Sunday, January 3, 2016

A Fine and Terrible Mystery - Episode 30: a Maze of Twisty Little Passages, All Different

This is episode 30 of my exploration of the life, times and works of Sir Thomas Malory.  Episode 1 can be found here.

In my post of February 18th of last year I compared studying Sir Thomas Malory’s life to a section of an ancient textual computer game, “Adventure,” in which the player was lost in a “maze of twisty little passages, all alike.”  Also in that game, adjacent to first maze, was a second one, a “maze of twisty little passages, all different.”

It’s an apt metaphor now.

In my last post I discussed the  lack of formal biographical information about Malory between 1461 and his death in 1470.  Nevertheless, during that time he was one of a very small number explicitly excluded twice from Edward IV’s general pardons, the language of which suggests it was for some grave, possibly treasonous offense.  Yet there is no formal record of Malory’s arrest, indictment, trial or imprisonment.  Then there is the matter of the inscription on his tombstone in which he is called a “valiant knight.”  And that is pretty much all we know for sure.  I decided to take Field’s sensible advice and look to “Le Morte d’Arthur” itself for further information. That’s when I fell into the maze:  the subject of how (and why) Malory emended his sources is not as simple as I presumed.  (At this point, I imagine an academic reader of this adventure who is more familiar than I with the literary scholarship of Le Morte d’Arthur enjoying an appropriate, well-deserved roaring laugh at my expense.)

Dorsey Armstrong’s 2003 book Gender and the Chivalric Community in Malory's Morte d'Arthur (University Press of Florida, 2003) has proven remarkably helpful in elucidating the scope of the issue.  Indeed, the examination of the narrative of Arthur’s conflict with the Roman Emperor Lucius in Dorsey’s introduction provides a fine, concise example of the diversity and occasional subtlety of the issues involved.  Then there is Ralph Norris’ Malory’s Library (Arthurian Studies LXXI, 2008) which, based on subsequent citations, appears to be a seminal resource on the subject of Malory’s sources and how he used them.

I began by making a list of Malory’s additions and revisions but given the number and complexity immediately realized that some structure or might be necessary to manage the information.  A simple hierarchical taxonomy wouldn’t work as many of his changes satisfied multiple potential categories, i.e. detail changes, structural changes, appearance in the “Explicits” (added to summarize sections).    I’m still reading Norris and mulling over the proper way to approach the problem of determining what, if anything, can be learned of the last decade of Malory’s life.  Here are a few of the “twisty little passages, all different” to which that question leads:
- When did Malory write Le Morte d’Arthur?  Was it during a single period of imprisonment during the 1460’s or was it a lifelong project?

- In what order were the eight major sections of the book composed?

- Did Malory view his work as history or fiction or something else entirely and how did that stance affect his composition and selection?

- How personal was the book?  Was it a recreation undertaken and selected to relieve the dreariness of years in prison or was it a passion that had been with him all his life, and, if so, what was the source?

Here is one more, which takes me back to why I was first interested in the apparent discordance of Malory’s life and the subject and themes of his book.  In Caxton’s prefix to the original printed version, he states,  “after that I had accomplished, and finished divers histories, as well of contemplation as of other historial and worldly acts of great conquerors and princes, and also certain books of examples and doctrine, many noble and divers gentlemen of this realm of England camen and demanded me, many and ofttimes, wherefore that I have not do made and imprint the noble history of the Sangrail, and of the most renowned Christian king, first and chief of the three best Christian and worthy, King Arthur, which ought most to be remembered among us English men tofore all other Christian kings.” (modernized spelling from the Penguin edition edited by Janet Cowen.)

Malory had a vast set of sources, some in English, some nearly contemporary and yet, of all, his work alone became the paradigm for the story of Arthur, the code of Chivalry and his knights.  For  proof, consider how the work, often indirectly, still influences narrative art.  Why did his telling become the single nexus for much that has come subsequently?

To give you a sense of the challenge, appeal and difficulty of using Malory’s emendations to infer biographical information, I want to finish by looking at just one, the Pentecostal oath.  Here it is from Vinaver’s edition with the original spelling:

…than the kynge stablyssed all the knyghtes and gaff them rychesse and londys; and charged them never to do outerage nothir mourthir, and allwayes to fle treson, and to gyff mercy unto hym that askith mercy, uppon payne of fortifiture [of their] worship and lordship of kynge Arthure for evirmore; and allwayes to do ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen and wydowes [socour:] strengthe hem in hir ryghtes, and never to enforce them, uppon payne of dethe. Also, that no man take no batayles in a wrongefull quarell for no love ne for no worldis goodis. So unto thys were all knyghtis sworne of the Table Rounde, both olde and younge, and every yere so were the[y] sworne at the hyghe feste of Pentecoste.

The oath is absolutely Malory’s original addition.  (Norris and others speculate that Malory may have been inspired by the oath taken by the Knights of the Bath, an order with roots as early as the reign of Henry IV, however, its codification began during the reign of James I; could it be the other way around?)  One can’t read the section of the oath concerning the treatment of women and wonder if Malory might have been responding in some way to the accusations against him during his first lengthy period of imprisonment?  It could be an implicit assertion of innocence or misdirection.  My view from what I’ve learned of his life so far is that it is the former, not the latter, but one can’t be sure. 

As I’ve been reading and listing emendations, I came across a curious piece of information which could be connected to the question of Malory’s inspiration.  One of multiple candidates proposed as the historical source for Arthur himself is a King Anwn of South Wales, a son of the Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus and some have suggested he is in fact buried in the Old Bury cemetery near Atherstone, a mere 16 miles away from Newbold-Revel.  I wouldn’t presume to comment on the veracity of the supposition.  Nevertheless, whether or not it’s true, one can imagine the story being known to one of Malory’s uncles, (John?), who may have imparted it to a young, impressionable nephew on a summer walk.  So there’s another twisty little passage to consider:  to what extent did the rich and curious folklore of Warwickshire influence Malory?

(Final photograph of the Cloisters Museum, November 2015, courtesy of Mark Watkins and The Hawaii Project.)

You can find Episode 31 here.

No comments: