The Manuscript and Meaning of Malory’s Morte Darthur: Rubrication, Commemoration, Memorialization

K.S. WHETTER is Professor of English at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada. His book, The Manuscript and Meaning of Malory’s Morte Darthur, was first published in June 2017, when he kindly agreed to be interviewed for the Medieval Herald. To mark the publication of the paperback edition we are re-posting his interview here, but first let’s look at some of the praise Professor Whetter’s book has enjoyed:

[It] provides comprehensive coverage of the vast and contested field of Malory scholarship and criticism. It also offers the most detailed study to date of the Winchester manuscript (British Library, Additional MS 59678) in the context of comparable manuscripts [and] deserves credit for expounding many fresh responses to Malory’s manuscript and meaning.

PARERGON

Ambitious, genial, knowledgeable, closely argued, and attractively illustrated.

MEDIUM AEVUM

Graduate students and seasoned Malorians alike will find this book indispensable.

MODERN LANGUAGE REVIEW

A highly stimulating and interesting read [and] an important contribution to Arthurian and Malorian studies.

ARCHIV fdSnSL

Would you please introduce yourself and your work at Acadia University, Nova Scotia?

Well, as it says in the header, I am a Professor in the Department of English and Theatre at Acadia. I’m originally from a small town (Orillia) in southern Ontario, but pursued graduate studies in Bangor, Wales, before eventually being hired at Acadia and thus returning to Canada in 2001. I was hired as the lone medievalist in the English Department, and instructed to teach Chaucer and whatever other medieval matters I wished. Since both my Master’s and PhD theses are Arthurian, I was hoping to teach at least some Arthurian literature, but the job turned out to be a replacement for Raymond H. Thompson. Luckily for me, Ray had built up a fantastic Arthurian collection in our library and Arthurian interest amongst our students. I was thus – and continue to be – fortunate enough to teach a lot of medieval Arthurian literature. I also regularly teach introductory English, Renaissance Drama, and Tolkien.

Acadia itself is one of Canada’s older universities, and although we are primarily undergraduate, several departments, including the English Department, do have small but rigorous Master’s programmes. Any English literature undergraduates reading this newsletter and interested in doing an Arthurian MA thesis in a small town in Atlantic Canada are thus welcome to contact me!

Is your work focused entirely on medieval literature?

My research is almost entirely medieval, yes. I have quite an interest in genre and in heroic literature, but even those interests get applied primarily to medieval literature – and generally to Arthurian literature. Similarly, although I have published one paper each on Tolkien and Victor Saville’s 1954 film The Silver Chalice, both essays kept falling back on medieval contextualization. The Tolkien paper, I should add, was co-authored with my good friend R. Andrew McDonald; I similarly owe the chance to write about film to another good friend, Kevin J. Harty. I keep thinking I’d like to write on the historical novels of Mary Renault, but, thus far, I keep coming up with things I have not yet said about my beloved Malory. Since Malory’s Morte is a very big book, this trend may continue for some time. Currently, for instance, I am working with Fiona Tolhurst re-examining Malory’s relation to his English sources.

Your book examines a medieval classic, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. Explain for us just why this single work remains so important.

Some of it is longevity: Malory forms the basis of every English-language Arthurian story from his day until the mid-twentieth century. Even now he remains an inspiration, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, for a host of modern storytellers in literature, comics, television, and film. But much of it is also originality: Malory was the only author in Middle English to tell the complete story of Arthur. Then too the Morte is just a rollicking good story. Not all modern readers share Malory’s fondness for tournaments and combat, and his version of the Trystram story is a bit too prolix and rambling for some readers, but overall, the Morte is a great story. The combination of adventure, heroism, love, and tragedy is a great basis for a narrative; this remains true whether one considers the tragedy in the Morte to be in the end mitigated or nearly unrelieved. Malory’s original audience, and many modern readers, would also have drawn connections between some of the Morte’s plot and themes and leading events in the fifteenth century, so there is that contemporary or historical appeal as well.

