Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, Volume 2 - retrospective

2023-02-19 @Literature

Voilà the part two of the epic finished over a month back and impressions long formulated. See my previous write-up, entirely optional.

To recapitulate the background for the making of this late-Middle-Age epic: Thomas Malory (1400-70) assembles a number of disparate French and British Arthurian (and Holy Grail related) writings, loosely translating some, adapting others, taking own liberties elsewhere, producing this grand-scale epic that henceforth became the de-facto source for much of the subsequent Arthurian panorama: novels, poetry, cinema, comics, fine art.

Whatever and however manipulated the source material, the leveraging of which Malory makes abundantly clear with such pervasive remarks as “As the French booke sayeth … ”, the culminated effort feels independent in style and dramatic flair.

Granted, it’s a peculiarly dry flair. More on that below. The more contemporary Arthurian poets (ie Tennyson, Morris, Swinburne, Arnold, Masefield) or the prosaic interpreters probably do a superior job at inspiring empathy and adding dimensionality to these legendary figures.

I refer to King Arthur, Launcelot, Guinevere, Tristram, (La Beale) Isoud, Gawayne, Lamorak, Palomides, Dinidan, kings, queens, enchanters, enchantresses and the hundreds of ancillary characters and members of the round table: whose sheer rotundity varies from legend to legend and often approaches the intractable, although in Malory’s vision upwards of 150 knights - the roster of at least a hundred provided at one point.

While the subsequent poets might persevere in the dimensional aspect, Malory, as a chronicler, triumphs in the comprehensiveness.

Thus on the one hand, Malory’s prose might appear painfully dry, detached, tedious, repetitive, eager to hop from one tract to the next. He tends to evoke each motive, encounter or presage as an abstract sketch, the detail just sufficient to produce derivative effort of greater depth.

On the other, Malory structures charming sentences that lure the reader (at least this reader) on. Something singularly magnetic in the way Malory combines the wit, the dry humour and the antique story-telling register. Joyce even parodies the Malory prosaic style (or pays homage?) in the Oxen in the sun chapter of Ulysses, though I’ve also detected traces in Cyclops.

For those of you as keen and appreciative in the evolutionary properties of language, this particular prose offers plenty worth interest, provided that you read the original Middle-English and not some modernized edition (irrespective of the spelling modernization).

And though late Middle-English, you should find the language sufficiently simple next to the 14th-century predecessor: closer to the Renaissance literature than Chaucer by all means. Yet there’s plenty medieval in it.

For the English language, the subjunctive mood is more diversely showcased than I’ve rarely found in prose.

Abundant French vocabulary. French naming convention often preferred.

My beloved comparative and superlative verb forms, many now archaic, are widely encountered. Lovely vocabulary across the board.

Now the use of hyperbole is something catastrophic. I suppose such was the fashion. Though in it I actually derive great humour.

Sure, the drily detached nature makes it near impossible to sentimentalize. Malory describes, not imparts the emotion, catering to such lexicon as woe, joy, dole or merriment, thus describing death, dismemberment, trampling, severing, envenoming or any manner of illness. Malory narrates an event and moves on. Almost characteristic of a non-fiction chronicler, a historian, an academic.

And yet it isn’t that kind of text. The Arthurian world owes partially to historical account, though largely to legend and fable, not entirely unlike one of Malory’s sources: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the chronicle of the earlier British history with allusion to Arthur and company.

Whatever the pitfalls, the narration aesthetic keeps alluring, making the prose difficult to abandon. With a healthy imagination the epic is both delectable and insightful.

However superficially silly, much of the prose effuses endless humour, coyness, mockery, and satire further intensified in the byproduct of the plastered together sentences and Malory’s craft of conveying twists.

Much of the narrative even reads like certain prose poetry, though of heavily varying caliber.

All this commentary (not devoid of paradox) may be wanting of a more detailed exposition. Per my custom, I might later incorporate a whimsically curated selection of remarkable fragments into the wiki as I’ve recently done with Ulysses.

Centuries have cried out for more. Spirits have acquiesced. Tristram and Isoud, Launcelot and Guinevere, the Holy Grail pilgrimage, the sword in the stone, the jousting tournaments, the treacheries, the enchanted castles, the wizardry, the chivalry lend themselves to paintings, tapestries, film, animation, comics, operas and literature. Don Quixote draws inspiration from the Arthurian legends. So does Lord of the Rings to a degree. So do all these ridiculous films, television series and products of plastic-wrapped culture.

But never had I come across such a comprehensive portrayal, such vertiginous conglomerates of knights jousting and tourneying, doing deeds of arms and being errant out and about.

Much reverence for Malory’s effort.

Further points of interest

Questions, comments? Connect.