There is something timely about a biography of Sir Thomas Malory. His Morte Darthur is still the best account of the search for the Holy Grail. With the number of Quest books being published, it is interesting to be reminded what a 15th-century knight made of the story. The problem Malory poses for the biographer, however, is that very little is known about him. Until the late 19th century, even his identity was a mystery, and while diligent research by antiquarians and historians has uncovered some new facts about this Warwickshire knight, they are still thin on the ground.
Christina Hardyment is upfront about this. She describes her book as "stuffed to the brim with conjectures" and "riddled with guesswork". Nearly two decades of Malory's life have to be accounted for without any documentation. Hardyment overcomes this by sketching out a "likely career" for her subject, chronicling his training in the chivalric arts and his experience of war in France, while admitting that hers is "as much an imagined life as a true biography".
Hardyment's imagination is certainly vivid. Her description of Malory's christening is a memorable performance, with flaming torches, flickering candles, the superstitious placing of a crust of bread under the baby's mattress to keep witches away, and feasting and dancing in the great hall at Newbold Revel in Warwickshire.
Such theatricality is well suited to a period in which symbols, rituals and physical objects all mattered deeply. In a typical passage, Hardyment asks: "Did Thomas Malory ride over from Newbold Revel in 1434 in answer to his uncle's appeal, and sit in a great oak chair at the side of the stone fireplace to discuss with him who else to contact, and what he would need in the way of arms, servants and horses?" Such descriptions feel real, but Malory's presence is only speculative, and so there is a hollow at the centre. This would not matter if Hardyment had written a novel based on the few known facts of Malory's life, but her constant repetition of phrases such as "could be imagined" and "we will again assume" undermines her book's status as biography.
When Hardyment wishes to discuss Malory's character and personality, she turns to Morte Darthur. She is convin- ced that he would not have tolerated an arranged marriage, because his "presentation of love in the Arthurian legends shows that he was too romantic". The anguish Sir Launcelot feels over his adultery with Guinevere is, she asserts, Malory's own: "He knew from experience the terrible emotional fallout caused by infidelity."
Yet this characterisation of Malory as an "upright and decent 15th-century gentleman" runs into difficulties when Hardyment encounters original source material suggesting that he was tried and found guilty of attempted murder and rape. Previous biographers have skirted the issue, but Hardyment confronts it head-on. "How could a man who composed one of the most warmly human and nobly intended books of all time break every law in the book of chivalry?" she asks.
Aided by some deft work on the wording of the charge, she concludes that he was actually assisting a woman to escape from an objectionable husband. A further plank in Hardyment's defence is that, throughout Morte Darthur, "Malory condemns the unchivalrous treatment of women". While the first defence is plausible, the second reveals a naive view of the relationship between writers' morals and their work. Surely, Malory was just as likely to have written his tale of knightly courtesy because he knew how far short of the ideal he fell.
Although frequently frustrating, this biography does remind us of the marvels of Malory's book. The passages Hardyment quotes from Morte Darthur have a freshness and an immediacy that, as she puts it, "sing off the page". It is written in an English "that had only just come of age". For action, drama, tragedy and horror, it remains unbeatable, and the power of Malory's storytelling beats through Hardyment's account of the life.
Kathy Watson is the author of The Devil Kissed Her: the story of Mary Lamb (Bloomsbury)