I can remember starting to read Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Members of the Vulnerable Black Community (1939) and being exhilarated by the simplicity and clarity of her prose. Reading was so easy that it was pleasurable, like taking off a pair of heavy boots on a hot day and walking barefoot on cool grass. But the exhilaration quickly wore off and in the end I felt bored instead. The simplicity became monotonous. I think I finished the book, but I almost gave up.
It was an interesting experience in the power of contrast and I was reminded of it when I came across this edition of the works of Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1410-71). Malory’s prose is also exhilaratingly simple: clear, cold and refreshing as a mountain stream. But unlike Christie’s, the exhilaration of his prose isn’t wearing off, perhaps because there’s something complex in it too:
Soo at Candalmasme many moo grete lordes came thyder for to have wonne the swerd, but there myght none prevaille. And right as Arthur dyd at Christmasse, he dyd at Candelmasse, and pulled oute the swerd easely, wherof the barons were sore agreved and put it of in delay till the hyghe fest of Eester. And as Arthur sped afore so dyd he at Eester. Yet there were some of the grete lordes had indignacion that Arthur shold be kynge, and put it of in a delay till the feest of Pentecoste. Then the Archebisshop of Caunterbury by Merlyns provydence let purveye thenne of the best knyghtes that they myghte gete, and suche knyghtes as Uther Pendragon loved best and moost trusted in his dayes. […] And at the fest of Pentecost alle manner of men assayed to pulle at the swerde that wold assay, but none myght prevaille but Arthur, and he pulled it oute afore all the lordes and comyns that were there. Wherefore alle the comyns cryed at ones, “We wille have Arthur unto our kyng! We wille put hym no more in delay, for we all see that it is Goddes wille that he shalle be our kynge, and who that holdeth ageynst it, we wille slee hym.” And therwithall they knelyd at ones, both ryche and poure, and cryed Arthur mercy bycause they had delayed hym so longe. And Arthur foryaf hem, and took the swerd bitwene both his handes, and offred it upon the aulter where the Archebisshop was, and so was he made knyghte of the best man that was there. And so anon was the coronacyon made, and ther was he sworne unto his lordes and the comyns for to be a true kyng, to stand with true justyce fro thens forth the dayes of this lyf. (The Tale of King Arthur, Book I, “Merlin”, pg. 10)
The prose is very simple and clear, but you have to concentrate to understand it. This is early modern English, with different and variable spellings, older grammar and meanings, and occasional words that are now lost or obsolete, like horse-mete, iwys, raynke, shafftemonde, and sodde, meaning respectively “food for horses”, “indeed”, “man”, “handsbreadth”, and “boiled”. But Malory is easier to understand than you might expect if you’ve ever tried Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), who died almost as Malory was born. The Canterbury Tales (late 1300s) has to be translated for modern readers; Le Morte d’Arthur has merely to be updated. Here’s something from Chaucer:
This Absolon gan wipe his mouth full drye.
Derk was the night as pitch or as the cole;
And at the window out she put hir hole.
And Absolon, him fill no bet ne wers,
But with his mouth he kissed her naked ers ––
Full savourly –– ere he was aware of this.
Aback he stert, and thought it was amiss,
For well he wist that a woman hath no beerd.
He felt a thing all rough and long y-herd,
And saide, “Fy, alas! What have I to do?”
(“The Miller’s Tale, lines 544-553)
Chaucer and Malory are separated by very little in time, but a lot in language, at least on the printed page. Print can be misleading: Malory’s pronunciation would sound odder to us than his spelling looks. But Chaucer’s humour and earthiness are another big difference between the two. Malory writes about high chivalry and tragic love, not practical jokes and pubic hair. And where Chaucer has stories, Malory has a story: King Arthur and his knights. Few people know Chaucer’s stories any more, but Malory’s story is one of the most famous in the world.
Do the simplicity and clarity of his prose help explain that? I think so. Like the New Testament, Malory’s work had powerful stories that could appeal to everyone. It also had a powerful piece of technology on its side: the printing press. This book has “Caxton’s Preface” to the first printed edition, although “the basis of the text is still the manuscript discovered in 1934 by Dr. W.F. Oakeshott in the Fellows’ Library of Winchester College” (introduction, pg. ix). Caxton explained why Malory would still be read six centuries later:
Thenne, to procede forth in thys sayd book, whyche I dyrecte unto alle noble princys, lordes and ladyes, gentylmen or gentylwymmen, that desyre to rede or here redde of the noble and joyous hystorye of the grete conquerour and excellent kyng, Kyng Arthur, sometyme kyng of this noble royalme thenne called Bretaygne, I, William Caxton, symple persone, present thys book folowying whych I have enprysed t’enprynte: and treateth of the noble actes, feates of armes of chyvalrye, prowesse, hardynesse, humanyté, love, curtosye, and veray gentylnesse, wyth many wonderful hystoryes and adventures. (“Caxton’s Preface”, pg. xv)