Helen Cooper edited and abridged the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory, which is arguably the definitive English version of the stories of King Arthur. Completed in 1467-70, it charts the tragic disintegration of the fellowship of the Round Table, destroyed from within by warring factions. It also recounts the life of King Arthur, the knightly exploits of Sir Lancelot du Lake, Sir Tristram, Sir Gawain, and the quest for the Holy Grail. In the original blog post below, Helen Cooper states the case for King Arthur being the most successful commercial brand in English Literature (even more so than Shakespeare) and explains what Malory did that was so remarkable.
King Arthur has some claim to be the most successful commercial brand in the history of English literature, ahead even of Shakespeare. He has certainly been famous for much longer: his reputation has been growing for some fifteen centuries, against Shakespeare’s mere four. The historical Arthur, if he ever existed, was most likely to have been the leader of a war-band trying to hold at bay the invading Saxons in the wake of the withdrawal of the Roman armies, perhaps early in the sixth century. His fame was preserved in oral traditions for the next few hundred years, and only occasionally reached the written record; but after a Norman-Welsh cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth, invented a full biography for him in the 1130s, stories about him have spawned and expanded, until by now we have a deluge of retellings, historical or unashamed fantasy, for adults and children; films, television series, and wargames; parodies at all levels, not least from the Monty Python team; a tourist industry, and consumer items from toy swords to T-shirts. There is even a fast-food shop in Tintagel named Excaliburgers.
Geoffrey wrote in Latin, and the story he invented remains just about plausible in historical terms: his Arthur is a great conqueror who unites Britain under his rule, overruns much of Europe and reaches the very gates of Rome. The first overtly fictional accounts of his court, not least the knights of the Round Table, were written in French. Magic begins to creep into these new stories, and so does love: there is no Lancelot in the historical tradition. For a long time, Arthurian material in English kept largely to the quasi-historical account as outlined by Geoffrey, and anyone who wanted a detailed acquaintance with the romance elaborations of the story still had to read them in French. It was not until the late fifteenth century that a Warwickshire knight, Sir Thomas Malory, distilled the full story of the Round Table into a single English version. The result, the Morte Darthur, is one of the great works of English literature, and it underlies, directly or indirectly, almost every version of the legend produced in the anglophone world since then. Greg Doran’s 2010 production of the Morte with the Royal Shakespeare Company is the latest of these, and its script, by Mike Poulton, is impressively (and exceptionally) faithful to its original.
The qualities that make Malory so remarkable are the same ones that have made most of his literary descendants want to change him. For him, actions speak not only more loudly than words but often instead of them. Causes are often missing and motives have to be deduced, in a way that sets the imagination buzzing. Morality is carried by a few adjectives: noble, worshipful, faithful, against recreant or cowardly. The love of Lancelot and Guinevere is good because it is faithful: ‘she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end’, as Malory puts it in one of his rare authorial interventions, cutting through all the questions about the breaking of feudal and marital vows that help to speed the downfall of the Round Table. The first wave of Arthurian novels tended to follow Malory’s version of the story but filled in the omissions, supplying in particular details of the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. Others recounted sections of Arthur’s life that Malory had passed over, not least his childhood. Current fashions tend to be for feminist and New Age versions, with Morgan le Fay as the most powerful character, or the Grail as the key to all pagan mythologies. (The Grail, for the record, was never regarded in the Middle Ages as anything but a fiction: its elevation towards Dan Brown status began only a century or so ago.) Malory’s genius is to have produced a work that sets the gold standard for Arthurian writing – for all its spareness of style, its phrases stay in your mind, and it can still make you cry – but it does so by inviting the infinite play of the imagination.