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I've always been a huge fan of Arthurian legend, and have read many books and comics etc inspired by it. But I've always wanted to read a telling of the stories that was much closer to the source so to speak.

After some cursory googling the best lead I have is Le Morte d'Arthur. I was hoping some more learned folks might have recommendations for good annotated editions of this text that would be appropriate for, let's say an enthusiastic amateur of Old European Lit.

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  • Ian Myles Slater provides a thorough review of a number of editions on Amazon (under the Penguin edition). I read this many years ago and found it sufficiently accessible- I would recommend it.
    – mikado
    Jun 1, 2019 at 7:46
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    I removed your last paragraph because recommendation requests are explicitly off-topic for this site. The question about Morte d'Arthur seems good though.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jun 1, 2019 at 8:18
  • @Randal'Thor How is this not a recommendation request, even with the last paragraph edited out?
    – verbose
    Apr 1, 2021 at 22:01
  • @verbose My feeling is that most of the reasons against recommendation requests don't apply to questions scoped to editions of one specific work: it's not open-ended, it won't generate arbitrarily long lists of answers, and it can be solved based on someone's expertise/knowledge of a specific piece of literature.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 2, 2021 at 3:51
  • @Randal'Thor But isn't asking for a specific recommendation even of an edition opinion-based? I mean, you might like the Penguin edition for its footnotes and I might like the Oxford edition because it uses the Winchester ordering rather than the Caxton one. Someone else might like an abridged edition because it leaves out the boring or repetitive parts. So it is open-ended.
    – verbose
    Apr 2, 2021 at 5:50

4 Answers 4

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The edition I own of Le Morte d'Arthur is the Penguin Classics version in two volumes:

image of covers

Image source: AbeBooks

I'd highly recommend it for someone who's accustomed to reading English literature with old-fashioned turns of phrase (from Shakespeare to the various 19th-century authors or even Tolkien) but not necessarily with archaic, obsolete, or inconsistent spellings of words.

This edition has modernised spelling (familiar words are spelled in familiar ways for today's readers) but retains many archaic words (lots and lots of words never used nowadays, like "hight" for instance), which are all marked with endnotes and listed carefully in an appendix with their translations into modern English. It also has lots of very old-fashioned turns of phrase (phrases in an unexpected order, long run-on sentences, etc), but remains readable for any well-read English literature enthusiast. As well as the endnotes on unfamiliar words, there are also endnotes on some other aspects, such as differences between the Caxton and Winchester versions of the manuscript, or commentary on some apparent contradictions.

Personally, I found reading this a very fascinating experience. To see how sentences were constructed back then and how a story was told, and to learn lots of new archaic words. It may enhance your appreciation of the English language, even if you're already a voracious reader of works from the last few centuries. It may take you a while to get accustomed to the style of writing (battles are described as "So-and-so unhorsed So-and-so, then So-and-so unhorsed So-and-so, then ..." - lots of repetitive prose, lists, etc.) but when you do get used to it, you may really enjoy it.

Good luck!

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There are two versions of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur: the text as printed by Caxton in 1485, from which I believe the Penguin edition is derived, and the "Winchester Manuscript" text, not printed until 1947. Apparently this was the text as it left Malory's hand; Caxton used it in preparing his version.

My copy of the latter, in the Oxford Standard Authors series, edited by Eugène Vinaver, is surprisingly easy to read. There is a glossary at the back of the book, and I have never regretted the lack of footnotes. Although there has been a lot of vocabulary and orthography change in the English language between 1450 and now, the language itself is basically the same language we speak nowadays, and reading this edition is like visiting a place where they speak a different dialect from yours: you pick it up. I read the first 40 pages to my 5 year old kid, who had no trouble understanding it; we stopped because the next bit ("Balin") bored us.

The jacket flap says

The Winchester text is not merely much closer than Caxton's to what Malory actually wrote, it also establishes that Caxton freely edited and recast Malory's work. For the general reader this is a much livelier book, and its fifteenth-century English presents few difficulties. The reader's eye quickly becomes accustomed to the old spellings...

I agree with the second and third sentences. (As I copied this, I saw that I paid six dollars for this book when I bought it in an earlier millennium.)

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The best modern English adaptation of the Mort (IMO) is John Steinbeck's 'modern' English reworking, The-Acts_of_King_Arthur_and_His_Noble_Knights. It's not a pastiche like Once & Future King or The Crystal Cave (TH White, Mary Stewart, respectively). He never completed it, but the later tales are dark and depressing anyway - you can read them in the Penguin :). Steinbeck's passion for Malory, his wonderful introduction, and his own literary genius make this the only non-Malory Mort I'd recommend.

