Sir Thomas Malory, author of Morte Darthur, was a trouble maker — breaking in, plundering, extorting and, worse, raping — and the Norton Anthology says he possibly “took the law into his own hands with unnecessary enthusiasm.” (Great line, guys!) He spent lots of time in prison, which is where he crafted Morte Darthur.
The Norton Anthology explains that he was a Lancastrian supporter during the Wars of the Roses, and he was likely persecuted by the Yorks (Edward IV supporters) more harshly than he should have been or that he acted up more because the Yorks were in power. He probably would have been happy to see that the Lancasters finally won the battle in 1487 when Henry Tudor of the House of Lancaster took the throne, ending the Wars of the Roses. But Malory died many years before, in 1471, right after Henry VI of Lancaster resumed the throne then lost it to Edward IV of York. Malory’s Morte Darthur wasn’t printed until 1485.
The Norton Anthology points out that Arthurian legend is similar to the legends of Robin Hood and the American West in that they share the ideal of maintaining order in a lawless land by the efforts of the individual, who fights for the right against overwhelming odds. It parallels this ideal to Malory’s life, in which he tried to enforce what he thought was right by violence, but rather than maintaining order, he disrupted it.
What the Norton Anthology draws attention to with Malory’s writing is his use of naturalistic, down-to-earth dialogue; understatement, in which his characters use few words in times of great emotional tension; and narrative prose, as beautiful as had usually been reserved for poetry. One piece I liked was this one, describing the battle between Arthur and Mordred:
And never since was there never seen a more dolefuller battle in no Christian land, for there was but rushing and riding, foining [lunging] and striking; and many a grim word was there spoken of either to other, and many a deadly stroke.
Then King Arthur looked about and was ware where stood Sir Mordred leaning upon his sword among a great heap of dead men.
Then Sir Lucan took up the King the t’one party and Sir Bedivere the other party; and in the lifting up the King swooned and in the lifting Sir Lucan fell in a swoon that part of his guts fell out of his body, and therewith the noble knight’s heart burst. And when the King awoke he beheld Sir Lucan how he lay foaming at the mouth and part of his guts lay at his feet.
What I read was only an excerpt of what sounds like a very long book. But based on what I read here, it’s probably a very enjoyable book to read. It brought life to characters, specifically King Arthur and Sir Gawain, that I haven’t seen in any movies or in any of the previous writings I’ve read about them. (To clarify, this was a very different picture of Sir Gawain than I read in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This character was more robust, was followed over a longer period of time than in the Green Knight, and had a much greater loyalty to Arthur and deeper relationship with him than any of the other knights.)
Also, I was thankful to the Norton Anthology for pointing out how difficult Lancelot’s situation was. As a knight, he was very chivalric — loyalty, strength in battle, and romantic love were all very important. It says: “But Lancelot is compromised by his fatal liaison with Arthur’s queen and torn between the incompatible loyalties that bind him as an honorable knight, on the one hand, to his lord Arthur and, on the other, to his lady Guinevere.” It helped me read it with Lancelot’s struggle in mind.