Whether it is considered as a single unified work or as a collection of several loosely connected romances, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur1 has exerted a unique shaping influence on other literary works and on the popular consciousness. That influence is with us today in the classroom, in films, in best-selling novels, in re-creations of medieval jousts, even perhaps in the modern quest for the historical Arthur.
It is not the purpose of the present volume, however, to provide evidence of the far-reaching and pervasive influence of the Morte Darthur by tracing every allusion to it over five centuries, nor to assess the degree and nature of its influence on the numerous poets, novelists, and playwrights who have turned for inspiration to its pages. While influence and popularity are aspects of the literary reputation here considered, particularly in its early stages, the bulk of the record presented here is drawn from nineteenth-century critical assessments of the Morte Darthur itself. It is to the nineteenth century that we owe the Arthurian revival, with its demonstrable effects on Malory scholarship, as well as the very editions of the Morte Darthur through which many a twentieth-century critic was first introduced to Malory. In addition, the nineteenth-century material anticipates the concerns of twentieth-century critics in its discussion of style, structure and unity, characterization, theme, and sources.
For the earlier period, selection of material was not difficult, and indeed so sparse is the ‘critical’ record that comments indicating mere familiarity with the Morte Darthur have been included. From the end of the eighteenth century on, discussions of Malory grow more frequent, showing markedly higher evaluations as the nineteenth century advanced. Selections from this material, more abundant and more positive especially after about 1860, have been chosen to reflect these general trends, though not ignoring negative evaluations as late as the 1890s. To sum up previous attitudes and to