Some Scattered Notes on Malory

Compiled by Jonathan A. Glenn

Note on texts: These notes refer most often to Vinaver’s King Arthur and His Knights: Selected Tales by Sir Thomas Malory (London: Oxford UP, 1975); occasional references direct the reader to the second edition of Malory, Works, also edited by Eugène Vinaver and published by Oxford University Press.

Browse the notes or jump to something in the list:

  1. General Notes to My Students
  2. A Man, His Times, and the Literary Historians
  3. A List of Malory’s Works
  4. Caxton’s Preface (1485)
  5. Narrative Techniques and Interests
  6. Ancestry of the Destruction of Logres
  7. What I Like about Malory

General Notes to My Students

For a useful summary of Vinaver’s view of Malory’s contribution to Arthurian story, see his introduction to our text, especially viii-xiii. For a brief discussion of Malory’s identity and for a (now somewhat dated) bibliography, see Vinaver’s Bibliographical Note (227-31). (I had hoped to compile additional bibliographical information, but the sheer volume of studies on Malory has proven prohibitive. See the MLA Bibliography and other standard resources.)

Some additional relevant (and recommended) reading: Balin, or the Knight with the Two Swords (from Malory’s The Tale of King Arthur) would be a good work to add to our list of stories depicting “determined lives”; Launcelot and Elaine (from his The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones) is not only essential preparation for The Tale of the Sankgreal but also offers a superb embodiment of human behavior finding itself embroiled willy nilly in divine designs. A prominent feature of Launcelot and Elaine is the pattern of “Exchange” (as Charles Williams called it) that runs through it, with its roots in the Balin story, its fruition in the story of the Grail. In this the story mirrors, of course, the Christian story of which it has, long before Malory, become a part: mediation and substitution and the paradox of death for life are, as we have seen elsewhere this term, at the heart of all Christian belief in redemption for fallen humankind.

A Man, His Times, and the Literary Historians

An Anecdote of Malory’s Times

from Michael Stroud, “Chivalric Terminology in Late Medieval Literature,” Journal of the History of Ideas 37 (1976): 323-34.

Late one October night in 1455 the servants of the aged Nicholas Radford heard a cry of “Fire” outside the door of their master’s manor house in Devonshire. Radford, who had been a prominent lawyer and Recorder to the city of Exeter, was now in semi-retirement and counselor to Sir William Bonville. As his servants opened the door, sixty armed men burst into the house. While the inhabitants stood helplessly under guard, the intruders burned most of the buildings and pillaged the manor house and stables; what could not be carried off was destroyed.

Radford was then ordered to accompany the band to the Earl of Devonshire. Anxious for his safety, Radford agreed to go, but begged for a horse: “Sir, your men have robbed my chambre, and thei have myn hors, that I may not ride with you Ö wherfor, I pray you, lete me ride, for I am old, and may not go.” The old man’s pleas were denied, however, and he was forced to begin walking. Less than a quarter of a mile from his gate he again complained that his age and infirmity prevented him from walking, and the Earl’s men rode off into the night. But as Radford began to pick out the way to his ruined home, nine members of the gang returned and beat him about the head. When he collapsed, one of the attackers jumped from his horse and cut his throat.

This violent episode characterizes chivalry in England during the Wars of the Roses [1455-1485]. The band that attacked Radford’s house was not made up of criminals. The men were retainers to the Duke of Devonshire, and they were led by the Duke’s own son. Their act of malicious rapine, apparently carried out at the Duke’s orders, typifies chivalric activities at the end of the Middle Ages. The Statute of Quia Emptores in 1290 had allowed cash to be used instead of land in feudal contracts, thus including mercenaries within the chivalric system. Edward III’s great victory at Crecy in 1346, won with dismounted knights and bowmen, had demonstrated the practical inefficiency of knighthood. All that remained of a once idealistic military and social system was its bastard child.

