One Malory Text or Eight Malory Texts?

        To help prepare your mind for reading Malory's Arthurian narrative(s), tthink about how much we trust that what we are reading and interpreting is correctly transcribed from the author's manuscript, typescript, printout or Word file. Even in modern electronic publishing, lots can happen to text in transmission. Now think about knowing whether what we're looking at is the whole work, or part of another work, or many works packaged together but meant to be read as separate works. And is the text we're reading complete, or is it missing pieces (famously--students often store Works Cited sections in separate files but forget to attach them), or are there additional pieces of something else irrelevantly inserted that do not reflect the author's intentions (bits of rough-draft editing forgotten in the hurry to finish)?
        In the case of the Malory text, we have two versions, one that comes to us from the earliest printed edition by William Caxton (1485) based on a lost manuscript, which presents itself as a single text identified by the printer's colophone (note at the end, precursor of the "title page") as "Kyng Arthur." The other verion of Malory's text is edited by Eugene Vinaver (1947), based on the Winchester Manuscript (now British Library MS. Additional 59,678. The two editions differ from one another, but more importantly, in both editions, readers encounter apparent inconsistencies in action and character. If one pays close attention, knights killed in battles early in the text reappear alive and fighting in tournaments or with Launcelot's forces in the civil war with Arthur and Gawain near the end. Characters are said to eventually do things they do not do, and others do things they would not ordinarily do. Most importantly, perhaps, Gawain goes from being the typical exemplar of courtesy to a fanatical killer who accepts no terms of settlement other than battle. Lancelot goes from being a chaste knight who denies any illicit association with the Queen to a knight trapped in the Queen's bedchamber who has to fight his way out.
        Teachers who get papers by email sometimse run into forms of these part/whole problems if students send papers without saving changes in Word. One form is the "not enough" feeling--where you realize something dropped out in transmission. In Malory's case, we know something dropped out of the Winchestetr MS version because it's missing its outer "gathering" of leaves, containing both its beginning and ending. The only option we have is to accept the "head" and "foot" of the edition provided to readers since 1485 by William Caxton. That is the decision made, reluctangly, by Eugene Vinaver, editor of the Winchester-based edition you are reading. If you look carefully, you can see the square left bracket around the first line, and a square right bracket some pages into the MS where the Winchester version picks up on line 36 of page 13. From that point on, Vinaver accepts the Winchester version of the text unless it seems obviously more corrupted in transcription than Caxton's.
        The "not enough" problem caused by a defective manuscript or defective transcription has a direct parallel in the "too much" problem, caused by duplicated characters with differing characteristics, events described in different ways at different times, and other inconsistencies which we are not used to encountering in ordinary historical or fictional narrative without some acknowledgement that something is wrong with one, both, or all accounts. Historians can record variant eyewitness testimonies, but usually they will attempt to settle on a 'best version" that they will argue for, or conclude that the facts are temporarily indeterminate. Fictions with such discontinuities are either amateur, poorly edited things, or deliberate Post-Modern "mash-ups" that are designed to rattle readers' sense of stable time/event/character. Even those kinds of callenging narratives usually come to us with press blurbs announcing what the author is intending us to experience, so we can relax comfortably into a sense of disturbed fictionaly reality with the assurance that it will all be over soon and the events. A Medieval author's work, however, might have been "mashed up" by a scribe in the transmission sequence, or by the editor (Caxton, in this case), thus creating the appearance of conflicts where none really existed.
Vinaver calls his edition "Works" because he believes the MS evidence indicates Malory wrote eight separate romances which were never intended to be read sequentially in the order we see them. Nor does Vinaver believe Lancelot, or Gawain, or Arthur, or events in one narrative should be taken to be the same as those in another. This radical severing of the joining between big narrative units is open to debate. For your reading, you probably could do no better than to read the "colophon" or "explicit" on page 726. Medieval authors like Malory rarely began their texts with instructions to the reader about the text's contents or author's intentions, but they often ended them with specific declarations that, in effect, "this is it, there ain't no more." See what Malory says on 726 and start reading the first 107 pages for Thursday. Even Vinaver treats this as a coherent unit, though you will note that it has subsets of narrative we might call "chapters" or "segments." One thing we might discuss, if we have time, is how those smaller units reflect TM's intentions for the larger units and (if it exists) the "hoole book."

        To see the two pathways by which the early-print edition (Caxton) and Winchester Manuscript edition (Vinaver) reach us in later print editions, see this diagram of their parallel "provenance," the trail of evidence linking a text from its earliest form to the one we hold in our hands:

         To see how Malory's text appears to relate to his Medieval French and Middle English sources, click here: