Friday, February 26, 2016

A Fine and Terrible Mystery - Episode 31: As the Frenche Boke Sayeth or Not


This is episode 31 of my exploration of the life, times and works of Sir Thomas Malory.  Episode 1 can be found here.

There are but a handful of historical references to Malory in the last decade of his life and, as I’ve discussed previously, they only pose more, sometimes dramatic questions about his character and the events that led to them.  What do Malory’s sources, how he used them and Le Morte d’Arthur itself tell us about him and particularly the last decade of his life?

When I decided to turn to Malory’s works for answers I assumed, naively, that he had more or less concatenated and translated a series of French and English sources, erratically and occasionally adding small emendations, such as details in the siege of Guinevere in the Tower and that there might be some clues in those few emendations.  The view was encouraged by Malory himself and his occasional allusions to the “Frenche boke.”  Ralph Norris’ Malory’s Library quickly convinced me otherwise.  Malory, he writes, “expressed his originality most often in his selection and organization of older stories and elements rather than by invention.”  So the emendations could well be just a small part of the story and there could be much more to be learned from Malory’s selection of detail and story and construction.  Subsequently I’ve come to appreciate that Malory undertook a large and complex project requiring substantial management and reconciliation of detail as well as significant structural revision.  Indeed, the more I learn, the less I can rationalize it as the casual pastime of an incarcerated aristocrat:  that just doesn’t do justice to the passion, imagination and difficult detail work such a project would have entailed.

What were Malory’s sources?  The three major ones were the three great Old French prose Arthurian cycles:
  1. The Vulgate or Lancelot-Graal Cycle of the 13th century derives from the  romances of Chrétien de Troyes, the French prose Grail Romance Perlesvaus, Robert de Boron’s poem Merlin and elements of the Old Testament.  It consists of five sections: “The Estoire del Saint Grail” (predominantly concerned with the history of the Holy Grail and how Joseph of Arimathea brought it to England), “the Estoire de Merlin” (including the Hugh manuscript of “the Suite du Merlin”) concerned with Merlin’s history and Arthur’s early life, “the Lancelot Proper,” concerned with the adventures of Lancelot and other Round Table knights, “the Queste del Saint Graal” concerned with the quest for the Grail and Galahad’s completion of the quest, and “the Mort Artu” concerned with Arthur’s death at the hands of Mordred.
  2. The cyclic version of the Prose Tristan, written after the Vulgate is the seminal version of the story of Tristan and Iseult but also introduces prominent Arthurian characters such as Lamorak, Dinadan and Palamedes.  It also reprises the Grail story.
  3. The Post-Vulgate Cycle or Romance of the Grail derived from the Vulgate consists of four sections, three of which closely parallel the counterparts in the Vulgate and a fourth “the Quest del San Graal,” which has a very different tone from the story in the Vulgate.  In general the importance of Lancelot and Guenevere is deprecated and an almost Puritanical ethos is strongly affirmed.

Then there are the many minor sources, so far scholars have identified 24, here are some of the more important and notable ones:

  1. Alliterative Morte Arthure.
  2. John Hardyng’s rhyming Chronicle of England.
  3. Chrétien de Troyes Le Chevalier au Lion.
  4. The Perlesvaus, one of the sources for the Vulgate mentioned above.
  5. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
  6. The poems of John Lydgate.
So, in some cases, Malory was reconciling and making use of both a source and its sources.

A particularly telling aspect of his work is the number of minor, previously anonymous characters whom Malory takes the trouble to name and whose reconciled roles stretch across the narratives of multiple sources.  Some derived from the sources whilst others were entirely original.  Malory occasionally makes errors with his vast cast but not often, which argues remarkable time spent cataloging and managing them.

For this reason I find it harder and harder to concur with the supposition by some of the most prominent Malory scholars that Le Morte d’Arthur was a work composed in the final few years of his life.  It is simply too big and the changes he made were too large and detailed.   I find I’m in good company with this opinion as it’s shared by Christina Hardyment, Malory’s most recent biographer who quotes T. H. White on Le Morte d’Arthur’s structure and literary immediacy:

He “…was thrilled and astonished to find that (a) the thing was a perfect tragedy; with a beginning, a middle and an end implicit in the beginning and (b) the characters were real people with recognizable reactions which could be forecast.  Mordred was hateful; Kay a decent chap with an inferiority complex; Gawaine that rarest of literary productions, a swine with a streak of solid decency. He was a sterling fellow to his own clan. Arthur, Lancelot, and even Galahad were really glorious people, not pre-Raphaelite prigs.”

(I find it difficult to think of the pre-Raphaelites or their representation of Arthurian characters as prigs, but that’s a minor point.)

