Thomas Malory Biography


The Life of Malory

At the end of Le Morte d'Arthur, Malory wrote, " . . . I pray you all praye for my soule; for this book was ended the ix yere of the reygne of kyng edward the fourth by syr Thomas Maleore knyght . . . " Details elsewhere in his book reveal that he was a prisoner at the time of his writing. On this basis the author of Le Morte d'Arthur is traditionally identified as Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell, who was repeatedly imprisoned between 1451 and 1460, and possibly later. This identification has never been certain and has recently been thrown into serious doubt: the writer may have been another Thomas Malory. Nevertheless, the traditional identification is still widely accepted and has played so important a part in literary folklore that it is worth preserving, if only as a curiosity.

The outlaw Malory was from an old Warwickshire family uneasily aligned with the House of York until the mid-1460's, when Warwick shifted to the Lancastrian camp. Malory was in his twenties when he succeeded to the ancestral estate. He served with the Earl of Warwick at Calais in 1436, was married a few years later, and in 1449 acquired a second estate, that of his sister's husband. All this time he was, as far as we know, a respectable and perhaps well-off citizen. In 1450 he turned outlaw — and with a vengeance. Between 1450 and 1451 he was charged with several major crimes — robbery, two cattle raids, several extortions, a rape, and an attempted murder. He was jailed, but escaped by swimming a moat and immediately after his escape sank to what was for medieval men the darkest of depravities — robbing churches. He broke into the Abbey of the Blessed Mary of Coombe, opened two of the abbot's chests, and stole various sacred objects and two bags of money. He came back the next night with accomplices, broke eighteen doors, insulted the abbot, and stole more money. He was again arrested and remained in prison for three years (1451-1454), except for a short time outside in 1452. When he was released he returned to his criminal activities, was again jailed, again broke out. He was granted a royal pardon in 1455, probably by the Duke of York, and managed to serve for his shire in Parliament for a year; but two years later he was in debtors' prison (Ludgate); and he went to Newgate Prison later (1459). He may have been in prison in 1468, when Edward IV extended his pardon to the Lancastrians but excluded "Thomas Malorie, miles." He may have been released upon the restoration of Henry VI in October, 1470. He died March 14, 1471, and was buried in the chapel of St. Francis at the Grey Friars near Newgate in the suburbs of London.

Although Thomas Malory the highwayman-knight may not in fact have been the author of Le Morte d'Arthur, his criminal activities are no evidence either for or against his claim to authorship of the work. The author of Le Morte d'Arthur says at the end of his book that he is "the seruaunt of Ihesu both day and nyght," and throughout the hook the stiff code of chivalry is played against humane and flexible Christian charity. On the other hand, Malory's myth of Arthur is essentially secular in its focus. Even the Grail Quest, as Malory treats it, is more secular than holy and ironic in spirit: it shows nobility of soil] and, at the same time, through its slaughter of many of Arthur's knights, it dangerously weakens the kingdorn. If the God of Malory's universe is as much a God of love as a ruler of destiny, Merlin — part man, part wizard, part devil — is his only available prophet. What the author of Le Morte d'Arthur knows best is battle, jealousy, sexual lust, sudden rage, frustrated idealism, and the waste of human potential.

Malory and the Legend of Arthur

The earliest recorded tradition concerning Arthur represents him as a leader of the Britons against the Anglo-Saxon invaders. He is supposed to have won the battle of Badon Hill in the sixth century. The battle itself is historical, and since the name Arthur derives from the common Roman name Artorius, it seems likely that the Arthur legend may have begun in the heroism of it real man, one of the Romans who shared the plight of the Celts when the Anglo-Saxons struck. The British historian Gildas, who finished his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae around 540, tells of the battle but says nothing of Arthur. The hero himself first appears in a ninth-century history, The Historia Brittonunt, allegedly drawn from earlier histories. The Historia Brittonunt, begun by a man called Nennius and expanded by later writers, reports that Arthur, though not a British king himself, commanded the British forces and won twelve great victories, one of them the battle of Badon Hill, where Arthur alone killed 960 men. Later in this history the writers speak of a stone bearing the footprint of Arthur's dog, Cabal, and of the tomb of Arthur's son. A still later history, The Annales Cambriae, is the first to tell of Arthur's final battle, in 537, against "Medraut" — Mordred.

