To read Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur is to enter an encyclopedic whirlwind of paratactic constructions, interrupted story lines, and dizzying lists of knights (and some ladies). For many readers, Malory's appeal resides in this disorienting encounter with obsolescent phrasing such as "maugre your head" and "sithen I smote you," overlapping love affairs of Tristram and Isoud and Lancelot and Guenever, and even frenchified names of famous knights such as Beaumains (Gareth) and La Chevalier Mal Fet (Lancelot). For others, Malory's fifteenth-century prose is relentlessly dense, repetitive, contradictory--simply impenetrable. In an attempt to reach readers for whom "Malory's language and style have grown strange" (ix), Joseph Glaser translates Caxton's version of Malory (specifically Janet Cowen's Penguin Classics edition) by redacting unnecessary elaborations and modernizing antiquated vocabulary.
At first glance, one might assume that Glaser's text is a selected version of Malory. It is not an abridgement, however--all episodes are retained, following Caxton's every book and chapter. Glaser shortens the text by condensing it, reducing superfluous speeches, dialogue, and descriptions to their essences, preferring cleaner episodic sequences over elaborate chivalric vows. The effect is a lean Malory, digestible for those who want to reduce their Arthurian fat intake. As Glaser points out, his approach mimics Malory's own treatment of his sources, which included "condensing them to fit his new narrative" (x). In this respect, Glaser significantly improves the fitness of the text and makes it more accessible and attractive to a readership repulsed by Malory's convolutions. An excellent example of this efficient reduction occurs in a dispute between Lancelot and Lamorak over who is the fairest lady of them all. Malory's Lamorak offers a longwinded peace settlement: "I am loth to have ado with you in this quarrel, for every man thinketh his own lady fairest; and though I praise the lady that I love most ye should not be wroth; for though my lady, Queen Guenever, be fairest in your eye, wit ye well Queen Margawse of Orkney is fairest in mine eye, and so every knight thinketh his own lady fairest..." (9.13). Whereas Malory's Lamorak blabbers on, Glaser's Lamorak cuts to the chase, saying, "Queen Morgause seems most beautiful to me, Queen Guenever to you and to Meliagaunt. Change 'is' to 'seems' and all are right" (136).
While Glaser's condensation sacrifices some of the wit and verve of Malory's prose style, this new narrative brings the intersections of plot lines to the fore, helping readers to see the larger structural connections between seemingly disparate episodes and themes. With some of the density removed, readers can more readily see storylines that often get submerged, such as the ongoing feud between the families of King Pellinor and King Lot that starts, stops, and reignites across multiple books. Glaser even appends a detailed index of characters and important objects that includes short descriptions of their appearances in sequence throughout the text. This index is exceedingly helpful because it highlights unifying themes and character development as well as clearly demonstrates that the main character of the Morte is Lancelot, not Arthur. Whereas Arthur's index entry is approximately a page and a half long, Tristram's is two pages, and Lancelot's is close to three. The index also reveals amusing repetitions and contradictions, including two dead Colgrevaunces and five Elaines.
In addition to these benefits of condensation and indexation, Glaser updates Malory's language, often eliminating confusing and elaborate phrasing. For example, when Arthur impregnates whom Malory calls "King Lot's wife" and "his sister, on the mother side" (1.19), Glaser clarifies that this is "Morgause" and that Arthur "knew nothing of this" (13). In a few instances, Glaser even offers beautiful substitutions for Malory's language. For example, after Arthur returns from his quest for Excalibur, Malory explains that "all men of worship said it was merry to be under such a chieftain, that would put his person in adventure as other poor knights did" (1.25). Rather than retain this unremarkable phrasing, Glaser enhances the emotion of the moment: "They loved him more than ever that he would set himself adrift upon the world like one of them" (17).
Glaser's abbreviations of Malory's elaborations are often quite clever as well. For example, after a phantom knight wounds Gareth while he is in bed with Dame Lyonesse, Glaser reduces an explanation of their eventual reunion in bed with the added comment, "This time, however, he kept his sword and armor close at hand" (95). Likewise, when Alisander is offered the opportunity to serve the pleasure of Morgan le Fay (10.38), Glaser retains just the gist of Alisander's response: "I would sooner cut off my hangers" (168). A similar riposte appears when Guenever learns that Lancelot wore Elaine's sleeve. Malory's Guenever responds to Bors's fears about Lancelot's loyalty by saying, "No force...though he be destroyed, for he is a false traitor knight" (18.15). Glaser makes her condemnation simple, but cold as ice: "I hope he is dead" (267). In the same vein, Glaser refuses to gloss over darker episodes, which Caxton occasionally omits in his chapter titles. Whereas Caxton describes 1.27 as "How all the children were sent for that were born on May-day, and how Mordred was saved," Glaser bluntly titles it, "King Arthur drowns a ship of children" (18). With a similar but more callous spirit, Glaser abbreviates Caxton's 17.12 title, "How Galahad and Percival found in a castle many tombs of maidens that had bled to death," to "More dead maidens" (250).
