Eugène Vinaver's Magnificent Malory: Exhibit Guide
Table of Contents
- Lesser Known Works
- Discussing Malory
- The Winchester Discovery and the First Edition of Works
- The "Eight Tale" Theory and Critical Reaction
- The Second Edition of Works
- Vinaver Miscellany
- Select Bibliography
Until 1934, all versions of Malory’s Morte were based on the text published by English printer William Caxton in 1485. For over 400 years, it was unclear what, if any, alterations Caxton had made to Malory’s original text. This all changed with the 1934 discovery of the Winchester manuscript, a hand-written (rather than printed) text untouched by Caxton, and therefore deemed closer to Malory’s original than the Caxton edition. Vinaver came to play a major role in making the Winchester’s text widely accessible. His first book, Malory (1929), won him an invitation from Oxford University Press to publish a new edition of a Caxton Malory, previously edited by H. Oskar Sommer. Of the extant two copies, one was located in the John Rylands Library in Manchester. This project brought Vinaver to the University of Manchester, where he was appointed a professor of French Language and Literature in 1933. The next year, the discovery of the Winchester manuscript in the Fellows Library of Winchester College rocked the scholarly world. Vinaver responded to the discovery with some consternation. His “initial reaction was one of utter dismay: the scanty leisure of four years had been devoted to an edition which had now been superseded” (Whitehead et al, vi). Nonetheless, he made plans to see the manuscript and meet its discoverer, Walter Oakeshott, Librarian of Moberly library. Bewildered by the fuss over the manuscript, Oakeshott proved to be cautious when Vinaver arrived on his doorstep. The librarian only allowed Vinaver to examine the manuscript in its display case which – he later acknowledged – “must have seemed uncommonly churlish to a man who had made Malory already his life’s work” (Oakeshott 5). Despite pressure from the Winchester Fellows to enact his “discoverer’s rights” to produce an edition, Oakeshott graciously yielded the privilege to Vinaver, since he “had already the background which I should have to begin to acquire” (5). It required thirteen years’ work on Vinaver’s part to publish his edition; in the interim, nobody else (besides Oakeshott) had access to the manuscript.
As Vinaver worked on his edition, World War II ravaged the Continent, drying up supply lines and driving up the cost of publishing texts. Despite scholars’ eagerness for Vinaver’s work, his publishers worried that the war would reduce demand for his edition. Kenneth Sisam of Clarendon Press suggested that very few libraries would be willing to purchase his edition. But Sisam’s prediction proved wrong: “When the volumes were finally published…the only problem that the representatives of Clarendon Press had was that they had not, because of the war, printed enough copies to supply the demand. A reprinted edition, with corrections, was almost immediately undertaken” (Gaines 40-41). Vinaver's Works of Sir Thomas Malory (1947), as he called his edition, immediately sparked controversy amongst his fellow scholars. The selected title reflected Vinaver’s theory that Malory intended his story of Arthur not to be a unified whole, but a series of eight separate tales. His argument incited immediate backlash by scholars like D. S. Brewer, P. J. C. Field, and R. M. Lumiansky, who compiled Malory's Originality, a collection of essays analyzing each of the eight tales identified by Vinaver and defending the unified nature of Malory's "hoole book." In response, Vinaver adhered even more closely to his original assertion, publishing in his second edition of Works (1967) an essay entitled “The Problem of ‘Unity.’” His conception of unity owes much to his reading of the French prose Arthurian cycles, characterized by their intricate entrelacement style, where one narrative thread often becomes “interlaced” with others, appearing and disappearing sporadically, even sometimes combining with other characters’ tales. Vinaver characterizes Malory’s work as fundamentally different – an “unravelling of the threads of which the cycle is made…reducing the entire narrative to relatively small self-contained units” (Vinaver xlvii). Vinaver’s “eight tales” theory has been widely rejected, though it initiated much valuable dialogue about the nature of Malory’s text.
Besides his work on Malory, Vinaver also become known for his 1944 discovery and publication of Racine’s notes on Aristotle’s Poetics, which “had almost as profound an effect on studies of French neo-classical tragedy as did his edition of Malory on studies in medieval English literature” (Bennett). Other highlights of his career include serving as chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 1959, president of the Modern Language Association in 1961, and laureate of the Académie Française in 1971. He was named an honorary fellow of Lincoln College in Oxford, and an honorary professor at the universities of Hull and Kent, and he received honorary degrees from another five universities. In the late 1950s, he met and corresponded with John Steinbeck, who sought Vinaver’s expertise as he composed his own Arthurian reworking of Malory entitled The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, based on the Winchester Malory. After retirement in 1966, Vinaver split his time between Kent and Paris. On July 21, 1979, he died of malignant lymphoma in Kent and was survived by his wife of forty years, Elizabeth (known to her friends as Betty), and their son.
Described as “immensely learned, self-abnegating, deferring to senior colleagues, encouraging juniors, but inflexible where he felt his academic principles engaged,” Vinaver earned the respect of both his colleagues and [his] students (Barron vi). According to one scholar, “to meet him on the day of the Examiners' meeting, tense, excited, was to share his pleasure in his students' success….[Many] a learned paper was rooted in…comradely symposia over a bottle of wine” (vi-vii). Devoted to French culture outside the classroom, Vinaver occasionally appeared in Manchester's annual French play, as “a skilled accompanist on lute and theorbo in recitals of medieval song by his wife Betty” (vii). Though sometimes a controversial theorist, Vinaver's contributions to the scholarly world are undeniable.
- His doctoral thesis, Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut dans l'oeuvre de Thomas Malory (1925), which compared the aesthetic and textual relationships between French and English versions of the Tristan legend, especially the thirteenth-century prose Tristan and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. The themes developed in this dissertation, a comparatist approach and a search for meaning based in historical context, would pervade his later work. (See right.)
- Vinaver’s translation of Jean Racine’s Principes de la tragedie en marge de la Poétique d'Aristote (1951) marks his most noteworthy interest outside of medieval romance—neo-classical French theater. According to reviewer Philip F. Butler, Vinaver argues that Racine consciously attempted to return his drama to the Aristotelian concept of catharsis, “lead[ing] the spectator out of terror and pity to that sorrowful but serene contemplation of man’s cruel fate,” or what Vinaver calls “le pathétique retrouvé.” Philip E. Bennett asserts this study of Racine “had almost as profound an effect on studies of French neo-classical tragedy as did his edition of Malory on studies in medieval English literature.”
- The Rise of Romance (1971) put forth Vinaver’s argument that romance writers impose “literary value” on the inchoate material of romance by giving it unique form, most notably in the Old French entrelacement style by “giving the narratives a linear ‘causal’ perspective by inventing links between, or precedents for, existing independent episodes.” D. S. Brewer, in praise of this book, calls it “something of a composite romance of a life-time’s learning.”
- On Art and Nature and Other Essays (2000), a collection of six essays—all but one originally presented in lectures—was published posthumously to honor the hundredth anniversary of Vinaver’s birth. The piece that lends the book its title, a letter to C. S. Lewis, discusses the familiar problem of unity in Malory that Vinaver sees as a more general problem preventing modern readers from developing an appreciation of medieval poetry. This difficulty reappears in a number of the essays, which demonstrate Vinaver’s prodigious learning ranging from knowledge of the Song of Roland through the Vulgate cycle and into Malory. Prominent Arthurian scholar Norris J. Lacy called this work an “opportunity to become re-acquainted with one of the giants of our discipline…. a humanist whose erudition is clothed in uncommon (and sincere) modesty.”
Vinaver’s lifelong interest in Malory was not limited to the classroom but pervaded his correspondence with fellow scholars. He discussed both academic points—like the Morte author’s identity or Malory’s political affiliations—and more personal questions concerning Malory’s sense of morality and his legacy.
Dated: December 27, 1941
Vinaver corresponded with distinguished Shakespeare scholar E. K. Chambers as he was working on his first edition of Malory’s Works. This particular exchange, excerpted below, may have influenced Vinaver’s composition of “The Knight-Prisoner,” the brief biography of Malory in the Works’ introduction. On the following page, Chambers, who wrote Arthur of Britain in 1927, poses his thoughts on Malory’s shifting political allegiances during the Wars of the Roses, which were being waged as Le Morte D’Arthur was being composed. Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, located in Warwickshire, served as a knight under the Duke of Warwick, an ally of York. His Yorkist leanings may have motivated his 1450 ambush and attempted murder of Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham, a prominent Lancastrian. This crime triggered a year-and-a-half stint in which Malory “became a law-breaker [after] being a peaceable and presumably well-to-do citizen…. In the course of eighteen months—from January 1450 to July 1451—he was charged with a robbery, a theft, two cattle-raids, some extortions, a rape, and even an attempted murder”(Vinaver xvi). But before he could be sentenced, he escaped from the sheriff’s manor-house at Coleshill by swimming across its moat. By 1468, Malory had switched to supporting the Lancastrians and was later released from prison after Henry VI’s restoration, presumably for his new loyalties. Malory died only a few months later in 1471.
Is Malory likely to have been Yorkist or Lancastrian? Warwickshire may have been rather divided. But one of the charges against Malory at the Nuneaton inquisition on 23 August 1451, was an attempt with 24 others to kill Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham in Combe Woods on 4 Jan. 1450. On this and other charges the Duke and the Earl of Warwick were ordered to arrest him, and on 25 July 1451 the Duke did so, subsequently, when Malory had escaped from Coleshill, presiding at the inquisition. But in the meantime, on 20 July 1451, Malory had been raiding the deer-park at Caludon, in which the Duke had an interest, with his illegitimate kinsman, John Stafford Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk. I think in 1461, which, according to J. H. Ramsey, Lancaster and York, ii. 283, is in Rotuli Parliamentaroum [the Rolls of Parliament] v. 476. This is not accessible to me here, but may be to you. Apparently there was a second act of attainder [felony or treason, for which the accused can lose property and inheritance rights] in 1465 (Ramsey ii. 211 from Rot. Parl. v. 511), but I do not know whether other names are there. Swinford at least seems to have passed to Malory's heirs in Edwardian days.
But even if the exclusion from the pardons of 1468 was due to Lancastrianism, does it follow, as your p. xxvii says, that “there is reason to believe that he continued to pay the penalty of his rebellion until his death in 1471”? Henry VI was restored on 9 October 1470, and presumably any adherents still in prison would be released then.
Dated: July 6, 1959
In the late 1950s, American novelist John Steinbeck began work on an Arthurian novel that, although never completed, was published after his death as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976). Because Steinbeck wanted to base his retelling of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur on the Winchester manuscript, he contacted the world’s foremost expert on the manuscript—Vinaver. Their resulting correspondence spans over twenty years. Below is a fascinating excerpt. In a previous letter, Steinbeck—anxious that he could not understand a medieval author—lamented that “Malory’s way is not our way.” Here, Vinaver responds, offering consolation to Steinbeck:
The forms which we call mediaeval, if they have once lived, can live again, and do in fact live again, unnoticed by the so-called historians. Your Tortilla Flat could have been a romance of Chretien de Troyes, just as Proust’s novel could have been a thirteenth-century prose cycle. Neither is really consonant with what 20th century literature, as seen by historians, ought to be: they owe their existence to the kind of unexpected and uncharted discovery that any great writer makes, often to the bewilderment and annoyance of his immediate readers. But in the end it is, of course, the writer who wins, and the reader has to crawl back to him on his knees.