The “Problem” of Thomas Malory, Knight

from William Henry Schofield, Chivalry in English Literature (1912):

[Malory] was undoubtedly a force for righteousness in his day. Because of such men as he, the English aristocracy has long been honoured, nay beloved.

from Eugène Vinaver, The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, 2nd ed. (1967):

[Malory] was accused, but not convicted, of several major crimes alleged to have been committed in the course of eighteen months, from January 1450 to July 1451. These crimes included a robbery, a theft, two cattleraids, some extortions, a rape, and even an attempted murder.

from George Sampson, The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature, 3rd ed., ed. R. C. Churchill (1970) (my bolding):

Le Morte d’Arthur looks back to the Middle Ages. Though in substance a mosaic of translated quotations, it is, nevertheless, a single literary creation such as no work of Caxton’s own can claim to be, and it is the earliest prose book in English to form a part of everyman’s reading. Author and printer came together at the perfectly right moment. Sir Thomas Malory has been identified with an actual person of the same name; but the identification tells us nothing we need to know. The author of a book so remote and impersonal should remain the shadow of a name, mysterious as the Arthur of his imagination. The book belongs to no age and no condition of normal life, and this ‘bodiless creation’ is an element in its immortality. These tireless champions of the helpless, these eternal lovers and their idealized love, are as remote from time and place as the forests and the fields among which they travel. Medieval stories were, naturally, negligent of causes in a world where the unaccountable so constantly happened. The atmosphere of magic places Malory’s characters outside the sphere of criticism, since, given the atmosphere, they are consistent with themselves and their circumstances. Most admirable is the restraint in the portrayal of Arthur, who, as here depicted, is Malory’s own creation. He is neither human nor superhuman, but the strong though elusive centre of the magical panorama. The prose in which is unfolded this barely Christianized fairy-tale is almost childlike, but, unlike mere simplicity, it never becomes tedious. Malory, who reaches one hand to Chaucer and one to Spenser, escaped the stamp of a particular epoch and bequeathed a prose epic to literature. He was a poet who wrote in prose, and his lively speech, which is both epic and lyrical, is so simple in its sincerity that it has baffled all the literary imitators.

William Caxton’s Preface to Malory’s Works

See below.

A List of Malory’s Works

[ Note 1 ]


  1. Merlin
  2. Balin or the Knight with the Two Swords
  3. Torre and Pellinor
  4. The War with the Five Kings
  5. Arthur and Accolon
  6. Gawain, Ywain, and Marhalt





  1. Isode the Fair
  2. Lamerok de Galys
  3. La Cote Male Tayle
  4. Tristramis Madness and Exile
  5. The Castle of Maidens
  6. The Round Table
  7. VII. King Mark
  8. Alexander the Orphan
  9. The Tournament at Surluse
  10. Joyous Gard
  11. The Red City
  12. The Tournament at Lonezep
  13. Sir Palomides
  14. Launcelot and Elaine
  15. Conclusion


  1. The Departure
  2. The Miracles
  3. Sir Perceval
  4. Sir Launcelot
  5. Sir Gawain
  6. Sir Bors
  7. Sir Galahad
  8. The Castle of Corbenic
  9. The Miracle of Galahad


  1. The Poisoned Apple
  2. The Fair Maid of Astolat
  3. The Great Tournament
  4. The Knight of the Cart
  5. The Healing of Sir Urry


  1. Slander and Strife
  2. The Vengeance of Sir Gawain
  3. The Siege of Benwick
  4. The Day of Destiny
  5. The Dolorous Death and Departing out of this world of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere

Caxton’s Preface (1485)

After that I had accomplysshed and fynysshed dyvers hystoryes as wel of contemplacyon as of other hystoryal and worldly actes of grete conquerours and prynces, and also certeyn bookes of ensaumples and doctryne, many noble and dyvers gentylmen of thys royame of Englond camen and demaunded me many and oftymes wherfore that I have not do made and enprynte the noble hystorye of the Saynt Greal and of the moost renomed Crysten kyng, fyrst and chyef of the thre best Crysten, and worthy, Kyng Arthur, whyche ought moost to be remembred emonge us Englysshemen tofore al other Crysten kynges.

For it is notoyrly knowen thorugh the unyversal world that there been nine worthy and the best that ever were, that is to wete, thre Paynyms, thre Jewes, and thre Crysten men. As for the Paynyms, they were tofore the Incarnacyon of Cryst, whiche were named, the fyrst Hector of Troye, of whome th’ystorye is comen bothe in balade and in prose, the second Alysaunder the Grete, and the thyrd Julyus Cezar, Emperour of Rome, of whome th’ystoryes ben wel knowen and had. And as for the thre Jewes whyche also were tofore th’Yncarnacyon of our Lord, of whome the fyrst was Duc Josué whyche brought the chyldren of Israhel into the londe of byheste, the second Davyd, kyng of Jerusalem, and the thyrd Judas Machabeus; of these thre the Byble reherceth al theyr noble hystoryes and actes. And sythe the sayd Incarnacyon have ben thre noble Crysten men stalled and admytted thorugh the unyversal world into the nombre of the nine beste and worthy, of whome was fyrst the noble Arthur, whos noble actes I purpose to wryte in thys present book here folowyng. The second was Charlemayn, or Charles the Grete, of whome th’ystorye is had in many places, bothe in Frensshe and Englysshe; and the thyrd and last was Godefray of Boloyn, of whos actes and lyf I made a book unto th’excellent prynce and kyng of noble memorye, Kyng Edward the Fourth.

The sayd noble jentylmen instantly requyred me t’emprynte th’ystorye of the sayd noble kyng and conquerour Kyng Arthur and of his knyghtes, wyth th’ystorye of the Saynt Greal and of the deth and endyng of the sayd Arthur, affermyng that I ought rather t’enprynte his actes and noble feates than of Godefroye of Boloyne or ony of the other eyght, consyderyng that he was a man borne wythin this royame and kyng and emperour of the same, and that there ben in Frensshe dyvers and many noble volumes of his actes, and also of his knyghtes.

To whome I answerd that dyvers men holde oppynyon that there was no suche Arthur and that alle suche bookes as been maad of hym ben but fayned and fables, bycause that somme cronycles make of hym no mencyon ne remembre hym noothynge, ne of his knyghtes.

Wherto they answerd, and one in specyal sayd, that in hym that shold say or thynke that there was never suche a kyng callyd Arthur myght wel be aretted grete folye and blyndenesse, for he sayd that there were many evydences of the contrarye. Fyrst, ye may see his sepulture in the monasterye of Glastyngburye; and also in Polycronycon, in the fifth book, the syxth chappytre, and in the seventh book, the twenty-thyrd chappytre, where his body was buryed, and after founden and translated into the sayd monasterye. Ye shal se also in th’ystorye of Bochas, in his book De Casu Principum, parte of his noble actes, and also of his falle. Also Galfrydus, in his Brutysshe book, recounteth his lyf. And in dyvers places of Englond many remembraunces ben yet of hym and shall remayne perpetuelly, and also of his knyghtes: fyrst, in the abbey of Westmestre, at Saynt Edwardes shryne, remayneth the prynte of his seal in reed waxe, closed in beryll, in whych is wryton Patricius Arthurus Britannie Gallie Germanie Dacie Imperator; item, in the castel of Dover ye may see Gauwayns skulle and Cradoks mantel; at Wynchester, the Rounde Table; in other places Launcelottes swerde and many other thynges.

Thenne, al these thynges consydered, there can no man resonably gaynsaye but there was a kyng of thys lande named Arthur. For in al places, Crysten and hethen, he is reputed and taken for one of the nine worthy, and the fyrst of the thre Crysten men. And also he is more spoken of beyonde the see, moo bookes made of his noble actes than there be in Englond; as wel in Duche, Ytalyen, Spaynysshe, and Grekysshe, as in Frensshe. And yet of record remayne in wytnesse of hym in Wales, in the toune of Camelot, the grete stones and mervayllous werkys of yron lyeng under the grounde, and ryal vautes, which dyvers now lyvyng hath seen. Wherfor it is a mervayl why he is no more renomed in his owne contreye, sauf onelye it accordeth to the Word of God, whyche sayth that no man is accept for a prophete in his owne contreye.

