Malory, by Christina Hardyment

A quest for the darkest knight

Thomas Malory is a handy example of a double soul: the man whose work, in the mid-15th-century Morte Darthur, speaks of knightly virtue and piety, of chivalry toward women and justice towards men. Yet his life, where recorded, speaks of rape, armed robbery of monasteries and unsuccessful treason.

The case against him, and his long imprisonments, have made him a useful instance for historians of the anarchic behaviour of that period of chaos known, over-romantically, as the War of the Roses. Everyone loves a paradox, and a clash between the work and the crimes is glaring here.

In this biography, Christina Hardyment is prepared to accept the paradox if she has to: the Morte Darthur is in the end what matters. If she has to... Many of the charges, and most of the proceedings, look like legal chicanery by powerful enemies. The imprisonments which enabled Malory to write his masterpiece were not evidence of convicted guilt, but of long waits for trial in a system in which justice delayed was often justice denied.

When the most powerful of his enemies, Buckingham, dies in battle, Malory's legal difficulties go away. Nor should it be assumed that he got off on the rape charge because he was affluent. He lived in one of the periods which took such allegations seriously. And his later incarceration was at the hands of Edward IV, whom the Lancastrian loyalist regarded, with justice, as a usurper.

With Malory's early life, the best Hardyment can do is to argue that he was either in the retinue of his Beauchamp connections in France, or with his uncle - head of the English Knights Hospitaller - on an inconclusive crusade. She gives us the times, and leaves us to draw conclusions.

She does suggest, again convincingly, that what the squire Malory saw, or heard about, created his elevated sense of knighthood, and that the politics of his maturity were a mire of blood, massacre and treason that made him build the Morte as a barricade for his youthful ideals.

He took the story of King Arthur as he found it in his sources, and assembled it into a coherent narrative. Hardyment points to the melancholy grandeur of Malory's prose and his capacity to block out violent action on the stage of imagination. She suggests his particular spin on what he found came from an emotional identification with Lancelot.

Hardyment's excellent biography is, like the Morte Darthur, a text for its times. She constructs from scanty facts a version of Malory as moral artist that is not entirely dependent on her revisionist picture of Malory the maligned man of principle in a bad age. He looked backwards from bloody chaos to youthful innocence, and made his sense of loss personal. And if he was unlucky in his life, he was lucky after his death. His great work served a new Lancastrian dynasty, whose dodgy claim could be strengthened by an appeal to the mythology that Malory codified.