I am saying all this because I want to introduce one important qualification into your formula: ‘Malory’s way is not ours’: I should say no, it isn’t, but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t yours. Of course, we being what we are, always expect to find in a book something similar to what we have already experienced in another (critics certainly do), and this is why we are always inevitably lagging behind you. You can really do exactly what you like with us. It is normal for us to behave stupidly when we first come into contact with an unfamiliar creative achievement, and then to give in and declare ourselves conquered; and it lies, I think, within your power to make any literary form live—and live so intelligibly and significantly as to alter the angle of vision of a whole generation of readers.
Among the more visually creative effects in Steinbeck’s Malorian novel was his rendering of his dedication to his sister in the style of the Winchester manuscript. Apparently, he wanted to reproduce the medieval manuscript page as authentically as possible. To do this, Steinbeck went on a self-proclaimed “queste” to London, where he bought sheets of vellum (softened calfskin used as a writing surface) that were already written on and, in the first excerpt below, describes how he tries to remove the script (Steinbeck and Wallsten 591). Then, with Vinaver’s help, he found a scribe capable of copying the fifteenth-century secretary “hand” (handwriting) of the original page. In the second excerpt below, Vinaver recommends a specific folio from the manuscript because it features the handwriting of both the Winchester’s scribes. For ease of comparison, I have included both the specified Winchester folio and Steinbeck’s dedication page above.
Friday June 27, 1958
Dear Eugène and Betty,….
I forgot to hand you some of the vellum we bought. I shall enclose it with some books I have ordered to be sent to you.
I tried soaking some of it in detergent and found the ink comes out readily. I suppose that it should then be ironed dry with a warm iron or boned to smoothness. I am taking some sheets home with me and will experiment with it to recover its original surface….
April 28, 1959
My dear John,….
I still have the vellum sheets you bought on your last visit, and I have been waiting for final instructions from you as to the way you want the work done. First of all, is the text you sent me some time ago final? And secondly, which of the Winchester hands do you want reproduced? There is a sample of both on f. 35 recto (reproduced in my edition facing p. lxxxviii of the Introduction). The ‘scribe’ [John Stanley] I have in mind is a very competent person, and I think he can do the job really well. As soon as I hear from you again I will put it in hand….
Stansby’s edition of the Morte is the sixth edition of the Caxton Malory and, because of its age, a rare book. (See above.) The Winchester manuscript probably remained in obscurity for so long because it was mistakenly catalogued as this Stansby edition. According to Walter Oakeshott, “[t]he catalogue made of the Fellows’ Library in the early nineteenth century has a detailed and precise account of the book [Winchester MS]. It does not, however, mention Malory’s name but describes the manuscript by reference to the pages in the 1634 edition of the Most Ancient and Famous History of Prince Arthur, of which there was also a copy in the library. If Malory’s name had been recorded in the catalogue, the manuscript could hardly have escaped notice so long” (6). Stansby’s preface notes that “in many places this Volume is corrected…for here and there, King Arthur or some of his Knights were declared in their communications to sweare prophane, and use superstitious speeches, all (or the most part) of which is either amended or quite left out, by the paines and industry of the Compositor and Corrector at the Presse.”
Two of the earliest newspaper articles detailed the discovery of the Winchester manuscript. One of these articles may have informed Vinaver of the discovery. They are dated:
- Monday, June 25, 1934. “Malory Find at Winchester” published in the Daily Telegraph
- Tuesday, June 26, 1934. “A ‘Morte Darthur’ Manuscript” published in The Times
Ironically, The Times article does not even mention Walter Oakeshott, the librarian who fortuitously discovered the manuscript. The Telegraph article was written by H. D. Ziman, Secretary of the Friends of the National Libraries (FNL), after viewing the manuscript in an exhibit that Oakeshott organized exclusively for the FNL. Oakeshott asserts that “[Ziman] wrote it—and a day or two later Professor Vinaver…appeared from Manchester on my doorstep, asking to see the book” (Oakeshott 4). Vinaver’s former student and colleague F[rederick] Whitehead offers a different story, claiming that an unnamed “friend who had read the announcement of the discovery in The Times…informed Vinaver by telephone” (Whitehead vi). Either way, one of these articles was responsible for bringing Vinaver to Winchester.
In an article published in The Times on August 25 (two months after the manuscript’s discovery was publicized), Oakeshott offers a “preliminary analysis” of the key differences between the text of the Winchester manuscript (W) and the 1485 Caxton edition (C). Highlights of Oakeshott’s analysis include:
- The establishment of an earlier date of composition for W, based on analysis of a vellum fragment and watermarks. While C was printed in 1485, W’s date of composition is estimated to range from 1470-80.
- More direct evidence of Sir Thomas Malory’s authorship. W contains colophons (inscriptions at the end of a section that identifies the author by name) omitted in C. In one revelatory colophon, the author refers to himself as a “knight prisoner Sir Thomas Malleore,” providing biographical information that helps identify which one of four documented Sir Thomas Malory’s might be our author.
- C’s drastic abridgement of the Roman War section, which is half of the length of the corresponding section in W.
- C’s liberal rewritings of Malory’s text, particularly Caxton’s translations of Malory’s French phrases into English. Vinaver, in a lecture at Leeds University, would later call “the freedom [with which Caxton made changes] criminal in a modern publisher.”
Included with this analysis was an illustrated reproduction of one page from W, folio 357v (see right).
It is written in a 15th century secretary script barely legible to modern eyes. Observe:
- The proper names, like Galahad, Melias, and Sankgreall (Old French for “holy grail”). Like all the proper nouns in W, they are written in a slightly larger hand and, strikingly, in red ink (but not visible in the newspaper’s black-and-white copy).
- The last line of the page, which reads “Now turnyth the tale unto Syr Melyas de Lyle.” Clearly set apart from the rest of the text and rubricated (written in red ink), this explicit-like transition signals the text’s shift from one tale to another.
