le Morte D'Arthur

   Le Morte D'Arthur was finished in the ninth year of the reign of Edward IV sometime between March 4, 1469 and the same date in 1470. It is thus, the last important English book written before the introduction of printing into England. Caxton's story of how the book was brought to him and he was induced to print it may be read about in his own preface. From this, we learn that he was not only the printer of the book, but to some extent its editor, dividing Malory's work into twenty-one books, splitting up the books into chapters, and supplying the "Rubrish'' or chapter-headings as well as a brief criticism of Malory's work. Caxton finished his edition the last day of July 1485, some fifteen or so years after Malory wrote his epilogue.
   If the Morte D'Arthur was really written in prison and by a prisoner distressed by ill-health, no task was ever better suited to spend the long lonely hours. No earlier original story has yet been found for Book VII, for Chapter 20 of Book XVIII which describes the arrival of the body of the Fair Maiden of Astolat at Arthur's court, or for Chapter 25 of the same book with its discourse on true love; but the great bulk of the work has been traced to the "Merlin" of Robert de Borron and his successors (Books. I-IV), the English metrical romance La Morte Arthur of the Thornton manuscript (Bk. V), the French romances of Tristan (Books VIII-X) and of Launcelot (Books. VI, XI-XIX), and lastly to the English prose Morte Arthur of Harley MS. 2252 (Books XVIII, XX-XXI). As to Malory's work, critics have not failed to point out that he gives a worse version where a better one has come down to us in a different source; but of the skill and occasional genius with which he used his sources there is little dispute.
   It is believed that Malory died leaving his work un-revised, and in this condition it was brought to Caxton, who prepared it for the press. New chapters are sometimes made to begin in the middle of a sentence, and in addition to simple misprints there are numerous passages in which it is impossible to believe that we have the text as Malory intended it. After Caxton's edition, Malory's manuscript must have disappeared, and subsequent editions are differentiated only by the degree of closeness with which they follow the first. Editions appeared printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498 and 1529, by William Copland in 1559, by Thomas East about 1585, and by Thomas Stansby in 1634, each printer apparently taking the text of his immediate predecessor and reproducing it with modifications. Stansby's edition served for reprints in 1816 and 1856 (the latter edited by Thomas Wright); but in 1817 an edition supervised by Robert Southey went back to a copy of Caxton's text (only two are extant, and only one perfect!) in which eleven leaves were supplied from the Wynkyn de Worde's reprint. In 1868, Sir Edward Strachey produced a reprint of Southey's text in modern spelling, with the substitution of current words for those now obsolete, and the softening of a handful of passages likely to prevent the book being placed in the hands of boys. In 1889, a boon was conferred on scholars by the publication of Dr. H. Oskar Sommer's page-for-page reprint of Caxton's text, with an elaborate discussion of Malory's sources and is considered the standard exact or "diplomatic" text edition.
   Dr. Sommer's edition was used by Sir E. Strachey to revise his Globe text, and in 1897, Israel Gollancz produced for the "Temple Classics'' a very pretty edition in which Sir Edward Strachey's principles of modernization in spelling and punctuation were adopted, but with the restoration of obsolete words and omitted phrases. Obvious misprints have been corrected, but in a few cases notes show where emendations have been introduced from Wynkyn de Worde. There is a recent critical text, edited by James Spisak, 1983, and a facsimile edition, edited by Paul Needham, 1976.

