Malory then and now

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Caxton's MaloryI recently started reading Malory in the original – that is, the language that Caxton printed in. Not the typeface Caxton used, since that would be harder to read, but rendered in a modern serif face. Caxton initially used black letter type (aka gothic) – pretty much all the early printers used it, although each printer had his own dies and styles. However, he did move to a more easily-read, more-rounded typeface by around 1490, a few years after he printed Malory’s book. Still, the early typefaces used in all incunabula take a bit more mental effort to decipher because they are not as familiar to us as our modern letter forms and often the type is set more densely than we would today, often without the same punctuation and the paragraph breaks we use today.

Malory’s themes are remarkably modern: heroism, faith, love, sex, betrayal, scheming,  politics, war… the stuff of life. Change from swords to light sabres and you’d have a scifi novel or space opera; to six-shooters and you’d have a western. That’s one of the reasons to read him: to remind ourselves that while technology advances, humans are still motivated by the same emotions and behaviour that have been around since the Stone Age.

I’m quite enjoying the reading, especially when it makes me stop and think about a word that has caused me to stumble. Not to mention the story is one I know well, and have read in many forms and seen in movies, too. Perhaps the best known and most readable of the works he inspired is T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which I’ve read at least twice. It’s one of the few books that have moved me to tears.

William Caxton was, as you know, England’s first printer, but he was also a translator and editor with a passion for sharing what he considered the greatest English literature. And he was also England’s first retail bookseller. The first book he printed at his Westminster press, was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in 1476. In all, he printed more than 100 books.

He printed Malory’s famous work, Le Morte d’Arthur (aka Le Morte Darthur) in 1485, and of that first printing only two copies survive. Malory’s story proved a bestseller, and created a passion among readers for the Arthurian Romances and the tales of the Knights of the Round Table that continues today. It influenced later writers like Tennyson, Twain, T.H. White and Steinbeck (and, yes, Monty Python…).

There were five editions printed before 1500. Caxton’s successor, Wynkyn de Worde, reprinted Le Morte D’Arthur in the first illustrated edition, 1498. That’s a beautiful work even today.

Malory lived and wrote in the period almost exactly halfway between two of my other favourite authors: Chaucer and Shakespeare. While I usually need to refer to a glossary of Middle English when I read Chaucer in his original, Malory is much easier and accessible. I hardly ever need to refer to another text to figure him out. He’s not as modern as Shakespeare, but not terribly difficult to read once you get into the rhythm and style.

His book was actually a conflation of numerous other stories and poems in the Arthurian cycle, including many French stories. Malory made it a distinctly English legend, readily adopted and even expanded upon by his readers and fans ever since.

The original manuscript for Le Morte D’Arthur was written around 1480, but that manuscript was mislaid and not re-discovered until 1934, hiding in plain sight in Winchester College Library. This earlier version helped scholars identify Caxton’s editing. Since then, the Winchester manuscript has been the source of most reprints and modernizations. You can examine a digitized version here from the British Library.

Oxford University Press published its first edition from the Winchester manuscript the same year it was re-discovered: 1934. The editor of this publication was Eugène Vinaver, already a published scholar of Malory, and his work remains in print today, reprinted many times. I found the 1966 printing in a local used book store only a few weeks ago (a subsequent 1973 edition Vinaver called the “definitive” work; then came a 1977 edition with some corrections, and a revised edition came out in 1990 – which I have on order).

To give you an idea of how the original reads, here’s the opening paragraph from a University of Michigan copy of the Caxton original:

Hit befel in the dayes of Vther pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond / and so regned that there was a myghty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme / And the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil / and so by meanes kynge Vther send for this duk / chargyng hym to brynge his wyf with hym / for she was called a fair lady / and a passynge wyse / and her name was called Igrayne.
So whan the duke and his wyf were comyn vnto the kynge by the meanes of grete lordes they were accorded bothe / the kynge lyked and loued this lady wel / and he made them grete chere out of mesure / and desyred to haue lyen by her / But she was a passyng good woman / and wold not assente vnto the kynge / And thenne she told the duke her husband and said I suppose that we were sente for that I shold be dishonoured Wherfor husband I counceille yow that we departe from hens sodenly that we maye ryde all nyghte vnto oure owne castell.
And in lyke wyse as she saide so they departed / that neyther the kynge nor none of his counceill were ware of their departyng Also soone as kyng Vther knewe of theire departyng soo sodenly / he was wonderly wrothe / Thenne he called to hym his pryuy counceille / and told them of the sodeyne departyng of the duke and his wyf.

If it seems confusing at first, spend a few minutes over the troublesome bits and it should sort itself out. You’ll see the letter “v” in places instead of a “u” (Vther) and vice versa (loued), a “y” instead of an “i” (passyng) and several archaic spellings. In other lines not shown here, you’ll find an example of the “y” for “g” substitution.

Yes, sometimes Caxton’s spellings or substitutions are inconsistent, but consider that as the first printer in England, he was breaking new ground and setting the standards every day. Caxton’s printing began the standardization of the English language (his rival, Richard Pyson, was even more responsible for the establishing of the London dialect as the standard).

(This UMich collection, by the way, is quite a delightful sampling of some of the best Middle English literature, 146 items in all, including, as you would expect, Chaucer’s works…take a look…).

Compare that paragraph above to the language in the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, written roughly a century earlier:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Again, you can figure most of it out if you read it carefully (although the original pronunciation might surprise you), but a glossary is helpful. But it is clear that in the century between the authors, English moved significantly closer to our modern version. Malory is much clearer (Mark Twain called his language “quaint”).

And then there’s the first word” hit” for the third person singular pronoun in that excerpt, which is a carry-over from Old English (we now just say ‘it’). Chaucer used it too, for example as in Anelida and Arcite:

Alas, the while! For hit was routhe and synne
That she upon his sorowes wolde rewe;
But nothing thinketh the fals as doth the trewe.

In some later editions, Malory’s language was modified and modernized to suit contemporary readers (Vther becomes Uther, loued becomes loved, and so on). Some have even changed the grammar itself to fit more recent styles (similar treatment has been applied to both Chaucer and Shakespeare). Vinaver does the minimum: he sticks with most of the original spellings, but bows to convention by putting v and u in their proper place.

The Penguin edition (the one I read in the late 1960s, and still have on my bookshelf) is in-between: the spelling is modernized and made consistent with modern standards, and the paragraphs and punctuation updated, but the language and syntax remain Malory’s. I keep this edition nearby in case on of Vinaver’s words stump me, although I’ve only opened it twice in the past week.

My only problem with this book is the same I have with every other book I own or want to read: time. I need more time to be able to read everything. Being semi-retired hasn’t really given me the time I need, and I admit to being distracted in my free time by the trivial pursuits of social media, by the urge to blog (as I am doing now), by computer games, by the debacle of local politics, by audiobooks and podcasts, by my ukuleles and my guitars, and by the of design, layout and graphics software tinkertoys  I own. Plus there’s the pile of books-on-the-go: never less than a dozen at a time, and the weekly discovery of new authors and new titles to read. I have many more books than available shelf space.

Ah well, there are worse problems to have. I’ll likely never live long enough to read all the books I have now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try.

Post Stats
  • 1723 words
  • 10140 characters
  • Reading time: 561 s
  • Speaking time: 861s
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