Though histories give little space to Arthur until the twelfth century, he was apparently a firmly established folk hero. He is the central figure in numerous ancient Welsh and Irish legends (impossible to date), and by the early twelfth century, some scholars think, he may have been known in northern Italy and France, where names possibly derived from Arthurian folklore occur.

But it was in 1137, with the release of Geoffrey of Monmonth's Historia Regum Britanniae, that the legend solidified. According to Geoffrey, the Historia translates an ancient book in the British language. Except for his earliest readers, no one has believed him. Imaginary sources were a standard ploy of medieval writers. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that the basis of Geoffrey's work was folk history, perhaps even folk history written down. At all events, the spirit of Geoffrey's work is frankly patriotic. It gives the English and Anglo-Norman aristocracy a British hero as noble as the Norman hero Charlemagne. It traces England's genesis to the fall of Troy and the dispersion of the Trojan heroes — that misty antiquity when, for instance, Romulus fled from Troy to Rome, Tuscan to Tuscany, and Brutus to Britain — and by establishing British power as coeval with Roman and French power, it raises Britain out of its subservient position with respect to European kingdoms. This pseudo-history was accepted as fact well into the Renaissance. Arthur, the greatest of Geoffrey's mythical kings, became not only a vital symbol of British national spirit, but the practical model of real medieval and Renaissance kings. Edward III, like Arthur, had a Round Table and twelve peers; Henry VII traced his claim on one side to King Arthur.

Except insofar as folk tradition continued (such as in the tales recorded in the much later Welsh Mabinogion), the further development of the Arthur legend in England was almost wholly political in impetus. Only Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a few courtly tales such as Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale, and a half dozen Scottish Arthurian pieces stand outside the general trend. Wace's Roman de Brut, a poem in French apparently presented to the wife of Henry II of England in 1154, closely paraphrases Geoffrey and maintains the patriotic spirit, merely embellishing it with verse. Layamon's Brut, which began as an English paraphrase of Wace, intensifies the nationalistic spirit of the poem in three respects-first, by the use of the English language; second, by substituting native alliterative meter for Wace's continental poetic form, octosyllabic couplets; and third, by introducing new material — both new events and a new intensity of emotion — to reach more than double the length of Wace's poem; i.e., Layamon expands Wace's 1,500+ lines to 32,000+. Another English alliterative poem, the Morte Arthure, composed in the mid-fourteenth century, during the reign of Edward III, has political implications of a gloomier sort. Here Arthur's conquests are made to parallel Edward's, Arthur's battles grimly parody Edward's battles, and Arthur's tragedy — a fall through pride-warns Edward that a similar fate may await him. The poem is the direct source of Malory's "Arthur and King Lucius" sequence and may, in the opinion of some scholars, have provided Malory with a model for political comment through romance. Whereas the Morte Arthure poet identified Arthur with Edward, Malory alters details as if to equate Arthur and Henry V, suppresses the tragic conclusion of the poem, and thus perhaps sets the glory of Arthur — and of Henry V — in ironic counterpoise with what came afterward in Malory's England.

Naturally enough, the Arthurian legend reflected in Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae was developed along very different lines in France. It provided not a national myth, but subject matter for fiction. It provided material for the relatively short "Breton lays" popular in France in the mid-twelfth century and after (not all of the lays are Arthurian), and it provided themes for the more elaborate verse "romances." The earliest which have survived — and perhaps the first written — are those of Chretien de Troyes, elegant and artificial elaborations of older Arthurian stories of (possibly) Welsh origin. Here the tales become threads for moral allegory, illustrations of virtuous behavior, courtesy, and polite conversation. Verse romances of this sort very soon became popular outside France — in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Germany; in England the French influence resulted in the Arthurian Christian parable, Sir Gawain arid the Green Knight.

