Literary daybook, July 31

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.


the Salon Books Editors
July 31, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)

Today in fiction

On July 31, Gringotts (the goblin-run bank) has a break-in, and it's Harry Potter's birthday.
-- "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (1997)
by J.K. Rowling

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to fictiondays@yahoo.com.

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1485, William Caxton printed Sir Thomas Malory's "Morte d'Arthur." Caxton was England's first printer, and more than a printer: Many of the 100 books and pamphlets he produced were his own translations; many contained his own prefaces and epilogues, providing anything from personal details to literary criticism; and throughout Caxton took responsibility for not only publishing what he thought was the best and most edifying British writing of the day (first editions of "The Canterbury Tales" and John Gower's "Confessio Amantis"), but for helping to clean up and stabilize the language.

At times Caxton seems to have thrown up his hands at the ever-shifting spelling and usage in the manuscripts: "And thus bytwene playn, rude, and curious [language] I stande abasshed ... At other times, there is just a humble admission: Therefore I, William Caxton, a symple personne, have endevoyred me to wryte fyrst over all the said Book of Polycronycon, and sommewhat have chaunged the rude and old Englisshe that is to wete, Certain words which in these days be neither usyd ne understanden."

At about the same time Caxton printed "Morte d'Arthur" he printed "The Order of Chivalry," a practical book on knight-errantry to go with Malory's "Romance." In the preface to the latter book, Caxton complains that the knights of his day are spending too much of it "sleeping and taking ease," finding time only to "go to the bagnios [bathhouses, brothels] and play dice." Time better spent, Caxton argued, on learning how to manage a horse, in the manner of Sir Galahad and Lancelot du Lac. That Malory himself seems to have turned from a combative but respectable life on the family estates in Warwickshire to being a "knight prisoner," jailed repeatedly for robbery, rape, extortion and assorted violence, would not have made Caxton happy -- though the prison years did give Malory time to get his "Morte d'Arthur" completed for printing.

-- Steve King

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To find out more about "Today in Literary History," email Steve King.


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