Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur


Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur

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Le Morte d'Arthur was completed by Thomas Malory between 1469 and 1470 during the reign of Edward IV. Two versions survive to the present day. The first, a print edition, was edited and produced by William Caxton in 1485. The second, known as the Winchester Manuscript, was discovered in 1934 at Winchester College and was "written by two professional scribes working together some time during the years 1470 to 1483" (Malory's Arthurian Manuscript: The Basics). There is much debate over the way in which these two versions relate to each other, and many of the differences between the Caxton and Winchester texts—as noted by Peter J.C. Field—"are scribal errors in which one is (often obviously) wrong and the other right" (New Arthurian Encyclopedia 295). Field observes, however, that certain drastic and deliberate changes are made—the most notable being the shortening of the Roman War narrative in the Caxton version. Scholars continue to debate whether Caxton or Malory authorized these alterations, and this discussion is significant for the purposes of The Crusades Project, because many of the notable references to crusade and imperial conquest are affected by these alterations.

Meg Roland identifies six key passages in Malory that address matters of crusading. The first concerns a Saracen invasion of Britain during the early years of Arthur's reign, in the midst of the young king's attempts to consolidate his territory. Merlin warns Arthur that "Sarezynes ar londed in their contreies mo than fourty thousande, and brenne and sle and have leyde syege to the castell Wandesborow, and make grete destruccion: therefore drede you nat thys [thre] yere" (Vinaver 25). This passage may well tap into fears of invasion inspired by Ottoman Turkish expansion. In many ways, this moment in the narrative demonstrates, as Roland observes, Arthur's ability to consolidate internal power while also moving against a foreign invader. The emphasis on crusade, therefore is largely peripheral in this episode.

The second episode in the Morte where references to crusading appear is the Roman War narrative, which follows the Alliterative Morte Arthure (AMA) quite closely. But while the Roman War account's essential structure remains largely the same in both the AMA and Malory's versions, Malory does not present the war as Arthur's last great victory but rather as a culmination of his youthful kinghood. He may have moved the Roman War chronologically forward for the simple reason that he would have been unable to include the stories that followed if he had continued to tell of Mordred's treachery at that early point in his work. At the same time, however, Malory may have sought to elevate this battle against exotic (largely Eastern) enemies even more by "rescuing it" from the problematic ending of the AMA. By distancing the Roman War from Arthur's decline and fall, the glory of Arthur's success against Rome is highlighted dramatically and also deproblematized.

David Wallace, in his article entitled "Imperium, Commerce, and National Crusade: The Romance of Malory's Morte," tracks in particular the crusades gestures in the Winchester version of the Roman War account, an account that is strikingly faithful to its source, the AMA:
Arthur's expedition to Rome, the most extended extraterritorial episode of the Morte, assumes in Winchester the character of a crusade, albeit one with nationalistic inflection . . . In assembling the army that will depart from Rome to enforce its will on Arthur, the Emperor's reach is truly global. It is also compromised by the inclusion of 'Saracens' [and giants] . . . The illegitimacy of the Emperor's invading army is thus signaled by miscegenation: unclean mixture of faith, blood, paternity and even body size (59).
Wallace observes that Arthur's "crusading zeal against uncleanness" is first realized in his battle with the giant of St. Michael's mount, and that a "cathection of Englishness with crusading spirit" is achieved in this segment by the consistently intertwined references of Arthurs 'noble knyghtes of merry Ingelonde' and to 'English Birthright' with matters of licensed, empire-building slaughter. Malory as well as the AMA also reconfigures France as rightful English territory and so "Arthur crosses the Channel only to protect his native ground. And upon such ground, as a Christian crusader defending his rightful patria against infidel invasion, Arthur assumes the right to become genocidal " (59-60).

