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Outlines of English and American Literature|
by Long, William J.
|Judged by its influence, the greatest prose work of the fifteenth
century was the Morte d'Arthur of Thomas Malory (d. 1471). Of the
English knight who compiled this work very little is known beyond this,
that he sought to preserve in literature the spirit of medieval knighthood
and religion. He tells us nothing of this purpose; but Caxton, who received
the only known copy of Malory's manuscript and published it in 1485, seems
to have reflected the author's spirit in these words:
"I according to my copy have set it in imprint, to the intent that
noble men may see and learn the noble acts of chivalry, the gentle
and virtuous deeds that some knyghts used in those days, by which
they came to honour, and how they that were vicious were punished
and put oft to shame and rebuke.... For herein may be seen noble
chivalry, courtesy, humanity, hardness, love, friendship,
cowardice, murder, hate, virtue and sin. Do after the good, and
leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good fame and renommee."
Malory's spirit is further indicated by the fact that he passed over all
extravagant tales of foreign heroes and used only the best of the Arthurian
romances. [Footnote: For the origin of the Arthurian stories see above,
"Geoffrey and the Legends of Arthur" in Chapter II. An example of the way
these stories were enlarged is given by Lewis, Beginnings of English
Literature, pp 73-76, who records the story of Arthur's death as told,
first, by Geoffrey, then by Layamon, and finally by Malory, who copied the
tale from French sources. If we add Tennyson's "Passing of Arthur," we
shall have the story as told from the twelfth to the nineteenth century.]
These had been left in a chaotic state by poets, and Malory brought order
out of the chaos by omitting tedious fables and arranging his material in
something like dramatic unity under three heads: the Coming of Arthur with
its glorious promise, the Round Table, and the Search for the Holy Grail:
"And thenne the kynge and al estates wente home unto Camelot, and
soo wente to evensonge to the grete mynster, and soo after upon
that to souper; and every knyght sette in his owne place as they
were to forehand. Thenne anone they herd crakynge and cryenge of
thonder, that hem thought the place shold alle to dryve. In the
myddes of this blast entred a sonne beaume more clerer by seven
tymes than ever they sawe daye, and al they were alyghted of the
grace of the Holy Ghoost. Then beganne every knyghte to behold
other, and eyther sawe other by theire semynge fayrer than ever
they sawe afore. Not for thenne there was no knyght myghte speke
one word a grete whyle, and soo they loked every man on other, as
they had ben domb. Thenne ther entred into the halle the Holy
Graile, covered with whyte samyte, but ther was none myghte see
hit, nor who bare hit. And there was al the halle fulfylled with
good odoures, and every knyght had suche metes and drynkes as he
best loved in this world. And when the Holy Grayle had be borne
thurgh the halle, thenne the holy vessel departed sodenly, that
they wyste not where hit becam....
"'Now,' said Sir Gawayne, 'we have ben served this daye of what
metes and drynkes we thoughte on, but one thynge begyled us; we
myght not see the Holy Grayle, it was soo precyously coverd.
Therfor I wil mak here avowe, that to morne, withoute lenger
abydyng, I shall laboure in the quest of the Sancgreal; that I
shalle hold me oute a twelve moneth and a day, or more yf nede be,
and never shalle I retorne ageyne unto the courte tyl I have sene
hit more openly than hit hath ben sene here.'... Whan they of the
Table Round herde Syr Gawayne saye so, they arose up the most party
and maade suche avowes as Sire Gawayne had made."
Into this holy quest sin enters like a serpent; then in quick succession
tragedy, rebellion, the passing of Arthur, the penitence of guilty
Launcelot and Guinevere. The figures fade away at last, as Shelley says of
the figures of the Iliad, "in tenderness and inexpiable sorrow."
As the best of Malory's work is now easily accessible, we forbear further
quotation. These old Arthurian legends, the common inheritance of all
English-speaking people, should be known to every reader. As they appear in
Morte d'Arthur they are notable as an example of fine old English
prose, as a reflection of the enduring ideals of chivalry, and finally as a
storehouse in which Spenser, Tennyson and many others have found material
for some of their noblest poems.