contributor.author: Graham Drake

title.none: Whetter and Radulescu, eds., Re-Viewing Le Morte Darthur (Graham Drake)

identifier.other: baj9928.0710.029 07.10.29

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Graham Drake, State University of New York at Geneseo, GrahamD960@aol.com

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Whetter, K.S., and Raluca L. Radulescu, eds. Re-Viewing Le Morte Darthur. Series: Arthurian Studies, vol. 60. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2005. Pp. xi, 165. $80.00 (hb) 1-84384-035-9. ISBN: 1-84384-035-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.10.29

Whetter, K.S., and Raluca L. Radulescu, eds. Re-Viewing Le Morte Darthur. Series: Arthurian Studies, vol. 60. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2005. Pp. xi, 165. $80.00 (hb) 1-84384-035-9. ISBN: 1-84384-035-9.

Reviewed by:

Graham Drake
State University of New York at Geneseo
GrahamD960@aol.com

In his introduction to this volume of essays on Sir Thomas Malory, P.J.C. Field characterizes them as a continuation of the critical debates begun after the discovery of the Winchester manuscript and Eugne Vinaver's somewhat polemical publication of Malory's Work. Essays on "textual matters...geography and politics...and theme and genre" thoughtfully continue the conversation on the nature of Malory's work, exemplified previously in Volume XLVII of the Arthurian Studies series, The Malory Debate, as well as some of the articles in Volume LVII, a festschrift in honor of Field himself.

Takako Kato's "Corrected Mistakes in the Winchester Manuscript" opens the conversation by observing that previous textual studies have not examined corrections to mistakes in the Winchester manuscript. We should see such corrections, she argues, as editorial activity by the two scribes. For example, she notes a scribal emendation on 16 recto of Winchester that Vinaver read as "ther" (a replacement for "that") for his edition. But Kato takes a paleographical second look, showing that this is more likely "they." Moreover, she identifies the origin of this error: in the archetype (known as X), the word was incorrectly placed, and the error descended to both Winchester and Caxton through an intermediate copy (Y). Scribe B, meanwhile, "successfully recovered the meaning, whereas Caxton reproduced the text as he founded in his exemplar" (20).

Kako's examples take into account not only eye movement but also aural mistakes that can produce "phrasal arrhythmia" in various scribal recensions of Malory's text. Ultimately, she argues not only that these corrections reaffirm the existence of the intermediate witnesses in Vinaver's stemma, but that the Winchester scribes themselves "played a role of a capable editor, as Caxton did" (24).

D. Thomas Hanks takes a more theoretical approach to textual studies with Jerome McGann's distinction between bibliographical and lexical text. Bibliographical text concerns layout, textual breaks, punctuation, illustrations, and other aspects of presentation; lexical text refers to the words themselves. According to Hanks, both kinds of text changed between Malory's original work and the editions of the earliest printers, William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde. Caxton (with de Worde following his lead) manipulates the bibliographical text in his preface and his arrangement of books and chapters. The effect is to make Arthur the pivotal figure in Malory's narrative rather than a more diffuse story of the rise and fall of the Round Table brethren.

In the famous May passage, Caxton's use of virgules and chapter division imparts a status to the May passage that differs from the Winchester manuscript, so that "It is no longer part of a flow of events which leads to the narrator's comments on love...separating the first May passage from the preceding events and comments" (40). Caxton's edition also makes at least 5000 lexical changes to Malory, changes that de Worde also follows very closely. For his part, de Worde's chief contribution is a very different kind of syntactic pronunciation rather than Caxton's simple virgules.

Modern editions of Malory, Hanks shows, tend to follow Caxton and de Worde's lexical practice more than their bibliographical revisions. The editing of Malory's oeuvre, then, could benefit from such reshapings of Malory's text.

