Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Death of Arthurian Legend?

9781853264634 Arthurian legend has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years. Clive Owen and Keira Knightley starred in King Arthur in 2004, the BBC premiered its popular series Merlin in 2008 and there is the upcoming American series of Camelot, starring Joseph Fiennes due to air this year.

But these modern retellings are a world away from their source material. Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th century Le Morte Darthur has never been been out of print, Simon Armitage recently translated a new version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Peter Ackroyd has written The Death of King Arthur based on Malory’s text. It is these three books that I have been reading since the beginning of the year, with various degrees of enjoyment.

Peter Ackroyd opens his tale with the powerful line:

“In the old wild days of the world there was a king of England known as Uther Pendragon; he was a dragon in wrath as well as in power.”

And with that line I had high hopes for The Death of King Arthur. Ackroyd claims in his foreword that Malory goes on a bit, that there are various little meanderings that don’t add much to the story. And yes, he’s quite right. But actually this extra detail, while adding length to the book is actually what gives the life so horribly lacking in Ackroyd’s version. But in order to reach these details, you do have to unravel the archaic language. This makes Malory a dense read, requiring concentration and focus. On the other hand, Ackroyd’s spare writing style, while leaving me hungry – and by the end, desperate – for some description and some internal monologue, does allow for an incredibly swift read. However, his lack of engagement with the characters also means that I was obliged to flick back several times to figure out who was related to whom and who was this new lady. I warn you, there are an awful lot of “ladies” but very few have the distinction of names.

The stories are familiar – the sword in the stone, the quest for the holy grail (which Malory refers to as the Sangreal), the courtly love between Lancelot and Guinevere. Having grown up loving the tales of Gawain’s adventures with the Lady Ragnel and the Green Knight I was surprised to find they weren’t included in either text. But apart from that I was surprised that so few essentials of the story had changed. What has become fluid over time though is the nature of the characters, Gawain in particularly was hardly recognisable from other tales. This is probably because of what we as a modern audience demand from our fiction and why Arthurian legend is so ripe for retelling.

In both Ackroyd and Malory, women are given second place. They often instigate adventures by9781846141935H appearing at court and asking for help, or for being the damsel in the tower that needs rescuing. But few women have the honour of having names, most often referred to as “fair lady” or “the damosel.” You can see why Marion Zimmer Bradley focused on the women in her book, The Mists of Avalon. In Malory and Ackroyd’s tales, however, the women do nothing but ask for help, swear vengeance and die for love. Guinevere regularly pushes Lancelot away and then demands his loyalty. There are no reasons set out for Morgan Le Fay’s hatred of her brother and her determination to bring him down. Morgause, Arthur’s sister, who gives birth to his son, Mordred, never breathes a word. And beyond her one line appearance in which she sleeps with Arthur and conceives Mordred, never appears again. A great loss to the female side of the story, a loss I felt keenly.

In both versions I felt that beneath the boys own adventure stuff were real human stories to be told, with real women at their helm.

Malory’s tales, while full of action, fights and adventures, are sorely lacking in character development. Guinevere in particular suffers from this, coming across as shrill and paranoid, something that hasn’t added to her popularity over the years. Arthur seems to shrivel as time passes. He starts out as a young boy more devastated to discover he is adopted than he is joyous at being made King. By the end of the book, he is weak and wavering. He is pushed by his nephew Sir Gawain into a war on Lancelot, condemns his wife to burn at the stake on several occasions, while always relying on his best friend to save her. At no point in either version did I come across a an Arthur that made me understand why he has endured as the Once and Future King.

At 300 pages, The Death of King Arthur is about 500 pages shorter than the original, but Ackroyd sparse prose allows for even less character development. In both versions, Lancelot is insufferably arrogant. Made the more so by the constant fawning of the other knights, who all adore him. It is impossible to see why.

Both versions are awkward when it comes to the love between Lancelot and Guinevere, neither offering a good reason or basis for their devotion to one another. Both Malory and Ackroyd are delicate about the possibility of a sexual relationship between the two (though Lancelot conceiving Galahad with Elaine when he is enchanted to believe that she is Guinevere makes it clear that they do have a sexual relationship). Both claim that “love was different in those days.” The coyness about the truth of their physical relationship sits awkwardly alongside the graphicness of the battles.

The tale of Tristram and Isolde (La Belle Isoud, in Malory’s version) is treated infinitely better in both versions. Beginning with their first meeting and the origins of their attachment, we see them drink potion that seals their love and the suffering caused by Isolde’s marriage to Tristram’s wicked and cowardly uncle King Mark. Theirs has all the makings of a great and tragic romance. Unlike Guinevere, Isolde is never unjustly jealous, never casts Tristram off and then demands his return. Guinevere’s tragedy is that she has few, if any, redeeming qualities. But despite that, she and Lancelot have gained more fame than Tristram and Isolde. But for me, I preferred their tale and I would urge anyone who enjoys tragic romance to reach for Tristram and Isolde before Lancelot and Guinevere.

What I really struggled with was the concept of “honour.” Lancelot proclaims when Arthur lays siege to his castle Joyous Garde, that Guinevere has been the most loving, devoted and faithful wife that a king could want. This is something of a stretch for me since we know that she has at the very least shared a bed with Lancelot. Lancelot is lauded as the “flower” of knights, the most honourable of them all. Does honour not include honesty? Would Guinevere have been considered a faithful wife by contemporary audiences?

I confess that Malory’s idea of “honour” and “nobility” did not chime with me, perhaps they would have done with contemporary audiences. But I could not warm to Lancelot and Guinevere when they protested their innocence since it was so obviously untrue.

9183_jpg_280x450_q85Honour is something that I understood in Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain is compelled to honesty – though smart enough to know when not to overshare! – and is thoroughly ashamed at the end at the one truth he withheld. He is a character that can be understood by a modern reader.

Gawain is possibly the most fluid of Arthurian characters. In Ackroyd he is essentially an excellent knight, a good man who is driven mad by the senseless murder of his unarmed brothers. In Malory he is known early on as a destroyer of good knights and at one point tricks a knight and steals his lady.

But it is Simon Armitage’s Gawain that is familiar to me. Honourable, even in the face of extreme coercion by his host’s wife, Gawaine is every inch the good knight of my childhood tales:

“For Gawain was as good as the purest gold –

devoid of vices but virtuous, loyal

                              and kind,

              so bore that badge on both

              his shawl and shield alike.

              A prince who talked the truth.

              A notable. A knight.”

I confess that I am not a fan of long narrative poems and I expected to have to take my time with it, to wade through it as I waded through the 800+ pages of Malory. I was pleasantly surprised however and devoured the poem in one sitting and know for certain that it is one that I will return to again and again.

The anonymous author of the poem knew a lot about timing, nothing is ever dwelled upon in order to create some pretty lines and in doing so the poem is muscular, a driving, striding force, as at ease with the butchery of hunting as with the sweet talk of the bedroom. Armitage’s skill as a poet is clear and his determination to keep the alliteration in place a wonderful thing. There were several lines that I lingered over, savouring, whispering to myself, despite my desire to read the story:

“With New Year so young it still yawned and stretched…”

Because that is what this is, an exceptionally well-told story, and I enjoyed it far more than either Malory and Ackroyd’s. That is not to say that I think they were awful. Le Morte Darthur was published in 1485 and the language is hard to get to grip with, but it’s an enjoyable story. Ackroyd’s suffers by cutting too much of the source material, leaving just the bare bones.

However, Ackroyd’s summing up of Arthur’s death brought tears to my eyes. Whereas Malory drags the story beyond the death of King Arthur to the deaths of Guinevere, Lancelot, Bors and Bedevere, Ackroyd wisely chooses to restrict this to only a few pages. The ending of the penultimate chapter echoes everything we know of Arthur, the power of a legend so closely linked to national identity:

“Some men also say that Arthur is not dead, but by the will of Jesus Christ he will come to us again when we need him. I do not know. I will only say that here in this world he changed his life and that on his tomb at Glastonbury was written: HIC IACET ARTHURUS, REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS. That is to say: Here’s lies Arthur, the once and future king.”

Neither Ackroyd nor Malory have clarified for me what made Arthur such an exceptional king that such a thing would have been written on his tomb. Both Ackroyd and Malory fail to create real people out of their characters, whereas Simon Armitage and the anonymous original author breathe warmth and life into the characters. But perhaps the archiving of these ciphers was Malory’s greatest achievement in that it has allowed Arthur and his knights to grow through the ages, in other tellings, other books, film and television. The ability to be moulded is maybe what made Arthur the once and future king.

Note: Names are as fluid as the characters themselves, so I have tended towards one spelling, rather than several.

Le Morte Darthur: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1997. ISBN-10: 1853264636. 912pp

The Death of King Arthur: Penguin Classics, 2010. ISBN-10: 1846141931. 336pp

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Faber and Faber, 2010. ISBN-10: 0571223281. 128pp

[Nikki has been so focused on Arthur that she forgot blogging existed, but promises to be back soon!]

9 comments on “The Death of Arthurian Legend?

