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Movable and Toy Books; Myths and Heroes. 0715: Sir Thomas Malory, La Morte D'Arthur. Vol.2

Author: Malory, Sir Thomas
Title: La morte d'Arthur. The most ancient and famous history of the renowned Prince Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, by Sir Thomas Malory, Kn.t. Vol.2. Battle of Sir Launcelot and Sir Tristram
Cat. Number: 0715
Date: 1816
1st Edition: 1485
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: R. Wilks, 89, Chancery Lane
Price: 12s. (for all three volumes?)
Pages: 1 vol., 381pp.
Size: 14.5 x 7 cm
Illustrations: Engraved frontispiece and title-page vignette
Note: Volumes 1 and 3 are not in the Hockliffe Collection

Images of all pages of this book

Page 002 of item 0715

Introductory essay

La Mort d'Arthur was first printed by William Caxton in 1485. He explained his reasons for doing so in his prologue. It was widely acknowledged, he wrote, that the world had witnessed the reigns of nine 'worthy and best' kings, namely the pagans Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, the Jews Joshua, David and Judas Machabeus, and the Christians Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bulloyn - or Bologne (an eleventh-century crusader). The accomplishments of the pagan and the Jewish kings were well known through Bible and many classical texts, continued Caxton. Charlemagne had had many French and English texts written about him, and Caxton himself had recently printed a life of Godfrey. This left only Arthur's life unrecorded, and many 'noble gentlemen instantly required me for to imprint the histories of the said noble King, and conqueror King Arthur, and of his Knights ... Affirming that I ought rather to imprint his acts and noble feates than of Godfrey of Bulloyn, or any of the other eight, considering that hee was a man borne within this realme, and King and Emperour of the same.' (Malory 1634: ix-x) Caxton did not cite the provenance of his history of King Arthur on his title-page, but the text makes clear that his source was Sir Thomas Malory's translations from various French texts. These were collated, edited and added to for the edition which Caxton was to publish. The final lines of Caxton's book invite the reader to pray for the author, named as 'Sir Thomas Maleor, knight', and record that he had finished his book in the ninth year of the reign of King Edward IV - that is to say 1469 or 1470. Nothing else is known of Malory.

Further editions of La Morte d'Arthur followed in 1498 and 1529 (by Wynkyn de Worde), in 1557, 1582 (or 1585) and 1634. Surprisingly, the work was not published again until 1816 when two versions suddenly appeared, one of which is, in part, in the Hockliffe Collection. Both were based on the 1634 edition published by William Stansby. One was published in two volumes by Walker and Edwards of London (in the 'Walker's British Classics' series). The other was published in three volumes by R. Wilks (although the D.N.B. entry for Malory oddly gives the publisher as 'Haslewood'). It is the second volume of this set which is to be found in the Hockliffe Collection.

Curiously Wilks inserted a transcription of the 1634 title-page into each volume of his republication, presumably in an attempt to stress the authenticity of his edition. Indeed, throughout the book, he modernised only the typeface of the 1634 edition (substituting a modern, but tiny font, for the original black letter, and changing Stansby's 'long s' and 'u' to 's' and 'v' as required). The language was left untouched, exactly as it had been in Caxton's edition, giving the text a very archaic feel. Both its tiny type and its archaic language make the book rather difficult to read, perhaps suggesting that children were not its principal market.

The first of Wilks' three volumes deals with the assembling of Arthur's court, and the third tells principally of Sir Launcelot and Sir Galahad, and of the death of Arthur and the end of all that he had worked for. The second volume, digitised here, is primarily concerned with the story of Sir Tristram. A detailed listing of the contents of each chapter begins on p.iii. The price - 12s. - stated on the outside front cover of volume two seems high, even for 379 pages. It was presumably to cover all three volumes. The engravings for the frontispiece and title-page were designed by W. M. Craig and engraved by S. Noble.

It is hard to say why there should have been such a long hiatus in the publishing history of La Morte d'Arthur after the 1634 edition, and why there should have been such a sudden renewal of interest in the tale in 1816. The 'Preliminary Remarks' made at the beginning of the other 1816 edition, by Walker and Edwards, attribute the interval to 'the state of public affairs, both eccleastical and civil - but principally the former.' The upheavals caused by the Reformation and the Civil Wars 'were very unfavourable to works of imagination and amusement' (1:vi). The same preface gives some idea of why Malory was deemed suitable for republication in the early nineteenth century. 'It gives the general reader an excellent idea of what romances of chivalry actually were', the 'Preliminary Remarks' continue, 'it is also written in pure English; and many of the wild adventures which it contains, are told with a simplicity bordering upon the sublime.' (1:vii-viii) From this we might conclude that Malory was being brough forward to the public as an alternative to the work of writers like Sir Walter Scott, whose prose works were just beginning to appear, or as a more authentic corrective to the overblown romanticism and ersatz antiquarianism of gothic novels.

Whatever the reason for the sudden burst of interest in King Arthur, a third edition followed just a year later, this time edited and introduced by Robert Southey. From then on interest has not waned. La Morte d'Arthur was accepted into the canon of English literature, and in the mid to late nineteenth century it exerted a strange fascination over the literary establishment. Tennyson, Morris, Swinburne, Arnold and others were inspired by Malory's work to write on Arthurian themes. New editions of Malory, often abridged or in modernised language, were brought out throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, and continued in the twentieth.

Malory, Sir Thomas, The Most Ancient and Famous History of the Renowned Prince Arthur King of Britaine, Wherein is declared his Life and Death, with all his glorious Battailes against the Saxons, Saracens and Pagans, which (for the honour of the Country) he most worthily achieued. As also, all the Noble Acts, and Heroicke Deeds of his Valiant Knights of the Round Table. Newly refined, and published for the delight, and profit of the Reader', London: William Stansby, for Iacob Bloome: 1634

Lee, Stephen (ed.), Dictionary of National Biography, London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1892 and after