- Malory’s Anatomy of Chivalry: Characterization in the Morte Darthur by Paul R. Rovang
In 1934, R. H. Wilson published Characterization in Malory: A Comparison with His Sources, a book that helped “break open” Malory studies and take it to a new level of investigation and inquiry. As important and foundational as that book was, much has happened in Malory studies in the eighty-plus years since that seminal work appeared, and we have long been overdue for a new study of how Malory’s text “works” in terms of characterization. Scholar after scholar in recent years has noted that Malory’s text is so interesting and important precisely because his choices concerning source use, rearranging of episodes, and addition of new material has created characters that have, in many instances, a kind of interiority that one most often associates with the modern novel; Malory’s characters, almost without exception, are much more complex than their counterparts in his sources.
Thus, Rovang’s book is a welcome addition to Malory studies, focusing as it does precisely on this one concern—characterization—in a monograph-length study. While many of the points he makes have been noted here and there in a variety of articles by numerous scholars, a single-focused study is necessary to help us get a vue d’ensemble of how characterization works throughout Malory’s text as a whole. As “characterization” is a rather unwieldy, expansive topic, Rovang has elected to structure his book into fifteen chapters, each devoted to a specific character—Arthur, Mark, Gawain, Lancelot, Guenevere, Morgan le Fay, Mordred, etc.—the better to find a “hook” or way into this expansive question. The author states that this approach is undertaken with the goal of examining Malory’s treatment of his characters “as exemplars of virtue and vice, under the wider categories of kingship, knighthood, and womanhood” (p. xiii). Acknowledging his initial debt to Wilson, Rovang distinguishes his work from the earlier one by noting that while traditional source criticism is important to his study, the present work is more focused on “the twin trajectories of [Malory’s] history of the Round Table and contemporary English history” (p. xv). Indeed, one of the strengths of Malory’s Anatomy of Chivalry is that it deliberately seeks to engage Le Morte Darthur on its own terms, as a narrative with an internal logic that we should consider, as much as possible, free from debts to its sources. At the same time, however, as noble as such an endeavor is, it is difficult to sustain, because the earlier versions of the legends do “press” so insistently upon Malory’s version of events. While Rovang does, on numerous occasions, acknowledge a change (or lack thereof) from the source material, I frequently found myself putting down Malory’s Anatomy of Chivalry to check P. J. C. Field’s notes in his masterful two-volume edition (2013), or turning to the original moment of an episode in the Prose Lancelot, or consulting what Geoffrey of Monmouth had to say about a particular character or event. More thorough discussion of the source material and Malory’s changes in the footnotes of Rovang’s text would, I believe, have allowed his argument to maintain its primary focus and flow in the body of the monograph while satisfying that desire of so many of us to know how the Morte deviates (or doesn’t) from its sources.
While this book has many strengths and is one that I am sure that I will turn to again and again for consultation in years ahead, there are some issues that arise—in part because of the commitment to avoid too much source study, while simultaneously acknowledging that sometimes it is absolutely critical to do so. [End Page 261] On occasion, this results in the sense that the author is deliberately suppressing commenting upon changes from the source in order to keep the focus “tight.” Also, several important studies in recent years...