Thenne, al these thynges forsayd aledged, I coude not wel denye but that there was suche a noble kyng named Arthur, and reputed one of the nine worthy, and fyrst and chyef of the Cristen men. And many noble volumes be made of hym and of his noble knyghtes in Frensshe, which I have seen and redde beyonde the see, which been not had in our maternal tongue. But in Walsshe ben many, and also in Frensshe, and somme in Englysshe, but nowher nygh alle. Wherfore, suche as have late ben drawen oute bryefly into Englysshe, I have, after the symple connynge that God hath sente to me, under the favour and correctyon of al noble lordes and gentylmen, enprysed to enprynte a book of the noble hystoryes of the sayd Kynge Arthur and of certeyn of his knyghtes, after a copye unto me delyverd, whyche copye Syr Thomas Malorye dyd take oute of certeyn bookes of Frensshe and reduced it into Englysshe.

And I, accordyng to my copye, have doon sette it in enprynte to the entente that noble men may see and lerne the noble actes of chyvalrye, the jentyl and vertuous dedes that somme knyghtes used in tho dayes, by whyche they came to honour, and how they that were vycious were punysshed and ofte put to shame and rebuke; humbly bysechyng al noble lordes and ladyes wyth al other estates, of what estate or degree they been of, that shal see and rede in this sayd book and werke, that they take the good and honest actes in their remembraunce, and to folowe the same; wherein they shalle fynde many joyous and playsaunt hystoryes and noble and renomed actes of humanyté, gentylnesse, and chyvalryes. For herein may be seen noble chyvalrye, curtosye, humanyté, frendlynesse, hardynesse, love, frendshyp, cowardyse, murdre, hate, vertue, and synne. Doo after the good and leve the evyl, and it shal brynge you to good fame and renommee.

And for to passe the tyme thys book shal be plesaunte to rede in, but for to gyve fayth and byleve that al is trewe that is conteyned herin, ye be at your lyberté. But al is wryton for our doctryne, and for to beware that we falle not to vyce ne synne, but t’exersyse and folowe vertu, by whyche we may come and atteyne to good fame and renommé in thys lyf, and after thys shorte and transytorye lyf to come unto everlastyng blysse in heven; the whyche He graunte us that reygneth in heven, the Blessyd Trynyté. Amen.

Thenne, to procede forth in thys sayd book, whyche I dyrecte unto alle noble prynces, lordes and ladyes, gentylmen or gentylwymmen, that desyre to rede or here redde of the noble and joyous hystorye of the grete conquerour and excellent kyng, Kyng Arthur, somtyme kyng of thys noble royalme thenne callyd Brytaygne, I, Wyllyam Caxton, symple persone, present thys book folowyng whyche I have enprysed t’enprynte: and treateth of the noble actes, feates of armes of chyvalrye, prowesse, hardynesse, humanyté, love, curtosye, and veray gentylnesse, wyth many wonderful hystoryes and adventures.

Narrative Techniques and Interests

Romance vs. Novel

From Holman, A Handbook to Literature (4th ed.):

In most European countries the word roman is used rather than novel, thus linking the novel with that body of legendary, imaginative, and poetic material associated with the older romance, of which, in one sense, the novel is a modern extension. The conflict between the imaginative and poetic recreation of experience implied in roman and the realistic representation of the soiled world of common people and actions implied in novel has been present in the form from its beginning, and it accounted for a distinction often made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries between the romance and the novel, in which the romance was the tale of the long ago or the far away or the imaginatively improbable; whereas the novel was bound by the facts of the actual world and the laws of probability.

