WE are now going on two hundred years to speak of another book about Arthur. This is Morte d'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory.
Up to this time all books had to be written by hand. But in the fifteenth century printing was discovered. This was one of the greatest things which ever happened for literature, for books then became much more plentiful and were not nearly so dear as they had been, and so many more people could afford to buy them. And thus learning spread.
It is not quite known who first discovered the art of printing, but William Caxton was the first man who set up a printing-press in England. He was an English wool merchant who had gone to live in Bruges, but he was very fond of books, and after a time he gave up his wool business, came back to England, and began to write and print books. One of the first books he printed was Malory's Morte d'Arthur.
In the preface Caxton tells us how, after he had printed some other books, many gentlemen came to him to ask him why he did not print a history of King Arthur, "which ought most to be remembered among us Englishmen afore all the Christian kings; to whom I answered that diverse men hold opinion that there was no such Arthur, and all such books as be made of him be but fained matters and fables."
But the gentlemen persuaded Caxton until at last he undertook to "imprint a book of the noble histories of the said King Arthur and of certaine of his knights, after a copy unto me delivered, which copy Sir Thomas Malory tooke out of certaine bookes in the Frenche, and reduced it into English."
It is a book, Caxton says, "wherein ye shall find many joyous and pleasant histories, and noble and renowned acts. . . . Doe after the good and leave the ill, and it shall bring you unto good fame and renowne. And for to pass the time this booke shall be pleasant to read in."
In 1485, when Morte d'Arthur was first printed, people indeed found it a book "pleasant to read in," and we find it so still. It is written in English not unlike the English of to-day, and although it has a quaint, old-world sound, we can readily understand it.
Morte d'Arthur really means the death of Arthur, but the book tells not only of his death, but of his birth and life, and of the wonderful deeds of many of his knights. This is how Malory tells of the manner in which Arthur came to be king.
But first let me tell you that Uther Pendragon, the King, had died, and although Arthur was his son and should succeed to him, men knew it not. For after Arthur was born he was given to the wizard Merlin, who took the little baby to Sir Ector, a gallant knight, and charged him to care for him. And Sir Ector, knowing nothing of the child, brought him up as his own son.
Thus, after the death of the King, "the realm stood in great jeopardy a long while, for every lord that was mighty of men made him strong, and many weened to have been King.
"Then Merlin went to the Archbishop of Canterbury and counselled him for to send for all the lords of the realm, and all the gentlemen of arms, that they should come to London afore Christmas upon pain of cursing, and for this cause, that as Jesus was born on that night, that he would of his great mercy show some miracle, as he was come to be king of all mankind, for to show some miracle who should be right wise king of this realm. So the Archbishop by the advice of Merlin, sent for all the lords and gentlemen of arms that they should come by Christmas even unto London. . . . So in the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul's or not the French book maketh no mention, all the estates were long or day in the church for to pray. And when matins and the first mass were done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone foursquare, like unto a marble stone, and in the midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:-- 'Whoso pulleth out this sword of the stone and anvil is rightwise king born of all England.'
"Then the people marvelled and told it to the Archbishop. . . . So when all masses were done, all the lords went to behold the stone and the sword. And when they saw the scripture, some essayed; such as would have been king. But none might stir the sword nor move it."