P. J. C. Field's long-awaited edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur is, as might be expected from a work that has on its back cover a statement of its editorial philosophy, a monument of textual scholarship intended for scholars who can appreciate the importance of textual detail. The introduction and commentary discuss scribal habits, printing-house procedures, characteristic errors, and the art of reconstructing a text from faulty witnesses. The focus is very much on Le Morte Darthur as a book; cultural and historical issues are put aside for a thorough discussion of the textual.
The edition comes in two beautiful volumes. The crisp white dust-jackets, with the arms of Arthur and Malory printed in full color, set the tone. The introduction and Malory's text are in the first volume; the combined apparatus and commentary, appendices, index, and glossary are in the second. The text is presented in pleasantly large type with lots of white space in the margins. There are no glosses or footnotes or editorial marks in the text itself, making Malory's prose open and inviting. Headers on the left give the name of the book and the corresponding folio number in the Winchester manuscript, and on the right they give the episode name and Caxton's book and chapter numbers. This makes it easy to find one's place but (since it doesn't mark where folios or chapters end) a little harder exactly to align this edition with others. Teaching a Malory seminar this semester, I found myself preferentially doing the reading in Field's edition for the sheer pleasure of it.
Part of the clarity of the page springs from the lack of editorial marks, and that is tied to the overall ambitions of the edition. Field has set himself a different task than Eugène Vinaver, editing the Winchester manuscript, or William Matthews, editing Caxton's printed version: he set himself the old-fashioned task of reconstructing as closely as he could what Malory wrote, using both Winchester and Caxton as witnesses, but ultimately pursuing one lost text instead of describing multiple existing ones. Instead of emending a base text only when there is clear evidence of error, instead Field picks and chooses readings and emendations based on what he considers most likely to have been what Malory originally wrote, even when this produces a text that matches neither witness. The consequences of this approach are most visible in the Roman War section of the work, which Caxton abbreviated extensively, but which in its beginnings include pieces missing from Winchester. Field argues that the scribe was deliberately abbreviating the work, and that Caxton preserves evidence of an earlier state of the text. His Roman War section is, therefore, longer than either Caxton's or Winchester's. The changes occur on smaller scales as well: since the scribes tried to keep even margins on the right, they seem to have used rare spelling variants more frequently at the end of the line in order to fit everything in neatly. Field emends sufficiently exotic spellings under such circumstances. Sometimes the changes are based on a string of assumptions. For instance, take the line when Lyonet says to Gareth "For and thou were as wyght as sir Launcelot...thou shalt not passe" (Winchester) or "For were thou as wyghte as euer was Wade, or Launcelot...thou shalt not passe" (Caxton). Field renders this passage "For and thou were as wyght as ever was Wade, or Sir Launcelot...thou shal not passe a pace" (1:237). He has largely followed Winchester ("and" instead of "were," a "Sir" in front of Launcelot), but he turns to Caxton to include Wade, a legendary non-Arthurian history not mentioned elsewhere in Malory. He does so in the belief that Malory's tale of Gareth must have had a lost source. He then speculates that Malory was adapting an alliterative line from his source (something like Were thou wyghtere than Wade or Wawayne other) by adding his favorite knights, including Launcelot, but the Winchester scribes dropped Wade, and Caxton preserved the original. This is certainly possible. Without any trace of a surviving source, it is hard to know what poetic form it might have taken: Field here suggests an alliterative line, but elsewhere he suggests that Malory's declaration that Gareth "never dysplesed man nother chylde, but allwayes he was meke and mylde" (2:186) might be a possible surviving rhymed couplet from his source. The two are not necessarily incompatible, of course, but those who do not accept all the suppositions might reconstruct the passage differently.
Of course, modern scholars are not immune to the problems of copying texts. There is the occasional error, such as when a speech of Gawain's is rendered with an extra have: "I wente ye wolde have not have smyttyn me so" (1:277). (I was looking at this particular line because it is a crux in understanding the relation between Gareth and Gawain: just after Gareth's identity is revealed in a tournament, Gareth strikes his brother, and in the Winchester manuscript, Gawain says "I wente ye wolde have smyttyn me"; Caxton provides the not. Vinaver accepted the Winchester reading while Field prefers the Caxton here.)
The second volume contains a bibliography focused on textual issues; a long section of notes; several appendices covering Winchester's marginalia, the openings of the Roman War according to Caxton and Winchester, the end of the Roman War, Caxton's "Prologue," and a discussion of Malory's and Arthur's coats of arms; an index of proper names; and a glossary. The heart of this volume is the notes. Field gives each of Vinaver's suggested books an opening discussion, emphasizing sources and textual issues, and then the notes for that book follow, with interpretive and textual commingled though textual notes predominate. The notes provide a compact and clear introduction to the textual issues, and having them in a separate volume makes it easy to consult them. The clean pages of the first volume do come with a disadvantage in that one must consult the relevant section of the notes to see if a given passage has commentary. The index of proper names is useful. It identifies modern places, and for characters provides a little basic information. It is better than Vinaver's at separating characters (for instance, Field recognizes three different figures named Carados). I do wonder if a few maps or family trees might have been beneficial. At times, the index entries are perhaps more confident than they should be. As a (self-interested) example, the index asserts flatly that "Beawme" (one of Malory's possibilities for the modern location of Launcelot's home of Benwic) is Beaune, in Burgundy (2:864). In the note on the text, there is a little more: Field repeats Vinaver's observation that Malory's claim that Launcelot sailed to Beawme is surprising, since Beaune is five hundred miles from a port (2:802). In neither place does Field discuss other possibilities: William Matthews suggests Beawme could be a scribal error for Béarn), and I have suggested it might be Bommes (Matthews, The Ill-Framed Knight [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966], 147; Hodges, "Why Malory's Launcelot Is Not French," PMLA 125.3 : 556-571). The willingness to give one answer rather than a range of possibilities is both a strength and a weakness of the index of proper names.
Has Field succeeded in creating an edition that will replace Vinaver's? I expect this to become the standard edition for citing Malory, and I will gladly use it; it may also become the first edition I read when working on Malory. However, Vinaver's commentary is too useful and extensive to be forgotten, and so both editions will sit on my shelves. Nonetheless, Field's edition has provided a major new resource for Malory scholars.