Malory, Caxton and a Reading Public
Sir Thomas Malory's English prose version of the Arthurian romances, Le Morte D'Arthur, is widely considered, among all modern Arthurian fiction, the single work of lasting literary value. It was completed, according to authorial testimony, sometime in the year beginning March 4, 1469 (“in the ninth yere of the reygne of Kyng Edward the Fourth”), apparently while the writer was, again according to his own account, a “knyght presoner”. 1
Drawing largely on what he referred to as his “French books”, that is, the voluminous French prose romances of the thirteenth century, Malory not only drastically reduced his sources in sheer length, but also simplified and disentangled the densely interwoven strands of the various stories he found in them (despite what modern readers may still find to be a somewhat lengthy story and comparatively complex narrative structure).
Though Malory's specific identity, the details of his origins and the events of his life, have been the subject of much research and speculation, they have not been ascertained beyond question; as foremost Arthurian scholar Eugène Vinaver comments, “of Sir Thomas Malory's life little is known, and what is known does not contribute much to the understanding of his character”. 2 However, there is often perceived to be a certain amount of incongruity between author—repeatedly imprisoned, variously believed to have been accused of attempted murder, armed robbery, assault and rape—and subject matter: the flowering of chivalry and the “noble and joyous history” of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
In the summer of 1485, approximately fourteen years after the generally accepted date of his death, Malory's romance was published at Westminster by England's first printer, William Caxton, who says in his own preface to the work that he was asked to do so by “many noble and diverse gentlemen of this realm”. 3Le Morte D'Arthur is thus established