On July 31, 1485, William Caxton first printed Sir Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur.
Five hundred thirty seven years ago today. Only seven years before Christopher Columbus voyaged to the New World..
I believe in the importance of history.
And so, therefore, it’s surely OK to recapitulate a post from a few years ago (even if I’ve given away the spoiler in the introduction):
“Well,” you might say, “he’s a made man.” You might think it was all settled, all done and dusted. Fast forward to wife, children, a retreat to an estate in the country after a successful military career, a bit of local politicking or a judicial appointment of his own, too much fine food and drink, and an early death from apoplexy or a “surfeit of eels.” That’s generally how it went, back in olden days, right?
Not so fast.
At some point in our hero’s life, things went sideways. The young man turned to a life of crime, and for the rest of that life, his dual interests in, the one hand, respectability and comfort, and on the other, low-life, venality, and misdeeds, did battle for his soul. Tale as old as time.
Thus, he married and sired two or three children. He was charged with kidnapping and theft. He became a knight of the shire and was elected to Parliament. There were questions about his handling of the money which he was supposed to distribute among poor and deprived areas of his district. He picked up some powerful political patrons, and in 1449 he was elected to the Duke of Buckingham’s parliamentary seat of Great Bedwyn. Two years later, he was arrested, accused of ambushing Buckingham and several dozen other men, in an act rooted in the political mess that was the Wars of the Roses (Mallare was a Yorkist). The case was not proven. For the rest of the year, Mallare seems to have carried out a vendetta against Buckingham’s supporters, turning to extortion, house-breaking, and rape. At one point, he was imprisoned, but escaped, swam the castle moat and returned home. He was re-arrested, tried, and immured in Marshalsea Prison for a year. This began a series of encounters similar to those of Captain Renault at Rick’s, in which “They put it on the bill. I tear up the bill.” Imprisonment: Escape. Imprisonment: Escape. Over and over. Robbery. Horse-stealing. Rape. Imprisonment: Escape. Throughout it all, Mallare, who must have been a charmer, remained on good terms with his friends, his allies, and his constituents. Imprisonment: Escape.
At some point during one of his bouts of liberty, and like many of his countrymen, Mallare sensed a change in the political and monarchical winds, switched allegiances, backed the Lancastrian horse, and was imprisoned yet again (1468) for his part in a plot to overthrow King Edward IV. He was released from prison for the final time when Henry VI was restored to the throne in 1470, and he died the following year.
His burial was respectable, and the inscription on his tomb read, “Here lies Lord Thomas Mallare, Valiant Soldier,” along with the dates of his birth and death. His children seem to have eschewed a life of crime, and the family returned to its honest and honorable roots.
I know. I know. You think RWKJ has finally lost the plot. You’re chomping at the bit, and wondering “What on earth does this have to do with the “Unexpected Gift” half of the post title? Some of you are probably urging, “For Pete’s sake, and for once, RWKJ, get to the stinking point!”
So, here it is: Out of nowhere that I can spot anywhere in his biography or in the stories of his life, our man must have had either an innate love of, or wide learning in, the French and English courtly love and chivalric literary traditions of his time. And somehow, during one or more later periods of imprisonment (with time on his hands, one assumes), he gathered, assembled, organized and wrote down what he knew. His very long manuscript, which was put into print in 1485 by William Caxton, was originally titled “The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of The Rounde Table.”
In its first printing, fourteen years after its author’s death, William Caxton reorganized the sections, and changed the title, encompassing the entire cycle under what was originally the name of Mallare’s ninth, and last, book.
We know the work today as Le Morte d’Arthur. And its author as Sir Thomas Mallory.
What a gift. And totally unexpected, from everything I can see.
“YET some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say: here in this world he changed his life. But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus. “
**It should be noted that, as with many cases of authorship and attribution of works during this period, there are some questions as to who exactly authored Le Morte d’Arthur. But Thomas Mallare of Newbold Revel is generally accepted as the person, and the facts of his life are pretty much as described above.