Winchester Manuscript

   Until a mis-catalogued fifteenth-century manuscript at Winchester College was finally recognized in 1934 as Sir Thomas Malory's account of King Arthur and his knights, the only authoritative text was that found in the two surviving copies of William Caxton's 1485 printing. Unfortunately, its first and last pages are missing, so Caxton remains the source for those passages. But it does provide us with new insights into the work as there are thousands of minor differences and a few very large ones between the Caxton and Winchester editions.
   Caxton divided his edition into twenty-one books, with numbered and titled chapters, and called the whole "Le Morte D'Arthur" even though in his own Colophon he states "Notwithstanding that it treateth of the birth, life, and acts of the said King Arthur, of his noble knights of the Round Table, their marvelous enquests and adventures, the achieving of the Sangrail, and in the end the dolorous death and departing out of this world of them all". He also dramatically abridged one long section of Book Five and made some editing changes in wording, sometimes softening Malory's bluntness.
   When Eugene Vinaver edited the Winchester Manuscript for the Oxford English Texts series, he gave the three-volume set with critical notes and glossary the title of "The Works of Sir Thomas Malory" (1947; revised edition, 1967; third edition, re-edited by PJC Field, 1990). Vinaver felt that the manuscript revealed that Malory had produced only a very loosely connected set of narrative works. Vinaver attempted to reproduce what he regarded as Malory's intended structure. He felt that Caxton, as editor, created the view of a single, continuous work, and thereby the many inconsistencies that have annoyed readers, such as dead knights showing up alive after a few chapters or with different variations of their names in different situations. My own opinion was that Malory, writing from his prison, was attempting to create a vision of a unified legend, but working with the disparate and often conflicting French and British texts just missed some discrepancies and as the writing progressed was unable to eliminate all of the conflicts.
   Keith Baines' Rendition in Modern English of Vinaver's edition, 1962, titled "Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table," modified and updated the language and is poised between the Caxton and Vinaver editions. Vinaver's later Oxford Standard Authors one-volume original-spelling edition 1971, is "Malory: Complete Works." Vinaver also edited for Oxford University Press a modernized-spelling "King Arthur and His Knights: Selected Tales by Sir Thomas Malory". John Steinbeck, a great admirer of Malory, was delighted by the Vinaver edition, and referenced the Winchester Manuscript in the subtitle of his unfinished Arthurian novel "Acts of King Arthur and his Knights," avoiding the "Morte D'Arthur" designation.
   A more extensively modernized 1982 complete version of the Winchester text can be found in R.M. Lumiansky's edition (Lumiansky was also working on a critical edition, almost complete at the time of his death in 1987, unpublished as far as I know). A more recent 1998 Oxford edition by Helen Cooper is an abridged modernized spelling edition of the Winchester text for The Oxford World's Classics, titled "Le Morte D'Arthur." The abridgement seems to follow Caxton's own shortening of Book V and some of the battles. A facsimile edition for the Early English Text Society was published in 1976 under the title "The Winchester Malory."
   Stephen H. A. Shepherd's Norton Critical Edition titled "Le Morte D'Arthur" on the cover gives more weight to Caxton as there is evidence from printer's marks, that the Winchester Manuscript was in fact available to Caxton, and was still on hand when his successor, Wynkyn de Worde, reset the "Morte" in 1498, introducing some of its readings. This suggests that Caxton was comparing at least two manuscripts, and that some of his changes may reflect Malory's intentions. Shepherd provides an extended Introduction, Chronologies, a text with explanatory footnotes, a large section of Sources, Backgrounds and Criticism, followed by a thirty two page Glossary, a Selected Guide to Proper Names, and a Selected Bibliography. Unlike Vinaver, Shepherd attempted to create the impression of reading a medieval manuscript, without the most difficult obstacles. Not only are original spellings preserved, he carefully includes marginal notes and other indicators of scribal practices. The two scribes of the Winchester Manuscript carefully wrote names, and some passages, in red ink (rubrications). Shepherd, like Vinaver, also attempts to deal with the problems of character variation such as 'u' and 'v' and 'i' and 'j' which were still in transition at the time of Malory, and with erratic word divisions and sentences where beginning and / or end are not clearly marked.

Copland, William, ed. The Story of the Moste Noble and Worthy Kynge Arthur. London: Copland, 1557.

East, Thomas, ed. The Storye of the Most Noble and Worthy Kynge Arthur. London: East, 1578.

Stansby, William, ed. The Most Ancient and Famous History of the Renowned Prince Arthur King of Britain. London: Stansby, 1634.

The Works of Sir Thomas Malory (Oxford English Texts) by Thomas Malory and Eugene Vinaver (Hardcover - 1967

Malory's Le Morte D' Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table (Signet Classics Paperback) by Sir Thomas Malory, Keith Baines, and Robert Graves (Mass Market Paperback - Oct 2001

Le Morte D'Arthur: The Winchester Manuscript (Oxford World's Classics) by Thomas Malory and Helen Cooper (Paperback - May 14, 1998)

See Also Sir Thomas Malory

Malory: Complete Works by Thomas Malory (Paperback - Nov 17, 1977

Le Morte D'Arthur: Complete, Unabridged, Illustrated Edition by Sir Thomas Malory, John Matthews, and A-M Ferguson (Paperback - Aug 28, 2003