"I praye you all jentylmen and jentylwymmen that redeth this book of Arthur and his knyghtes from the begynnyng to the endynge, praye for me whyle I am on lyve that God sende me good delyveraunce. And whan I am deed, I praye you all praye for my soule."
Sir Thomas Malory
Sir Thomas Malory compiled the greatest compendium of Arthurian romance to come out of the Middle Ages, Le Morte D'Arthur. In fact, Malory's work serves as a kind of bottleneck for Arthurian literature, at least insofar as English literary history is concerned. In weaving his narrative together, he availed himself of all the source materials he could lay his hands on, whether English or French, and so his works stands as the pinnacle of medieval Arthurian traditions. At the same time, because his work was one of the first works published on Caxton's printing press in 1485 (a new technology!), his Morte D'Arthur soon found a wide readership and became a formative influence on Spenser, Milton, Scott, Tennyson, and countless others. Le Morte D'Arthur has remained constantly in print for hundreds of years, a testament to its popularity and to its compelling vision of the meteoric rise, lush flourishing, and tragic fall of the Arthurian world.
Although the legacy of Le Morte D'Arthur is beyond dispute, the life of Sir Thomas Malory himself has generated considerable controversy. The only plausible Thomas Malory of appropriate age and knightly status was Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, the scion of a minor gentry family of Warwickshire. Born around 1416, it is possible that young Malory had fought overseas in France during the tail end of the Hundred Years' War. But as the fifteenth-century wore on and the Wars of the Roses -- a series of dynastic wars between the English royal houses of Lancaster (Henry VI) and York (Edward IV, Richard III) -- erupted, Malory may well have been caught in the middle of the conflict. P. J. C. Field speculates that Malory may have been a Lancastrian at heart, but that, because of tangled political alliances among the English gentry, he occasionally found himself working for the Yorkists.
Whatever his political convictions, or lack thereof, Sir Thomas Malory by the mid 1450s found himself in prison on various charges of rape, horse thievery, and violent and disorderly behavior. Readers and scholars of Malory have had a difficult time squaring what seems to be a life of crime with the author whose vividly sensitive prose style gave voice to his age's greatest expression of honor, chivalry, and courtly love. It is, of course, quite possible that some or all of these charges were untrue and that Malory had been framed and imprisoned by his political enemies. His most recent biographer does indeed point out some procedural irregularities in Malory's case, and he was pointedly not pardoned by the king at a point when practically every other criminal was, a fact that suggests that he may well have been a political prisoner.
Malory spent the greater part of the last fifteen years of his life in the Tower of London and other prisons, barring a couple of brief releases and one daring escape (which reminds one of Launcelot's famous escape). While his sojourns in prison were certainly unpleasant, Malory seems to have had access to books, and it was in prison that he composed the greater part of his Arthurian collection, Le Morte D'Arthur.
In terms of the history of English literature, Malory's Morte D'Arthur stands as the bridge connecting medieval romance and chronicle traditions of King Arthur with the literature of the early modern periods. Indeed, almost every modern retelling of the Arthurian legends, from Rosemary Sutcliffe's Sword at Sunset and T. H. White's The Once and Future King to Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon and films like John Boorman's Excalibur and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail derive their basic narrative framework from Le Morte D'Arthur. But far from being a mere encyclopedia of Arthurian lore, the Morte D'Arthur is written in a deeply moving paratactic prose, and Malory is considered by many to be the best prose stylist in Middle English. Many passages, especially dialogues, are stunning in the extent to which they suggest unplummeted psychological depths in his characters. Moreover, Malory's loving arrangement of his source materials reveals his insight about the tragic dimensions of the Arthurian story: his book tells of the rise, heyday, and inevitable fall of what can only be called an Arthurian "civilization" -- where the values of loyal love and chivalric honor could flourish, at least for a time, even in the face of vengeance and treachery. The deep sense of nostalgia and pathos that infuses the work, especially as it winds to its tragic ending, suggests that it was in this Arthurian civilization that the knight-prisoner Thomas Malory could best imagine his home.
- Dorsey Armstrong, Gender and the Chivalric Community in Malory's Morte D'Arthur (University of Florida Press, 2003)
- Catherine Batt, Malory's Morte D'Arthur: Remaking Arthurian Tradition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
- P. J. C. Field, The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory (Boydell and Brewer, 1993)
- P. J. C. Field, Romance and Chronicle: A Study of Malory's Prose Style (Indiana University Press, 1971)
- T. J. Lustig, Knight Prisoner: Thomas Malory Then and Now (Sussex Academic Press, 2013)
- Raluca Radulescu, The Gentry Context for Malory's Morte D'Arthur (D. S. Brewer, 2003)