When readers first see Arthur Prescott, the hero (or at least protagonist, or at least co-protagonist) of The Lost Book of the Grail enter the library of Barchester Cathedral, we are introduced to Arthur’s favorite book in the library. With Arthur’s interest in the Holy Grail and in stories about the knights of the round table, it’s not surprising that this book is a copy of Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, in this case published under the title The Most Ancient and Famous History of the Renowned Prince Arthur King of Britaine. The edition to which Arthur is so drawn was published in 1634 by William Stansby.
Arthur particularly admires the frontispiece (pictured here) in which King Arthur pops up through a hole in the middle of the round table and is surrounded by knights wearing the armor (and the mustaches) fashionable in 1634, not that available in the days (mythical though they may have been) of Camelot. I chose this particular edition of the King Arthur stories for a reason. One of the themes of The Lost Book of the Grail is the way in which stories survive (and in some cases do not survive) over time. The Stansby Morte D’Arthur is a great example of a famous story that almost got lost forever.
Before the Stansby edition there were several printed editions of Mallory, but they all survive in a very few copies (some in only one or two). Stansby is the earliest edition that is more widely available, and very likely the edition that saved King Arthur—for after the Stansby was published in 1634, Malory did not appear in print again for 182 years. It’s easy to imagine, with such a hiatus, that the stories could have been lost altogether, especially if they existed only in incredibly rare editions. But, when the Romantics became interested in medieval romances, the Stansby was waiting for them, and the Camelot stories were revived. It’s a great lesson in the importance of printed texts—they really do a remarkable job of preserving stories over long spans of time.
Sadly, I had to refer to a scan of the Stansby when I was doing my research for The Lost Book of the Grail. I did this sitting at a computer terminal at the library at nearby Wake Forest University. Imagine my surprise when a rare book librarian from Wake Forest, not even knowing that I referenced this edition in my novel, asked if I would like her to bring an actually copy of the Stansby to my book launch. For some reason, the online catalogue had not recorded the fact that, just over my head while I was struggling to read a poor scan, was a copy of the actual book I wanted to see.
I’ll be in the rare book room at Wake Forest today to talk about my new novel, and you can bet I’ll spend a little time with the Stansby Morte D’Arthur. We owe it a lot.