But while a certain "crusading spirit" exists in the Winchester version, Caxton seems to amplify and alter the references to crusade in his version of the Roman War account, editing key aspects of the narrative in order for it to read, as Catharine Batt observes, more like "a conventional crusade than . . . the Winchester [version]" (Malory's Morte Darthure, p 81, as referenced by Roland). In one instance, Caxton repeatedly emphasizes in the narrative that the Saracens are more of a threat to Arthur than the others who ally with Lucius (Roland 36). Additionally, while the Winchester version includes the passage in the AMA in which Arthur states his desire to go on to conquer the Holy Land, Caxton's version omits this reference altogether, and in both accounts Arthur listens to his men who wish to return home. While this omission might problematize a reading of the Caxton Roman War as a crusades narrative, it is possible that Caxton may well have chosen to suspend the vision of a crusade to the Levant until the conclusion of the work. Additionally, Caxton may have wished to retain the vision of a major crusade for his depiction of Godefrey de Bouillon in a different portion of his Nine Worthies production. Removing this reference to Jerusalem also presents Arthur as a wise ruler who understands the necessity of a balance between external expansion and internal consolidation.

Roland argues that the differences between the Caxton and Winchester versions of this narrative suggest that Caxton "overwrote his copy text to comply with his world view, just as Malory had overwritten his source texts before him," and observes that the Roman Wars accounts in both Caxton and Malory's versions are informed by "almost four hundred years of struggles for dominion over the east and a gradual slipping away of the conquests made by the First Crusade" (31). According to Roland, Caxton's version of the Roman War and his possible emendations to the Morte as a whole are a direct response to contemporary fears of Turkish expansion. Added to which, she observes that Malory's Morte was "written in the arc of an ascending fear of the Turks, an arc that reaches its zenith just as Caxton publishes Malory's work in the mid 1480s, a time when Europe was awash in uncertainty as to the repercussions of Mehmed II's death" (35). For these reasons, the emphasis on crusade and on fears of foreign invasion begin to take on deeper significance when the context of the Winchester and Caxton versions are considered.

While the Roman War is the most notable crusades-laden narrative in the Morte, scholars have noted other crusades references in Malory's works as well. Some, Meg Roland in particular, see the character Palomides (given his Saracenness and the issues of conversion that surround him) as a figure emblematic of the crusades. Though he is a Saracen, and acts in impulsive and violent ways that would put him in line with other Saracen figures seen in medieval romance, he is Christian in virtually every manner save his unbaptized state and his misunderstandings of how his conversion should function. His physical appearance is never described (making it impossible to determine how "other" his external features render him), and he is in many ways held up by Malory as the epitome of a courtly lover. Palomides is, in sum, notably distanced from the stereotypical image of the Saracen seen in Middle English romance, and it is difficult to trace any concrete crusading gesture or reference to him as a result.

The fourth and fifth references to matters of crusade, as identified by Roland, also occur in the book of Tristram—the former being Mark's murder of his brother upon hearing of the latter's victory over Saracen invaders, the latter being Mark's forging of a papal letter calling for a crusade in order to get Tristram to leave the country. The former, Roland argues, highlights Mark's irrational jealousy, his misplaced priorities, and his greater desire for earthly rather than spiritual gain. In the latter, the forged papal letter and Tristram's spurning the call to crusade are revealing in that "Mark tries to use the politics of crusade for personal gain while Tristram resolutely chooses love and prison over what he initially thinks is a papal letter" calling for aid against the "myscreante" Saracens (38). Both crusades references highlight Mark's failings as a ruler. Whereas crusades references add to the heroic ethos of Arthur and his men in the Morte, they serve in the Book of Tristram as markers by which to highlight the moral and political failings of the Cornish monarch. As a result, these two crusades references in the Book of Tristram serve to emphasize what so many scholars have observed about Mark: that he stands as an emblem of the tyrant, of what Arthur is not.

