The Winter Knights Just Flew by; Chris Upton Discovers That the Arthurian Legend May Have Been Put Together by a Warwickshire Chap

The Birmingham Post (England), August 7, 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Winter Knights Just Flew by; Chris Upton Discovers That the Arthurian Legend May Have Been Put Together by a Warwickshire Chap


Byline: Chris Upton

Yet another Arthurian epic is currently filling seats and disappointing critics in our multiplexes. There cannot be many of our ancient heroes who have been given so many cinema outings as King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Lancelot and co. Nor can there be many epic stories founded upon such flimsy evidence.

The tale of an obscure RomanoBritish leader who waged war against the invading Saxons is attested in a couple of late (and highly fanciful) chronicles, but this was enough to set rolling a ball that has never stopped since. The tourist boards of Cornwall and Somerset have a lot to thank Messrs Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth for.

Yet King Arthur would never have become the screen-filler he has become without a considerable injection of imagination during the Middle Ages. First the French poets found enough love, adultery and betrayal in the tale to suit their taste. Then - particularly during the reign of Edward III - there was sufficient chivalry, piety and heroism for the English writers to get their teeth into. Turn the clock forward another 400 years and it was Burne-Jones, Morris and Tennyson who were adding new layers to the story.

But one man more than any other turned the bits and pieces of the Arthurian legend into a coherent and commanding narrative, and he hailed from Warwickshire. Or to put it more truthfully, he might have done.

The work in question is called Le Morte D'Arthur, a mighty prose epic - in my edition it runs to more than 700 pages - composed in the late 1460s. This is the book that first gives King Arthur a real life history, from the Sword in the Stone to the Holy Grail. Given the date - at the height of the bloody Wars of the Roses - the book was as much a lament for a lost age of chivalry as a yarn of old when knights were bold. But who wrote it ?

Actually, there is no argument about the name of the author, since (in the absence of a title-page) he tells it us himself on more than one occasion: 'For this book was ended in the ninth yere of the reygne of King Edward the Fourth, by Syr Thomas Maleore, knyght, as Jesu helpe hym for His grete myght...'

So Sir Thomas Malory it is then. Unfortunately, England seems to have been awash with Thomas Malorys in the 1460s. There was a Welsh one, another from Northamptonshire, a third from Yorkshire and a fourth from the West Midlands. It is such uncertainty that keeps English literary scholars on their toes, or at least it did until they declared that the author was dead and became postmodernists instead.

It was an American scholar, George Lyman Kittredge, who first plumped for the Warwickshire Malory back in 1894, and the majority of scholars have followed his lead. As a result of all their labours in the archives we know more about Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel than of any other Warwickshire man in the Middle Ages, with the sole exception of Malory's liege-lord, the Earl of Warwick himself.

And here comes the most surprising thing. We might expect the man from Newbold Revel to have lived a most tranquil and bookish life, studying and translating the French romances of Arthur, and reflecting back on the days when knights were gentle and courteous.

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