Medieval Romance

See also my Notes on Middle English Romance. When reading Malory, one is particularly struck by the and-then structure of the narrative, with its emphatic foregrounding of deeds and events. Pamela Gradon has this to say about the world of medieval romance [ Note 2 ]:

The world of the romances, like the world of folk-tale, is a world without depth, the figures that move in it are, if not without environment, without an inner world and without genuine relationships with the people around them. Each episode and each character is encapsulated and exists without relationship to anyone or anything else. The folk-tale is, in terms of later narrative techniques, unmotivated, unrealistic, repetitive. And in varying degrees the same is true of the romance. Yet the problem is, in a sense, unreal. As I hope to show, the romance world can be more usefully regarded as exploiting a particular combination of the sensible and the unfamiliar, showing us trees which are, at once, green, as in nature, and gold as in the world of analogy [ Note 3 ]. This way of writing, in fact, depends upon a contrast between different levels of comprehension; it is a world in which people are magnified and formalised so that they are at once familiar and unfamiliar. That this is not merely . . . due to ‘unskilful designers’ is indicated by its relevance even to the works of the greatest writers in this kind. (215)

It is also useful to remember Frye’s Themes of Descent and Ascent in relation to individual tales, at least, in Malory, though we should perhaps not expect to see the plot followed in neatly obvious ways such as we find in Dante or Sir Orfeo. (Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1976.)

In most of Malory’s work, the narrative mode seems to involve interweaving rather than synthesis: various strands come together in what we might call nodes, where their relationship is evident (or at least asserted), and then trail off in other directions again. To some extent, Malory has lessened the sense of interlace by isolating certain stories from their contexts in his sources, but the sense of acentric narrative is still, it seems to me, strong, and one of our challenges in reading Malory is to make sense of his use of digressio. For a work in which this sense of interweaving is much stronger than it is in The Death of King Arthur, see Balin or the Knight with the Two Swords—but not in our text: Vinaver has removed the most disruptive part and thus made the tale more linear than Malory made it. (See Vinaver’s introduction for the back-and-forth movement of “interlace,” as Vinaver elsewhere calls it [ Note 4 ], and for his view of Malory’s fairly extensive unraveling of the original fabric into more linear structures.)

Malory’s typical narrative style we can characterize as disconnection on the surface level, but connections made before and after. Again, our sense of this is much stronger in, say, the story of Balin than it is in The Death of King Arthur. (The sentence style seems frequently like this as well, though I have not done a systematic study of Malory’s style/syntax.)

Narrative Modes: Malory vs. Mary Stewart/Medieval vs. Modern

See the first paragraph (and one sentence of the second) of Malory’s The Death of King Arthur. Compare that account with the corresponding passage from Mary Stewart’s The Wicked Day (New York: Morrow, 1983), bk. 3, ch. 4, quoted below. Probably of greatest interest (and greatest contrast) are the different elements that the two author’s have chosen to foreground—Malory a set of generalizations about May, with the paradoxical advent of “a great anger and unhap,” all blamed on “two unhappy knights”; Stewart an individual and admirable mind, Mordred’s, alone with its sensibilities and ambitions:

Mordred sat at the window of the King’s business room in Camelot. The scents from the garden below eddied on the warm breeze in sudden gusts of sweetness. The apple blossom was gone, but there were cherries still in bloom, standing deep among bluebells and the grey spears of iris. The air was full of the sound of bees, and birds singing, while down in the town the bells rang for some Christian service.

The royal secretaries were gone, and he was alone. He sat, still thinking over some of the work that had been done that day, but gradually, in the scented warmth, his thoughts drifted into dreaming. So little time ago, it seemed, he had been in the islands, living as he had lived in boyhood, thinking in bitterness that he had lost everything in that one night when the Orkney brothers had risked all for themselves and their friends on that mad, vicious attempt to finish Bedwyr [ Note 5 ]. Thinking, too, of the summer’s tasks ahead of him: harvesting and drying fish, cutting peats, rebuilding walls and repairing thatch against the dreadful Orkney winter. And now?

His hand, resting on the table, touched the royal seal. He smiled.

A movement outside the window caught his eye. Guinevere the Queen was walking in the garden. She wore a gown of soft dove-grey, that shimmered as she moved. Her two little dogs, silver-white greyhounds, frisked round her. From time to time she threw a gilded ball and they bounded after it, yelping and wrangling as the winner carried it back to lay it at her feet. Two of her women, both young and pretty girls, one in primrose yellow and the other in blue, walked behind. Guinevere, still lovely, and secure in her loveliness, was not one of those who seek to set her beauty off by surrounding herself with plain women. The three lovely creatures, with the dainty little dogs at their skirts, moved with grace through the garden, and the flowers of that sweet May were no fairer.

Or so thought Mordred, who was rarely a poet.

Ancestry of the Destruction of Logres

Elaine, Lancelot, Guinevere

In “A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake,” this account is given of the beginning of the love between Launcelot and Gwenyvere: “he [Launcelot] passed all other knights, and at no time was he ovircom but yf hit were by treson other enchauntement. So this Sir Launcelot encresed so mervaylously in worship and honoure; therefore he is the fyrste knyght that the Freynsh booke maketh mencion of aftir kynge Arthure com frome Rome. Wherefore quene Gwenyvere had hym in grete favoure aboven all othir knyghtis, and so he loved the quene agayne aboven all other ladyes dayes of his lyff, and for hir dud many dedys of armys and saved hir frome the fyre thorow his noble chevalry” (149).

What I Like about Malory (or, Critical Naiveté?)

I would characterize Malory in two statements: (1) by the distance he has from his story and by the ambiguities he allows, Malory provides an opportunity for a sense of mystery and a creative participation by his readers in the story he writes; (2) his story contains various symmetrical structures, many of them more or less religious in origin, that with familiarity give, I think, a sense of unarticulated apprehension or comprehension to sympathetic readers.

I am quite sure that there is a gap between my insights and what I can say—or communicate (not the same thing!)—in class. For example, it is mystery, creative participation, unarticulated apprehension that most attract me to Malory, yet these things are by their very natures difficult to present publicly. Structures themselves, of course, are fairly easy to present: one can often draw them. Such knowledge is valuable, too, yet it stops part way to the really important realizations. Thus the significance of “Launcelot and Elaine” remains unsaid, even after we talk about its participation in the romance genre’s “topography” or in the patterns of exchange that have charged the world for so many centuries. On a more particular level, I really do not know how to communicate the importance I feel in a sentence like “And so they two returned aghen in the dawnyng of the day”—when said, the importance seems to dissipate.

I react as always, then, in a double way to Malory: Malory once more teases and intrigues me, but for the life of me I don’t know what to do about it, except to read him and talk about him and read him again. Perhaps because of the very slightness of his immediate impact on us, we can say of Malory, “here in thys worlde he chaunged [our] lyff.”


[ Note 1 ] This list of Malory’s works follows the Table of Contents in Eugène Vinaver’s one-volume edition (Malory, Works, 2nd ed. [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971]); the text of Caxton’s preface to Le Morte Darthur (1485), reproduced in this document, may also be found in Vinaver (xiii-xv). [Return to text.]

[ Note 2 ] Pamela Gradon, Form and Style in Early English Literature (London: Methuen, 1971). [Return to text.]

[ Note 3 ] As a headnote to this chapter, Gradon has quoted Geothe: “Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, / Und grün des Lebens goldener Baum” [Gray, dear friend, is all theory, and green the golden tree of life]. [Return to text.]

[ Note 4 ] Eugène Vinaver, “The Poetry of Interlace,” The Rise of Romance (New York: Oxford UP, 1971): 68-98. [Return to text.]

[ Note 5 ] Stewart replaces the French hero Lancelot with the Breton knight Bedwyr (Bedivere—but also Bedwere—in Malory). [Return to text.]