So, for the sequel I’ll be presuming that during the that final, presumably tempestuous decade, Malory was at work on Le Morte d’Arthur.  In the next few posts I’ll be following and commenting on Norris’s analysis of Malory sources for each of Malory’s eight tales, possibly with some additional biographical deductions.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

What You Should Consider Reading Next


As I continue to research the complex issue of Sir Thomas Malory’s sources I’ve also been spelling myself with some contemporary fiction, in particular the new novel Youngblood by Matt Gallagher.  For once the manifold good reviews are accurate.  It’s an extraordinary book, even better than most of the critics are crediting.

The setting is Iraq, primarily Ashuriyah, just before the end of the American occupation.  The narrator is an army lieutenant and a platoon leader.  It is war fiction, and like the greatest works of that kind, from War and Peace to A Farewell to Arms to The Things They Carried, it is suis-generis in spite of the conventional linear structure of the narrative.  Initially, story is propelled  by a mystery, indeed that’s what it first appears to be, in spite of its surprising setting, and though Gallaher’s canvas is edged with multiple modernist and post-modernist conventions, they are properly seen  as much a part of the temporal setting as the desert and burning sun are part of the physical setting.  Gallagher has deeper, more interesting concerns:  the struggle to lead others in a context fraught with ambiguity and moral conflict, the interaction of disparate cultures and the nature of character itself.  They are some of the best and most important subjects for fiction and of course are timeless.

And he has a gift for creating memorable, engaging characters.  There are many and yet all are well differentiated and believable.  His narrator, in particular, is self-effacing, contemporary and interestingly self-conscious and perspicacious.  In that regard, he is reminiscent of Patrick Kenzie in Denis Lehane’s Kenzie/Gennaro mysteries.  Gallaher also has a fine sense of scene.  I never find myself asking why a scene exists or if it has gone on too long.  Writers with such skill are sometimes called a writer’s writer and the epithet is well deserved in this case.  Here’s a favorite paragraph which shows just how good Gallagher’s writing is:

                I wanted to agree with him.  I wanted us to absolve ourselves of blame, deflect the accountability elsewhere.  I wanted to chalk up the ruin we’d wrought to something unknowable, like providence, or chance, or bureaucracy.  But something inside implored me not to.  That’s too easy, it said.  Be stubborn.  Fight for understanding.

Boy, I wish I’d written that last sentence.  Anyone who has ever led others with good will has felt that way.

Of course, because of my immediate concerns I can’t help but find myself juxtaposing and contrasting it to Le Morte d’Arthur but also Lermentov.  Gallagher’s Jack Porter’s situation has much in common with Pechorin’s, and they face similar dramatic issues and tensions in spite of their significant differences in character, particularly their moral values.  Indeed, the two make for a fine comparison of the way alienation expresses itself in occupying forces living within an alien Islamic culture.  There’s a very interesting and enjoyable critical essay there.

However, Malory, and other concerns call.  Suffice it to say, it may well be one of the very best novels to come out of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and, given the recent competition, that is saying a lot. The final words of Patton’s  war horse of a poem come to mind,

      So as through a glass, and darkly
      The age long strife I see
      Where I fought in many guises,
      Many names, but always me.

      And I see not in my blindness
      What the objects were I wrought,
      But as God rules o'er our bickerings
      It was through His will I fought.

      So forever in the future,
      Shall I battle as of yore,
      Dying to be born a fighter,
      But to die again, once more.

I should mention that I came to Youngblood via “The Hawaii Project” ( which not only recommended the book to me one morning but pointed me to a diverse set of reviews that convinced me I needed to read it.  It really is an exceptional way to find exceptional books.  I also feel a deep sense of appreciation for Mr. Gallagher for writing such an extraordinarily good book.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Preeminence of Narrative


In the January 25th issue of “The New Yorker,” Jane Mayer writes about the rebranding of David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who have worked so hard and spent so much time and treasure to champion and shape American conservatism.  The two hired Steve Lombardo, formerly a senior executive of the global P.R. company Burson-Marsteller as their chief of communications and marketing to orchestrate their rebranding.  According to Mayer,

“Lombardo believed that the key to creating a positive brand was to reach the public’s “subconscious mind,” as he wrote in O’Dwyer’s, the public-relations trade journal. The most effective “pathway” to the subconscious, he argued, was “storytelling,” in part because it tapped into emotions. He expanded on this in a Koch Industries newsletter. “Building a brand is telling a story…”

I wouldn’t be surprised if many marketing professionals find it a rather banal observation about a concept they’ve actually used for decades.  However, it does allude to an important, consistent current in media, politics and academia, something I would call the preeminence of narrative, for lack of a better term.  Quite simply, nearly all discourse is leveled, understood and evaluated as “narrative” with a spectrum of effects, from the subliminal, to the emotional and the intellectual.  Often, as a consequence, validity and accuracy are complex, secondary issues, dependent upon perspective, semantics, cultural frame and audience. Truth is relative.

