Thomas’ Malory’s King Arthur
Special Collections welcomed Will Rhodes’ ENGLIT1125
Masterpieces of Renaissance Literature on Wednesday, March 15th.
Students had the opportunity to examine facsimiles of Renaissance literature
and poetry; fine press and private press editions of literature and poetry; and
historical texts dating back to the Renaissance. Students worked closely with these materials and completed an
in-class assignment to create a short essay. Professor Rhodes selected a
handful of these essays for us to feature on the Special Collections
Tumblr. We hope that you enjoy!
This edition of Sir Thomas’ Malory’s King Arthur is a combination of work from both the 15th and 19th centuries. The book immediately caught my eye as part of the Fine Press/ Private Press Editions station; it had an evident luxurious quality, bound in ¾ Morocco leather with bright gold floral detailing. The binding of the book itself conveys a fairy-tale like quality, which fits its classic and well-loved contents.
The content of the book itself combines Malory’s original content with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), a major pioneer of the Art Nouveau movement. It is said that Beardsley was only twenty years old when he was commissioned by J.M Dent to collaborate on the text in 1892. Beardsley’s work was heavily influenced by Japanese woodcuts – apparent in his use of line, tone and intricate detail – and the result is a beautiful array of illustrations combining ornate block lettering and detailed depictions of flowers, foliage, damsels and knights. His style, which appears to combine gothic, medieval and modern influences, makes Beardsley the ideal illustrator for this text, which is a modern edition of the classic story of the adventures of King Arthur and his knights.
The fact that the text is written “in modern style” suggests it is actually supposed to be read and not simply owned as a decorative or collectable piece. However, the book certainly has a rare and collectable quality to it. Some illustrations take up whole pages (which are made of Dutch handmade paper) while others are dispersed through the body of text itself, and their richness adds to the decadent feel of the volume. The printing advancements of the 19th century certainly allow for this element of decadence that the printing technology of the 15th century would not have allowed. This means that this reworked edition enhances Malory’s original text in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to carry out himself. However, the stylised nature of Beardsley’s figures and the thick, jagged lines he uses may also be seen to add a sinister quality to the work that Malory may not have intended in his writing. However, I think the beauty and intricacy of this book certainly makes it a valuable reworking of his original tale.
-Amy Buckle, University of Pittsburgh undergraduate