I got hold of a couple of short commentaries by C. S. Lewis about Malory, and I thought I'd quote a few things. There is a very short piece in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and a longer one in Image and Imagination. Both comment on the Vinaver scholarship that was pretty big news back then--new material had been discovered! The Malory I read is so old that it pre-dates that discovery, and I didn't find that out until afterwards.
I like this line: "It must of course be admitted that there are in the text untransmuted lumps of barbarism, like Arthur's massacre of the children." That's an understatement, hm?
Lewis looks at the historical Malory, who we know as a knight who spent time in prison, having been accused of all manner of awful things, and talks about them a little bit. He points out that a lot of it can be explained as part of a local war or feud as described by an opposing lawyer; not that we would approve of any of it, but he may not have been as bad as the documents paint him--by the knightly standards of the time. Lewis asks us to "imagine the life of Sir Tristram as it would be presented to us by King Mark's lawyer," which cracks me up, and is a really good point...but Tristram was the one I just couldn't stand, so it didn't actually help Malory's image much in my mind.
I did really appreciate this, on the question of whether the Morte can be described as a noble work:
It all depends on what is meant by nobility. The predominant ethical tone of Malory's work is certainly not the bourgeois, still less the proletarian, morality of our own day. And, on its own showing, it is not the Christian rule of life; all the chief characters end as penitents. It is aristocratic. It does not forbid homicide provided it is done in clean battle. It does not demand chastity, though it highly honours lifelong fidelity to the chosen mistress. Though it admires mercy it allows private war and the vendetta. And it has no respect at all for property or for laws as such..That is all so accurate, especially the last line there about property and law. You'll never see a word about law in Malory, which surprised me given that medieval English people in general were quite legal-minded, from what I hear. But in the story, Malory never reproaches a knight for simply grabbing whatever he wants, provided he can win the ensuing fight. Perhaps it was this attitude that T. H. White spent half of The Once and Future King fulminating against--Malory is perfectly fine with "Might Makes Right" as long as the might comes with sufficient valor and nobility. To continue the paragraph:
It is distinguished from heroic morality by its insistence on humility. It can be very accurately called nobility if the noble is defined as the opposite of the vulgar. It does not condemn all whom we would now call 'criminals'; its displeasure is primarily for the cad. It is magnificently summed up in Sir Ector's final lament, which, so far as we know, is Malory's own invention: 'Thou was the mekest man and the jentyllest that ever ete in halle emonge ladyes and thou were the sternest knyght to thy mortal foe that ever put spere in the rest.' There is the real, and indispensable, contribution of chivalry to ethics.So, tell me what you think and thank you so much for joining me!