The Manuscript and Meaning of Malory's Morte Darthur: Rubrication, Commemoration, Memorialization.
Except for feminist and other theory-based approaches, this book 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. The argument is twofold: concerning 'manuscript', that 'Winchester's rubrication pattern is unique and that the most likely source for Winchester's layout is Malory himself' (p. 105); and in relation to 'meaning', that 'Winchester's consistent rubrication of names and its marginalia recording seemingly random knightly deeds all reinforce Malory's focus on the earthly values of knighthood, love and fellowship, and worshyp' (p. 105).
Because an unknown number of medieval manuscripts has been lost, and the number of surviving manuscripts makes comprehensive checking impossible, the first claim, that Winchester's rubrication is unique, is ultimately unprovable. In supporting it, Dr Whetter nevertheless provides useful first-hand comparisons with rubrication in a selection of English and French romance, chronicle, and mixed-genre fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts. He further explores the ways in which Winchester's rubrication differs from that in manuscripts, currently held in British libraries, of Malory's French and English sources.
The 'manuscript' half of this book therefore combines comprehensiveness with meticulous attention to detail. However, it also revisits, admittedly with additions or expansions, theories that have previously been confirmed or rejected. For example, in 2000 Helen Cooper pre-empted an important part of the 'thesis' (p. 72) when she deduced from her reconstruction of Caxton's missing exemplar that Malory himself devised the pattern of rubrication preserved in Winchester. Conversely, a page-long recapitulation of Takato Kato's attempt in 2002 to reduce the stages between Malory's archetype and Caxton's print ends with an acknowledgment that a discovery by the Morte Darthur's most recent editor, P. J. C. Field, has ruled out Kato's theory (p. 73). Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence of the labyrinthine state of Malory scholarship that this book sometimes retraces scholarly processes.
Regarding 'meaning', the view that 'the earthly values of knighthood' (p. 105) predominate in the Morte Darthur virtually to the exclusion of what the discussion sometimes pejoratively refers to as 'religiosity', is both extreme and, as its many iterations suggest, difficult to defend. Overall the argument is a backward step in an interpretative process which, following what have often been more nuanced excursions into both chivalric and religious readings, has achieved a desirable equilibrium (see p. 115).
Among the objections to, or plausible alternatives for, this book's expositions of 'meaning', only a few that are closely text-related can be outlined in this short review. While Dr Whetter concedes that 'religious' prayer and prayer 'that is both sacred and chivalric' do occur, he cites polite requests between characters as support for the proposition that prayer in the Morte is 'formulaic rather than pious' (pp. 105-06). This seems to confuse two senses of 'prayer'. Again, the omission of rubrication for 'Amen' in most of Malory's colophons is alleged to support the Morte's 'secularity'. However, the phrasing of these prayers surely suggests that they are heartfelt and urgent.
Unless a source is found, 'The Healing of Sir Urry', strategically inserted between Books VII and VIII, will retain its value as evidence for the priorities that Malory as an originating auctor enshrined in his Arthuriad. After Arthur and 110 knights have failed to heal the pitifully wounded knight, the king's stated reason for commanding the latecomer Launcelot to make an attempt accords with Dr Whetter's view that the episode's 'emphases [...] poignantly reiterate and celebrate earthly fellowship' (p. 176). Yet Arthur's preliminary command, that Launcelot should not be forewarned, reveals a deeper motive that aligns with the episode's overall purpose, which is to demonstrate Launcelot's moral eminence by a test. Once again, a prayer, this time by Launcelot, makes the point: 'I beseche The of Thy mercy that my symple worshyp and honeste be saved'. Dr Whetter argues that Launcelot is praying for the preservation of his 'knightly reputation and glory' (p. 178). Yet 'worshyp' in the Morte also means 'praise', and its pairing here with 'simple' and 'honeste' demonstrates that salvation, not fame, is the goal of Launcelot's prayer. He continues: 'and Thou Blyssed Trynyte, Thou mayste yeff me power to hele thys syke knyght by the grete vertu and grace of The, but, Good Lorde, never of myselff'. In accordance with a fifteenth-century lay understanding of penance, Launcelot's faith and humility therefore provide the foundation for the miracle, which reaffirms his position, established in the Grail quest but by this juncture called into question, as 'the beste knyght of the worlde' (I.e. as far as worldly knights go). After Launcelot's death, the bishop's vision of his reception into heaven and Sir Ector's famous eulogy respectively reconfirm his balanced religious and secular worthiness.
Despite what seems to be an excessive commitment to one side of an interpretative binary, this book deserves credit for expounding many fresh responses to Malory's manuscript and meaning.
CHERYL TAYLOR, Griffith University