Tag Archives: Malory

Aubrey Beardsley

Pen, brush and ink on paper, you guys.

As I never tire of reminding you, I’m an illustrator. So I have to tell you about this specially-illustrated edition of Le Morte d’Arthur that came out centuries after Malory and Caxton. It was illustrated by nineteen-year-old Aubrey Beardsley in 1893. Some of the drawings are—let’s face it—bizarre. But Beardsley had a breath-taking mastery of black & white. He would have made a swell cartoonist. Not only that, his style looks like it was designed for woodblock printing—so it feels right for his mediæval subject.

As the Enchanted Booklet tells it:

“William Morris’s Kelmscott Press produced exquisite limited editions, with elaborate woodcut ornamentation and vellum bindings.
J. M. Dent, a London publisher, wished to print a book as beautiful as Kelmscott’s publications but more affordable, targeting the middle class. He achieved this by using a new printing procedure with half-tone reproductions. But mostly he achieved his goal because he had the luck to meet a nineteen year old artist : Aubrey Beardsley.
The publisher recognized the unique powerful talent of Beardsley who was perfect in many ways including his eagerness to produce a huge amount of quality work for a small profit since he was working at the time as a clerk at an insurance agency.
That is how a wonderful book with 360 full and double-page drawings, borders, chapter headings, and ornaments of detailed illustrations, a total of over 1,000 decorations, arrived (in bookshops at) an affordable price.” https://enchantedbooklet.com/le-morte-darthur/

You can get your own copy: https://www.amazon.com/Morte-DArthur-Thomas-Malory/dp/051747977X

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The printing press comes to England

Poor old Tom Malory died in prison in March 1471, but his book was on its way to fame and fortune. William Caxton was a textile merchant who became interested in printing presses and decided to get one of his own. In 1471 Caxton was the first to print a book in the English language: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (A Collection of the Histories of Troy—kind of a spinoff of Homer’s Iliad where one of the supporting characters gets his own series). Caxton had a good sense of what would sell as well as what is great literature. He’d set up his first printing operation in Brussels, but—

“In 1476 Caxton returned to London and established a press at Westminster, the first printing press in England. Amongst the books he printed were Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, Gower’s ‘Confession Amantis’ and Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’. He printed more than 100 books in his lifetime, books which were known for their craftsmanship and careful editing. He was also the translator of many of the books he published, using his knowledge of French, Latin and Dutch. He died in 1492.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/caxton_william.shtml

Le Morte d’Arthur was printed in 1485. I link below to a site that shows all the pages of the first edition. You can see the typeface was trying to mimic hand-written calligraphy. It wouldn’t take long for printers to realize they could design typefaces that were meant to be printed.

This is just fantastic. You can see the original pages here: http://www.maloryproject.com/caxton_viewer.php

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Le Morte d’Arthur

sketch of King Arthur based on a painting by Howard Pyle

Thomas Malory was a gifted writer (and convict*) who in 1470 brought the Arthurian stories together and organized them into a grand epic novel. His book has a French title, Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), though the text is Middle English with some French and Latin thrown in. The title is kind of a spoiler. For a while Britain was ruled justly and happily, but Camelot was ultimately doomed because nothing lasts forever. The high ideals that shaped Arthur’s reign were abandoned with the passage of time. Even knights of the Round Table are born weak and live in a broken world. Arthur’s closest allies betrayed him. His court fell apart. It was fun while it lasted. And yet, Malory gives us hope that Arthur and Camelot may return someday: on Arthur’s tomb is written, ‘Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus’ (Here lies Arthur, the once and future king).

I was a King Arthur geek when I was a tween. I did read Malory’s book and it was a glorious long slog. The version I read wasn’t in Middle English but somehow had the flavor of it (it was a library book and I can’t remember who translated it). Malory built the ‘once and future’ Camelot** word by word—the fellowship of the Table Round; the knights with their odd mannerisms and creaky old way of speaking; the exalted idealism; the shameful weaknesses. He showed me a sword magically embedded in an anvil and stone; a lady, naked as a needle, cursed to stand in boiling water until she was rescued by a very pure knight; a weird animal whose belly made the noise of a pack of hounds; ogres; giants; awkward love triangles; the Holy Grail (the cup Christ drank from at the Last Supper). Malory conjured a dear old island that stood in that very misty spot where paganism hadn’t quite taken its leave and Christianity was just getting started.

* Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur while he was serving time—probably as a political prisoner—at Newgate Prison. The prisons of the Middle Ages seem to have been full to bursting with authors cranking out the classics of Western Lit.

**The French poet Chretien de Troyes invented the name Camelot and created Sir Launcelot. That’s a lot.

I can’t top this article about Malory and his book—

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