Finally, we have his Prologue to the great book of “King Arthur”〖Note 9. H. C., xxxix, 20. For the story of the Holy Grail from Malory, see H. C., xxxv, 105-214, and cf. Dr. Maynadier’s lecture in the series on Prose Fiction.〗 compiled by his contemporary, Sir Thomas Malory. If the Troy story was the favorite classical tale in mediæval times, the romances connected with King Arthur were the most notable and the most widely diffused of more recent imaginative literature. Founded on a minute basis of old British history, the Arthurian legends had passed from the chronicles into romance, finding their most important artistic development in France, but spreading in translation and paraphrase into every country of western Europe. At the close of the Middle Ages, an English knight, Sir Thomas Malory, collected, chiefly from French prose versions, materials for a loosely organized compilation of all the more important adventures, and retold them in a style and spirit that make his book one of the great monuments of English prose. For this book Caxton had the warmest admiration; and, though here, if anywhere, we have a literature of entertainment, in it also Caxton finds a possibility of moral and spiritual improvement. Few of his words are better known than his worthy praise of Malory: “And I, according to my copy, have down set it in print, to the intent that noble men may see and learn the noble acts of chivalry, the gentle and virtuous deeds that some knights used in those days, by which they came to honour, and how they that were vicious were punished and oft put to shame and rebuke; humbly beseeching all noble lords and ladies and all other estates, of what estate or degree they be of, that shall see and read in this said book and work, that they take the good and honest acts in their remembrance and to follow the same, wherein they shall find many joyous and pleasant histories and noble and renowned acts of humanity, gentleness, and chivalry. For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardyhood, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue and sin. Do after the good and leave the evil and it shall bring you to good fame and renown. And for to pass the time this book shall be pleasant to read in; but for to give faith and believe that all is true that is contained herein, ye be at your liberty. But all is written for our doctrine.”

This last sentence sums up the chief points in the professional faith of the father of English printing. Edification was assumed by him as by his age as the prime, if not the only, justification for writing and publishing. Yet, in spite of this narrow assumption, Caxton and the authors he did so much to make accessible were clearly sensitive to the element of delight as well as of instruction in literature; and enough has been said of the contents of these Prologues to show how rich they are in indications not only of what the Middle Ages read, but why they read it.

As for Caxton’s own motives, if we took him literally, we should suppose that he translated and printed mainly to save himself from the sin of idleness. Yet a more generous impulse is easily read between the lines; and it is no mere self-regarding purpose that finds utterance in the words he penned as he closed wearily his long labor on the “Recuyell of the Histories of Troy”: “Thus end I this book, which I have translated after mine Author as nigh as God hath given me cunning, to whom be given the laud and praising. And for as much as in the writing of the same my pen is worn, my hand weary and not steadfast, mine eyne dimmed with overmuch looking on the white paper, and my courage not so prone and ready to labour as it hath been, and that age creepeth on me daily and feebleth all the body, and also because I have promised to divers gentlemen and to my friends to address them as hastily as I might this same book, therefore I have practised and learned at my great charge and dispense to ordain this said book in print, after the manner and form as ye may here see, and is not written with pen and ink as other books be, to the end that every man may have them at once.”

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