If you want to explore Malory as literature to enrich your enjoyment and understanding of the Tales, the Penguin 2-vol Mallory is a terrific, modern spelling starter set - and for non-obsessives, there's no need to look further (it's based on Caxton's* famous 15th C edition published not long after Malory's death). If you do become a true Malory "stan," though, you will eventually get the Eugene Vinaver version. Published in 1947, it's the most authoritative original spelling version and was the basis for Caxton's 15th C classic.

*The publisher/editor/writer whose work helped kick-start the Renaissance in England.

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    I think it would be helpful to pick a representative passage and compare it in the Caxton, Vinaver and Steinbeck versions. That would clarify how these versions differ in spelling, vocabulary, and so on. See this answer which compares English versions of the Alexander romance. Jan 19 at 11:21
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Introduction

There's no good way to answer this question. Asking for recommended editions of Malory is just as fraught as asking for good editions of Shakespeare. Once the scope broadens to include retellings such as Steinbeck's, the range of valid answers becomes an open-ended list. Is there any post-Malory Arthurian tale in the language that is not a retelling of Malory?

There is a reason recommendation requests are off-topic here. Every answer is equally valid or invalid. This answer takes a look at some well-known versions of Malory to demonstrate how futile the exercise is.

Earlier answers have touched upon some considerations while choosing an edition of Malory:

  • Whether the edition uses Caxton or the Winchester MS as the source text
  • Whether the spelling is modernized
  • Whether to choose a modern retelling.

Let's look at each in turn.

Caxton or Winchester?

Le Morte D'Arthur was first printed in 1485 by the pioneering English printer William Caxton. Caxton's preface, reproduced in the two-volume Penguin Classics edition, says:

I have after the simple cunning† that God hath sent to me, under the favour and correction of all noble lords and gentlemen, enprised‡ to imprint a book of the noble histories of the said King Arthur, and of certain of his knights, after a copy unto me delivered, which copy Sir Thomas Malory did take out of certain books of French, and reduced it into English.

cunning: ability. ‡enprised: undertaken

Caxton, William. "Caxton's Original Preface." pp. 3–7 of vol. 1 of the Penguin Classics edition (reference immediately below). Quotation is from p. 5.

Malory, Thomas. Le Morte D'Arthur. 2 vols. Ed. Janet Cowen. Intro. John Lawlor. 1969. London: Penguin Classics, 1986.

Caxton says, then, that he is working from a manuscript copy of Malory's English retelling of certain French stories of King Arthur and his knights. He does not say that he received this copy from Malory himself. The exact manuscript Caxton used has not been identified, and he may have had several manuscripts to consult in his workshop as he put together his version of the text. That this is his version and not Malory's is made clear by his comment on the division of the text into books and chapters:

And for to understand briefly the content of this volume, I have divided it into twenty-one books, and every book chaptered as hereafter shall by God's grace follow.

ibid., p. 6.

The book and chapter divisions in Caxton's edition, then, are not original to the manuscript(s) he was following: they represent an editorial decision he has made.

For nearly 450 years, Caxton's was the only version of Malory's text known to exist. In 1934, a manuscript version was discovered in the library of Winchester College in Hampshire, England. The Winchester manuscript differs considerably from Caxton's printed version, and their relationship is unclear. Some printer's marks on the manuscript appear to have originated in Caxton's workshop. But Caxton's version presents books and/or chapters in a different order from the Winchester manuscript. Further, the level of detail sometimes varies between the two, most notably in the description of one particular battle, which is much longer in the manuscript than in Caxton. Finally, some scribal errors and syntactic knots in Winchester are cleared up in Caxton. The Caxton version's superiority in some respects to the Winchester MS have led a few scholars to argue that the differences indicate Malory's own ongoing revisions of the text. It is, however, incorrect to claim (as a prior answer does) that the Winchester MS is "the basis for Caxton's 15th C classic."

All of this means that a modern editor of Malory has a choice of source text. The editor can choose to follow Caxton's ordering and division of the books and chapters, or the Winchester manuscript's, or some blend of the two. A reader of Malory in turn has the same choice. In most cases, though, the choice is either forced or made without context. A college student reading Malory for a class will certainly purchase an edition chosen by the professor; a casual reader will probably choose an edition without knowing much, if anything, about the textual history of this work. And that's fine, because the Winchester and Caxton versions are different. It's hard to argue that one is better.

Original spelling or modern?