- The image of a cross in the bottom left margin, which reflects a moment in the story. In this part of the Grail Quest, Sir Galahad has befriended a Danish prince, Sir Melias. They encounter a cross planted at the fork in the road. An inscription on the cross challenges them to take one of the two paths: the right-hand road will test whether one is a “good man” while the left-hand road offers the chance to win “prouesse” or knightly glory through battle. Young Melias chooses the left-hand path (which in Christian symbolism is always the wrong or sinful direction), leaving Galahad on the right path. The drawing of the cross not only visually recreates the scene but also marks a suspenseful crux in the characters’ drama. What will happen to Melias? The drawing is visually linked to the transitional phrase that promises to reveal the outcome of Melias’ choice, so the combination of text and image work together to propel readers forward, urging us to turn the page.
Vinaver took eleven years to complete his edition of the Winchester Malory. During this time, only he and discoverer Oakeshott were allowed to see the manuscript. The Winchester Fellows, who owned the manuscript at the time, made it clear that Vinaver could only access it in the confines of the John Rylands Library in Manchester. (The Winchester manuscript is now owned by the British Library in London.) Below is a transcription of the letter from Sir Frederick J. Kenyon, a Winchester Fellow, to Vinaver granting him permission to examine the manuscript.
Aug. 28, 1936
I am writing on behalf of the Warden and Fellows of Winchester to ask when you would wish to have the MS of Malory placed at your disposal to work at. As you will no doubt have seen, Mr. Oakeshott has published his account of his discovery in the Times, and I think he will soon have finished the work he wishes to do from it before parting with it for your use. I have arranged with Dr. [Henry] Guppy to reprint the MS in the John Rylands Library, where you will be able to have access to it under the conditions in force for the use of MSS in that library. I do not know whether you are now at Manchester, but if you will let me know when you will be able to begin work on it, I will arrange for the MS to be sent.
F. J. Kenyon
The Winchester MS vs. Vinaver’s Works: A Comparative Look
Vinaver’s method of editing has recently come under increasing fire from the scholarly community. As public access to the Winchester manuscript has increased, scholars have begun to see the liberties Vinaver took in preparing his edition. Some even claim his decisions misrepresent the contents of the Winchester. See the images below. The first is a facsimile of the Winchester manuscript opened to the so-called “May” passage; beside it is the identical passage in Vinaver’s Works. Here are a few of the drastic changes made. W’s prose is an unbroken wall of text, with neither paragraphing nor much punctuation. Malory’s writing style, as D. Thomas Hanks describes it, is “simple and colloquial, objective and fact-crammed, non-pictorial: fast-moving” (Hanks 24). This final adjective is key. In viewing the manuscript, readers experience a fast-paced and lively narrative. In contrast, Vinaver—by drastically changing the layout (adding modern punctuation, paragraphing, and chapter breaks) —seems to fragment and slow down the same narrative. Clearly, Vinaver’s editorial intentions were good; he aimed to render the imposing wall of W’s text into a form more suitable for modern readers’ sensibilities. He admitted that “I had no hesitation in giving it, as far as possible, the appearance of a modern novel and avoiding at all costs that of a learned treatise” (Works 1st ed. Introduction, cxxiv-cxxv). But do his editorial choices render his Works too different from the Winchester, his source? Helen Cooper thinks so. In discussing Vinaver’s section breaks, she writes:
Vinaver’s ignoring of [the Winchester’s] large capitals…is so frequent as to be almost normal practice in his edition. In the whole of the ‘Tristram,’ for instance, only half of the large capitals in the manuscript are used by Vinaver for his own text divisions; the other half of the divisions he gives have no manuscript justification, and, equally, the remaining half of the large capitals are ignored, sometimes to the point where they are not signaled even by a paragraph break. This means that Vinaver is imposing his own editorial layout at odds with that given by the scribes; and this matters very considerably, given that there is strong evidence that the scribes themselves inherited their layout from their exemplar, and that there is therefore weighty evidence that it may be Malory’s own. (Cooper 263; emphasis mine)
This particular part of the story, the “May” passage, is one instance where Vinaver makes radical editorial changes. This episode compares the coming of spring (“that lusty moneth of May”) to lovers’ renewal of “corrayge” and “stabylité” to each other. Malory compares “stable” (faithful) love to spring and “unstable” (unfaithful) love to winter. He ends by explicitly labeling Gwenyver a “trew lover,” a problematic statement considering her adultery with Launcelot. One way to make sense of this statement is to interpret Gwenyver as a faithful lover of Launcelot (not Arthur) in that she inspires the knight to perform amazing feats of knighthood. In W, for example, the May passage directly follows a tournament in which a disguised Launcelot fights and wins the competition while wearing Gwenyver’s golden sleeve. Thus, Malory arguably sets up Gwenyver as a “trew lover” according to the tenets of courtly love, precisely because she inspires Launcelot’s chivalric prowess. Her love for him is ennobling and results in his military glory. In essence, one could argue, Launcelot’s victory in the tournament justifies his affair with Gwenyver; the subsequent May passage makes explicit Malory’s condoning of their adultery. But Vinaver, instead of allowing the text to flow uninterrupted from the tournament to the May passage, inserts a section break between the two. The May passage, instead of ending the tournament section now begins a new section titled “The Knight of the Cart.” In making this change, Vinaver renders the May passage a prelude to Gwenyver’s abduction scene, the only episode in the entire Morte where Launcelot, after rescuing the queen, explicitly sleeps with her. When she is accused of adultery and treason by her abductor Mellyagaunce, Launcelot is forced to defend her honor on the battlefield. While Launcelot does win the final fight against Mellyagaunce, his moral justifications are questionable at best. Does he win because he fights for a just cause (the queen’s innocence)? Or because Mellyagaunce has committed even more egregious sins than Launcelot? Or simply because he is a better warrior than Mellyagaunce? Malory does not provide a clear answer, but “The Knight of the Cart” forces both characters and readers to confront the lovers’ guilt and deception. Vinaver’s repositioning of the May passage therefore sends readers mixed messages about the lovers, and the relationship between chivalry and courtly love. Thus, Vinaver’s intrusive editorial choices might further corrupt the intended meaning of an already problematic passage.
