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Le Morte D'Arthur
Thomas Malory (edited by John Matthews and illustrated by Anna-Marie Ferguson)
Cassell & Company, Sterling, 1056 pages

Le Morte D'Arthur
Thomas Malory
Many experts agree that Thomas Malory was Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell, Warwickshire who was knighted in 1442 and served in the Parliament of 1445. He committed a series of crimes, including poaching, extortion, robbery, and murder. In 1451, he went to prison where he probably did most of his writing. The original book was called The Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table that was made up of 8 romances, more or less separate. William Caxton printed the work in 1485 and gave it the title of Morte d'Arthur. Allegedly, the stories were based on an assortment of French prose romances.

ISFDB Bibliography
Thomas Malory Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Why review another edition of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur? The book's been around since the late fifteenth century; most of you will have encountered some portion of the work in school or absorbed its outline through various movies or later works of fiction borrowing from or emulating the story. The language is decidedly archaic and most editions require a glossary for reference. To fully appreciate it does require a certain amount of effort and I suspect many readers of today's fantasy tend to relegate this volume to the more erudite realms of literature, having never fully read it. The sheer size of this tome is daunting, and even many undergraduate classes approach it only in abbreviated selections.

However, Le Morte D'Arthur represents not only the first novel in English, but arguably the first novel of fantasy. Its universal tale of love and betrayal, the striving for unattainable ideals amidst the turmoil of human frailty, an earlier age at the threshold of profound change, has remain seated in the imagination of successive generations, profoundly influencing a large and diverse number of authors, artists and filmmakers, from the Pre-Raphaelites and Beardsley, directors as different as John Boorman, Bresson and the crew of Monty Python, to writers as far distant in their outlook and intention as Twain, Steinbeck, The Inklings and Michael Moorcock. Drawn from sources beyond the shores of England, while often identified as a national story, this work in its resonance transcends the Matter of Britain, and has inspired people knowing little of Britain or its history, evidence of the tale of Arthur's court spreading to as far distant shores as the Middle East and even India long before the story was set down in print. And even today, it seems as though hardly a year goes by that some author is not reinvesting the legend in a contemporary work of fiction.

This is a book that deserves not only to grace the shelf of every serious reader of speculative fiction, but to be read as well in its entirety. Other editions are available, most notably that of Vinaver, with new versions being published periodically. This version, edited by John Matthews, is only the most recent in a long number. However, of editions published over the last several decades, not only is it unabridged but perhaps the most lavishly produced in some time. In hardcover, with over sixty-two illustrations by Canadian artist Anna-Marie Ferguson, divided evenly between black and white line drawings and watercolor, this volume represents a "coffee table" version that should sit beside that of Vinaver's Works or, if you can afford it, Pollard's Medici edition or the Dent facsimile reprint complete with the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley. Containing a forward by Michael Moorcock, this edition is presented in a prose style, absent the line annotation scholars may favor, but arguably more accessible to the average reader. Complete with glossary and a table of contents providing a short chapter summary, this work is the first to be presented with a modern typeface, and the editor acknowledges that he has corrected certain long-standing and recognized errors and omissions. While some academics may quibble over his choice of basing this version upon the Caxton edition rather than the Winchester Manuscript, the editor addresses this issue in his introduction, and this choice should not significantly impact the casual reader.

The only reservation I have, and it is a topic that has long been debated among Arthurian scholars, thus my response being able to be dismissed as personal and representing only one side of the issue, is the editor's reluctance to accept the traditionally accepted Malory as author of this monumental work of fiction. The knight of Newbold Revel, Sir Thomas Malory, traditionally believed to have written this work while languishing in prison for innumerable crimes that included banditry and rape, has for some time offended the sensibility of some scholars, who find it difficult to credit a criminal for having the ability or sensitivity to create a work of art, or express some of the ideals or notions of nobility contained within this book. While I believe life and history have shown that creative endeavors are not the sole purview of enlightened or necessarily moral souls -- one need only think of Byron or Gauguin for evidence to the contrary -- Malory's questionable past continues to disturb certain academics, including John Matthews, and other choices for authorship have been advanced. Though some, I among them, may believe such cavils to be pointless and ultimately self-reflective, while presupposing a contemporary view of morality upon a removed historical context, it is a debate that continues, and which the editor here addresses. For most I imagine the argument will prove of little significance.

While not inexpensive, in terms of its presentation I would most highly recommend this edition to anyone interested in either Arthurian romance or fantasy fiction. Cost has not been spared in its production, and it is an edition that you will hold on to for a lifetime. Additionally, should you wish to introduce this perennial tale to older children, this volume should prove, with its lovely and copious illustrations, an excellent version which they will likely treasure and keep as well. And finally, for those of you who only know the legend through film or one of the many and seemingly endless contemporary retellings of the saga, you owe it to yourself to read the original, and this edition is far more accessibly presented than most. There is a reason why so many authors and artists are able to continually find inspiration in and re-mine and capture the imaginations of new audiences from successive tellings and reconstructions of this tale. You should turn to the original: you will likely discover why.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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