Malory was writing at a time when the English language was undergoing the cataclysmic change known as the Great Vowel Shift. The shift marks the transition between the Middle English of Chaucer and the Modern English of Shakespeare. Middle English had some consonants that Modern English does not retain. Two in particular occur frequently in Malory, who is the last major writer of the Middle English period: the thorn (þ) and the yogh (ȝ). The long ſ was also conventional. This screenshot from the Winchester Manuscript furnishes an example of the use of these characters:

Winchester Manuscript snippet showing thorn and yogh

Screenshot of part of folio 83r of the Winchester manuscript, accessed at the Malory Project 6 February 2024

Here is a line-by-line transcription. The text in italics are grammatical fragments connected to the lines preceding and following the screenshot, and will be ignored in the subsequent discussion:

made knyghteſ had be slayne evrych one. Than ſir Cador ro
de unto þe kyng of Lybye wt a ſwerede well ſtelyd & ſmote hȳ
an hyȝe uppon þe hede þt þe brayne folowed. Now haſte thow
ſeyde ſir Cador corne boote agaynewarde and þe devyll have
thy bonyſ þt evr þu were borne. Than þe Sowdan of Surre
waſ wood wrothe·for þe deth of þt kynge grevid hym at hiſ

Evidently, a casual reader would struggle with an original spelling Malory. Perhaps it would help to replace þ, ȝ, and ſ replaced with their modern counterparts, expand the ligatures, and punctuate in conformity with current practice:

Than sir Cador rode unto the kyng of Lybye with a swerde well stelyd and smote hym an hyghe uppon the hede, that the brayne folowed. "Now haste thow," seyde sir Cador, "corne-boote agayne-warde, and the devyll have thy bonys that ever thou were borne!" Than the sowdan of Surré was wood wrothe, for the deth of that kynge grevid him

Malory, Thomas. Works. Ed. and intro. Eugène Vinaver. 2nd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1971. p. 129.

While Vinaver's old-spelling rendition based on the Winchester manuscript is more accessible than a straightforward transcription, it still presents considerable difficulties to the 21st century casual reader. Here is my stab at a rendition into modern spelling:

Then Sir Cador rode unto the king of Libya with a sword well steeled and smote him one high upon the head, that the brain followed. "Now hast thou," said Sir Cador, "corn-boot againward†, and the devil have thy bones that ever thou were born!" Then the sultan of Syria was wood wroth‡, for the death of that king grieved him.

corn-boot againward: equal measure back again; a fitting return. ‡wood wroth: enraged; made mad (wood) by anger (wroth).

That is much more approachable. When the unfamiliar orthography and punctuation are cleared away, the vividness of the action and dialog stand out much more clearly to a present-day reader.

Yet while the transition from the manuscript orthography to Vinaver's normalization, and from Vinaver in turn to modern spelling, brings Malory closer to the reader, it also distances us from the text in unfortunate ways. A close look at the manuscript, for example, shows a gap between the first two letters of agaynewarde: a gaynewarde. This gap is puzzling. Does it indicate a separation between two words, or is it merely a quirk of the scribe's handwriting? Conversely, Vinaver's text has a hyphen between agayne and warde; where does that come from?

These questions are easily answered, but only by consulting the manuscript. Other occurrences of agayne (e.g., folio 76v, third line from the bottom) show the same gap between a and g, indicating a scribal quirk. As for Vinaver's hyphen in agayne-warde, that's a typographical quirk; the word is split across two lines, with the hyphen at the end of the first. But how would a reader new to Malory, looking only at Vinaver's edition, know that? The reader is equally likely to assume that the hyphen is in the original. The point here is that without being able to consult the manuscript, our reconstruction of the text might be misleading. (I should add that I have no idea where the acute accent in Vinaver's rendition of Surré comes from.)

The transition to modern spelling exacerbates the issue. Take Cador's wonderful line:

Now haſte thow ſeyde ſir Cador corne boote agaynewarde and þe devyll have thy bonyſ þt evr þu were borne

Modern English renders the second word hast, the archaic second person singular of to have: Thou hast. But in the manuscript, the terminal e suggests, initially, haste, as though Cador is dispatching the king to the devil post-haste. Grammatically, it does not work, for if Cador were commanding the king to hasten, the imperative form would take the accusative: haste thee, as Milton instructs the nymph in "L'Allegro." But the suggestion of haste is semantically apt, and adds a layer of meaning to the passage that is lost in modern spelling.

