be, and it has exercised a far stronger and longer literary influence.

If, as is possible, Malory was the knight of Newbold Revell, he had been a retainer of the last Beauchamp earl of Warwick, he had seen the splendours of the last efforts of feudalism and had served in that famous siege of Rouen which so deeply impressed contemporary imagination. Apparently, he was a loyalist during the Civil Wars and suffered from Yorkist revenge; his burial in the Grey Friars may, possibly, suggest that he even died a prisoner in Newgate. In any case, he must have died before the printing of his immortal book, which comes to us, therefore, edited by Caxton, to whom, possibly, are due most of the lacunae, bits of weak grammar and confusions in names. Nevertheless, the style seals the Morte d’Arthur as Malory’s, not Caxton’s. It is as individual as is the author’s mode of dealing with the material he gathered from his wide field. This material Malory several times says he found in a French book—the French book—but critics have discovered a variety of sources. It is in the course of the story that the multiplicity of sources is at times discernible—in the failure of certain portions to preserve a connecting thread, in the interruption of the story of Tristram, in the curious doubling of names, or the confusion of generations; the style reveals no trace of inharmonious originals. The skilful blending of many ancient tales, verse and prose, French and English, savage and saintly, into a connected, if but loosely connected, whole is wrought in a manner which leaves the Morte, while representative of some of the nobler traits of Malory’s century, in other respects typical neither of that nor any particular epoch, and this is an element in its immortality.

If such an ascetic purity and rapt devotion as glows in the Grail story was practised among the mystics, such a fantastic chivalry portrayed by Froissart, such a loyalty evinced by a Bedford or a Fortescue, yet the Morte assumes the recognition of a loftier standard of justice, purity and unselfishness than its own century knew. These disinterested heroes, who give away all they win with the magnanimity of an Audley at Poictiers, these tireless champions of the helpless, these eternal lovers and their idealised love, are of no era, any more than the forests in which they for ever travel. And, if the constant tournaments and battles, and the castles which seem to be the only places to live in, suggest a medieval world, the total absence of reference to its basic agricultural life and insistent commerce detaches us from it again, while the occasional mention of cities endows them with a splendour and remoteness only to be paralleled in the ancient empire or in the pictures of Turner.

Medieval stories were, naturally, negligent of causes in a world where the unaccountable so constantly happened in real life, and a similar suddenness of adventure may be found in tales much older than this. Malory, however, on the threshold of an age which would require dramatic motive or, at least, probability, saved his book from the fate of the older, unreasoned fiction by investing it with an atmosphere, impossible to analyse, which withdraws his figures to the region of mirage. This indescribable conviction of magic places Malory’s characters outside the sphere of criticism, since, given the atmosphere, they are consistent with themselves and their circumstances. Nothing is challenged, analysed or emphasised; curiosity as to causation is kept in abeyance; retribution is worked out, but, apparently, unconsciously. Like children’s are the sudden quarrels and hatreds and as sudden reconciliations. The motive forces are the elemental passions of love and bravery, jealousy and revenge, never greed, or lust, or cruelty. Courage and the thirst for adventure are taken for granted, like the passion for the chase, and, against a brilliant and moving throng jof the brave and fair, a few conceptions are made to stand forth as exceptional—a Lancelot, a Tristram, or a Mark. Perhaps most skilful of all is the restraint exercised in the portrayal of Arthur. As with Shakespeare’s Caesar and Homer’s Helen, we realise Arthur by his effect upon his paladins; of himself we are not allowed to form a definite image, though we may surmise justice to be his most distinct attribute. Neither a hero of hard knocks nor an effective practical monarch, he is not to be assigned to any known type, but remains the elusive centre of the magical panorama.