In the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, French verse romance gave way to prose and to still more ingenious and elaborate art. It was to this form, the prose romance, that Malory turned most often for his material. Whereas French verse romances were relatively straightforward with respect to plot, the prose romances became a gloomy medieval forest of complexity. A given romance might have dozens of main plots, hundreds of digressive episodes (indeed, main plots may be dropped and forgotten), and too many characters for the reader to keep in mind. Scholars are still uncertain about how these prose romances work, and anything we say must be speculative; but since they are Malory's point of departure, some speculation is necessary.

One thing is certain: the greatest of the prose romances — for example, the so-called Vulgate Cycle-begin by dismissing, if they ever thought of it, the Aristotelian idea that a work must be perspicuous. Like the elaborate interlace work in medieval painting, manuscript illumination, and church ornamentation, they intentionally defy intellectual comprehension. They are freighted with symbols of obscure significance, with apparently meaningful but widely separated verbal repetitions, and with subtle relationships between plots and between characters. They were written backward, so to speak, beginning with a "given" of Arthurian romance — for instance the fact that a certain knight has a certain magical sword — and explaining how the hitherto unexplained detail came about. If the prose romance form has any significance in itself, it would seem to be this: like the universe as the Christian Middle Ages conceived it, the prose romance is complex beyond all intelligibility, yet secretly ordered just as the baffling world around us is subtly ordered by God's plan. Knights go on quests, suffer more distractions, diversions, and reversals than the mind can retain; yet trifling events produce, hundreds of pages later, their destinal effects. For some of these events, the motivation of characters is carefully plotted and thoroughly explained; and though events within any given plot may be isolated by the intrusion of events from other plots, no event is isolated in the total process of the cycle's flow of reality. The seemingly shapeless form of the romance, like the devious paths its knights ride down, celebrates the optimistic doctrine that nothing is wasted, nothing lost: God moves in strange ways.

Nothing remotely resembling this art form appears in English literature. But in simplifying the French prose romances, Malory did more than reduce an incredibly complex art to mere adventure. Suppressing the carefully worked out motivations he found in his sources, dismissing some of the religious mystery, introducing a seeming realism (either dropping the magic in his sources or presenting it in flat, plain statements of what must be taken for weird fact), Malory changed the premise of Arthurian legend and gave the legend new meaning.

Malory's legend involves hundreds of characters whose names and family relationships, though significant, are sometimes confused. There are various reasons for this confusion in the text. Malory wrote in prison, presumably under less than ideal conditions; he used sources which were themselves sometimes obscure or confused; he consistently changed certain names for purposes of his own but occasionally let the name found in the source creep in; he sometimes misunderstood his French sources; he left no perfect copy of his work — we have only Caxton's much edited edition and one scribal manuscript riddled with errors. The accompanying chart of major character relationships may be helpful.

Other important characters include Merlin the magician, a devil's son; the Lady of the Lake, from whom Arthur gets his sword; Nineve, the sorceress who becomes Lady of the Lake after the death of the first one; Balyn and Balan, the cursed brothers whose relics go to Launcelot and Galahad; Tarquin and Bereuse Saunz PitŽ, enemies of knighthood. Palomydes, Tristram's rival for La Beal Isode, is sometimes designated as the son of Asclabor, elsewhere as "next of kin" to Pellanor. His function in the tragedy is clearer than his genealogy: the destructive potential in his adulterous goal comments on the loves of Tristram and Launcelot, and his pact of friendship with Pellanor's sons (who may or may not be his close relatives) links him with the feud which will wreck Arthur's kingdom.

All of the major houses charted are torn by deadly rivalries and undermined by adulterous love. Arthur and King Lot, his brother-in-law, are enemies partly because of the incestuous union of Arthur and Lot's wife Morgawse — the union which produces Mordred — and Arthur and Lot also begin as rivals for the throne of England. Arthur's best knight, Launcelot, is lover to his wife. Similarly, Melyodas and Mark are political rivals, and Mark's best knight, Tristram, is lover to his wife Isode. Pellanor, fighting for Arthur and the unity of his kingdom, kills Lot and sets off the feud between his own house and Lot's, a feud destined to destroy the kingdom. Yet, ironically, the Grail curse is ended when two rival houses — the house which brought Christ's relics over and the house which received the Dolorous Strokes — are adulterously brought together to produce Galahad.