So once again, the range of choices from manuscript to transcript to old spelling with modern punctuation to modern spelling is a transition. I might find the modern spelling version best—after all, I came up with it, and Malory seems fresh and vivid in a way that's hard to see in the old spelling version. But that's a subjective choice. Others might call the transparency of the modern text spurious, and say that the way to get the full flavor of Malory is to grapple with the manuscript, or the Caxton text in the original spelling. How does one make an objective decision? The best choice depends on the reader's purposes.

Versions and Retellings

The passage from the Winchester MS discussed in the previous section forms Book II of Vinaver's edition, where it is titled "The Tale of the Noble King Arthur that was Emperor Himself through Dignity of his Hands." In the Penguin Classics edition, based on Caxton, the corresponding section is Book V, which Caxton says "treateth of the conquest of Lucius the emperor" (p. 7). The battles between Arthur's forces and the allies of Lucius are recounted in much greater detail in the Winchester MS than in Caxton. The splendid lines about how Cador brained the King of Libya are nowhere in Caxton, alas. So Gareth Rees's excellent suggestion of comparing representative passages runs aground on the sad fact that a passage superbly representative of Winchester has no analogs elsewhere.

Let's try a different passage from the same book: Arthur's dream. In the Penguin Classics edition, a modern spelling version of Caxton:

And as the king lay in his cabin in the ship, he fell in a slumbering and dreamed a marvellous dream: him seemed that a dreadful dragon did drown much of his people, and he came flying out of the west, and his head was enamelled with azure, and his shoulders shone as gold, his belly like mails of a marvellous hue, his tail full of tatters, his feet full of fine sable, and his claws like fine gold; and an hideous flame of fire flew out of his mouth, like as he land and water had flamed all of fire. After, him seemed there came out of the orient a grimly boar all black in a cloud, and his paws big as a post; he was rugged looking roughly, he was the foulest beast that ever man saw, he roared and roamed so hideously that it were marvel to hear.

op. cit., v. 1 p. 172.

In Vinaver, an old spelling version of Winchester:

As the kynge was in his cog and lay in his caban, he felle in a slumberyng and dremed how a dredfull dragon dud drenche muche of his peple and com fleyng one wynge oute of the weste partyes. And his hede, him semed, was enamyled with asure, and his shuldyrs shone as the golde, and his wombe was lyke mayles of a merveylous hue, and his tayle was fulle of tatyrs, and his feete were florysshed as hit were fine sable. And his claws were lyke clene golde, and an hydeouse flame of fyre there flowe out of his mowth, lyke as the londe and the watir had flawmed all on fyre.

Than him semed there com oute of the Oryent a grymly bear, all blak, in a clowde, and his pawys were as byg as a poste. He was all to-rongeled with lugerande lokys, and he was the fowlest beste that ever ony man sye. He romed and rored so rudely that merveyle hit were to telle.

op. cit. p. 118

My stab at a modern spelling version of the above:

As the king was in his cog and lay in his cabin, he fell in a slumbering and dreamed how a dreadful dragon did drench much of his people and come flying on wing out of the west parts. And his head, him seemed, was enameled with azure, and his shoulders shone as gold, and his womb was like mails of a marvelous hue, and his tail was full of tatters, and his feet were flourished as it were fine sable. And his claws were like clean gold, and an hideous flame of fire there flow out of his mouth, like as the land and the water had flamed all on fire.

Then him seemed there come out of the Orient a grimly bear, all black, in a cloud, and his paws were as big as a post. He was all to-wrinkled with lowering looks, and he was the foulest beast that ever any man saw. He roamed and roared so rudely that marvel it were to tell.

Some of the points made above with regard to modern spelling apply here as well: what is gained when "fleyng one wynge" becomes "flying on wing"? What lost?

John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights does not include this passage. In any case, Christopher Paolini's preface to Steinbeck's incomplete work gives one pause. According to Paolini, both Steinbeck's literary agent and his editor advised him against the project of retelling Malory in modern English:

This advice, combined with Steinbeck's growing comfort with the project, gave him the confidence to tell the story the way he felt it ought to be told, regardless of Malory's precedent. ... Not only does he create entire scenes, but he delves into the characters' thoughts and feelings in a way Malory never did. He gives equal weight to the women, whom he portrays with a level of dignity, respect, and empathy rare in Malory's time.

Paolini, Christopher. "Foreword." pp. vii–x of The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights. By John Steinbeck. 1976. Ed. Chase Horton. Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition. New York: Penguin, 2008. Quotation is from p. viii.

It is hardly a surprise that a novelist and a Nobel laureate, no less, should wish to use his own imagination to depict Arthurian stories anew, rather than restrict himself to modernizing Malory's prose. But the merits of Steinbeck's approach aside, what makes this a good candidate for a recommendation when the question is putatively about editions of Malory? Why not bring in T H White's The Once and Future King, then?

Even if Steinbeck had completed his work, and had stuck to his original intention of rendering Malory into prose more comprehensible to a modern audience, one might justifiably ask if that would still be Malory. Do the many facing-page modern English equivalents of Hamlet available in school texts qualify as Shakespeare? Would a translation of the Quran into modern Arabic still be the Quran? Put Malory into a modern idiom, and you get something like this:

Arthur, asleep in his cabin, was disturbed by a strange dream. He watched a dragon flying across the sky from the west, and its appearance filled the onlookers with awe. The head shone like blue enamel, the shoulders like gold, the belly like mail, and the tail was multicolored and with jagged points at the edges. The feet were covered with sable and the claws were of gold. Meeting the dragon from the east was a terrible bear, huge and black as a storm cloud, with paws staunch as posts, fur shaggy, and gait shambling. As he moved he uttered a dreadful roar.

Malory, Thomas. Le Morte d'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table. The Classic Rendition by Keith Baines. Intro. Robert Graves. 1962. With a new afterword by Christopher Cannon. New York: Signet Classics, 2010. p. 87.

Which is all very well in its way and for its purposes; but it's awful cheek to pass it off as being Malory. It's no more Malory than Malory is his source for this episode, the Alliterative Morte Arthure (c. 1400):

The king was in a grete cogge       with knightes full many,
In a cabane enclosed,       clenlich arrayed;
Within on a rich bed       restes a little,
And with the swogh of the se       in swefning he fell.
Him dremed of a dragon,       dredful to behold,
Come drivand over the deep       to drenchen his pople,
Even walkand       out the West landes,
Wanderand unworthyly       over the wale ythes;
Both his hed and his hals       were holly all over
Ounded of azure,       enamelled full fair;
His shoulders were shaled       all in clene silver
Shredde over all the shrimp       with shrinkand pointes;
His womb and his winges       of wonderful hewes,
In marvelous mailes       he mounted full high.
Whom that he touched       he was tint forever!
His feet were flourished       all in fine sable
And such a venomous flaire       flow from his lippes
The flood of the flawes       all on fire seemed!

Then come out of the Orient,       even him againes,
A black bustous bere       aboven in the cloudes,
With ech a paw as a post       and paumes full huge
With pikes full perilous,       all pliand them seemed;
Lothen and lothly,       lockes and other,
All with lutterd legges,       lokkerd unfair,
Filtered unfreely,       with fomand lippes -
The foulest of figure       that formed was ever!
He baltered, he blered,       he braundished thereafter;
To batail he bounes him       with bustous clawes;
He romed, he rored,       that rogged all the erthe,
So rudely he rapped at       to riot himselven!

(ll. 755–584)

Conclusion

To sum up:

  • There are two distinct versions of Malory's text; neither is clearly superior to the other, and their relationship is disputed. There are tradeoffs involved in choosing between the Winchester manuscript and the Caxton version.
  • There is no complete modern spelling edition of the Winchester MS (I should probably mention that Helen Cooper has a somewhat abridged version in the Oxford World Classics series, 1998; it includes Arthur's dream, but, sadly, excises the battle involving Sir Cador and the king of Libya). The Penguin Classics modern spelling edition of Caxton is good. There are tradeoffs involved in choosing modern spelling over original spelling.
  • Modern retellings of Malory are just that: retellings. They are not Malory. Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights or even Keith Baines's paraphrase bear the same relation to Malory as Malory does to, say, the Alliterative Morte. It would be silly to see Malory as rewriting the Alliterative Morte and to judge him on the basis of whether or not he does a good job of fidelity to that poem; likewise, the works of Steinbeck and Baines (and T H White, and Mary Stewart) should be judged on their own merits.
  • It's one thing to ask about a work's textual history: "What is the basis for contemporary editions of Malory?" This question is a different kettle of fish. It's impossible to answer comprehensively and authoritatively a question about "good annotated editions" of Malory, or any other work. If the question had been about "good annotated editions" of, say, Hamlet, the fact that the question is open-ended, subjective, and unanswerable within the structure and scope of Literature SE would have been obvious.

So: yes, this is an interesting question. But as it stands, it's not on topic for Lit SE. I disagree with the mod's claim that it's reasonably scoped. The OP could ask in chat, or on Quora.

After all that, I'm voting to close.

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