MALORY - The life and times of King Arthur's chronicler
(Harper Collins 634 pp £25)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
Writers who talk about high ideals are expected to be perfect - perfectly good, or perfectly bad. In the absence of saintly virtue, we are always prepared to accept scandal as a second best, whether we treat it as evidence of hypocrisy, or of high but failed aspiration, or that blend of both which is what most of us manage.
Thomas Malory is a handy example of a double soul - the man whose work speaks of knightly virtue and piety, of chivalry toward women and justice towards men, and whose life, where it is recorded, speaks of rape, armed robbery of monasteries and unsuccessful treason. The case against him, and his long imprisonments, have made him a handy example for historians of the lawlessly anarchic behaviour of quite minor players in that period of chaos known over- romantically as the War of the Roses. Everyone loves a paradox, and the clash between the work and the crimes is quite glaring here.
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 long imprisonments which enabled Malory to write his masterpiece were not, it needs to be remembered, evidence of convicted guilt but of long waits for trial in a system in which justice delayed was quite 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 and powerful - Malory lived in one of the periods of English history which took such allegations seriously. His later imprisonment was at the hands of Edward IV whom he regarded, with justice, as a usurper; the Lancastrian loyalist Malory was rather less wind-changing than his Warwickshire neighbour, the Kingmaker.
Hardyment has little success in tracing Malory's early life - the best she can do is 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 inconclusive crusade. Absent details of the early life, she gives us the times and leaves us to draw conclusions. What she does suggest, again convincingly, is that what the squire Malory saw, or heard about, created his elevated sense of knighthood, and that the local politics of his maturity were a mire of blood, massacre and treason that made him build the Mort Darthur as a barricade for youthful ideals.
What he did, in the end, was take the story of Arthur as he found it in his sources and assemble it into a coherent narrative. Hardyment points to the melancholy grandeur of Malory's prose and his capacity to block out violent action clearly on the stage of our imagination. She also suggests that the particular spin he put on what he found in his sources came from an emotional identification with Lancelot - in Malory, Lancelot is the Ill-made Knight, the Chevalier Malfet and his own name was punningly capable of twisting into Mal-Auré, the unfortunate.
In the end, of course, the imprisonments gave a busy warrior time to write, and his guilt or innocence are in a sense beside the point. He was a man who looked backwards from bloody chaos to youthful innocence and made his sense of loss personal, whether the Fall he portrayed was national or personal. And if he was unlucky in his life - wrongly accused or merely made to pay for his crimes - he was lucky after his death in that his great work served the turn of a new Lancastrian dynasty whose dodgy claim could be strengthened by an appeal to the mythology Malory codified. Hardly was Richard Plantegenet dead on Bosworth field than the ink was drying on Caxton's edition of Malory, fourteen years dead, and suddenly timely.
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.