A Good Deliverance by Toby Clements

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A Good Deliverance by Toby Clements

By Toby Clements

Author Toby Clements discusses his latest novel, A Good Deliverance: the story behind the story of Sir Thomas Malory’s great masterpiece Le Morte Darthur.

I started writing historical fiction when I was ten. It was the story of Harold Goodwinson, whose death in 1066, accompanied by ‘a piercing shriek’, at the battle of Hastings presented me with the sort of narrative challenge that I solved (as I would go on to solve many future challenges) by simply closing my exercise book and forgetting all about it. Since then — with the help of various very fine editors — I have managed to finish a quartet of novels set during the so-called Wars of the Roses fought in England in the middle of the 15th Century; and most recently A Good Deliverance, which aims to tell the story behind the story of Sir Thomas Malory’s great masterpiece Le Morte Darthur.

For anyone unfamiliar with Le Morte Darthur, its full title is The Whole Book of King Arthur and his Noble Knights of the Round Table, and it is the gathering together for the first time in English of all the tales of King Arthur drawn from various Welsh, Breton and French sources. These tales of include how Arthur was begot (not very nobly, on his father’s behalf, who tricked his way into Arthur’s mother’s bed disguised as her husband); how he pulled the sword from the stone; how he was made rightwise king of all England; how he founded the Round Table and — well. It goes on. Most editions are over 800 pages. It ends with a climactic battle in which Arthur and his (accidentally) incestuous son kill one another, after which Arthur has Excalibur thrown back into a lake and he is borne away to Avalon whence some men say he may one day return: ‘Rex quondam: Rexque futurus’, ‘the once and future king’ in TH White’s resonant translation.

Malory wrote Le Morte sometime in the middle of the fifteenth century, and though he puts no date on when King Arthur is supposed to have reigned, it is clearly understood to have been centuries previously, and so although no one can be sure if he understood that what he was writing was fiction in the sense we know it today, his writing is of the sort that Emma Darwin in her highly recommended Get Started in Historical Writing (part of the Teach Yourself Writing series) defines as historical fiction, since he was writing about the ‘there and then’ in ways intended to speak to the ‘here and now’. It just so happens Malory’s here and now was there and then.

But why? Why was he writing about the dim and distant past?

Partly because these stories were already popular. The adventures of knights such as Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristan, as well as the founding of the Round Table and the Quest for the Holy Grail were often recounted at court, and manuscripts of their knightly doings, as written out by Chretien de Troyes for example, circulated among the nobility (insofar as the chains attaching them to the library desks of only the wealthiest lords would allow). Malory would have been familiar with the stories, as well as the men and women who enjoyed hearing them read aloud.

He was also writing about a period which was understood to have been exemplary: King Arthur’s Britain was a fantasy of the nearest an earthly civilisation could get to becoming perfect. That it all fell to pieces and the noble fellowship of the round table was dissolved in a welter of violence and bloodshed — through a failure of love, loyalty, and faith — and King Arthur was killed by his son in battle is precisely Malory’s theme, and exactly why the book is called Le Morte Darthur, and not, say, La Vie Darthur.

Because through his window Malory would have been able to see England sliding into a similar decline. A feeble king had presided over a series of humiliating reversals in France where the Hundred Years’ War had just ended as it was always only ever going to end, and a furious, traumatised, impoverished knightly class had come home to start fighting among themselves in what we now call the Wars of the Roses.

Le Morte Darthur then is an admonishment; a warning; an exhortation and a lament for what had been lost, and was still in the process of destroying itself.  

But why did he write it at all?

I am not suggesting that Sir Thomas Malory and I have much in common — and by the end of this paragraph you will be pleased to have read that right — but the reason we both picked up pen and paper might have been the same — and I bet a far more common creative spur than is usually imagined — which was namely: boredom. The reason I was bored was because I was ten; it was the school holidays, and it was raining. The reason he was bored was because he was for ten years, off and on, in and out of gaol, awaiting trial on the charge of rape.

Yes, the man who did most to codify the rules of honour and ‘worship’ in English — what it is to be a good king; what it is to be a noble knight, and what it is to be a fair damsel — did so while in gaol charged with the least chivalrous crime possible.

Did he do it?

Who can now say, but my novel is an attempt to explain how he came to such a strange and contradictory pass; how he rose from the minor gentry of Warwickshire to kiss the ring of the (possibly worst) pope; how he fought at the battle of Verneuil (England’s greatest feat of arms, surpassing even Agincourt); how he saved the virtue (if not the life) of Joan of Arc; how he found great love with a fine lady; how he was knighted by King Henry VI; and yet also how he ended up spending the best part of a decade in gaol,  and how he became one of only a dozen names excluded from a general pardon issued by King Edward IV (which included crimes yet to be discovered and even yet to be committed), and how, of course, despite, or because, of all this he came to write the magisterial, revolutionary work we know as Le Morte Darthur — never out of print since 1485 remember — as a piece of occupational therapy to relieve his boredom.

(c) Toby Clements

About A Good Deliverance by Toby Clements:

A Good Deliverance by Toby Clements

From the author of the Kingmaker series, an epic and intimate tale of adventure, myth and the creation of one of literature’s greatest stories.

Warwick, 1468. One drowsy summer afternoon, Sir Thomas Malory – politician, courtier, outlaw, renowned author of Le Morte D’Arthur – is seized from his garden and dragged to Newgate Prison for reasons unknown.

Shivering in his foul-smelling, filthy old cell, Malory mourns his misspent life as he awaits the execution bell. But when the locking bar lifts, he is greeted by a boy of about twelve winters: the gaoler’s son. Giddy with relief, Malory seizes the opportunity to recount his deeds to an audience.

So begins a prison confession of a perilously exciting life full of sieges, battles and court intrigue. A Good Deliverance is the captivating tale of a man at odds with his past and the events that inspired him to write the first great work of prose fiction in English.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Toby Clements is a journalist, former Literary Editor at the Daily Telegraph, and the author of the Kingmaker series; four critically acclaimed novels set during the Wars of the Roses.

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