About a couple of months back I dug up a copy of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur, Volume Two (Caxton version, untampered language, modernized spelling) at a used bookstore in Antigua. The paperback cost next to nothing mainly as there was no Volume One. And as the medieval work had long occupied my reading priorities, I opted for the unconventional approach, commencing with the second volume and to later acquire the first should this one hold water.
Le Morte d'Arthur is said to be the first printed work of prose in England of 1485, an adaptation of earlier mostly French poetry recounting the legends of King Arthur and the other knights of the round table. As far as English literature, LMDA is the fundamental source that much subsequent literature (and cinema) appeals to for background on the Arthurian legends.
I’m still only two-thirds of the way through. In retrospect, I should’ve maybe opted for something else (ie Octavio Paz poems, William Yeats' plays, Horace Walpole’s Castle in Otranto, Jane Eyre, and such plausible choices the bookstore availed.)
And it’s not the nature of the missed first volume either. Written as a chronicle of heavy redundancy, Malory fashions enough detail to follow the narrative of these different knights, their nauseatingly endless jousting matches and the Holy Grail adventures.
It’s the nature of the prose, which, if you know me, you’ve heard me prioritize before anything time endless. And yet in pursuing these pages so far in, I clearly strayed from principle: something that the last month and a half has seen much of.
In particular, I find the prose remarkably dry, almost irredeemably, often reading like a medieval version of a Wikipedia summary, or the narrative for some medieval comic book, if not my very journal entries.
Malory seems to narrate events neutrally, emotionlessly, from an ultra high vantage point, provided relatively scarce detail. The narrative often reads like a blueprint for a more elaborate work: which it has kind of become with all the subsequent literature over the centuries (and more recently cinema). It makes me wonder about those earlier French poems.
It’s not an even work, but much of it has entertained. Paradoxically, the very dry nature and choice of vocabulary characteristic in part of the medieval period and in part of Malory, caused me a laugh a time too many: a knight smote off a head and went to supper; then passed great joy; and made great dole; and he rode here and went there, and reposed here or there, and met an errant knight or fifty villainous knights and smote them down and performed many marvelous deeds never before witnessed. And on and on in such hyperbolic spirit.
Anyway, I simplify. The passages convey a lot more between the chivalric code, the symbology, the mysticism and the witchcraft encountered in select sections (denoted as ‘books’ throughout the work).
Probably the fundamentallest reason I’ve not abandoned LMDA: my genuine interest in the Arthurian legends, acquired not from modern retellings, nor Tennyson’s or Morris' poetry, nor Disney, but the medieval source, however much borrowed from earlier efforts.
The prose nature might also owe to the fact that there wasn’t much of a prose tradition beforehand. Either way, in terms of captivating verbal polyphony pertaining to the Arthurian world, I heavily prefer the 14th century alliterative poem Sir Gawayne and the Greene Knight read a couple of years back, not to mention Spenser’s Faerie Queene, written a century after, which loosely references (though sometimes reimagines) the respective folklore. But anyway, I lack the academic background for further insight.
Can’t promise to write a complete commentary if and when I finish this Volume 2. This’ll do for the interim.
Questions, comments? Connect.