Sir Thomas Malory: The apparently forgotten man
Christina Hardyment’s Malory: The Man Who Became King Arthur’s Chronicler, a delightful biography of Sir Thomas Malory, seeks to dispel the prevailing invisibility of Malory to the general masses. This was an invisibility of which I was completely unaware until I started reading this book. I (mistakenly) thought that Malory was a god of English literature, known as equally well as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and perhaps even Dickens. As I would find myself exclaiming in a rather panicked high-pitched voice to more than one person, “But he wrote Le Morte d’Arthur! How could you not know him?!” to which almost all demoralizing replied, “The Morte de What?” Thank god for Christina Hardyment, is all I have to say at the end of this travail. Thank god, I thought, that someone has stepped up to fill this educational void that I didn’t even know about.
Unfortunately for Hardyment and the illiterate masses, Sir Thomas Malory lived in what has been aptly dubbed (in the case of primary source material) “the Dark Ages,” or the Medieval period. As I’ve mentioned before, this source-darkness creates a veritable dearth of information about individuals, even high-ranking ones, let alone those a little further down the social totem pole, if you’ll forgive the anachronistic metaphor. Thus Hardyment is forced to make due with what she has and while she has uncovered some interesting new facts, she still does not have much to go on. Happily, however, the book far from suffers from this lack of information and Hardyment does not take us down swoony Weir-like avenues of guessing (“Was it her fair Hainaulter beauty that appealed to him?”). Rather, Hardyment takes the opportunity to write an excellent retelling of the end of Henry V’s reign and the beginning of the War of the Roses, inserting Malory where possible.
My only qualm with her decision to do this is one of false advertising. The book is arguably more about how the War of the Roses started then it is about Malory, as he is often a footnote or a postulation in the overall story that Hardyment weaves. Much of her “argument” (if it can be really called that) about Malory is entirely inferential and she leaves out such presumably important points of Malory’s life as when he started writing his masterpiece or when/why he became a writer at all. She also prefers to delve into national politics rather than painting any thorough portrait of Malory or the rest of his family. Numerous other Malorys are scattered throughout the book, but mostly to prop up Hardyment’s weak arguments about Sir Thomas. The focus of the book is absolutely the kings and kingmakers of England with Malory as an ostensible lens to view them all through. And, honestly, the book shines for it.
There are few things on earth I like so much as reading about the War of the Roses, so this book was an absolute surprise and delight in its retelling of the last days of Henry V’s reign into the political failures following his death. Hardyment’s style is readable and exciting, even if she can’t seem to focus on Malory himself.
And I can’t really blame her. So many medieval biographies by necessity become about the times in which a person lived rather than about the specifics of that person. In many ways I agree that knowing as much as possible about when someone lived can tell you a great deal about that person, but I also think that it cannot tell you the whole story. A truly great medieval biography, in my view, would combine both the thrilling history of the period and the personal details that make up an individual’s life. Without those details, you just have another history of the Medieval Period in England, which is what Malory comes down to in the end. It is an excellent history of the period, but it is not really a biography of Malory.
Which sadly means that all the people who don’t know who Malory is will apparently have to wait a little bit longer to find out. Or take an introductory literature course. Or seize the Hardyment opportunity and learn more about the fascinating start to the ever-intriguing War of the Roses. I highly recommend the latter.