Some of Glaser's word choices, however, belie his attempts to modernize Malory. In a surprising number of cases, Glaser incorporates more obscure or antiquated terms than can be found in his source. For example, when Arthur discovers a brachet killing a hart, Glaser employs a technical hunting phrase, "Arthur blew the morte" (43), in place of Malory's "Arthur blew the prize" (4.6). Likewise, Glaser adds an alliterative flourish to the death of Peris de Forest Savage, whom Lancelot kills by splitting him "from poll to paps" (72), replacing Malory's "clave his head unto the paps" (6.10). While the addition of "poll" is clever, it is less comprehensible than "head" and will likely confound the audience for this edition. In a similar move, Glaser has Lancelot say "Pax" instead of Malory's "fight not so sore" (7.4) to implore Beaumains (Gareth) to relent in their battle--while this substitution condenses the text, it does so only for those readers familiar with the Latin petition. Later when Gareth fights Gawain, Glaser has them fight "[w]ithout parley" (102), instead of Malory's more modern phrasing, "without bidding" (7.33). And in a description of Tristram's prowess against Kay's forces, Glaser explains that Tristram "chivvied" (145)--as opposed to chased-- the rest of the knights around the tournament field, adding unnecessary color to Malory's comparison of Tristram to a greyhound chasing rabbits (9.30). Similarly, it is difficult to imagine that a modern audience would find Glaser's translation of Dinas's Shakespearean rejection of his lady, "A pox on your promises" (151), more intelligible than Malory's "I shall never trust them that once betrayed me" (9.39). And even though Glaser's reference to a Saracen "flotilla" (166) is a more specific term for Malory's generalized "ships" (10.32), this naval term seems too precise for the context.
There are also inconsistencies in the modernization of terms. For example, Glaser offers the gloss, "a hound bitch, a brachet" (107) for "brachet" in 8.5, but this clarification would have been more helpful when "bitch" (74) silently replaces "brachet" earlier in 6.1. Likewise, when King Mark attempts to shame Isoud, he imprisons her in what Malory calls a "lazar-cote" (8.35), but rather than translate this as a "leper's hut," Glaser retains the term in his chapter title, "La Beale Isoud in a lazar-cote" (122), despite calling it a "hut with lepers" (123) in the chapter itself. And when Mordred attempts to convince Guenever to leave the Tower of London and marry him (21.1), Glaser's Mordred "tried to inveigle the queen" (299), using a fairly abstruse verb when "persuade" would be clear enough. In at least three striking instances, Glaser's attempt to clarify a sentence significantly changes it. The first occurs after Lancelot rescues Elaine of Corbin from boiling water, when Malory notes, "Launcelot thought she was the fairest lady of the world, but if it were Queen Guenever" (11.1). Glaser renders this, "Lancelot thought her the most beautiful woman he had seen, except perhaps [my emphasis] for Queen Guenever" (197), adding an element of uncertainty that calls into question Lancelot's blind admiration of Guenever. The second alteration occurs at Lancelot's reception at Corbin, where Malory says that the people "saw never so goodly a man" (12.3). Instead of translating "goodly" as "beautiful," Glaser inserts a comparative adjective--"they had never seen a bigger man" (207)--that conjures an image of Lancelot as a giant. And finally, when Malory refuses to divulge the details of Lancelot and Guenever's tryst, saying, "And whether they were abed or at other manner of disports, me list not hereof make no mention" (20.3), Glaser diminishes the power of this rhetorical deference by pleading ignorance: "whether they made love I do not know" (285).
And despite the many clever and clarifying condensations that Glaser produces, some are not as successful, sometimes even adding confusion. For example, after Balin draws the enchanted sword in 2.2, Glaser claims that the Round Table knights deride Balin for being a "witch" (20), which presumes that when Malory's knights accuse Balin of doing the deed "by witchcraft," it refers to his own magical practices, instead of the assistance of a witch, a more common occurrence in Arthurian legend. Other redactions are a bit too drastic and undercut dramatic tension. For example, when Tristram and Isoud accidentally drink the famous love potion, Glaser condenses Malory's intriguing description of their discovery of the flask and their subsequent undying love for one another (8.24) to "Tristram and La Beale Isoud happened on the queen's potion at sea and drank it. From that time forward the love between them never slacked" (117). But the most disappointing, perhaps necessary, consequence of Glaser's condensation is the loss of Malory's paratactic and rhythmic prose. Instead of Malory's alliterative rendering of Arthur's dream of a dragon and "boar all black in a cloud, and his paws as big as a post" (5.4), we get "a black boar with huge feet" (58). Glaser recognizes Malory's dependence upon the alliterative Morte Arthure in the Roman War episode, and retains some alliteration in battle scenes, such as "shouts and great strokes on both sides," "fighting as fiercely," and "rescuing and riding" (61) but the immersive effect of confronting Malory's "great giant named Galapas," whom Arthur had "shorted" and "smote off both his legs by the knees" to bring him down to "size" (5.8), is considerably lessened.
Overall, Glaser delivers what he promises: a highly readable, reduced, and modernized Malory. While some of the word choices are questionable, the effective condensation of a seemingly uncontainable network of narratives is an impressive feat. If this is the only Malory readers encounter, it is difficult not to regret what they will miss--encountering a Middle English book that is both an end and a beginning, a compilation of a longstanding and highly variant manuscript tradition and the Arthurian Ur-text for the printed age to come. As Glaser suggests in his introduction, however, the strangeness of the text too often leads to readerly repulsion, not attraction. Glaser's storylines are distinct, not dense, his dialogue is concise, not digressive, and his language is unassuming, not luxuriant. While these features do not match most readers' impressions of Malory's style, his Arthurian tales of adventure, love, death, and betrayal are all here for a new readership to relish.