While Field classifies the next article as a textual study, Thomas Crofts' "'thynges forsayd aledged': Historia and argumentum in Caxton's Preface to the Morte Darthur" is really an essay on a theory of historical reading in the Le Morte Darthur. Caxton and his age would be familiar with the Ciceronian division of narratives into fabula (a fiction that could never occur), historia (a narrative that did occur) and argumentum (a narrative that could have happened, but did not). For all the "overdetermined" historical proofs in Caxton's preface, its epistemological stance parallels the preface to another Caxton imprint, the Polychronicon--a stance between historia and argumentum. "Caxton is...not trying to pull wool over readers' eyes;" rather, as he defines "history" in the Polychronicon preface, he "subordinates history's truth-value to its function as a repository of moral exempla..." (54). It would be interesting for Crofts to consider, though, whether a dedicated interest for Caxton "true" historia could have given his text even more exemplary power.

The collection turns to political matters with Meg Roland's essay, "From 'Saracens' to 'infydeles': The Recontextualization of the East in Caxton's Edition of Le Morte Darthur." Since the Winchester manuscript was discovered in 1934, scholars have noted that Caxton's changes are most profound in the Roman War episode. Roland sees this as partly a function of a change in the geographic imagination from the older mappamundi to late-medieval Ptolemaic maps. The availability of Ptolemy's Geographia and other Greek texts that trickled westwards after the fall of Constantinople influenced Caxton's presentation of the Roman War, whose "campaign functions as a narrative vehicle for positioning England as a real-world empire and, as such, received careful attention by the reviser" (68).

One difference in narrative presentation is in the Winchester manuscript, where Arthur does not act on his counselors' advice to go to Jerusalem. Yet many fifteenth-century governance narratives suggest that ignoring advice leads to the monarch's downfall. Caxton maintains a concern for governance by sound advice by removing the Jerusalem episode entirely and making the Roman Emperor Lucius the one who ignores his counselors. (By contrast, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, which Winchester follows, shows Lucius taking counsel appropriately.)

Robert L. Kelly also considers the structures of political thought in Malory, this time in spatial terms. "Malory's 'Tale of King Arthur' and the Political Geography of Fifteenth-Century England" recognizes that critical studies have already seen a fifteenth-century division of the Le Morte Darthur's England into obedient south and unruly north; Kelly's purpose is to dig a little deeper into "the relatively subtle interplay between author, reader, text and historical reality that Malory's narrative method implies" (85).

Thus, for example, though Malory gives no motive for rebellion in Cornwall, this would seem a realistic possibility to his readers. Malory's border kings, meanwhile, would probably have brought to mind such magnates as the Percys or the Marcher lords; but even more specifically, they would have understood Sir Brastias' title as "Warden of the English March towards Scotland." And they might have seen irony in the border kings' submission to Arthur, because when Mordred tries to rule "all Inglonde," his support actually comes from the traditionally loyal southeast. Kelly sifts through the subtle textures of irony that would have been filled in by the social context--a social context that belies the supposed simplicity of paratactic narrative.

"Symbolic Uses of Space in Malory's Morte Darthur" by Dhira B. Mahoney considers space on a more intimate, indoor scale. Responding to criticism of Malory's scanty physical descriptions, Mahoney looks for the symbolic value of certain kinds of spaces: their emotional effects. We may not know what kind of kitchen Sir Gareth is relegated to, but we can read the humiliation of being there very clearly. When Malory actually gives details of spaces, however, he is thinking about ownership and about the notion of honor among both genders. A very interesting aspect of protecting a particular personal territory comes when the knight Alexander turns Morgan's feminine space into a masculine one. His oath to remain in place reflects an earlier social arrangement which, according to Richard Green's A Crisis of Truth, was changing in the later Middle Ages: the truth of oral agreements once invested in a person's very body and presence (as in Alexander's case)--an ethical truth--was moving towards political truth, validated by documents.