The French Arthurian prose cycle with its various ramifications was not an ‘assemblage of stories’, but a singularly perfect example of thirteenth-century narrative art, subordinate to a well-defined principle of composition and maintaining in all its branches a remarkable sense of cohesion. It was an elaborate fabric woven out of a number of themes which alternated with one another like the threads of a tapestry: a fabric whose growth and development had been achieved not by a process of indiscriminate expansion, but by means of a consistent lengthening of each thread. Malory’s adaptation, on the other hand, was far from possessing or even attempting the unity which is claimed for it by the critics. He never tried to reduce his French romances to ‘one story’; the method he used was both more subtle and more drastic. With great consistency…he endeavoured to break up the complex structure of his sources and replace their slowly unfolding canvas of recurrent themes by a series of self-contained stories. It was a delicate and difficult process of unravelling, of collecting the various stretches of any given thread and letting it unwind itself with as few interruptions as possible. (Works 1st ed. Introduction, viii)
But Vinaver insists his argument does not devalue Malory’s work: “Instead of a ‘single work’ subordinate to an imaginary principle of all-embracing dramatic ‘unity’, what we have before us is a series of works forming a vast and varied panorama of incident and character. What their ‘assemblage’ may lose in harmony it gains in diversity and richness of tone, expressive of the author’s real design.” (Works 2nd ed. Introduction, xli)
In response to medievalists’ nearly universal backlash to his theory, Vinaver adhered to his original thesis, forcefully defending it in “The Problem of Unity,” which debuted in his second edition of Works. That “Malory wrote eight separate romances does not imply that there are any serious discrepancies in their portrayal of characters or that there are no links and similarities to be found between them. All it means is that the eight romances are not structurally unified…and that in so far as there was a principle of ‘singleness’ in the composition of these romances it operated within the limits of each individual romance, not for Le Morte Darthur as a whole.” (Works 2nd ed. Introduction, xlii-iii)
In the same essay, Vinaver makes an astute observation about why his theory proved so controversial:
We take it for granted that unity is not only a supreme artistic merit, but a feature without which no work of literature, regardless of its date and character, has any claim to recognition. To show that Le Morte Darthur was ‘one book’ and not several was therefore not simply to add to its value: it was to establish its existence as a work of art. No wonder, then, that when I ventured to suggest that Le Morte Darthur, as the Winchester MS. seemed to me to show, was not one book, but several, people in various parts of the English-speaking world felt that something precious was being taken away from them – not just a particular aspect of the book, but the book itself…. (Works 2nd ed. Introduction, xliv)
Today, Vinaver’s eight tale theory has been widely rejected. His defense failed to persuade most scholars, who remain convinced that Malory’s text—whatever its structural flaws—coheres enough to be considered a unified whole. But even if we disagree with his thesis, we need not disregard his contribution to the field of medieval romance. His edition remains a popular source for medievalists worldwide, and his theory initiated valuable discussion about our assumptions for works of high literature.
Malory’s difficulty was that there was simply no form ready made for him. He had abandoned the interwoven complexities of the old cyclic romances he translated. Neither the prose short story nor the prose novel had evolved sufficiently for him to employ it. He was dealing with extremely complicated material, and [he] had a hard job to master it. What wonder if in parts he lost his command for a while? In the end, such is the power of a great imagination at full stretch, he produced a fairly adequate form; but it is almost sui generis. It is certainly not a collection of unrelated short romances. It is certainly not a novel. It has something of the qualities of both, and something also of the quality of the old cyclic romances. Thanks to Professor Vinaver’s editing we can now see the component parts more clearly, and how they were arrived at. (16-17)
C. S. Lewis, best known for his children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, voiced his disagreement with Vinaver. Though he claims to “be on Mr. Brewer’s side in this question [of unity],” he actually establishes a new way of thinking about literary unity. He argues that it is not a simple question of one vs. many but that the two categories can shade into one another: “I do not for a moment believe that Malory had any intention either of writing a single ‘work’ or of writing many ‘works’ as we should understand the expressions. He was telling us about Arthur and the knights. Of course his matter was one—the same king, the same court. Of course his matter was many—they had had many adventures” (22). Furthermore, Lewis contends that unity is ultimately judged by a text’s readers, not solely imposed by its author. “The choice we try to force upon Malory is really a choice for us. It is our imagination, not his, that makes the work one or eight or fifty. We can read it either way. We can read it now one way, now another. We partly make what we read” (22). His conception of a text seems to owe something to what modern audiences would call reader-response theory, in which a text is a somewhat organic product, as much grown by collaborative dialogue between reader and writer as it is built by a sole author. Lewis illustrates his point best in a metaphor in which he compares the Morte to a cathedral:
Beyond question, Professor Vinaver has shown the cathedral from a new angle; placed the modern pilgrim where he will enjoy it best…The cathedral of words is so large that everyone can find in it the work of his favourite period; and here, as you could not do in a real cathedral, you can always strip that favourite work of later accretions without pulling the whole thing down. What you must not do is to call those bits 'the' or 'the real' cathedral. They might have been. The whole might have been designed by one man and finished in one style. But that is not what happened. Though every part of it was made by a man, the whole has rather grown than been made. Such things have a kind of existence that is almost midway between the works of art and those of nature. (28)
R. M. Lumiansky, a scholar of medieval English, is best known for his 1964 publication of Malory’s Originality. The book, a compilation of essays by Lumiansky and his former students, concludes that Malory intended his Morte to be a single unified narrative. In an ironic echo of Vinaver’s table of contents, Lumiansky devotes each consecutive chapter of his book to one of Vinaver’s eight tales, analyzing each to prove the antithesis of Vinaver’s theory. Each essay focuses on the organic unity of each tale with its antecedents and successors, highlighting cross-references, prefigurings, anticipations, and reflections. According to Lumiansky, Vinaver reduces Malory to “simply a ‘translator’ and ‘redactor’” who “borrowed a great deal from his sources,” but this limited view ignores Malory’s unique “handling of these borrowings [which] resulted in a highly original literary work” (7). In his introduction, Lumiansky lays out his thesis in forceful terms: “[T]he authors of the present study are convinced that Malory wrote a single unified book rather than eight separate ‘Tales’; for that book we have used Caxton’s title, Le Morte Darthur. Whether or not Malory started his writing with the idea of producing a series of separate narratives and later shifted to the idea of a unified book—a situation that we do not believe existed—is not pertinent for this study, which is concerned with Malory’s final intention for his work, insofar as it can now be determined…[A] primary purpose in each of the chapters…is to show the function of the given ‘Tale’ as a part of Le Morte Darthur as a whole….This examination of Le Morte Darthur, we feel, makes indisputably apparent its general unity in theme, structure, and characterization” (4). While certain observations made in these essays are valuable, most reviewers agree that Lumiansky and his colleagues commit the “intentional fallacy” (Greene 121), “uphold[ing their] thesis by reading into Malory’s text things that are not there and by brushing aside or ignoring things that do not fit” (Matthews 159). Still, the book comprises the most expansive and intensely argued repudiation of Vinaver’s theory to date.
