HARPERCOLLINS £25 (634pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Malory, by Christina Hardyment
A quest for the darkest knight
Friday 02 September 2005
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.
Books And it is whizzpopping!
MusicThey're running their own restaurants
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Dentist who illegally killed Cecil the lion blames local guides for the scandal
- 2 Kate Winslet thanked 'particularly horrible' girl who bullied her at school after Titanic success
- 3 Norwich paedophile ring: Woman at centre of gang who made children 'sexual play things' guilty of 23 offences
- 4 Black and ethnic minority people twice as likely to be hit by Tory cuts than white people, report finds
- 5 Walter Palmer: Cecil the lion killer revealed to be American dentist
New on Netflix August 2015: From Narcos and Spellbound to Kick Ass 2 and Dinotrux
Listen! Beowulf opening line misinterpreted for 200 years
Heath Ledger's father reveals dead actor's 'Joker diary' written during The Dark Knight
Game of Thrones season 6: New toy line suggests Jon Snow is not among the dead
Spectre: Ellie Goulding is almost definitely singing the theme song to the next Bond film
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
The last thing Labour needs is a leader like Jeremy Corbyn who people want to vote for
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn – or a return to a Labour government
I am the Jeremy Corbyn supporter that many will tell you doesn't exist
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband