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12 - Malory’s Morte Darthur and the Bible

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 December 2023

A. S. G. Edwards
Affiliation:
University of Kent, University College, London, and King's College, London
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Summary

In 1856 Dante Gabriel Rossetti told William Morris that Malory’s Morte Darthur was one of the two greatest books ever written, the other being the Bible. Although today readers of Malory might question Rossetti’s judgement, his choice of Le Morte Darthur may not be surprising given the great reverence for and influence of Malory’s work in the nineteenth century. More surprising might be Rossetti’s choosing the Bible as the second book. The website of the Freedom from Religion Foundation presents a write-up on Rossetti that includes a quotation in which his brother referred to him as one who ‘professed no religious faith and practised no regular religious observances’. His father, a political refugee from Italy granted asylum in England, was a Roman Catholic who opposed both the papacy and attending Mass. His mother, an Anglican, had her children baptized into the Church of England. His two sisters were devout, with the poet Christina writing a number of Christian poems, including one that would be set to music as the familiar Christmas carol ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. Dante Gabriel, however, at the age of fourteen followed in his father’s footsteps and stopped attending church. Although he came to question formal religion, earlier in life he would have both read and heard read the King James, or Authorized, version of the Bible, which by the nineteenth century was regarded by many as not only a sacred text but also, perhaps primarily, a great literary one and, Gordon Campbell writes, ‘a high water mark of the English language’.

This essay will discuss affinities between Morte Darthur’s narrative style and that of the King James Version (henceforward KJV). Since Rossetti and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites disliked realistic art and narrative, the similar archaic style of these two books could account for Rossetti’s associating them. The KJV, known to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Protestants throughout the English-speaking world, would have prepared them for Morte Darthur, for they would have found in Malory’s book a type of narrative style with which they were familiar. Roman Catholic readers of the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible would, to some extent, have observed these similarities, but certain historical circumstances meant that nineteenth-century Roman Catholics would have been less likely than Protestants to read the Bible.

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Medieval Romance, Arthurian Literature
Essays in Honour of Elizabeth Archibald
, pp. 172 - 188
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2021

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