Lisa Robeson examines gender and honor with "Women's Worship: Female Versions of Chivalric Honour." Even if women's worship (in its fifteenth-century sense) is not in combat, the worship of both men and women is found in the sense of rank or lineage. Yet this is only one valence of the term. Women acquire worship through keeping their faith in the institutions of chivalry, especially the Round Table; they are not merely "passive objects of rescue" (110). Indeed, while a great deal of women's worship depends on sexual fidelity, as opposed to the martial source of worship for men, women do take some personal risks to their own bodies that are similar to combat. Percival's sister proves this worship by agreeing to give her own blood for the healing of a chronically ill woman, even if it means that the sister loses her own life. Robeson admits that this action is not like combat in certain important ways, but more of a medical procedure. And the end result of the contrast in honor still may raise questions for the reader about how much Malory's text actually honors women's worship. Robeson, at any rate, concludes that, "...both men and women, then, earn honour by preserving the integrity of their bodies" (115).

As this collection concentrates more on thematic issues in the last few essays, Raluca Radulescu gets close to the edge, as it were, with "'Oute of mesure': Violence and Knighthood in Malory's Morte Darthur." "Oute of mesure" is a keyword for describing war, love, and combat in Le Morte Darthur. Excess itself becomes a vehicle for representing love and sorrow in the Tristram sequence and in the last two tales of the Morte. It also points to the failure of the virtue of moderation, which Radulescu locates for Malory in Hardying's portrayal of temperate rulers in his Chronicle. Such moderation gets pressed to its limits in the Balyn story, balanced in some way by Tristram's courtesy and patience with his enemy, Palomydes; yet an excess of love for Isode weakens both of them. By the last tale in Le Morte Darthur, every kind of excess is under examination; and "temperance, although advocated at every stage, is no longer an option...The atmosphere of excess is spreading over the court and even the wisest counselor" (130). Radulescu, who has also written at length on the relationship between Malory and the English gentry of the period, corroborates the significance of this loss of moderation in a recurring concern in gentry letters on excessive violence--and lack of moderation in general--in their own time. This article amplifies Lynch's work and further clarifies the subject of temperance in Le Morte Darthur.

The final two articles of this volume address issues of genre. Fiona Tolhurst ("Why Every Knight Needs His Lady: Re-Viewing Questions of Genre and 'Cohesion' in Malory's Le Morte Darthur") contends that analyzing Le Morte Darthur's complex genre can buttress the unity of the work (a perennially contested question since Vinaver's edition). Commentators have seen cohesion in characters and theme, but rarely in narrative. This is due to the way that thematic cohesion leaves out women. In the supposedly problematic narrative of Sir Tristram, for instance, women and men together contribute to a cohesive text. In fact, the presence of women helps build the identities of Arthur and Lancelot, and the friendships of two heterosexual couples--Tristram and Isode with Lancelot and Guenevere--help to link romance and tragedy. These narrative linkages call for a new understanding of Le Morte Darthur's genre as romantic tragedy. (One might quibble with the way Tolhurst argues for Lancelot and Guenevere's salvation from love; it is rather questionable that Guenevere's deathbed prayer not to live long enough to see Lancelot again means that she has not separated herself from her life before she entered a convent. Given the way she has recently behaved in Lancelot's presence, it seems more plausible to suggest that she is rejecting Lancelot, at the very least in the sense of their earthly love.)

K. S. Whetter has a different view of genre ("On Misunderstanding Malory's Balyn"). Readers who see the character of Balyn as treacherous are not misreading genre of the tale--and really all of Malory's text. The blood-feud action that Balyn engages in--he cuts off the Lady of the Lake's head--takes revenge on the latter for killing his mother. And the feud, together with his personal-public conflict, suggests an epic-heroic tale rather than romance. Further, his actions against Garlon do not stem from some "random search for adventure or love, as is so common in romance, but rather out of a sense of honour, obligation and vengeance..." (156). Even though Balyn's story, and the Le Morte Darthur as a whole, contains elements of romance, the epic-heroic dominates, and Balyn's tragedy bears parallels to Arthur's own. "Malory is re-writing his predominantly romance source materials along variant, somber lines" (160).

This essay is a fitting conclusion to an array of intriguing scholarly discussions, well-informed by earlier criticism but willing to move beyond the implications of previous secondary literature. These essays show clearly how Le Morte Darthur, together with its context, invites further study into its text, its genres, and its enduring human themes that reflect its own times.