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Le Morte d'Arthur: Volume 2 Paperback – Jan 30 1970
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About the Author
No one knows for sure who the author of Le Morte D'Arthur was, but the generally accepted theory is that of American scholar G.L. Kitteredge, who argued it was Sir Thomas Malory, born in the first quarter of the fifteenth century, and who spent the greatest part of his last twenty years in prison. Another possibility is a Thomas Malory of Studley and Hutton in Yorkshire, or an author living north of Warwickshire. It is generally accepted that the author was a member of the gentry and a Lancastrain.
John Lawlor was Professor a of English Language and Literature at the University of Keele. He is the author of The Tragic Sense in Shakespeare, Piers Plowman: An Essay in Criticism and Chaucer.
Janet Cowen is a senior lecturer in English at King's College, University of London.
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The Penguin edition is based primarily on the 1485 text printed by William Caxton. It is modernized in spelling, but not in grammar. Each volume has a glossary of proper names, and another of archaic words; the most difficult words are generally noted and translated at the foot of the page on which they appear. A small section of notes in each volume deal with some confusing passages, and identify places where Caxton's text has been emended -- usually from the "Winchester Manuscript," now in the British Library, discovered in a safe at Winchester College in 1934, after being mistakenly catalogued under the title of a 1634 printed edition. The manuscript differs from Caxton's text in thousands of places, mostly minor, but some very important.
(There is now another set of editions, based primarily on the longer Winchester text; unfortunately, modernizations of that version are either abridged, or, in my opinion, more or less open rewritings, or both, like Keith Baines' "rendition" -- not to mention John Steinbeck's unfinished "Acts of King Arthur ...," which is a retelling as a modern novel. Two complete old-spelling editions of this second, longer, version, are in paperback, the Oxford Standard Authors original-spelling edition, as "Malory: Complete Works," followed by a recent Norton Critical Edition, as "Le Morte D'Arthur," on somewhat different lines. I have reviewed them together, under the "Complete Works" title; both are worthwhile, for readers willing and able to deal with them.)
Among the readily available editions of the Caxton "Morte," the Penguin edition is my favorite; a judicious balance of modern, or regularized, spellings, clarifying punctuation, and short explanations, without distortion of the not-yet-quite-Modern English of the sentences. Although Lawlor's introduction is beginning to show its age (Malory's French and English sources are treated as evidence in a then-current critical debate), Janet Cowan's text remains exceptionally attractive. The two-volume format is easy to handle, but can be a bit of a nuisance; if you want the whole story, be sure to order both!
It was Caxton, the pioneer of English printing, who assigned the title "The Death of Arthur" to a work which begins with Arthur's conception and birth, for reasons which he rather laboriously explained in a final colophon. (For those of you who know enough French to see that the title should begin "La Mort" -- the spelling is, as elsewhere in the text, based on medieval *Norman* standards, and the Parisian certainty of Death's feminine gender did not dictate English scribal -- or printing-house -- practices in the fifteenth century.) Until the publication of the Winchester text in 1947, all editions of this famous late Middle English compilation of stories of King Arthur and his Knights had to be based, more or less (and often less) directly, on the 1485 printing by William Caxton, of which two copies have survived, one missing fifteen leaves.
Unhappily, most nineteenth-century printings (the first two both in 1816) were based on the very corrupt ("improved") 1634 Stansby printing, sometimes sporadically compared to the Caxton text, or were in some other way "corrected" for (mainly) Victorian readers. In 1817, the poet Robert Southey tried to rely on Caxton, but had to replace the missing pages in the copy he was using with those in one of the reprintings, in 1498 and 1528, by Caxton's apprentice and successor, the self-named Wynkyn "de Worde." (The first is the original "illustrated Malory," the second is the first intentionally "modernized" Malory, customers having apparently complained that a book written in the 1460s was sounding a bit old-fashioned.) In addition, Southey's publisher seems to have used Stansby as a printing-house copy, directly or through the competing reprintings of 1816. Uncertainty as to proper editorial principles, reflecting uncertainty as to Malory's literary worth, and concern over the "immoral" contents of a book thought likely to appeal to boys, continued through the nineteenth century. (And into our time, as well.)
The three-volume edition (with extensive apparatus) by H. Oskar Sommer of 1889-1891 finally used the surviving copies of the 1485 edition as the sole authority. (I have not seen a reported reprinting of the full version, but Sommer's "Morte" text, without the introduction, notes, glossary, etc., is available in a hypertext format). It was presumably used by F.J. Simmons, who edited the ornate J.M. Dent edition of 1893-1894, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley (reprinted a few years ago by Crown; Dover has issued an illustrations-only volume as well). Sommer's text was certainly used by Israel Gollancz for another Dent edition, the modernized four-volume Temple Classics version of 1897. This text appears to have been reset for a two-volume edition in 1906, in Dent's Everyman's Library series, with normalized (modern) spellings. There are some peculiarities in this version; for example, the spelling of names often changes between volumes one and two. For most purposes it was reliable enough, and was widely read during much of the twentieth century, appearing in the US in hardcover in Dutton reprints of the Everyman's Library, with a paperback edition in the 1970s. It seems to be out of print, but used copies show up regularly.
