It’s taken a month of chipping away at this epic tome, but as ever, it’s well worth the journey to do so.
While virtually everyone is familiar with the core of the King Arthur story, there are a great many stories in this cycle that the average person is unfamiliar with. Part of that is because there are so many of them. And part of that is because there are many versions of the story. This collection dates to the high Middle Ages, first published in 1485 by William Caxton after the death of Sir Thomas Malory. I won’t get into the whole authorship debate, but as with Shakespeare and a number of authors predating him, there are questions because there are six knights who bear that name at the time of this book’s writing. The one we’re most interested in is the knight who wrote this book as a prisoner, identified as the author in 1890.
What’s important to put this work into context is the time and place in which it was written. This story cycle is a relic of the Wars of the Roses. Just knowing that lends so much gravitas. Malory was originally a Yorkist who entered into conspiracy with Sir Richard Neville to overthrow Henry IV, resulting in his imprisonment. His actions, whatever they may be, were ultimately forgiven during the temporary reign of Henry VI.
Arthurian legend has always worked best when those who write about it are remembering some idealistic glory days in England’s past. Eleanor of Aquitaine sponsored the writings of Chretien de Troyes to shame the knights in her service and to promote a higher standard of chivalry. In the Victorian era, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote his Idylls of the King because of the renewed interest in the concepts of chivalry and the Middle Ages, based upon Malory’s work. So what does that say for Le Morte d’Arthur? The Wars of the Roses were a time when concepts of honor and chivalry were in short supply. The English had stomped on the French in the Hundred Years War, largely stamping out their flower of chivalry until Joan of Arc rallied the troops and ultimately inspired the French to victory. The aftermath of this led to the sordid events that drove England into civil war, and a lot of knights wanted to be able to serve a noble and just king who could restore glory to their woeful country. This book counts Malory not only among their numbers, but it can be said that he stirred that pot with the popularity of this work. The connection is obvious: Arthur was the prophesied king who united a land divided by petty kings and petty wars. It was the right book at the right time, and it stands today as the most popular account of the Arthurian legend.
The book itself is not, as most today would assume, a novel. That’s a literary form that would not debut for another century or so. Le Morte d’Arthur is more a collection of serialized scenes, or short stories if you will, that comprise a series of larger books, thus collected into the form we know today. Most of the stories take place in an unspecified time, presumably the 5th century, but with anachronisms that would have been modern to Malory’s age. Some of what’s here is based on previous material, and some of it is new from Malory’s pen.
The quality and tone of the writing is certainly archaic to our ears, but for a medievalist like myself, I get an instant grin. The language forms an immediate bridge to “the days of old when knights were bold.” It’s a book that, thanks to modern translations, I’ve read several times over the course of my lifetime, one that’s helped bridge my appreciation of other works from Chaucer to Shakespeare. And as someone who tries to live up to the ideals of knighthood, it’s one of those works that forms a cornerstone in my world.
This particular audio presentation is, in my humble opinion, too long in coming. I have an abridged version of this narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi, which is excellent, but still abridged. There’s a full version by Frederick Davidson, but I’m not really enamored by his performance, to put it mildly. Chris MacDonnell serves as narrator this time around, and he consistently demonstrates an enthusiasm for the material. I think the nature of the book is that most modern readers will have trouble binging this title. Personally, I always appreciate it more in bite-size chunks so that the stories don’t run together. For those who appreciate a good narrator, MacDonnell has done justice to this story, capturing the tone of it quite admirably, and I tend to find that audio makes it easier to absorb the context of the writing style. As with Chaucer and Shakespeare, it’s just easier to understand when performed, at least I think so. The short-scene format of the work makes it perfect for commutes to and from work… which is largely how I listened this time around.