The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Morte d'Arthur
MORTE D'ARTHUR. This great English collection of Arthurian romances, written before 1470 by Sir Thomas Malory, as one of the cardinal books whose influence has reached beyond any mere personal fame. Personally, indeed, Malory has remained almost unknown. Even the probability that this 15th century gentleman and soldier served with Richard, Earl of Warwick, pattern of chivalry, was recovered only 25 years ago; but 400 years have proved the vitality of his book. After inspiring the conduct of noble English youth for generations, it was reinterpreted in Tennyson's most papular poem, ‘The Idylls of the King’; and, surviving so unusual a competition, it is still reprinted, read and loved. Yet as a translation, in great part from known French sources, it is not in our modern sense original. Therefore the reasons for its fame are the more significant as going to the roots of permanent literary interest. The first reason, of course, is style. Writing in the early days of English prose, Malory has the dignity and ease of such early historians as Froissart; but his even and leisurely pace does not preclude the force of direct diction. This rare combination of dignity with simplicity has been sufficient to preserve his work without any great strength of structure, any compelling movement of the whole. The ‘Morte d'Arthnr’ is not composed as a whole, not planned to lead us on stage by stage to a culmination. True, the closing books are felt as the tragic conclusion of Arthur's chivalry in a world of violence; but with many of the preceding stories it has no specific connection. Rather Malory worked as the mediæval romancers from whom he drew had worked before him. Collecting all the well-known stories — and a few less well known — that had come to be associated with the great name of Arthur, he used them much as he found them; and he told each for itself. Though he sometimesæ suggests complication of plot or development of character, he never worked for these in the ways of the modern novelist. The Renaissance had but touched England; and its literary ideas, even if they had been prevalent, would hardly have moved so thorough a mediævalist as Malory. He turned away from the actual wars of the Roses to the legendary wars of Arthur's knights because of his intense sympathy with the ideals of a passing chivalry. He is far more mediæval than Chaucer. Though in style he has his own distinction, in composition he is the typical mediæval transmitter.
Every one of the stories that he thus brought together has a long history. Many of them reach far back into folklore. Most of them before they came to him had been told over and over again. The successive versions, their relations, their combination, the transference of a tale from Gawain to Percival and then to Galahad, the building up of a cycle of Grail stories and the attaching of this to the Arthurian cycle — all these have claimed much scholarly investigation and still offer problems as difficult as they are significant. But of this Malory was no more aware than the thousands of readers who have gone to him, not for history or folklore, nor for psychology or drama, but for the solace and inspiration of high adventure.
Beginning with the perennial story of the prince wondrously born and sent in the nick of time to claim the crown, right wrong, and establish a kingdom of justice, courtesy, and honor, he ends with the traditional hope that the same king, though in his stricken age borne away to the Isle of Avilon, may yet return to reign. Only to the latter books belongs properly the title ‘Morte d'Arthur,’ which is borne also by several mediæval poems. Between the young prince smiting the stone with his miraculous sword and the old king fighting his last battle against treason in the dim West, what a store of quests and deliverances, what a goodly array. Balen and Balan still show a primitive wildness in spite of the faint hint of the coming Grail; and the fairies, though crowded to the back of the stage by the stir of chivalry, still peep from their Celtic twilight. Morgan le Fay is dangerous in revenge. The Lady of the Lake gives the magic sword, and to her at the last it returns. Merlin the wizard, after all his triumphs of wisdom and skill, “was assotted and doted on one of the ladies of the lake.” But these are only old echoes. The stories are of chivalry; of Beaumains, youth proving its unconquerable force; of Tristram and Iseult, the immortal lovers, and Guenever, the queen mistress who drew the peerless Lancelot across steel and fire and even across loyalty; of Gawain, his earlier fame tarnished but still the courteous; of a hundred good knights who sought wild paths and frightful risks and stiff battles because they must make life an adventure.
Following these old adventures with adventurous hearts, readers have always been glad that they are numerous, and have not missed in the thronging of Malory's stories that unity which he did not seek. From the conquest of Rome to the earliest adventures of Lancelot, from Beaumains to Tristram, Malory goes leisurely, but always with zest; and by the way he pauses for yet other stories. The ‘Morte d'Arthur’ is a storehouse of romance. And above all the other quests, above the errant fitting throng, shines the supreme quest of the Holy Grail, the great romance of the Mass. Malory's aim, then, was not that modern literary distinction which comes from originality of composition; it was to make men love the high things that he loved. His work was to him the handing on of the great traditions of chivalry. Caxton, who printed it in 1485, well calls it a “noble and joyous book.”