We’ve lived in an intellectual landscape shaped by Barthes, Foucault and Derrida long enough to see what a multiple edged sword such an intellectual stance that is.  It may seem that there is no rational, reasoned alternative, unless we resort to Kierkegaard’s reasoning.

But there is, at least, another way to look at the issue, and basic, formal Euclidean Geometry suggests a point of view.  Euclid begins with a very small number of intentionally undefined common-sense concepts: a point, a line and a plane and 5 postulates about them, for example, a straight line segment can be drawn between any two points.  From just those very basic concepts all of Euclidean geometry is derived by proving theorems, special kinds of stories, if you like, which are rigorously logical.  Inevitably, at some stage, anyone encountering Euclidean Geometry for the first time steps back and is amazed at how much, some of which is subtle and beautiful, can come from so little.

A narrative is not as simple and unambiguous as a point, a line or a plane, and that’s the point I’m coming to.  Narratives are dangerously complex, mutable even mercurial.  That’s a large part of why we love stories.  But choosing that idea as an elemental concept for discourse is fraught with dangerous consequences, not least of which is the challenge of evaluating very basic, necessary concerns, such as truthfulness and accuracy.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"War and Peace" and Mobile Phones


Heavy snow is blowing and swirling past my window this morning and I’m musing about why I consider “War and Peace” to be such a great novel.  It’s prompted, not just by the weather but also the BBC’s new television mini-series.

I’ve never read any formal literary criticism of the novel; I’ve never wanted to because the book speaks so directly to me. Here’s a famous passage, the conclusion of Prince Andrei’s experience of the Battle of Austerlitz.  Andrei has picked up a fallen Russian standard, rallied the retreating soldiers around him and is running, leading an improvised charge against the French line on foot:

            ‘What are they doing?’ thought Prince Andrei as he gazed at them. ‘Why doesn’t the red-haired gunner run away since he is unarmed? Why doesn’t the Frenchman stab him? He won’t get away before the Frenchman remembers his bayonet and stabs him…’
            And in fact another French soldier, trailing his musket, ran up to the struggling men and the fate of the red-haired gunner who had triumphantly secured the mop and still did not realize what awaited him, was about to be decided.  But Prince Andrei did not see how it ended.  It seemed to him as though one of the soldiers near him hit him on the head with the full swing of a bludgeon. It hurt a little, but the worst of it was that the pain distracted him and prevented his seeing what he had been looking at.
            ‘What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,’ thought he, and fell on his back.  He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not, and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky—the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with grey clouds gliding slowly across it. ‘How quiet, peaceful, and solemn, not at all as I ran,’ thought Prince Andrei ‘—not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!...’

In this single passage, you see the elemental, precision of the Iliad with the genius to make it subjective and so personal.  Then, without warning, the focus, the drama of the soldiers attempting to take the gun emplacement is ironically disrupted by the wound that crumples Andrei onto his back.  We and Andrei see the sky, remote, objective, implicitly beautiful with a single, perfect adjective, “lofty,” and yet we’ve moved more deeply into Andrei’s subjective experience with absolutely credible thoughts that are the heart of so much philosophy with echoes back to Ecclesiastes.  Yet it is still told with the same concrete, direct language.  It is as surprising and breath-stealing as the best turn in a Sherlock Holmes story and absolutely believable.  There are so many surprises: plain observation leading to subjective speculation spiraling into objectivity which is actually a deeper subjectivity of philosophical speculation. 

When I think of novelists, short story writers, poets and even historians who have written with terrible, fierce insight about war, Bierce, Remarque, Owen, T. E. Lawrence, Hemingway, Powers, Klay, and so many others, I see Tolstoy in them.

But this is only one passage:  Tolstoy writes with equal insight about family life, society, the equally fierce and complex struggles that women face.  These days, we applaud novelists for their world building, and rightly, too.  But sometimes we fail to recognize the same accomplishments in older works.  Tolstoy was writing fifty years after the events he chronicles.  Russian and French society had changed and were still changing, dramatically.  Yet, he succeeds in making his world detailed and complex as Tolkien’s and as visceral as Hemingway’s.

The new BBC series appears to have little time for philosophy and rumination.  It’s main characters simply don’t appear to think as much as their counterparts in the novel. Even though the production design feels absolutely authentic, I half expect all the young people at a ball to be surreptitiously texting on their mobile phones.

(The illustration is “The Battle of Borodino” by Leonid Pasternak, the original illustrator.)