Whether this book represents a few weeks of delightful escapism or 938 pages of unrelenting torture will depend a lot on the reader’s background. As my well-worn old copy of King Arthur stories for children can attest, my love affair with knightly tales started at a young age, though I gradually acquired a taste for more and more archaic retellings of the familiar adventures. The tolerance I developed over the years for medieval-style prose, my affection for the characters and stories of Arthurian legend, a hint of nostalgia, and the many fine qualities of Malory’s work all combined to make the experience of reading Le Morte d’Arthur pure delight.
Perhaps the quality that strikes me most when contemplating this literary work is that of contrast. Inhabitants of Arthur’s world are at times inaccessibly mythological, at other times deeply human. Romantic excesses and impossible passions exist in a world that can otherwise be as bleak and heartless as that inhabited by the Norse gods. The wildly fantastical is accompanied by mundane details whose invention seems as unlikely as unnecessary. Stories of bravery and nobility are interspersed with soap opera plots whose participants seem to belong more on the Jeremy Kyle show than in a serious literary work.
Notions such as love, loyalty, hate, respect, and honor are connected in ways foreign to modern man and the outworking of these values and emotions does not fit neatly into currently accepted ideas of morality. The sordid immorality portrayed without judgement in the first couple chapters was the reason that my attempt to read this book as an adolescent was aborted. Thankfully, the whole book does not continue in the vein of lust and murder with which it begins.
A note about this edition: it is not very scholarly and I had a hard time finding information about the editing methods to which it was subjected (no editor is even mentioned). As stated in its introduction, this version is based off of William Caxton’s 1485 printing of Thomas Malory’s text. With the discovery of the earlier Winchester Manuscript, it seems that Caxton’s is no longer necessarily the most reliable source for Malory’s original work; however, Caxton’s edits have value in themselves and, I feel, do not make this version less legitimate. Caxton’s changes included reorganizing the original work into 21 shorter books (originally eight) and further subdividing into chapters. He also added short summaries of the events of each chapter, which are helpful despite the spoilers they provide (this Random House Modern Library edition also uses the right header space to include a short description of each page’s contents, which is extremely helpful). More worryingly, Caxton reworded and shortened Book 5 which tells the tale of King Arthur’s conquest of Rome. This version is listed on the Le Morte d’Arthur Wikipedia page as containing “modernised spelling” and this, along with modernised punctuation, seem to be the only changes made to Caxton’s printing. I even compared the opening lines with a reprinting of Caxton’s original manuscript and found the words and basic sentence structure to be identical. The end effect is very readable prose which retains that vital medieval flavour.
[Why I read it: The memory of my first attempt to read this has always rankled, but I can’t remember what motivated me to finally get around to a second attempt.]