Book Review–Malory:The Knight Who Became King Arthur’s Chronicler

Christina Hardyment, Malory: The Knight Who Became King Arthur’s Chronicler. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. 481 pp. + 114 pp. notes (HB) ISBN: 0-06-620981-4. $29.95

There is much to commend in this exhaustively-researched exercise in speculative history, presented by Cambridge University – trained popular historian Christina Hardyment. Her personal commitment to the subject matter is apparent in the amassing of details regarding day-to-day life in fifteenth-century England, and in her richly re-imagined ceremonies and celebrations. Scholars new to the field and general interest readers will find much here to occupy them both in terms of overall historical grounding in the era and in terms of an original approach to resolving the ongoing debates surrounding the still-mysterious figure of Sir Thomas Malory, “King Arthur’s Chronicler.”

Malorean scholars and those well-versed in fifteenth-century English history and culture will find little here that is new. Hardyment herself admits as much, focusing her book on the culture and events evolving around Malory. The author also readily acknowledges her debt to Peter Fields’s magisterial biography of Thomas Malory (The Life and Times of Thomas Malory, D.S.Brewer: 1999), from which she takes much of her factual information on Malory, himself. Hardyment classifies her own work as a necessary act of re-visioning history:

Fields’s richly detailed research has been a major inspiration and invaluable resource for me in writing this book. But as a distinguished academic, he has to observe a scholarly caution, and his book makes Malory’s life more, not less mystifying. It does not explain the emergence of a clever, forceful writer who evidently had ideals for which he was willing to risk his life, a man whom the Lancastrian King Henry VI feared enough to imprison without trial for almost a decade, and who was one of a tiny handful of men excluded from pardon by Henry’s usurping Yorkist successor, Edward IV.To achieve this, Malory’s birth needs to be returned to around 1400, and what we know about his apparently criminal actions examined in the context of medieval legal practice and the troubled political world of the fifteenth century. Whether or not he was guilty of rape must be squarely faced. And a convincing explanation for his disgrace in the late 1460s must be found.(15)

Over the course of the book, Hardyment sets forth explanations for each of these aspects of Malory’s life, which vary in nature from compelling and original to readily dismissible on the grounds of a lack of proof. She takes a personal and sympathetic approach, finding Malory to be an estimable and much-maligned figure historically. She casts him as a chivalric idealist who posed such a threat to the standing powers of his time, Henry VI and Edward IV, that they quarantined him on multiple occasions to to mitigate his influence. Ultimately, however, she leaves the final conclusion up to the reader.

The book is organized more or less chronologically, with the chapters thematically centered around major events of Thomas Malory’s life such as the Battle of Agincourt, his political rise, and his trial for rape. Hardyment’s writing style is conversational and largely hypothetical in tone, making liberal use of first-person assertions and “if-then”statements. Despite its speculative nature, however, her imagined recreation of ceremonies such as Malory’s baptism and induction into knighthood, and the incorporation of hundreds of small details of fifteenth-century English life and culture, recommend Hardyment’s book as a compendium of cultural tidbits relevant to the study of Malory and his work.

There are two aspects of this book that render it unsuitable for academic purposes. The first is Hardyment’s tendency to force an alignment between her (largely fictive) re-imagining of Malory’s life events with events in theMorte Darthur, as in the case of her description of Henry Beauchamp’s jousting tournament against French knights on January 6, 7, and 8, 1415. Hardyment writes that Beauchamp fought the French knights on consecutive days, wearing differently-colored surcoats and sporting differently-colored trappings for his horse on each of these days; she then states: “As the young Thomas Malory was in Beauchamp’s service at this time, it is reasonable to imagine him witnessing this tournament, and indeed recalling it when he wrote his ‘Tale of Sir Gareth,’ an otherwise unknown story about a chivalrous young hero who summons challengers to a tournament […] In rapid succession he [Gareth] defeats the Black, the Green, and the Red Knight, each time, like Beauchamp, in different-colored armour…” (101). She also uses the Morte Darthur as the foundation for many of her statements about Malory, as in the opening of the chapter “The Camelot Years,” in which she explains that the emphasis on good lordship in the Morte Darthur can be accounted for by Malory’s excellent experience as a retainer in Harry, Earl of Warwick’s service. For his part, Malory “would have been an attractive and knowledgeable mentor for an idealistic teenage aristocrat like Sir Harry,” proof of which is presented through “a contemporary parallel [which] is provided in Oliver La Marche’s 1445 description of Sir Jean D’Auxy’s contribution to the education of Charles, Count of Charolais, heir to the dukedom of Burgundy” (219). While these parallel examples provide rich opportunities for further thinking and research on the matters being presented, they do not of themselves constitute reliable evidence for Hardyment’s conclusions.

Finally, Hardyment’s treatment of the question of Malory’s guilt as regards his trial for rape, heralded in the introduction as a central aspect of her text, is in fact nearly glossed over. In chapters 15 and 16, she briefly outlines the accusations and the trial, discussing the political implications and the legal issues, and then focuses her argument on the meaning of the term rapere. She finishes by again “turning to the Morte Darthur” for further evidence to support her contention that Malory was not guilty of rape, but rather of an adulterous affair with a childhood sweetheart (305-312). Although her premise is original, the lack of historical evidence and emphasis on literary analysis and speculation leave the question of Malory’s guilt or innocence still open to scholarly investigation.

The extensive notes, bibliography, and visual images included in this book are a valuable aspect, and are recommendable to those new to the field of Malorean and/or fifteenth-century studies. Although not an academic work, Hardyment’s fresh approach to the study of the figure of Sir Thomas Malory is thorough and original, and her use of primary source materials suggests several paths of study still available to academic scholarship.

Melissa Ridley Elmes

Melissa Ridley Elmes holds the MA in English from Longwood University and will be completing her doctoral studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has published on medieval chronicles, pilgrimage, the Marian cult, Spenser and Sidney, and is currently working on a monograph on medieval Arthurian texts and the concept of national identity. She teaches literature and AP Art History at the Carlbrook School.

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Book Review–Malory:The Knight Who Became King Arthur’s Chronicler by Melissa Ridley Elmes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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