Review of Le Morte D'Arthur
As appeared in "Arthuriana" journal of the International Arthurian Society North American Branch.Vol 11 No 2,Summer 2001.
Perhaps the latter part of the subtitle of this book should more correctly read “Newly Illustrated Edition’ because, as John Matthews explains in his introductory matter, this edition is ‘really a reprint of that prepared by A. W. Pollard for the Medici Society in 1900’ with the occasional additions of ‘corrections to the text, where these improve the sense of the text or make for smoother reading.’ With the exception of one example cited in the introduction, these additions – which, the editor notes, ‘can alter the overall perception of the reader and the continuing appreciation of the book as a whole’ – are made ‘silently’, a choice obviously designed to improve the readability of ht text, but perhaps an unfortunate one since it leaves a reader with no indication of what the editor has added. And since these additions are only, by the editor’s account, ‘some twenty in number,’ it would not have affected the reader’s experience greatly to mark them with the brackets traditionally used for indicating additions; at a minimum, one would like to see the additions listed in the introduction or in an appendix.
This is then basically a reprint of a modernization of Caxton’s version of Malory and not a new edition. And while the editor is to be commended for providing a relatively readable and relatively inexpensive version of Malory’s text, it is regrettable that it is neither a new edition (apart from the twenty connective passages) nor a contemporary modernization of the sort that John Steinbeck began but never completed, a project for which Matthews – with his extensive knowledge of the Arthurian legends, his creative abilities, and his own perspective on the Arthurian stories – seems well suited.
The book is, however, newly illustrated; and this alone makes the Matthews Morte significant, even historic – for this is the first complete version of Malory’s romance to be illustrated by a woman. Of course, women have illustrated adaptations of Malory or portions of the Morte before. Dora Curtis’s illustration for Beatrice Clay’s Stories of King Arthur and the Round Table, Katherine Cameron’s illustrations for Mary MacGregor’s Stories of King Arthur’s Knights Told to the Children, Catherine Donaldson’s woodcuts for The Death of King Arthur, and other illustrations by women for more recent adaptations of Malory’s work provide a rich body of Arthurian art. But never before has the full text of the Morte been illustrated by a woman. The original Pollard text, for example, was illustrated by W. Russell Flint. Like Flint’s illustrations and those of other well-known male illustrators of complete or abridged editions of Malory, such as Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham, some of Anna-Marie Ferguson’s fine representations of scenes and characters from Malory are likely to become iconic.
The illustrations provided by Ferguson are worthy of their historic importance. (Perhaps the only objection to them would be to their positioning within the text. They are paired, with a color illustration on the recto of a page and a black and white one on the verso. The pairs usually have nothing to do with each other; but of more consequence is that they are often not placed anywhere near the text they are interpreting, the first pair appearing in the middle of Caxton’s chapter headings.) There are many images that one would expect in an illustrated Malory, including some that Flint illustrated for the earlier Pollard edition, though reinterpreted with Ferguson’s distinctive style. Elaine in the barge is a scene almost no illustrator can resist; but Ferguson captures better than most not only the beauty of this tragic figure but especially her youth. Ferguson’s ‘Galahad and the Holy Grail’ does not attempt to portray the Grail distinctively, as many illustrators do. Rather she leaves it in a mysterious luminosity and shows its power through Galahad’s expression and body language.
In addition to a number of traditional images, Ferguson also provides quite a few illustrations of scenes that are out of the ordinary. It is always enlightening to be presented with such unclichéd illustrations, which not only demonstrate that the illustrator has been a careful reader but which also help to focus attention on important characters, events, or details. It is surprising, for example how rarely “the Healing of Sir Urre,’ depicted by Ferguson in black and white, is illustrated, given the importance of that event in Malory’s story. The same might be said for other incidents throughout the book, such as Arthur’s attempt to slay his bastard son by sending the male babies of the realm out to sea or Gaheris’s gruesome slaying of his mother.
The body images that an artist chooses to depict can even make a critical statement about the text. Ferguson recognizes the significance of women in the Morte and makes the reader think about the roles women play and the ways in which they are treated. She has fine illustrations of women of power, like Nimue beguiling Merlin and Morgan turning her attendants and their horses to stone. She presents in all their haughty beauty the four queens who capture Lancelot. But she depicts other women who are less powerful but important to the story, such as the three women who lead Gawain, Uwaine and Marhaus on their respective quests (and whom John Steinbeck has so transformed in his Acts of King Arthur), the damsels who defile Marhaus’s shield, Isoud’s mother discovering the notch in Tristram’s sword, Nimue leading Tristram to the Forest Perilous to rescue Arthur, and the damsel who arms herself and gives Sir Alisander a buffet to wake him from his stupor and prevent him from being shamed.
There are also numerous images of women who have been mistreated or who are victimized. In addition to Elaine of Astolat and Morgawse, Ferguson portrays the lady who is accidentally slain by Gawain when he will not show mercy to a knight, Elaine of Corbenic being rescued from the boiling bath by Lancelot, Bragwaine bound in the forest, and Pericvale’s sister dying after having been bled. She shows Guinevere being accused of poisoning the apple that killed the unfortunate Patrise at her dinner party and then Guinevere at the stake.
The focus on the women of the text is only one of the virtues of the illustrations to this edition, illustrations that show a familiarity with artistic and literary tradition but which contain surprises and insights that make them a visual delight and that make this an edition worth acquiring.
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