Authors: Sir Thomas Malory

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet

Early fifteenth century

Warwickshire, England


Newgate Prison, London, England


On July 31, 1485, from the press of William Caxton, the first English printer, issued the collection of Arthurian romances known as Le Morte d’Arthur. Caxton’s preface names the author as Sir Thomas Malory but gives no further information about him. At the end of the volume is a farewell to the reader in which the author begs prayer for his “good delyveraunce,” states that the book was finished in the ninth year of the reign of King Edward IV (that is, after March 4, 1469), and names himself as “Syr Thomas Maleore, knyght.” {$I[AN]9810000158} {$I[A]Malory, Sir Thomas} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Malory, Sir Thomas} {$I[tim]early fifteenth century;Malory, Sir Thomas}

The historical figure with whom this Sir Thomas Malory has been identified was a member of an old Warwickshire family. He came into his father’s estates about 1433 and with “one lance and two archers” was in the train of Richard Beauchamp at the siege of Calais in 1436. In 1455 he was a member of Parliament for Warwickshire. At this point his career underwent a drastic change, and within the next five or six years he was accused of crimes including cattle raiding, extortion, breaking and entering, theft, rape, sedition, and attempted murder. He was imprisoned eight times and twice made dramatic escapes. After this interlude of lawlessness, he is known to have followed the earl of Warwick on his expedition into Northumberland in 1462; probably was present at the siege of Alnwick, which lasted until January 30, 1463; and very likely went over with Warwick to the Lancastrians. When the king granted general pardons to the rebels in 1468, Malory was excluded from the amnesty by name. He died in 1471, possibly as a prisoner, and was buried near Newgate Prison.

The identification of Malory, the author of Le Morte d’Arthur, with Malory, the traitor and criminal, is supported by the information found in a manuscript version of the work discovered in 1934 in the library of Winchester College. This manuscript contains several explicits which were suppressed in the printed version; one of them says specifically that the book was “drawyn by a knyght presoner Sir Thomas Maleorre.” Perhaps more important, the manuscript shows that Caxton treated Malory’s work with considerable freedom and that many of the inconsistencies and garbled passages in the text are traceable to the printing house rather than to the author. The most reliable modern editions (such as the Eugène Vinaver version) therefore are based on the Winchester manuscript rather than on Caxton’s version of the text.

The book consists of the legends of Sir Launcelot, Sir Gareth, Sir Tristram, and the Holy Grail as well as stories of Arthur’s coming to the throne, his wars with the Emperor Lucius, and his death. Malory’s sources were principally French romances, which he translated into vigorous and resonant English prose. The earliest written tales clung closely to the sources, the departures being chiefly to extol the virtues of the high order of knighthood. Later, however, Malory seems to have gained more confidence, and his changes in the source material took the form of reordering and altering to increase the aesthetic value of the story. The last-written work, The Most Piteous Tale of the Morte Arthur, which is based partly on a French romance and partly on an English stanzaic poem, is thought to be the greatest; in it Malory’s genius reached its highest pitch in describing the deeds of heroes in the service of a great national leader.

Author Works Long Fiction: Le Morte d’Arthur, 1485 The Winchester Malory: A Facsimile, 1976 Bibliography Archibald, Elizabeth, and A. S. G. Edwards, eds. A Companion to Malory. Woodbridge, England, 1996. Part of the Arthurian Studies series, this volume examines the Arthurian legend in Malory’s seminal work. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Bennet, J. A. W., ed. Essays on Malory. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1963. A collection of seven essays by such outstanding Middle English scholars as C. S. Lewis, Derek Stanley Brewer, and W. F. Oakeshott. Included is an essay on art and nature by Eugène Vinaver, one of the most prominent Malory scholars of his day, written in the form of an open letter to C. S. Lewis, which responds to many of the points made by Lewis in his own essay in this collection (“The English Prose Morte”). A lengthy examination of chivalry in Le Morte d’Arthur is also included. Benson, Larry D. Malory’s “Morte Darthur.” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. Four aspects of Malory’s work are examined in a work concerned chiefly with the context in which Malory wrote: a discussion of the relationship of the genre of Le Morte d’Arthur to Arthurian legend and traditional romances; the structure of Malory’s work particularly as it relates to the English romance; a historical perspective on chivalric traditions and chivalry in Malory; and a detailed literary and historical interpretation of the tale of the Sancgreal, the book of Sir Lancelot and Guinevere, and the death of Arthur. Falcetta, Jennie-Rebecca. “The Enduring Sacred Strain: The Place of the Tale of the Sankgreal Within Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.” Christianity and Literature 47 (Autumn, 1997): 21-34. Discusses the Grail’s effects on three levels: its association with sensuous trappings, its effect on the main characters of the Arthuriad, and its impact on the conclusion of Le Morte d’Arthur. Field, P. J. C. The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993. A very detailed, scholarly retelling of Malory’s life. Recommended for advanced students and scholars. Field, P. J. C. Malory: Texts and Sources. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1998. An examination of the sources for Malory and Arthurian tales. Hanks, Dorrel Thomas, Jr., and Jessica Gentry Brogdon, eds. The Social and Literary Contexts of Malory’s “Morte Darthur.” Woodbridge, England: Boydell and Brewer, 2001. A collection of socio-historical analyses of Malory’s work. Ihle, Sandra Ness. Malory’s Grail Quest: Invention and Adaptation in Medieval Prose Romance. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. Examines “The Tale of the Sangreal” from Le Morte d’Arthur, looking both to its thirteenth century French source and to Malory’s own structural and thematic adaptation. Gives insight into medieval literary theory and the underlying intentions of Malory’s distinctive Grail quest. Kennedy, Beverly. Knighthood in the Morte Darthur. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1985. A comprehensive, detailed examination of knighthood and chivalry and a meticulous discussion of Le Morte d’Arthur in this light. Kennedy considers different facets of knighthood, such as “The High Order of Knighthood,” “Worshipful Knighthood,” and “True Knighthood.” McCarthy, Terence. Reading the “Morte d’Arthur.” Wolfeboro, N.H.: Boydell and Brewer, 1988. An excellent introduction to Le Morte d’Arthur. McCarthy outlines the structure of the work, book by book, with plenty of background and analysis, then offers more in-depth discussions of chivalric tradition, historical background, Malory’s style, and his method of storytelling. He also suggests a selection of passages for closer study to give the newcomer to Malory a representative and manageable introduction to an occasionally difficult text. Merrill, Robert. Sir Thomas Malory and the Cultural Crisis of the Late Middle Ages. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. An original inquiry into the psychology of the knights of Arthurian romance and the impact of the Round Table on their lives. Traces the formation of medieval institutions and explores the personal and social tensions in the Middle Ages that led to the Protestant Reformation. Parins, Marylyn Jackson. Malory: The Critical Heritage. 1988. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 1996. An important collection of early criticism and commentary on Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in chronological order, beginning with William Caxton’s preface to the first edition and ending with remarks by influential literary critic George Saintsbury in 1912. Parry, Joseph D. “Following Malory out of Arthur’s World.” Modern Philology 95 (November, 1997): 147-169. Argues that the final resting place of King Arthur at Avalon is fitting in terms of the narrative’s focus on two types of location that correspond to two concurrent but contradictory narratives of the dissolution of the Arthurian society. Takamiya, Toshiyuki, and Derek Brewer, eds. Aspects of Malory. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981. Eleven essays on Malory. Examines topics such as sources of Malory, the structure of Malory’s tales, and the Malory manuscript. Eugène Vinaver discusses Malory’s prose style, and Richard R. Griffiths offers a new theory on the author’s

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