Malory: the life and times of King Arthur's Chronicler by Christina Hardyment

If you seek the Grail, go to the source
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Hardyment's avowed object is to bridge the moat between the high-minded author of the Morte D'Arthur and the hell-raising alleycat of contemporary record. The attempt is noble and largely successful: and how refreshing to read a biography which is actually on the side of its subject, seeking rehabilitation rather than calumny! Hardyment shows how Marlowe was the victim both of implacable, and often motiveless, hostility from certain persons of power and also his allegiance to a chivalric code which was outmoded even in his own day.

There's rather more "times" than "life" of course, given the paucity of our knowledge of Malory, but the times are excitingly presented. The wars of Henry V, in which Malory fought, the fragile reign of Henry VI and the Yorkist rebellion, are all evoked with detail and spirit. It was interesting to read, for example, of how demobbed or disabled English soldiers in France would make a living setting up "English style" taverns. You get the surreal impression of a kind of medieval Costa Del Sol in Normandy.

Malory himself flits in and out of this story with characteristic volatility. The son of Warwickshire gentry, he drinks deep of Arthurian romance as a child, enacts it in the French wars, and naively imagines it will hold some weight in the new world of realpolitik. As a result, he spends his early life campaigning, his later life in prison or about to be in prison. Incarcerated, he begins to write the Morte D'Arthur. Hardyment is convinced that Lancelot is the character with whom Malory most identified. I'm not sure that writers often make their central character the embodiment of their own aspirations, but she makes a good case for this thought.

The author is intrigued by the parallels between the Morte D'Arthur and events in Malory's life, but she has a rather brisk way with Malory's literary antecedents. Hardyment is forever invoking the French "sources" (though she rarely investigates them), as if the French sources were the primary ones. In the development of the Arthurian Romance we see perhaps the greatest example of Chinese whispers in the history of literature. Arthur is conceived as a hero of Celtic resistance to English aggression, pupates within a gallic cocoon of chivalry, and emerges as an icon of English patriotism. True, it is not the errand of this author to investigate all this, but she ought to have remembered that, fascinating as Malory is in his own right, we want to know more about Arthur as well.

True to her stated goal, the author rebuts, or excuses, all of Malory's alleged crimes. It was not so much that he was a pawn who refused to be a pawn, but a gentleman who prized chivalry above law, and men he trusted above men of power. His loyalty to Henry VI, for example, was rooted in the fact that Henry made him a knight. But he found himself drawn also to the Duke of York, whose war against the self-serving nobles who surrounded the king led to tragedy for all concerned. Malory was, however, of the school which prizes the first allegiance. He fell foul of the Duke of Buckingham, who pursued a vendetta against him for 10 years, years which, for Malory, were marked by incessant arrests and incarcerations. In Hardyment's analysis, Malory was a good man who never mastered the knack of seeming good. The darkest cloud over Malory's reputation, that he, the unbending champion of female honour, not once but twice raped a woman, is blown into wisps. After a long and detailed chapter on medieval law, Hardyment shows that the savage ravisher was, in all probability, only rescuing a woman from an unhappy and abusive marriage. This forces her to concede that Malory was probably an adulterer, however.

Of the many remarkable feats accomplished in this book, the greatest is the desire it provokes to read Malory's masterpiece again - immediately, if feasible. The other lies in the author's presentation of soul-crushing detail in the most lively and readable prose. You can't hope to remember all the names, rather as in Malory himself; but it doesn't matter. Christina Hardyment has done the memory of earnest, erring, passionate Sir Thomas Malory a huge service.