The Dent editions of the "Morte" had competition from other modernized texts, based on the Sommer edition, which included a revision by Sir Edward Strachey of his somewhat expurgated ("for boys") 1868 Globe edition for Macmillan. This version was replaced by a new Macmillan edition in 1903, edited by the distinguished bibliographer, and able editor of popular editions, A.W. Pollard. Pollard's text has been reprinted by a number of American publishers, and was at one time a Book Club offering, advertised as "unexpurgated" -- which it was, compared to some Victorian editions, and most especially to Sidney Lanier's "The Boy's King Arthur." The Pollard text is available on-line. It has been reprinted yet again, in the current Modern Library hardcover and paperback editions, with a fine new introduction, by Elizabeth J. Bryan, describing briefly the Arthurian Legend, and the problem of the two texts of the "Morte." The Pollard text also appears to underlie the Wordsworth Classics paperback, which has a helpful new Introduction, by Helen Cooper, and includes an index of characters (by Book and Chapter, not page number), but lacks notes. It is a relatively inexpensive, if not overwhelmingly attractive, alternative to the other editions.
Since the appearance of the Penguin "Morte," there have been two major technical publications of the Caxton text: a facsimile, edited by Paul Needham (1976), and a critical edition, edited by James Spisak (1983). I am not aware of a popular edition which has taken advantage of these resources.
[Note, February 2015: There is a new critical edition of Malory, edited by P.J.C. Field, published in two volumes by D.S. Brewer, as volume 80 in the "Arthurian Studies" series ("Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte Darthur," Cambridge, 2013). It is based on both the Caxton and Winchester texts, and attempts to arrive at a state of the text closer to Malory's own than either example. This (expensive) edition has been reviewed by Kenneth Hodges for the on-line "The Medieval Review" (The Medieval Review 15.02.03)]
[Addendum, December 2015: There is now a dual-text edition of the Caxton and Winchester editions available for Kindle: “Complete Works of Sir Thomas Malory,” from Delphi Classics (Series Five Book 1). I’ve reviewed it: in brief, it consists of Pollard’s modernized text of the Caxton edition, with his glossary (but not his character index), and, from an unspecified source, an old-spelling edition of the Winchester Manuscript. I have noticed that the latter has errors on the order of “Qur” for “our,” but does’t seem, on first inspection, to be *too* badly corrupted. (I may be wrong about this….)
[The Delphi edition is an inexpensive way for anyone interested in the “Morte D’Arthur” to get a good look at both versions. Unfortunately, while the Pollard text has hyperlinks to Caxton’s book and chapter divisions, there is no equivalent for the longer Winchester Manuscript, nor is there any cross-referencing between matching passages. For the Winchester text, at least, the intrigued reader may well then decide to try the Norton Critical Edition, Vinaver’s “Malory: Complete Works,” or the solid, but abridged, version edited by Helen Cooper for the Oxford World’s Classics series, as “Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript.”]
[Addendum, December 9, 2015: Vinaver’s approach to the unity of the "Morte" is now taken for granted by some. On December 7, 2015, BBC Culture, in explaining the basis of a list of “the 100 greatest British novels,” specifically classed “Morte D’Arthur” as a short story collection. Leaving aside the different question of whether Medieval romances meet one’s definition of “a novel,” many of the eight “Tales” into which Vinaver divided the text are more like short — or longer — novels than they are like short stories. In the Norton Critical Edition, “The Tale of Sir Tristams de Lyones” runs to over 250 pages — and does not contain the full story, at that. (Of course, it too can be broken down into shorter "tales" as the focus of the narrative shifts.)]
This version has been issued in two volumes, which are currently available as two separate Kindle freebie downloads. (Volume 1 and Volume 2. Volume 1 has the first nine "books" and Volume 2 has the remaining "books". ) Volume 1 opens with an excellent introduction by A. W. Pollard addressing the book's authorship and history. It also contains the original preface by William Caxton, who, in 1469, was the original printer of the book. This set of volumes contains all of the original books and chapters, as edited and mauled by Caxton in his rush to produce the book, except that spelling and some grammar has been updated. Just from the point of view of its convenience, readability and accessibility this is a righteous freebie find.
But, is it worth actually downloading and reading? I surprised myself by concluding that it is. This book is the source of all of the stories that we think we know about Arthur. (From the sword in the stone, on.) Scholars continue to argue about whether there was an Arthur at all, and if so if he was more than just a local Briton chieftain, but while that is a fascinating question for scholars and historians, (see, for example, this excellent treatment Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages), to me that has little or no bearing on the joys of "Le Mort d'Arthur". The Arthur stories are an essential foundation to almost all classic British and, by extension American, high fantasy. Even though most of it was recycled from fancy pants old French versions of even older Welsh stories, Arthur must be reckoned with.
And these stories are a hoot. I didn't read them closely and with an academic's eye. Heck, I skimmed some parts. But there is depth and feeling here. These stories are more gripping, more stirring, and more immediate than the Disnefied versions would suggest. These are well-imagined and well-told tales of honor and bravery and sacrifice, with real style and substance.
So, if you are so inclined, and if you've ever wondered a bit about the Arthur phenomenon, this is a convenient, cheap and painless way to deepen your understanding and reward your effort. Can't ask much more than that from a Kindle freebie.
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