None of these statements is terribly contentious, but I also firmly believe that Malory is a much better artist than even the best critics of the last century were willing to admit. After all, the Vulgate or Lancelot-Graal Cycle comprising much of Malory’s ‘French book’, despite its influence on Malory himself, has not had nearly the post-medieval influence that Malory’s Arthuriad has had. The Morte is also (as I said above) a big book, often a contradictory one at that, so it allows for different readers to find different areas of interest and interpretation. This interpretive flexibility generates a continuing interest for readers. Perhaps most significantly, Malory’s Arthuriad consistently finds new readers amongst both the academy and the general public. For all of these reasons, your label of “classic” is quite apt.

The Winchester manuscript of the Morte Darthur is the specific focus of your study, why is that?

There are several interconnected reasons. Most scholars now agree that the text of the Morte as recorded in manuscript is more authoritative than the Caxton print, even though we need the Caxton to fill in the manuscript’s gaps. Winchester is the only manuscript of the Morte we have, so that part was easy. Visually, in terms of manuscript layout, Winchester’s design is far from de-luxe; its rubrication, though, is incredibly engaging. Despite the striking nature of Winchester’s red ink, no one has really stopped to ask why such a stunning layout might have been created. I finally decided I wanted to know – and when I started looking, I found quite a compelling thematic connection between manuscript rubrication and narrative theme.

Describe these rubricated letters to us.

In Winchester there are 110 larger red initials, plus one blue one, for narrative section breaks, but the rubrication I am speaking of occurs with names: consistently, from Winchester’s start to finish, each and every character name is written in red ink; Merlin’s name is at times abbreviated, but even when abbreviation occurs his initial is still rubricated. Likewise a good many place names and several object names are written in red. This degree of rubrication is in itself unusual, but the scribes also inserted the red ink concurrently with the copying of the main narrative (in dark brown ink), so they were making their lives considerably more difficult by undertaking this sort of decorative pattern.

You believe that the red letters are more important than has hitherto been recognised. What role do you think they play in the text?

It has long been known that Malory was interested in character: he goes out of his way to name characters who are not named in the sources, for instance. My study of the rubricated letters leads me to conclude that the red names are a way of reinforcing Malory’s interest in character, drawing attention to the names and deeds, what Malory calls “worshyp,” of his cast of characters. Significantly, this is true not just of Arthur and Gwenyvere and Launcelot, but of all 454 of Malory’s characters.

Would you explain the wonderfully haunting line that concludes your book’s blurb: “Winchester’s design creates a memorializing tomb for Arthurian chivalry.”

That line was an attempt to capture succinctly the overall effect of the rubricated names. Its genesis was several conversations with many of the scholarly friends mentioned in my Acknowledgements. But at some point during my research I realized that the manuscript rubrication matches the many monuments, objects, and tombs created by Merlin in the narrative, usually artefacts inscribed with letters. Manuscript layout and narrative theme, I suddenly realised, were markedly interconnected. And when one closes the manuscript, one remembers those red names: those rubricated characters and their narrated lives, loves, deeds, and deaths.

Do the rubricated names appear in other manuscript sources?

The short answer is not really. The long answer forms Chapter One. A mid-way point is to acknowledge that although rubricated names or initials appears in a variety of biblical and religious manuscripts, as well as in some chronicles, including Hardyng’s Chronicle, which Malory used as a source, nothing else looks quite like Winchester. Winchester’s consistent rubrication of each and every character name, with the attendant need to change pens and inks each time, is highly unusual: so unusual that it is most likely authorial in provenance.


Taken from an interview originally published in issue 29 of the Medieval Herald, our quarterly e-newsletter. Subscribe here.

The Manuscript and Meaning of Malory’s Morte Darthur
K.S. Whetter
9781843845638, Paperback, £13 or $16.22 / 9781843844532, Hardback, £39 or $64.35

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