Book Review: Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur: A New Modern English Translation Based on the Winchester Manuscript

Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur:  A New Modern English Translation Based on the Winchester Manuscript.  Ed. and trans. Dorsey Armstrong.  West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Leah Haught (University of Rochester)

As the full title of her edition suggests, Dorsey Armstrong’s Morte Darthur is a newly translated redaction of Thomas Malory’s much loved text.  Although based on the Winchester Manuscript, which since its discovery in 1934 has been preferred by most modern editors of Malory’s work, Armstrong’s edition is careful to acknowledge William Caxton’s influence on the Morte as we know and understand it today.  For instance, missing sections of Winchester are supplemented from Caxton. Included among her introductory materials is a translation of Caxton’s Preface to his early edition, as well as a table of contents that correlates Armstrong’s own stylistically and thematically inspired chapter demarcations with the numerous, occasionally disruptive, and often overly descriptive book and chapter divisions devised by Caxton in the role of Malory’s first editor.  At the same time, a second table clarifies the extent to which Armstrong’s version of Malory’s text differs from that of the most famous editor of the Winchester Manuscript, Eugène Vinaver.  While she recognizes a certain degree of implied division within the manuscript itself, Armstrong ultimately disagrees with Vinaver’s assertion that the Morte is best understood as eight separate narratives arguing instead that “the types of divisions are not those of different books, but rather, more similar to those of chapters within a single book.” [i]   Thus while the modernized language employed throughout certainly makes Malory’s masterpiece accessible to a more general audience unwilling or unable to engage the text in its original late Middle English, it would be a mistake to dismiss Armstrong’s edition as an unscholarly or an overly simplistic adaptation of existing scholarship.

The difficulties associated with navigating Malory’s massive narrative have long been recognized by critics and readers alike.  Vinaver, for example, produced no less than three editions of Malory, each with a different audience in mind, and one need only skim the many paperback “retellings” of Malory’s narrative to observe how the questions of intelligibility extend beyond those of language or spelling alone.  Armstrong does not abridge the text at will.  Instead, she makes a concentrated effort to render all of Malory accessible to non-specialist or first-time readers, successfully balancing what Bonnie Wheeler has called “a slightly archaic aura” with a continued emphasis on “the marvelous pace, frequent ironic tone, and sheer comedy of much of Malory.” [ii]   This combination of style and substance is one of the great strengths of Armstrong’s edition as a teaching text; it offers ample opportunities for discussing the relationship between our expectations for and uses of both language and narrative technique.  Of course, every act of translation is also an act of interpretation and some of Armstrong’s interpretive choices might require further explication, depending on the level and focus of the course being taught; but the need to supplement or challenge students’ knowledge bases is not unique to teaching Malory (in translation or otherwise). [iii]

Armstrong’s introduction, while short, addresses “not only the problem of who Malory was but also the presentation and availability of Malory’s text” without being too detailed or prescriptive, inviting readers to focus on the text itself and not its many sources. [iv]   Though she cites the notes to Vinaver’s edition as an excellent resource for those interested in Malory’s French sources, enthusiastically expressing the hope that “readers who develop a taste for Malory here may turn there to investigate further how Malory managed to add his magic to his French originals,” individuals seeking guidance regarding suggested further reading will ultimately have to look elsewhere. [v]   The tables of contents mentioned previously will, however, allow and perhaps even stimulate students to compare the earlier versions of episodes they find particularly interesting or confusing.  They will also make excerpting individual tales or narrative threads for specific courses relatively easy.  In short, Armstrong has produced a translation that not only complements, but also actively contributes to existing Malory scholarship of a more specialized nature.  For teachers interested in encouraging their students to engage Malory’s text in its entirety and with a greater awareness of the relationship between late medieval and current writing styles or conventions without having the luxury of unlimited time, Armstrong’s Morte is an invaluable resource.

 

Leah Haught recently received her PhD from the University of Rochester, where she specialized in medieval literatures and cultures with a focus in Arthurian romance and historiography.

Notes

[i] Dorsey Armstrong, “Introduction,” Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthure (West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2009), x.  Italics are original to Armstrong’s text.

[ii] Bonnie Wheeler, “‘Inowghe is as good as a feste’: Which Malorys for Teaching and Reading?” Arthuriana, 20.1 (2010), 101. This approach distinguishes Armstrong’s work from the modernizing efforts of many of those who came before her, including John Steinbeck (The Acts of King Arthur, 1976), whose translations, intentionally or not, ultimately expand upon or comment on Malory’s text as much as they “translate” or “modernize” it.

[iii] Helen Cooper has suggested that the words “‘postern,’ ‘pavilion,’ and ‘worshipful’” might still be misunderstood by those reading Armstrong’s translation (“Malorys for Teaching and Reading” Arthuriana, 20.1 [2010], 96), while Wheeler identifies “samite” as a continued source of confusion for students (“‘Inowghe,’” 101).

[iv] Armstrong, “Introduction,” ix.

[v] Armstrong, “Introduction,” x.


Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom , Volume VIII, Issue 1, Spring 2010 http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/SP09/S10ArmstrongReview.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies