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18.02.02, Whetter, The Manuscript and Meaning of Malory's Morte Darthur

18.02.02, Whetter, The Manuscript and Meaning of Malory's Morte Darthur

For all those who are interested in bibliography, in palaeography, or in Arthurian studies, this book is a rewarding collection of insightful perspectives on the Winchester manuscript, the only manuscript copy of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur that exists, now held in the British Library. Whetter's central argument is that the rubricated letters signalling the names of the key characters in the Morte has to be a feature deliberately included by Malory himself. This bold thesis undoubtedly pushes Whetter out on a perilous scholarly ledge; part of the appeal this book has is in the reader's need to discover if he can transform this into a more secure platform as the arguments unfold, or whether the provocative stance will crumble under opposing evidence.

The book is structured in six sections: a Textual Introduction, followed by two chapters focussing on the rubrication and Malory's alleged part in this feature, and then another two chapters looking at the impact such a theory has on the narrative in the Morte Darthur, and finally, a conclusion, The Red and The Black.

The Textual Introduction sets out the complex and highly-contested academic theories about the Caxton and Winchester texts, summarising decades of painstaking research in an admirably lucid way that many students of Malory will be grateful for. The ground that is covered here, ranging across the work of key editors of Malory like Eugene Vinaver, Peter Field, and Helen Cooper, and weaving in the contentions over the Roman War episode, the use of explicits, and who the real Malory was, gives the reader a condensed but thorough map of Malory studies to the present day. The scholarly rigour is impressive; Whetter presents the various theories against each other, so that a reader less familiar with some or all of them can cut through the tangled thicket of histories the editing of Malory represents and get a clear picture of the landscape.

More boldly, Whetter refers to the field of book history in this first section, indicating a lesser-used methodological approach to Malory, and points out the surprising rarity of this: "Despite the ways in which the Morte Darthur encapsulates the evolution from manuscript to print, and despite a long and distinguished tradition of scholarly study of English literary manuscripts, neither manuscripts in general nor the Morte in particular have been much embraced by the modern scholarly juggernaut that is book history" (3). The discussions around the mis-en-page not only of the Winchester manuscript, but also, as the study unfolds, of other fifteenth-century manuscripts, show Whetter's credentials to work within book history to be strong ones. What this book does extremely well is a very detailed examination of the Winchester's layout and design, comparing this to contemporary manuscripts like the Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.876, containing the Middle English romance Generides, and this manuscript's counterpart in Cambridge, Trinity College MS 0.5.2. However, in order to fulfil his quest, Whetter must establish that the Winchester manuscript's rubrication is not only unusual for the period it was produced in, but that it can be authorially linked to Malory. In the first chapter, "The Unusual Nature of Winchester's Rubrication," Whetter emphasises the unusual nature of the red letters, which designate consistently "each and every character's name" (25), and which are done in red ink alone, not red traced over black or brown script, and consecutively with the main script. This treatment, he claims, "emphatically glorifies and memorializes Arthurian characters and deeds in ways which reveal an alternative reading of Malory's Arthuriad"(29).

This picks up on an earlier teaser for this theory, where he claims the rubrication "provides an hermeneutic key foregrounding the people, places and things that Malory wants his audience--his culture--to valorize." (5) Valorize, glorify, memorialize: these are emotive and stirring terms, and, given the narratives the Morte contains, seem appropriate, especially when taken with the careful comparison to Hardyng's Chronicle in this chapter. However, these terms are used extremely often throughout the book, and intensifying several times by collocation with "enshrines," sound increasingly over-defensive; they alert the reader to the possibility of an argument pushed too hard and too definitively. These visual clues are there in the Winchester, and in manuscripts of Hardyng, and Chaucer, and Gower, too, as Whetter points out: but in none of these examples is there irrefutable evidence that the authors had direct influence on the layout (214).

Whetter's skill in reading manuscripts, concentrating on their design and layout, is evident: that skill shows itself particularly strongly in the second chapter, "Tracing Winchester's Rubrication and Marginalia," where the close reading of the manuscript is superbly detailed and confidently structured. This study alone is worth reading the book for, were it not for the fact that Whetter consistently repeats that points made prove, rather than point to the possibility, that the rubrication comes from Malory. As he himself asserts, "ultimately, my argument about the narrative and thematic significance of Winchester's ordinatio should still stand whether Winchester's physical layout was designed by Malory or someone else" (91). This is the crux of the matter: the detailed examination of the Winchester manuscript is convincing up to the point when the leap is made to insisting the evidence proves Malory's own involvement. Quite simply, it does not.

It may be unusual, it may even be unique, and that may point to some mystery about this manuscript that makes it even more special than its unique status as the only Malory manuscript, but, as Whetter himself spends time elucidating at the start of his book, we can be fairly sure that the Winchester manuscript was produced after Malory's death (15). This fact alone makes the argument that Malory directly influenced the rubrication at the very least an unsteady one. Granted, it is possible that the Winchester was "carried over from its exemplar and thence back to the authorial holograph"(53) but it does not securely follow that this is a decorative feature "so unique that it most likely derives from Malory himself" (53). It could just have been a patron's whim; it feels like an uneasy claim, and with no firm evidence, this key argument ultimately fails to convince.

However, in the scope of the whole book, this does not detract from a breadth of scholarship that gives much of value to all those fields mentioned at the start of this review. The two chapters that discuss the secularity and rubricated elegy in Malory yield much of interest: for example, the discussion of the Winchester's physical representation of the narrative as "a tomb of elegy and commemoration" (168) is persuasively argued. The explication of tombstone-writing and paratextual annotation (160-164), and the gold letters mentioned in the text and the mirroring of this with the rubrication (168) are subtle but sophisticated readings, and ironically, perhaps, indicate that the non-secular elements are far more entwined with the spiritual (even to the entombment of them both in the same space) than the author acknowledges.

Read this book for its scope, for its detailed range of manuscript comparisons, for its considered examination of Malory, and for its insights into the impact the mis-en-page can have on a reader. The ledge where the argument about that intriguing rubrication and Malory's influence began may not have remained secure, but, in the end, the claim that "matter and meaning in the Morte Darthur are remarkably closely connected" (198) is the truest and most valid conclusion for this study. Whetter's achievement is to prove that hypothesis "out of mesure."