"Le Morte D'Arthur"
As appeared in "Arthuriana" journal of the International Arthurian Society North American Branch.Vol 11 No 2,Summer 2001.
A new unabridged illustrated edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is the millennium highlight of the British publisher Cassell & Co. Edited by John Matthews, it reproduces A.W. Pollard’s reader-friendly Le Morte D’arthur (1900) which retained Malory’s language in the Caxton text while modernizing spelling and punctuation. Matthews’s introduction discusses Arthurian tradition, sources, the two versions of the text, the author’s identity and style. The Bibliography lists editions of Malory since 1858 (though omitting James W. Spisak and William Matthews’s Caxton’s Malory: Le Morte Darthur ) and cites nine critical works. The apparatus also includes Michael Moorcock’s Foreward, A Glossary and Index.
The glory of this edition lies in the thirty-two soft-toned watercolors and thirty-one black-and-white drawings by Canadian artist Anna-Marie Ferguson, the first woman in five hundred years to illustrate completely Malory’s Morte. While much of the text is devoted to battle, joust and tournament, Ferguson prefers the castle-forest dichotomy of romance which provides, as she tell us in an introductory essay, ‘the extraordinary beauty of both image and emotion’ and the stratum of ancient myth which has particularly stirred her imagination.
No previous Malory illustrator has so dramatically conveyed the immensity of the castles and their wilderness setting. From high within Camelot’s pillared hall we look down on the round Table as a white hart interrupts Arthur’s feast. From a seaside perch our eyes travel past Launcelot’s little ship and the rocky shore up the staircase towards the open postern to Corbenic’s towers – so lofty that the picture frame cannot contain them. The depth of Launcelot’s dungeon is suggested by a long staircase carved from foundation rock down which the four attitude-striking fays descend. This kind of witty definition also affects other characters like the plump, smiling King Pellinore who lolls on a cushioned chair, feet resting on his shield, to await a challenger.
The women, a required element of the castle milieu, are treated with considerable variety. Aubrey Beardsley in the Dent Morte (1893) and William Russell Flint in the Medici Society Morte (1910-11) both focused on female characters, the former to satirize chivalry by depicting powerless knights in the thrall to fatal women, the latter because beautiful semi-naked women were his favorite subject. Now not only the queens and fays but also secondary characters such as the tortured Bragwaine and even the nameless damsels are given local habitations and distinct personalities without being exploited. Costume is not a period indicator but a key to personae. Filmy dresses of faerie blue and gold characterize Nimue and the three women whom Gawain meets at the fountain; crimson and gold with cabbalistic ornamentation designate Morgan. Percivale’s saintly sister is gowned in the Virgin Mary’s blue, the symbol of faith. Isoud’s mother displays ancient Celtic dress while Elaine of Astolat, laid in her barge, wears the kind of flowering Pre-Raphaelite gown of amethyst (mourning) silk with hand-made belt and jewelry that William Morris recommended.
‘Deep’ is the adjective that Malory habitually applies to forests, suggesting limitless, uncultivated space, hidden menaces and the kind of density that permits agents of adventure to appear suddenly. Ferguson creates physical density by allowing vegetation to fill the picture plane as ‘Launcelot and the Falcon’ or by extending the view beyond the arch of a bridge or frame of trees. More subtle is her ability to add psychic depth, as in ‘The Sword in the Stone’. In the foreground mounted on a circular stone, partly overgrown with vegetation, is the anvil from which pony-tailed Arthur draws Excalibur. In the middle ground, face-shields like ancient Green Men are embedded in oaks beside a guarding knight, hands resting on his cross-like sword. In the distance through arching branches is a cross and the suggestion of a church – pagan and Christian mysteries cleverly integrated.
These are real English forests with magnificent oaks and sycamores, birches and beeches, bracken and brambles that change with the seasons to provide emotive contexts. Sunlight brightens the new leaves and white blossoms surrounding Guenever’s maying party while autumnal woods and a menacing dragon lower above the cavalcade as Elaine of Corben comes to Camelot. Percivale’s Wasteland is a snowbound landscape of dead branches, frozen streams and icicles in a cloudy Rocky Mountain setting.
Illustrating chivalric romance requires facility in drawing horses. Edward Burne-Jones who regarded them as ‘a fine ornament in a picture’ confessed, ‘I can’t do them anything like as well as some chaps.’ Having grown up on a ranch with horses for her daily companions, Ferguson convincingly depicts the flaring nostrils and laid back ears of the Red Knight’s caparisoned charger, the leap that carries Tristam’s stallion across a mountain stream and the horse’s dust-raising sprawl when Lamorak smites down Palomides in a tournament.
When Arthur receives Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake, Balin strikes the Dolorous Blow, Arthur dreams of the terrible dragon, Galahad sees the Grail borne by a six-winged seraph, and they dying king is carried to Avalon, water, mist, reflection, shadow, moonlight, and otherworldly illuminations are used so effectively that mundane boundaries are dissolved. The seamless integration of figures and setting, revealing the artist’s excellent sense of composition, induces the viewer to ‘live within the landscape,’ responding with wonder and fear.
The only major fault in the Cassell Morte Darthur is the book design for which Richard Carr deserves no kudos. The illustrations appear on glossy pages, a watercolor on the recto, black-and-white on the verso which also carries brief titles and book/chapter references. These are inserted every 32 pages with illustration 1 coming between the Introduction and the Bibliography and illustration 62 between the Glossary and Index. To find the textual quotation which the artist has provided for each picture, one must flip back to the list pp. iv-viii. The verso directs one to the appropriate book and chapter which may be eighty or ninety pages away from the corresponding art. The constant flipping engenders considerable irritation. The lack of quality control is also apparent in the text layout when, for example, a large book heading appears at the bottom of a right hand page, and in the number of misspelled names. The longing to escape a materialistic present, making romantic medievalism currently so popular, is well served by this noble text and its entrancing illustrations.
Dr. Muriel A. Whitaker
Book titles by Muriel A. Whitaker
Articles by Muriel A. Whitaker
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