Chapter VIII. THE BEGINNING OF THE READING TIME
WE are now going on two hundred years to speak of another book about Arthur. This is Morte d'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory.
Up to this time all books had to be written by hand. But in the fifteenth century printing was discovered. This was one of the greatest things which ever happened for literature, for books then became much more plentiful and were not nearly so dear as they had been, and so many more people could afford to buy them. And thus learning spread.
It is not quite known who first discovered the art of printing, but William Caxton was the first man who set up a printing-press in England. He was an English wool merchant who had gone to live in Bruges, but he was very fond of books, and after a time he gave up his wool business, came back to England, and began to write and print books. One of the first books he printed was Malory's Morte d'Arthur.
In the preface Caxton tells us how, after he had printed some other books, many gentlemen came to him to ask him why he did not print a history of King Arthur, "which ought most to be remembered among us Englishmen afore all the Christian kings; to whom I answered that diverse men hold opinion that there was no such Arthur, and all such books as be made of him be but fained matters and fables."
But the gentlemen persuaded Caxton until at last he undertook to "imprint a book of the noble histories of the said King Arthur and of certaine of his knights, after a copy unto me delivered, which copy Sir Thomas Malory tooke out of certaine bookes in the Frenche, and reduced it into English."
It is a book, Caxton says, "wherein ye shall find many joyous and pleasant histories, and noble and renowned acts. . . . Doe after the good and leave the ill, and it shall bring you unto good fame and renowne. And for to pass the time this booke shall be pleasant to read in."
In 1485, when Morte d'Arthur was first printed, people indeed found it a book "pleasant to read in," and we find it so still. It is written in English not unlike the English of to-day, and although it has a quaint, old-world sound, we can readily understand it.
Morte d'Arthur really means the death of Arthur, but the book tells not only of his death, but of his birth and life, and of the wonderful deeds of many of his knights. This is how Malory tells of the manner in which Arthur came to be king.
But first let me tell you that Uther Pendragon, the King, had died, and although Arthur was his son and should succeed to him, men knew it not. For after Arthur was born he was given to the wizard Merlin, who took the little baby to Sir Ector, a gallant knight, and charged him to care for him. And Sir Ector, knowing nothing of the child, brought him up as his own son.
Thus, after the death of the King, "the realm stood in great jeopardy a long while, for every lord that was mighty of men made him strong, and many weened to have been King.
"Then Merlin went to the Archbishop of Canterbury and counselled him for to send for all the lords of the realm, and all the gentlemen of arms, that they should come to London afore Christmas upon pain of cursing, and for this cause, that as Jesus was born on that night, that he would of his great mercy show some miracle, as he was come to be king of all mankind, for to show some miracle who should be right wise king of this realm. So the Archbishop by the advice of Merlin, sent for all the lords and gentlemen of arms that they should come by Christmas even unto London. . . . So in the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul's or not the French book maketh no mention, all the estates were long or* day in the church for to pray. And when matins and the first mass were done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone foursquare, like unto a marble stone, and in the midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:— 'Whoso pulleth out this sword of the stone and anvil is rightwise king born of all England.'
"Then the people marvelled and told it to the Archbishop. . . . So when all masses were done, all the lords went to behold the stone and the sword. And when they saw the scripture, some essayed; such as would have been king. But none might stir the sword nor move it.
"'He is not here,' said the Archbishop, 'that shall achieve the sword, but doubt not God will make him known. But this is my counsel,' said the Archbishop, 'that we let purvey ten knights, men of good fame, and they to keep the sword.'
"So it was ordained, and then there was made a cry, that every man should essay that would, for to win the sword. . . .
"Now upon New Year's Day, when the service was done, the barons rode unto the field, some to joust, and some to tourney, and so it happened that Sir Ector rode unto the jousts, and with him rode Sir Kay his son, and young Arthur that was his nourished brother. So as they rode to the jousts-ward, Sir Kay had lost his sword for he had left it at his father's lodging, and so he prayed young Arthur for to ride for his sword.