P. J. C. Field, an eminent Arthurian scholar, offers a scathing review of Vinaver’s second edition of Works. While it begins with an acknowledgment that the Works “is…the best edition of Le Morte Darthur,” Field claims it is “still not as good as it should be” (180). Field’s confrontational language seems to attack Vinaver more directly than his predecessors did, but his objections do not seem substantially different: “[A new section] is an attack (pp. xli-li) on R. M. Lumiansky’s argument for the unity of Malory’s work. But despite a number of shrewd strokes, Vinaver does not squarely face the point…that Malory deliberately and successfully altered the characterisation of his very diverse sources towards a single central idea” (181). Dismissive as this opening seems, Field unleashes his most devastating ammunition on Vinaver’s errors in transcription. One particularly biting section points out Vinaver’s hypocrisy in criticizing Sommer’s mistakes (see above) when he himself commits numerous errors:
The text of this edition is the best we have yet had of Malory, though very conservative in its adherence to the Winchester MS (W) against Caxton (C). It combines intelligent if careless editing with maximum readability: the combination of old spelling with modern punctuation and layout gives clarity; the emendatory symbols are informative but not distracting; and the apparatus criticus at the foot of the page is terse and logical….This said, two criticisms remain to be made…[T]he editor still adheres too closely to Bédier’s principles, and so shirks the responsibilities of his own intelligence. He gives us a Winchester Morte Darthur at times when Malory’s Morte Darthur is recoverable….The more serious criticism is of Vinaver’s careless transcription. His strictures on Sommer’s 1889 Morte Darthur (p. cxxxi) are in bad taste when we compare the two editors’ work. Vinaver objects to Sommer having made over a thousand mistakes, but his own ‘Corrigenda’ (pp. 1743-56), compiled with the assistance of three other Malory scholars, contains 622 errors, or one for every two pages of text….If Professor Vinaver’s excellent mind would not bow itself to the drudgery of ensuring correctness, he should have shared the burden and the credit with a more pedestrian associate. (182-83)
Dated: September 9, 1967
While working on the second edition of his Works in the late sixties, Vinaver met Barry Gaines at the University of Wisconsin, where Vinaver was a visiting professor. Although Gaines identifies his area of specialty as English Renaissance drama, “I enrolled in Vinaver’s Malory seminar despite my lack of training in things medieval. Professor Vinaver later chose me as his research assistant” (Gaines x). As his assistant, Gaines was instrumental in helping Vinaver proofread and correct his text for the 1967 second edition and, moreover, compiled an annotated bibliography of Caxton editions until 1900, which Vinaver published in his Addenda (pp. 1756-59) to the corrected 1973 impression of the three-volume Works. The remainder of this exhibit largely stems from the correspondence between Vinaver and Gaines as they worked on corrections and additions to both the three- and one-volume second editions.
In this letter, Vinaver informs Gaines that they will soon have to turn their attention to the one-volume Malory “in old [Middle English] spelling,” which would be published four years later in 1971. Later, Vinaver declares with excitement that “my new [second edition] 3-volume Malory is definitely going to be out next month” and, indeed, Clarendon Press promptly published it in October 1967. Vinaver goes on to laugh about the “howlers” or egregious mistakes that the press originally printed and then lapses into nostalgia.
Dated: October 5, 1971
In this letter, Vinaver rejoices that Clarendon Press is running out of his second-edition Works because it will give him an opportunity to “get rid of that horrid list of corrigenda [Latin for “corrections”] at the end of vol. III!” His sardonic remark that “[r]eviewers are on the whole much better at spotting misprints than at understanding what the book is about” might refer to P. J. C. Field’s caustic 1969 review, in which Field blasted Vinaver for his numerous typographical errors. Later, Vinaver discusses additions to be made and details about incorporating such addenda into the layout of the current edition. Vinaver’s and Gaines’ collaborative process of corrections and additions would take two years to complete; the corrected impression was published in 1973.
To the right is one of Vinaver’s many handwritten pages of corrigenda. It is unclear what the Roman numerals indicate, but the entries listed under “III” all seem to be proper nouns (either names or places). The listed “1, 2, 3” in the left margins indicate in which one of the three volumes the mistake is located. In each entry from left to right is listed: the mistaken word or phrase, followed by a parenthesis, the corrected word or phrase, and the page and line number, separated by a period.