  1. Anne Brooke
    March 8, 2011

    Lovely to see these stalwarts from my University days being reviewed – thanks for this, Nikki! 🙂 I did particularly love Gawain and the Green Knight – it’s an excellent poem and I even focused on it in my dissertation many decades ago.

    It’s like revisiting old times, in more ways than one!

    Anne
    xxx

  2. david
    March 8, 2011

    Fascinating and fluent throughout, Nikki !

    Just musing though, that we might be looking at a bygone society through todays spectacles by seeing, as it was to them, the distaff side as somewhat subordinate to the very different brutish world of the hierarchy of the King and all the various noblemen and knights.

  3. Annabel (gaskella)
    March 8, 2011

    I read and reviewed the Ackroyd a couple of months ago, and found I had very similar experience. His language took all the romance out of the story for me and made it rather ordinary for the most part.

    Armitage’s Gawain though is fantastic – I treated myself to the lovely Folio edition with splendid illustrations which makes it doubly special to read.

    Thanks for a great review.

  4. rosyb
    March 8, 2011

    Nikki – this is quite an undertaking – so many chunky books for one (very interesting and beautifully argued) review. Quite a piece!

    A discussion of what these characters meant to people of the times would be interesting. What you say about their ability to carry our themes and themes of other ages is perhaps, as you say, why they have proved so popular – things getting emphasised differently at different times.

    Were they more symbolic characters do you think?

    Just wanted to highlight this as a bit I particularly enjoyed: “The anonymous author of the poem knew a lot about timing, nothing is ever dwelled upon in order to create some pretty lines and in doing so the poem is muscular, a driving, striding force, as at ease with the butchery of hunting as with the sweet talk of the bedroom.”

    The Armitage sounds fantastic.

  5. Jamie Mollart
    March 8, 2011

    I love the Arthurian legend, particularly The Once and Future King. Been tempted by the Ackroyd version since I read a review in the Guardian. Off to add it to my wish list…

  6. Conor
    March 8, 2011

    Thanks for writing this, Nikki. It took me back to the intense experience of reading Malory when I was about twenty, and being amazed at how vivid the stories and characters were. Given that there was no tradition of developing character in those days, his writing is hugely admirable, and far easier to read than most other major writers before Bunyan. The anonymous author of Sir G & the G K was top class; he used to be called the Pearl Poet, after one of his other works, also well worth reading. The Ian Serraillier translation is marvellous too.
    What are you going to write about next? How about the knockout ending of the Iliad?

  7. Jackie
    March 8, 2011

    This was a tour de force! Your in depth comparison held my interest all the way through & I thought you brought up some excellent points about not only the females in the stories, but the famous names themselves. Especially about why Arthur is held in such regard & why the stories have lasted so long, a lot of people wouldn’t have had the courage to say that.
    I read Mallory a long time ago, but am tempted by your recommendations of the Ackroyd.
    Again, well done on this review, I really can’t say enough about how well you blended & compared the various versions. It was definitely worth all of the time you put into it!

  8. Nikki
    March 9, 2011

    I think that reading the Malory proved to me what I always suspected – that Arthur and his knights are popular due to the lack of character development! If someone decided to re-interpret Harry Potter with Harry as a goth and Hermione as a giggling, fake-nailed WAG, there would be public outcry. These characters are set in stone. But The Good King, The Great Knight, The Adulterous Wife (Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere) can always be changed, adjusted. You can write whole stories, give whole new angles, just by providing insight into their thoughts. The Mists of Avalon is excellent because Marion Zimmer Bradley focused on the women in the story – something she could do because there is so little focus on the women in the original. It’s a blank slate, but has the strength of ages of popularity.

    Thanks for all the positivity!

  9. Hilary
    March 9, 2011

    I loved this exploration of the sourcebooks for the King Arthur myth – terrific work, Nikki! Somehow, the Arthur legend seeps into the consciousness without giving any thought to its origins – rather like Robin Hood, who seems to be an inherited part of our mental furniture, but probably goes back no further than Richard Greene on TV or Errol Flynn on film – so much so that the source ballads can have some surprises.

    I’ve never even attempted to read Malory (tempted to thank you for reading it so I don’t have to!). My Arthur re-telling is Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (some of which I could once recite), so, again, something I think is a timeless memory is rooted in a more recent age.

    I do find Peter Ackroyd so frustrating! I start reading his books with such enthusiasm and admiration for his genius with words, but then with the exception of his biography of Sir Thomas More, I never get what I expect from them.

    However – Simon Armitage – Sir Gawain – Amazon One Click here I come. I can’t spend many more days without reading this. Thank you!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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