"'I will well,' said Arthur, and rode fast after the sword, and when he came home, the lady and all were out to see the jousting. Then was Arthur wroth and said to himself, 'I will ride to the churchyard, and take the sword with me that sticketh in the stone, for my brother Sir Kay shall not be without a sword this day.' So when he came to the churchyard Sir Arthur alit and tied his horse to the stile, and so he went to the tent and found no knights there, for they were at the jousting, and so he handled the sword by the handles, and lightly and fiercely pulled it out of the stone, and took his horse and rode his way until he came to his brother Sir Kay, and delivered him the sword.
"And as soon as Sir Kay saw the sword he wist well it was the sword of the stone, and he rode to his father Sir Ector and said: 'Sir, lo here is the sword of the stone, wherefore I must be king of this land.'
"When Sir Ector beheld the sword he returned again and came to the church, and there they alit all three, and went into the church. And anon he made Sir Kay to swear upon a book how he came to that sword.
"'Sir,' said Sir Kay, 'by my brother Arthur, for he brought it to me.'
"'How got ye this sword?' said Sir Ector to Arthur.
"'Sir, I will tell you. When I came home for my brother's sword, I found no body at home to deliver me his sword, and so I thought my brother Sir Kay should not go swordless, and so I came hither eagerly and pulled it out of the stone without any pain.'
"'Found ye any knights about the sword?' said Sir Ector.
"'Nay,' said Arthur.
"'Now,' said Sir Ector to Arthur, 'I understand ye must be king of this land.'
"'Wherefore I,' said Arthur, 'and for what cause?'
"'Sir,' said Ector, 'for God will have it so, for there should never man have drawn out this sword, but he that should be rightwise king of this land. Now let me see if ye can put the sword there as it was and pull it out again.'
"'That is no mastery,' said Arthur. And so he put it in the stone. Therewithall Sir Ector essayed to pull out the sword and failed.
"'Now essay,' said Sir Ector unto Sir Kay. And anon he pulled at the sword with all his might, but it would not be.
"'Now shall ye essay," said Sir Ector unto Arthur.
"'I will well,' said Arthur, and pulled it out easily.
"And therewithall Sir Ector knelt down to the earth, and Sir Kay."
And so Arthur was acknowledged king. "And so anon was the coronation made," Malory goes on to tell us, "and there was Arthur sworn unto his lords and to the commons for to be a true king, to stand with true justice from henceforth the days of his life."
For the rest of all the wonderful stories of King Arthur and his knights you must go to Morte d'Arthur itself. For the language is so simple and clear that it is a book that you can easily read, though there are some parts that you will not understand or like and which you need not read yet.
But of all the books of which we have spoken this is the first which you could read in the very words in which it was written down. I do not mean that you could read it as it was first printed, for the oldest kind of printing was not unlike the writing used in manuscripts and so seems hard to read now. Besides which, although nearly all the words Malory uses are words we still use, the spelling is a little different, and that makes it more difficult to read.
The old lettering looked like this: -
"With that Sir Arthur turned with his knights,
and smote behind and before, and
ever Sir Arthur was in the foremost press
till his horse was slain under him."
That looks difficult. but here it is again in our own lettering:-
"With that Sir Arthur turned with his knights, and smote behind and before, and ever Sir Arthur was in the foremost press till his horse was slain under him."
That is quite easy to read, and there is not a word in it that you cannot understand. For since printing came our language has changed very much less than it did before. And when printing came, the listening time of the world was done and the reading time had begun. As books increased, less and less did people gather to hear others read aloud or tell tales, and more and more people learned to read for themselves, until now there is hardly a boy or girl in all the land who cannot read a little.
It is perhaps because Morte d'Arthur is easily read that it has become a storehouse, a treasure-book, to which other writers have gone and from which they have taken stories and woven them afresh and given them new life. Since Caxton's time Morte d'Arthur has been printed many times, and it is through it perhaps, more than through the earlier books, that the stories of Arthur still live for us. Yet it is not perfect - it has indeed been called "a most pleasant jumble."* Malory made up none of the stories; as he himself tells us, he took them from French books, and in some of these French books the stories are told much better. But what we have to remember and thank Malory for is that he kept alive the stories of Arthur. He did this more than any other writer in that he wrote in English such as all English-speaking people must love to read.
BOOKS TO READ
Stories of King Arthur's Knights, by Mary Macgregor. Stories from Morte d'Arthur, by C. L. Thomson. Morte d'Arthur, Globe Edition.