The penultimate reference to crusading as cited by Roland appears toward the conclusion of Malory's work, when the narrator refers to the myth of the "once and future king":
yet som men say in many p[ar]tys of Inglonde that kynge Arthure ys nat ded, but h[ad] by the wyll of Oure Lorde Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall com agayne, and he shall wynne the Holy Crosse. (Vinaver 717)
Roland, as well as others, has observed the cryptic nature of this passage—the narrator will not admit his own belief in the myth, but rather places that belief upon other "men." Nevertheless, the passage clearly suggests that Arthur will one day return as a successful crusader-king and win back the True Cross, lost to Saladin at the battle of Hattin in 1187.

One final reference to crusading warrants consideration, and that is the concluding passage of the Morte:
And somme Englysshe bookes maken mencyon that they wente never oute of Englond after the deth of syr Launcelot—but that was but favor of makers. For the Frensshe book maketh mencyon—and is auctorysed—that syr Bors, syr Ector, syr Blamour, and syr Bleoberis wente into the Holy Lande, thereas Jesu Cryst was quycke and deed. And anone as they had stablysshed theyr londes, for the book saith, so syr Launcelot commaunded them for to do or ever he passyd oute of thys world, these foure knyghtes dyd many bataylles upon the myscreantes, or Turkes. And there they upon a Good Fryday for Goddes sake. (Vinaver 725-26)
Roland argues compellingly that Caxton may well have added this portion to Malory's original – the Winchester manuscript does break off before the conclusion of the Morte, and the reference to the Turks is startlingly contemporary when compared to the other references to “Saracens” in the narrative. Nevertheless, Turks appear in the far earlier AMA, and by the fifteenth century they had largely replaced the “saracens” as the commonly feared eastern enemy. They had, in other words, already become a major source of anxiety for Western Europe far earlier than Malory's composition of the Morte and Caxton's literary reproduction of it. It is, therefore, impossible to know with certainty whether this final passage was in fact an addition of Caxton's. But whether penned by Malory or Caxton, this conclusion of the Morte is compelling in its prioritization of crusading concerns, with the ultimate death drive of these loyal knights ending in the Holy Land. Malory's work effectively draws to a close with an obscured vision of crusade, one whose ultimate outcome remains suspended and unknown.

De Weever, Jacqueline. "Introduction: The Saracen as Narrative Knot." Arthuriana 16:4 (2006): 4-9.

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York : Columbia University Press, 2003.

Knight, Stephen. "From Jerusalem to Camelot: King Arthur and the Crusades." In Medieval Codicology, Iconography, and Translation. Ledien: Brill, 1994. Pp. 223-232.

Roland, Margaret Mary (Meg). "Caxton and Winchester Documents and a Parallel-Text Edition." PhD diss. , University of Washington, 2002.

Roland, Meg (Margaret Mary). "From 'Saracens' to 'Infydeles': The Recontextualization of the East in Caxton's Edition of Le Morte Darthur." In Re-Viewing Le Morte Darthur. Eds. K.S. Whetter and Raluca L. Radulescu. Woodbridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2005.

-----. "Arthur and the Turks," Arthuriana 16:4 (2006): 29-42.

Tyerman, Christopher. God's War: A New History of the Crusades. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Goodrich, Peter H. "Saracens and Islamic Alterity in Malory's Le Morte Dartur" Arthuriana, 16:4 (2006): 10-28.

Hoffman, Donald L. "Assimilating Saracens: The Aliens in Malory's Morte Darthur" Arthuriana 16:4 (2006): 43-64.

Keita, Maghan. "Saracens and Black Knights" Arthuriana 16:4 (2006): 65-77. Dulin-Mallory, Nina."'Seven Trewe Bataylis for Jesus Sake': The Long-Suffering Saracen Palomides" In Western Views of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Perception of Other. Eds. David R. Blanks and Michael Frassetto, New York: St. Martin's, 1999.

Wallace, David. "Imperium, Commerce, and National Crusade: The Romance of Malory's Morte." In Copeland, Rita (ed. and foreword); Lawton, David (ed.); Scase, Wendy (ed.) , New Medieval Literatures 8. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006. Pp. 45-65.