When I began researching Arthurian literature, my first order of business was to find a good copy of Le Morte D’Arthur. I already had a version with modernized spellings, but since I like to get as close to the original as possible, I find those more difficult to read than the Middle English. I had an extremely difficult time finding a version without modernized spellings. This surprised me since Malory’s easy dialect makes the huge number of available translations and modernizations largely unnecessary for anything but leisure reading. In the end, I purchased the Norton Critical Edition of the Winchester Manuscript. I have a deep hatred of Norton because of those many years that I was forced to haul around the massive Norton anthologies, but I’m forced to admit that Norton critical editions of single works are marvelous.
Awesome things about this edition:
- The Norton edition uses the Winchester MS with bits from Caxton’s edition where the Winchester is lacking. The Winchester MS is generally considered closer to Malory’s writing than Caxton’s printings.
- The Winchester MS has no divisions, but Stephen H.A. Shepherd adds them for readability, correctly documented so as not to affect authenticity.
- The Winchester MS has proper names written in red ink, which the Norton replicates by using a gothic font. Not only does this make scanning pages easy, but it’s also interesting to note places where scribes forgot to switch back to their black pens.
- Malory’s dialect is a relatively easy read, so a gloss is unnecessary for all but the most difficult phrases.
- Like all Norton Critical Editions, this volume contains several scholarly essays in the back, plus several useful fragments from Malory’s source material. My favorite is Mordred’s threnody from the Alliterative Morte Arthure, which is my favorite of all Arthurian death-speeches. My volume of the Alliterative is heavily modernized, so having this speech in a more authentic format pleases me.
Less awesome things about this edition:
- Archaic letters are modernized. U/v/i/j usages are standardized. This makes the Norton less awesome than if those letters have been preserved as originally written, but it doesn’t affect readability the way a complete modernization does. (I must admit that the u/v/i/j standardization makes reading much easier.)
- I would have liked to see more extensive footnotes with cultural commentary. I have learned more from footnotes than I have from all the graduate classes, book introductions, and scholarly articles that I have read. Footnotes are probably sparse since Le Morte Darthur is already a lengthy work, but I felt that including more information would have enhanced the experience.
The Norton Critical Edition of Le Morte Darthur gets mixed reviews on Amazon, but I highly recommend it for research. If I can get ahold of a copy, I would like to compare the Norton to the Oxford University Press edition of the Winchester MS. Oxford is my preferred publisher for scholarly works (unless the Early English Text Society is available), but I couldn’t find the Oxford edition when I did my original search. The Oxford has far more reviews than the Norton, but reviews of that specific edition seem to be mixed in with reviews of Malory’s work in general. I can’t be certain if the Oxford is a translation or a transcription.
For now, my recommendation rests with Norton. If the Oxford is obtainable, reviews will be posted in the future.