The author of Morte d’Arthur was perhaps not entirely a “verray, parfit gentil knight,” suggests English historian and journalist Hardyment in a vivid biography for general readers.
Thomas Malory (c. 1399–1471) didn’t invent King Arthur, Camelot or the heroes of the Round Table, but his compellingly original 15th-century retelling of their stories, which drew on a long tradition of Arthurian romance, became the template for every subsequent version by modern myth-makers from T.H. White to Lerner and Loewe. Although Malory’s literary reputation places him second only to Chaucer as a medieval master of English, we know very little about his life and character. Almost certainly, he spent years either escaping from or languishing in jail, but was the man most responsible for our understanding of the chivalric code really guilty of assault, robbery and rape? Relying on the meager historical record, the work of previous scholars and, most intriguingly, biographical hints contained in Morte d’Arthur itself, Hardyment has shaped an admittedly speculative life with creative, highly intelligent and persuasive guesswork. She absolves Malory of any serious crime and convincingly ascribes his legal difficulties to the highly political charges rampant against almost all knights during the tumultuous years of the War of the Roses, when England changed monarchs with dizzying rapidity. Hardyment explains Malory’s obsession with the Arthurian themes of loyalty, tolerance and “generosity of spirit” and ingeniously argues that the telling detail and peculiar sympathy Malory brought to the story of Arthur accounts for its timeless power and could only have come from one who had himself led the colorful, crowded, dangerous and gallant existence she chronicles here.
Wise and tender treatment of a life about which much remains unknown.