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Ian M. Slater
- Published on Amazon.com
A reviewer can propose, but only Amazon disposes.
Way back in 2004, I was unable to review the then-new Norton Critical Edition of "Le Morte Darthur" (Winchester MS version -- see below) because I had already posted a review of the Penguin English Library/Penguin Classics edition (Caxton's text).
In the end, I wound up discussing Shepherd's treatment in a review of the Oxford Standard Authors edition, edited by Eugene Vinaver under the idiosyncratic title of "Malory: Complete Works."
Now that the NCE (Norton Critical Edition) has its own page, I've decided to slightly modify that combined review, and post it where I originally wanted it to go.
This is mainly a review of two old-spelling complete editions of the work commonly known as "Le Morte D'Arthur" (Anglo-Norman French for "The Death of [King] Arthur}), both available in paperback. The language they are in can be called either very late Middle English, or very early Modern English; other, easier-to-read, editions will also be mentioned below.
For those who are already familiar with the "Morte" from modernized-spelling popular editions, and the existence of two sources for a "definitive" text, and are looking for a more scholarly, but affordable, edition, here is the short view of the situation:
The sole choice used to be Eugene Vinaver's "Malory: Complete Works," in the Oxford Standard Authors series (from Oxford University Press; the title will be explained shortly). Available since 1971, it is in (rather small) plain type, with no special features on the page except some marginal notations, and the occasional footnote.
S.H.A. Shepherd's Norton Critical Edition, from 2004, with the cover title of "Le Morte Darthur," has a text with a striking visual difference from the usual modern book; following the lead of the manuscript, proper names appear in a bold "black letter" font (instead of red ink -- see below). This may be intimidating at first glance, and some may hastily conclude it is too difficult to read. However, one can adjust quite quickly and I have found the basic text, in Fairfield Modern, easier on the eyes than the Oxford version. (I would have welcomed it a couple of decades ago, when I was reading the Oxford edition cover-to-cover while waiting around on jury duty.)
The following is aimed partly at those unfamiliar with the situation -- my apologies to those who find themselves plowing through the obvious.
Until a mis-catalogued fifteenth-century manuscript in a safe at Winchester College was finally recognized in 1934 as Sir Thomas Malory's account of King Arthur and his knights, the only authoritative text of this now-famous work was that found in the two surviving copies of William Caxton's 1485 printing. Unhappily, its first and last pages are missing, so Caxton remains the source for those passages. (The standard exact, or "diplomatic," text of Caxton's Malory was edited by H. Oskar Sommers, 1889-1891. There is a recent critical text, edited by James Spisak, 1983, and a facsimile edition, edited by Paul Needham, 1976.) There are thousands of minor differences, and a few very large ones.
Caxton had divided the text into twenty-one books, with numbered and (usually) titled chapters, and called the whole "Le Morte D'Arthur" -- "Notwithstanding that it treateth of the birth, life, and acts of the said King Arthur, of his noble knights of the Round Table, their marvelous enquests and adventures, the achieving of the Sangrail, and in the end the dolorous death and departing out of this world of them all" (Caxton's Colophon). He had also dramatically abridged one long section (his Book Five), and seems to have made some changes of his own in wording, at times softening Malory's aristocratic bluntness.
When Eugene Vinaver edited the Winchester Manuscript for the Oxford English Texts series, he gave the three-volume set (with critical notes, glossary, etc.) the title of "The Works of Sir Thomas Malory" (1947; revised edition, 1967; third edition, re-edited by P.J.C. Field, 1990).
In Vinaver's eyes, the manuscript revealed that Malory had produced only a very loosely connected set of narratives, distinct "WORKS" to which he, as editor, gave his own titles (which are now in current use, despite the lack of any other authority for some).
The idea that it was a single, continuous, narrative was, in this view, Caxton's; hence the many inconsistencies, such as dead villains showing up alive and still wicked after a few "books." This reversed the view of others who, noting the lack of unity in other publications by Caxton, had attributed the difference entirely to Malory.
This decision has given rise to a long critical controversy; Malory was, in Caxton's term, "reducing" some disparate French texts into English, and may have just missed some discrepancies, as he tried to produce a reasonably unified "whole book". It has also created a certain amount of bibliographic confusion.
Keith Baines' "Rendition in Modern English" of Vinaver's edition (1962; a rewriting, covering every incident, but mostly sacrificing the language) is carefully called "Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table," as if to emphasize that Caxton's "interference" is being removed, without sacrificing reader recognition (and sales). Vinaver's later Oxford Standard Authors one-volume original-spelling text edition (1971), however, is "Malory: Complete Works."
Vinaver also edited for Oxford University Press a modernized-spelling "King Arthur and His Knights: Selected Tales by Sir Thomas Malory" (1956, 1968, 1975), which maintained the same premise. John Steinbeck, a great admirer of Malory, was delighted by Vinaver's edition, and referenced the Winchester Manuscript in the subtitle of his unfinished "Acts of King Arthur ...," avoiding the "Morte" designation. (This is in fact an Arthurian novel by Steinbeck, incorporating chunks of source material, *not* a modernization.) Thus far, there is a certain amount of consistency.
However, a more recent Oxford edition, Helen Cooper's modernized spelling edition of the Winchester text for The Oxford World's Classics (1998; abridged, unfortunately; otherwise excellent), is instead titled "Le Morte D'Arthur." So, too, is the medievalist R.M. Lumiansky's much more extensively modernized 1982 complete version of the Winchester text. (Almost a translation, and thus an implied commentary on the text; but not to be confused with Lumiansky's projected, and unpublished, critical edition, almost complete at the time of his death in 1987. But is quite impressive, and I can understand anyone who thinks I am too critical of it.)
The title of the facsimile edition for the Early English Text Society (N.R. Ker, 1976) "The Winchester Malory," avoided the issue, but the volume also helped renew the debate over Vinaver's theory by eliminating his editorial hand, revealing that some of the textual divisions were NOT Caxton's work, but that of either a scribe or the author.
Stephen H. A. Shepherd's Norton Critical Edition is "Le Morte DArthur" on the cover, but on the title page has the Caxton-derived subtitle of "The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of The Rounde Table." This title may well go back to Malory, or least to the manuscripts; it would have appeared on the missing final pages. Shepherd, indeed, gives considerably more weight to Caxton's evidence than had become customary. It has become clear, from printer's marks, that the Winchester Manuscript was in fact available to Caxton, and was still on hand when his successor, Wynkyn de Worde, reset the "Morte" in 1498, introducing some of its readings.
This fact suggests that Caxton was comparing at least two full-length manuscripts, and that some of his "innovations" may reflect Malory's intentions as much as any other scribal copy.
The one-volume Oxford "Malory: Complete Works" is a rather bare-bones edition (especially compared to its three-volume prototype), consisting almost entirely of a very lightly "normalized" text (abbreviations are silently expanded, but variant spellings are usually preserved, etc.), with some good textual notes and a glossary (about a hundred pages of "apparatus").
In the Norton Critical Edition, Shepherd offers the reader an extended Introduction, Chronologies, a text with explanatory footnotes, a large section of "Sources" (earlier and / or alternative versions of Arthurian stories, many translated by Shepherd) and "Backgrounds" (contemporary medieval documents and modern histories illustrating Malory's times) and "Criticism" (essays and book excerpts), followed by a thirty-two-page double-column Glossary, a "Selected Guide to Proper Names," and a Selected Bibliography. He has a helpful section on Malory's language, covering not only grammatical differences from Modern English, but how it was pronounced (with encouragement to try reading it aloud, noting that Malory seems to have been a dangerously glib speaker.)
(Originally, there was also a website for the book, accessible through W.W. Norton's main page; among other useful features, it reported printing errors, and later announced that the corrections of those identified had been made in the second printing.)
Shepherd's text itself includes more of Caxton's readings, which seem to reflect another manuscript with different errors; and *manuscript* is the crucial word. Unlike Vinaver, who attempted to reproduce what he regarded as Malory's intended structure (or non-structure), Shepherd aims to create the impression of reading a medieval manuscript, without the most difficult obstacles. Not only are original spellings preserved, he carefully includes marginal notes and other indicators of scribal practices. The two scribes of the Winchester Manuscript carefully (but not completely consistently) wrote names, and some passages, in red ink ("rubrications"). Shepherd does not ask the printer for two colors, but follows the practice of "Scribe A" in using a more ornate script for the rubrics, substituting a black-letter font [Cloister Black], so these words stand out; in some cases, following the scribes' use of larger lettering, they are printed in an extra-bold face.
Shepherd has some sensible solutions -- not identical to Vinaver's -- to such problems as character variation ('u' and 'v' and 'i' and 'j' had yet to settle into their modern restrictions, for example), erratic word divisions, and punctuating sentences whose beginning and / or end is not clearly marked. [The review by Jim Allan elegantly summarizes Shepherd's approach to these and other problems.]
This does not make for easier reading; it does reproduce, as nearly as possible in a printed book, and with modern typefaces, the experience of reading a medieval book -- which is the point of the exercise. As someone who once pored over the facsimile of the Winchester Manuscript without being able to make out much from the fifteenth-century handwriting, I love it. And it is not Shepherd's eccentric decision. It is part of a renewed appreciation for the medieval book as a physical artifact, not a sort of nuisance to be made transparent by modern typography.
However, with their 'olde spellynges' and other peculiarities, neither the Oxford Standard Authors version nor the Norton Critical Edition is suitable for all readers. Although Lumiansky's version comes close, there is still a need for a *complete* "normalized" edition based on the Winchester text, only very lightly modernized as to spelling, and faithfully preserving the original words and sentence structures.
[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)]