English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages

By E. K. Chambers | Go to book overview

IV MALORY

IT was, perhaps, his nostalgia for a decayed chivalry which led William Caxton to make his greatest gift to English letters, the so-called Morte Darthur of Sir Thomas Malory. The printing of this was completed, about a year after the Order of Chyualry itself, on 31 July 1485. Only a single perfect copy of it survives, which is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library. Later editions were printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498 and 1529 and William Copland in 1557. Caxton's print has no initial title. A colophon describes it as 'thys noble and Joyous book entytled le morte Darthur', and adds that it was 'reduced in to englysshe by syr Thomas Malory knyght' and divided into books and chapters by Caxton himself. In a prologue Caxton records the request of 'many noble and dyvers gentylmen of thys royame of Englond', which induced him 'to enprynte a book of the noble hystoryes of the sayd kynge Arthur and of certeyn of his knyghtes after a copye vnto me delyuered, whyche copye Syr Thomas Malorye dyd take out of certeyn bookes of frensshe and reduced it in to Englysshe'. And in the prologue to Charles the Grete, which followed shortly after, he again refers to it as 'the book of the noble and vyctoryous Kyng Arthur'. The term 'reduced', in contemporary English, may signify either 'abbreviated' or 'translated', but it is clear, from other prologues by Caxton, that it was in the latter sense that he employed it.

We do not know whether the 'copye' of Malory's romance which Caxton obtained was in the hand of the author or in that of a scribe. He is not likely to have been meticulous in his adherence to it. His division into books and chapters often breaks the thread of a continuous episode of narrative. And certainly Malory himself would not have been guilty of the lapse of French grammar involved in the le Morte Darthur of the colophon. It is fortunate, with all respect to Caxton, that we are no longer wholly dependent upon him for a text. In 1934 a manuscript of the romance was unexpectedly discovered in the library of Winchester College. Preliminary studies of it have been published by Mr. W. F. Oakeshott and Professor Eugène Vinaver, and an edition by Professor Vinaver is in

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