Letter from Vinaver to Barry Gaines
Dated: May 26, 1972
In the eight months since the last displayed letter, Vinaver and Gaines managed to make all their corrections to the 1700+ pages of the second edition, so that by this date “the entire work is now in the hands of the Press.” Only the Addenda remained to be written. This is a rather impressive turnaround, considering that Vinaver underwent a medical procedure and taught “two rather difficult new courses requiring a lot of preparation” during his appointment at the University of Victoria. In a telling statement, Vinaver admits that “[w]hen I was allowed to resume work on a limited scale I said to myself that something had to go, and decided that the first priority was my commitment to the students.” Gaines, meanwhile, visited both the John Rylands Library in Manchester and the British Museum in London to examine editions of Caxton. In this letter, Vinaver asks Gaines how he would like to format his bibliography and how he would like to be credited. He also offers to pay Gaines for his work: “after all the three-volume Malory is a marketable commodity, and there is no reason why a contribution to it such as an up-to-date bibliography should not carry a remuneration of some sort.”
Dated: July 10, 1972
In this letter, Vinaver laments the burgeoning costs of his corrected edition to Clarendon Press and, urged on by the press, discusses speeding up his preparation of the Addenda. To do so, he suggests a change in Gaines’ contribution, to which Gaines readily consented:
I wonder whether the best solution of the problem would not be for you to contribute…a bibliography of the post-Caxton editions of Malory….Would you care to do that?…No such bibliography exists, and you seem to me to be in an excellent position to compile one. Perhaps it would be wise to set the year 1947 as the chronological limit and have the first edition of my 3 vol. text as the last item. Or you might like to stop at 1900—all that is up to you. But I do feel that in a definitive version of the work there is room for this kind of bibliography, since my own bibliography, as you know, does not go beyond Caxton.
Later in the letter, Vinaver congratulates Gaines on his purchase of a rare Caxton edition, a 1634 volume edited by William Stansby, to enrich his personal collection of Malory texts. In a previous letter dated just four days before this one, Gaines proudly recounted his acquiring of a “beautiful copy of the edition of 1634, the last of the black letter reprints of Caxton. I found the volume offered for sale for $300 and decided that never again would I have the opportunity and the money – so I bought it.” By “the last of the black letter reprints,” Gaines means that Stansby’s Malory was the last of the Caxton editions printed in the heavy, ornate type known as “black letter”; by the seventeenth century, presses had largely switched over to a lighter, simpler “Roman” typeface. The 1634 Stansby edition was the last edition of Malory printed for over a century (until 1816), when scholarly interest in medieval topics, including Arthuriana, was revived. Even as distinguished a Malory scholar as Vinaver admitted that “I have never yet seen [the Stansby edition] advertised in any catalogue: it is “a wonderful find.” In 2012, Gaines sold this Stansby edition to the Robbins Library at the University of Rochester. See above for images.
Dated: August 12, 1972
Having received Gaines’ bibliography, Vinaver offers it a title and justifies why he chooses to cut a part of it. One of his considerations is purely practical; he would like to limit the cost to the press (which has already spent £800 in corrections!) and, ultimately, the retail price of his new edition. Included with this letter was a check for $200 made out to Gaines as “a purely symbolic expression of [Vinaver’s] gratitude.” (A pencil notation in the corner of the letter reads “$200 enclosed.”) In a later letter, Gaines reveals that Vinaver’s payment will “send…me on a vacation in Mexico which I had planned but not quite financed. Only today I charged my air line tickets thinking that I would let September's work pay for August's fun.”
Also included here is Vinaver’s “Note to the Corrected Impression,” published in 1973. Here, he formally thanks Barry Gaines for his contribution.
Six years after the one-volume edition was first published (in 1971), Clarendon Press published the corrected reprint. (See above for an image.) This text reproduces the text of the 1973 three-volume second edition, “but without the Introduction, the critical apparatus, the Index, and the Bibliography” (ix). Vinaver proudly calls this text “a definitive edition,” a sentiment Gaines echoes in a later letter.
Dated: May 30, 1978
Here, Gaines discusses his receipt of the one-volume paperback edition in the most complimentary terms. His declaration that “it will be the most widely used of all the editions” has proven prophetic. Professors at universities worldwide order this volume for their Malory courses, and students (including those studying here at the University of Rochester) carry around their plump but portable red-bound paperbacks to classes and conferences. Vinaver’s work continued to influence scholarship after his death in 1979. In 1990, distinguished Arthurian scholar P. J. C. Field published the third edition of the three-volume Works, making additional corrections to render the text as “factually accurate” as possible in light of new discoveries and scholarship done since Vinaver’s death (Field 1747). Its retail price, $375, testifies to the Works’ persistent popularity (Kennedy 1002). As Gaines says, Vinaver’s lifetime dedication to Malory—encapsulated in his aptly named Complete Works—is “an enduring monument.”
- A photo of Professor Vinaver taken at the University of Victoria. (See right.) Date unknown, but possibly from 1972-1973 when Vinaver spent a year as a visiting professor at the university.
- A 1955 catalogue and order form for several of Vinaver’s publications. This provides a snapshot of Vinaver’s lifetime devotion to Arthurian studies, starting from his 1929 book that drew on his dissertation through his editions of Malory that would occupy him until his death in 1979. A review from the Sunday Times lauds Vinaver’s Works as the “most exciting and important event in English literary scholarship in this century.” Though this declaration may have been premature, the edition’s rising prices attest to its continuing popular demand. As listed in this catalogue the three-volume edition retailed for £7.70 (about $20) in 1955. By the time the corrected second edition was published in 1973, the price had skyrocketed to £84 (about $210), outpacing the rate of inflation. Now, its price has stabilized at £90 retail (about $140).
- A Christmas card from the Vinavers to Barry Gaines and his family. It reads:I am in the process of writing you a long letter, but meanwhile I don’t want to delay our season’s greetings to you both, with the best of good wishes for 1971. E. V. Dated December 26, 1970, this card was sent just months before Vinaver’s one-volume second edition Malory went to press. The contents of the aforementioned “long letter” may refer to their work on this text.
- An undated, handmade Christmas card from Vinaver to Gaines. The drawing on the cover is a comedic take on a famous Arthurian scene, where the newly-crowned king Arthur is presented with the magical sword Excalibur. He witnesses a samite-clothed hand (belonging to the Lady of the Lake) clasping the sword as it rises from the watery depths. Vinaver’s card features an ink drawing of a stunned young man cringing in a bathtub as a similar hand rises from the water, brandishing a sword. (See below.)
- The program for Vinaver’s funeral, held August 2, 1979. Vinaver passed away on July 21, 1979, just a month after his 80th birthday from malignant lymphoma. He was survived by his wife Elizabeth and son Adam.
Editions of Vinaver’s Works
Malory, Sir Thomas. Malory: Complete Works. 2nd ed. [one-volume]. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
———. Malory: Complete Works. 2nd ed. [one-volume] with corrections. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.
———. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. 3 vol. 1st ed. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947.
———. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. 3 vol. 2nd ed. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.
———. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. 3 vol. 2nd ed. reprint with corrections. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
———. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. 3 vol. 3rd ed. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. Revised by P. J. C. Field. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.
Contents of the Exhibit
“A ‘Morte Darthur’ Manuscript Discovery at Winchester.” The Times 26 June 1934: 17.
Brewer, D. S. "Form in the Morte Darthur" Medium Ævum 21 (1952), 14-24.
Field, P. J. C. Rev. of The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, ed. Eugène Vinaver, 2nd edition. Studia Neophilologica: A Journal of Germanic and Romance Philology 41:1 (1969), 180-84.
“Introduction.” Malory’s Originality: A Critical Study of Le Morte Darthur. Ed. R. M. Lumiansky. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964. 1-7.
Kato, Takako, director and Hayward, Nick, designer. The Malory Project. The British Library Board, 2006. <http://www.maloryproject.com>. Accessed 26 April 2013.
Lewis, C. S. “The English Prose Morte.” Essays on Malory. Ed. J.A.W. Bennett. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963. 7-28.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur by Syr Thomas Malory. The Original Edition of William Caxton now Reprinted and Edited with an Introd. and Glossary. Ed. H. Oskar Sommer. London: D. Nutt, 1889-1891.
———. The Most Ancient and Famous History of Prince Arthur. Ed. William Stansby. London: William Stansby “for Jacob Bloome”, 1634.
———. The Winchester Malory: a facsimile. Introduction by N. R. Ker. London: Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society, 1976.
Oakeshott, Walter E. “A Malory MS. The Discovery at Winchester: Variants from the Text of Caxton.” The Times 25 August 1934: 11-12, 14.
Racine, Jean. Principes de la tragedie en marge de la Poétique d'Aristote. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. Manchester: Editions de l'Université de Manchester, 1951.
Steinbeck, John. The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights: from the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory and Other Sources. Ed. Chase Horton. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.
———. A Life in Letters. Ed. Elaine A. Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten. New York: Viking, 1975.
Vinaver, Eugène. On Art and Nature: and Other Essays. Eds. W. R. J. Barron. Whitstable, Kent: Short Run Press, 2000.
———. The Rise of Romance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
———. Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut dans l'oeuvre de Thomas Malory. Paris: H. Champion, 1925.
Ziman, H. D. “Malory Find at Winchester. Pre-Caxton MS of ‘Morte D’Arthur: Earliest Text in Existence.” Daily Telegraph 25 June 1934: 7.
Barron, W. R. J. “Preface.” On Art and Nature by Eugène Vinaver. Ed. W. R. J. Barron. Whitstable, Kent: Short Run Press, 2000. v-viii.
Bennett, Philip E. “Vinaver, Eugène (1899-1979)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/65488>. Accessed 24 Jan 2013.
Brewer, D. S. Rev. of The Rise of Romance by Eugène Vinaver. The Modern Language Review 48:4 (Oct 1973), 885-887.
Butler, Philip F. Rev. of Racine et la Poésie Tragique by Eugène Vinaver. The Modern Language Review 60:1 (Jan 1965), 113-114.
Cooper, Helen. “Opening Up the Malory Manuscript.” The Malory Debate: Essays on the Texts of Le Morte Darthur. Eds. Bonnie Wheeler, Robert L. Kindrick, and Michael N. Salda. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000. 255-84.
Gaines, Barry. “A Forgotten Artist: John Harris and the Rylands Copy of Caxton’s Edition of Malory.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 52 (1969): 115-28.
———. Sir Thomas Malory: An Anecdotal Bibliography of Editions 1485-1985. New York: AMS Press, 1990.
Greene, Richard Leighton. Rev. of Malory’s Originality: A Critical Study of “Le Morte Darthur” by R. M. Lumiansky. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 66:1 (Jan 1967): 120-124.
Hanks Jr., D. Thomas. “Malory, Dialogue, and Style.” Quondam et Futurus 3:3 (Fall 1993): 24-35.
Kennedy, Edward Donald. Rev. of The Works of Sir Thomas Malory by Eugène Vinaver by P. J. C. Field. Speculum 67:4 (Oct. 1992): 1001-1002.
Lacy, Norris J. Rev. of On Art and Nature and Other Essays by Eugène Vinaver. Arthuriana 11:3 (Fall 2001), 146-147.
Matthews, William. Rev. of Malory’s Originality: A Critical Study of “Le Morte Darthur” by R. M. Lumiansky. Speculum 41:1 (Jan 1966): 155-159.
Oakeshott, W. F. “The Finding of the Manuscript.” Essays on Malory. Ed. J. A. W. Bennett. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963. 1-6.
Whitehead, F. “Prologue.” Medieval Miscellany Presented to Eugène Vinaver by Pupils, Colleagues and Friends. Eds. F. Whitehead, A. H. Diverres and F. E. Sutcliffe. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1965. v-ix.