Richard J. Moll,
Before Malory:
Reading Arthur in
Late Medieval England

(University of Toronto Press, 2003)

Everyone knows the story of King Arthur -- how he pulled the sword from the stone, married Guinevere, united Britain with the help of the Knights of the Round Table, was betrayed by his nephew/son Mordred, was mortally wounded in battle and taken to Avalon to rest until he should return at the hour of England's greatest need. But is that how the story originally went?

Richard J. Moll says Malory, in his Morte d'Arthur, put the stamp on the Arthur material that led to the familiar story we know. Before that, there were a number of quite different stories and traditions, some of them even believed as historical fact. Moll takes a look at some of the oldest material regarding Arthur and how it evolved with each author who worked on it, illustrating each point with a great number of examples from ancient texts.

And therein lies the book's greatest problems. Moll relies entirely too much on endnotes -- the last 135 pages of the book are entirely notes, of which chapter 2 alone has 198. He quotes texts in Old and Middle English with no translation for the modern reader who might not be familiar with archaic spelling conventions. He often quotes Latin texts, providing translations only in the endnotes, making it necessary to keep one finger at the appropriate section of the notes and flip back and forth.

Moll is obviously passionate about his subject and this could have been a fascinating text but, due to its difficulty, it is clearly not intended for the lay reader. Simply modernizing the spellings in the quoted material and translating the Latin would have made the book so much more accessible.

- Rambles
written by Laurie Thayer
published 6 November 2004

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