It took me about a year or so, but I finally finished Sir Thomas Malory’s English compendium of Arthurian legend. While you can find more graceful tellings of these stories elsewhere, Malory’s attempt to capture all the facets of them has a magnificent cumulative power to it. Like I said a few months ago, it’s one of those books that feels like a world unto itself.
Although it does ultimately paint a complete arc, depicting the rise and fall of Arthur and the Round Table, treating it as a novel is a good way to burn out on it: the tone of Malory’s prose is dry and historical, and the structure has many redundancies and repetitions, particularly the first half, where most of the more episodic stories are gathered. If anything, the experience is more similar to watching a TV show where the earlier seasons are mostly made up of fairly formulaic monster-of-the-week episodes of varying quality, and with the later seasons experimenting with longer story arcs. I found the best way was to read it in chunks, taking breaks whenever I felt I had pored over a few too many jousts.
Part of the reason I think it worked so well for me was that I have a fascination with those literary tomes that almost function as miniature libraries in their own right – the Canterbury Tales, Moby Dick, etc.
Of course, the rise and fall of Arthur is also the rise and fall of chivalry; chivalry emerges as the answer to a period of instability and barbarism, an attempt to inject morality and order into power. And thus Morte unfolds as an examination of what it means to adhere to a strict moral code in a complex world, and, perhaps more infamously, the relationship between duty and desire. The work’s depth is less in the individual tales, but more in how its motifs inevitably get revisited and re-evaluated by later tales, with the latter part ultimately finding chivalry inadequate when compared to Christian perfection. Chivalry and the culture of knighthood, like any creation of man, eventually reaches its expiration.
So on a meta level Morte emerges as a sort of nostalgic lament by a man who is fascinated by and to some extent identifies with his subject matter. If the historians are correct, Malory spent most of his life as a criminal, thereby becoming a sort of poetic embodiment of the clash between ideals and human reality found in his work.
It’s a great book, and it makes me wonder something: one of the key literary experiences of my life was reading Don Quixote as a teenager. While other books from that time have had a greater staying power with me, Cervantes’ novel was the one which opened me up to the possibilities of literature. Now, Don Quixote was written, at least initially, as a jaundiced deconstruction of exactly the sort of stories Malory compiled. I wonder if my life or reading would have been any different if I had read Malory’s work instead. Or perhaps I needed all those experiences in the interim to be capable of appreciating the man’s work.
Anyway, Peter Ackroyd has a modern prose retelling that I wouldn’t mind checking out at some point.