October 1, 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer
A could-be biography of Sir Thomas Malory
This life of Arthur's chronicler may be imagined and some of its interpretations questionable, but its renderings of chivalry and courtly life are vividly enjoyable.
The Knight Who Became
King Arthur's Chronicler
By Christina Hardyment
HarperCollins. 634 pp. $29.95
Reviewed by Edward Pettit
In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence recounts an episode when he and his tattered Arab force take refuge with no food or fuel - 28 men - in two reeking rooms. His men suffer, but the indefatigable Lawrence has a talisman: "In my saddle-bags was a Morte d'Arthur. It relieved my disgust. The men had only physical resources." For Lawrence, Sir Thomas Malory's prose epic Le Morte Darthur is a spiritual resource. Its chivalric stories give him hope in the face of despair. The Morte inspires Christina Hardyment in much the same way. Her biography of its author treats the Morte as chivalric scripture. It "still has lessons to teach us: lessons about taking personal responsibility, being loyal and tolerant, defending the weak - that 'generosity of spirit.' "
Hardyment doesn't so much write the biography of the author as she writes the biography of a Malory who could have existed. Like many of history's peripheral figures, there are few references in written records to the author of the Morte. There are even several men named Thomas Malory who lived at the same time. The man we now believe to be the author of the Morte, Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, Warwickshire, was only identified in the early 20th century.
Although the identification is not contested, the exploits of the 15th-century knight found in the historical record have been far from flattering. It turns out that Sir Thomas Malory spent considerable time in the rough-hewn stone prisons of his day. During the Wars of the Roses, he was charged with cattle rustling, burglary, assault and rape. He broke out of prison twice, once swimming a moat to gain his freedom. Malory's violent and criminal behavior has upset those who see him as England's greatest writer of chivalry. For Hardyment, who explicitly defines Malory's "purpose in writing" as "to imprint the values of chivalry, loyalty, piety and courtesy indelibly" on his readers' minds, Malory's crimes cannot be accepted at face value.
But instead of trying to reconcile Malory's historically recorded crimes with his chivalric ethos, Hardyment recasts his violent acts as honorable. Malory ambushed the Duke of Buckingham only as a service to his own liege lord. Malory ransacked an abbey only to retrieve falsely incriminating documents. Malory did not "rape" Joan Smith, but rather was having an affair with her and only abducted her from an abusive husband. While I can accept Malory's role as an enforcer for various factions in the Wars of the Roses (and I think Hardyment provides substantial evidence of his involvement) and that Malory was not just some rogue knight, raping and pillaging the countryside, I have a hard time accepting her circumlocutions to prove the honorable nature of these acts. I don't expect Malory to be a paragon of chivalry, any more than I expect a medieval king to be a paragon of virtue. That Malory's book aspires to represent the high ideals of chivalry need not make him the perfect knight of his own story.
My disagreement with Hardyment on this point, however, does not make me like her book any less. Hardyment fully discloses that her biography is "as much an imagined life as a true biography." It is the biography of one who could have written Le Morte Darthur. Her book is a kind of literary exploration, using the Morte as a detailed map in which to navigate the historical events of Malory's life. Hardyment reads the Morte as a "primer" on honor and "English individualism." She assiduously pursues this course and in doing so creates a thrilling epic of her own in which King Arthur's knights are replaced with King Henry VI's.
Hardyment provides her readers with the details of the hard-fought battles of war, as well as the mock heroics of tournaments. At the battle of Agincourt, we learn of "the gory fate of horsemen" who try to cross a ford in which the French have "driven pointed stakes into the water." We see the sumptuous feasts of kings eating off golden plates, surrounded by tapestries depicting Arthurian scenes. The pageantry of tournaments is thrillingly painted, the clash of horse and lance, the hush, then roar of the spectators, the panoply of colorful pennants rippling in the wind.
Malory's Morte has been instrumental in creating for succeeding generations the trappings of the legendary world of King Arthur, so it comes as a slight surprise to discover that many of the glamorous aspects of the legends were descriptions of an actual 15th-century courtly world. Malory's legends come to life through the prism of Hardyment's biography. While I may not agree with all of Hardyment's conclusions, her biography is enjoyably readable and, better yet, it inspires me to revisit Malory's great book once again.