The Death of King Arthur, by Peter Ackroyd (based on La Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory)
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. There were various regions in his kingdom, many of them warring one against another, and so it came about that one day he summoned a mighty duke to his court at Winchester. This nobleman was of Cornwall, and he was called Duke of Tintagel; he reigned over a western tribe from the fastness of his castle on the rocks, where he looked down upon the violent sea. Uther Pendragon asked the duke to bring with him to court his wife, Igraine, who had the reputation of being a great beauty, and it was said that she could read the secrets of any man’s heart on the instant she looked at him.
So starts Peter Ackroyd’s version of Sir Thomas Malory’s La Morte d’Arthur. Within a page or so the king has lusted for Igraine, she has seen that lust within him and the Duke and Igraine have fled back to Tintagel. When Uther learns of their departuure he is furious. “And, as the people of England know well enough, the wrath of the king is death.”
The story of the birth, reign and death of Arthur is of course a cornerstone of British myth. Most people know at least parts of it, and many of the central characters are still household names – King Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, Lancelot. It’s an incredibly enduring tale but in the original text (and yes, I know there are problems with calling Malory’s work an original text) it’s hard to read.
La Morte d’Arthur is around 900 pages long. It’s written in poetic and now rather archaic language. It’s often very repetitive and its assumed audience bears no resemblance to anyone who might read it today. None of that stops some people from still reading it, but it’s likely that a great many are put off.
Enter Peter Ackroyd. This is in part a translation of the Malory, in part a retelling of it. It’s not wholly faithful (particularly in the detail) to the earlier work, but it is largely so. That means it’s not a novel in any meaningful sense. It’s a sequence of tales rich with sex and death and the occasional bit of magic – all those things that a fifteenth century courtly audience held so dear.
So Ulfius rode out, whispering the name of ‘Merlin’ under his breath many times; he knew that the magician was aware of the secret life of all things, and would know that his name was being murmured in the wind. The birds, or the singing grasses, would tell him. As Ulfius rode on he suddenly encountered a beggar standing in the high road; the beggar wore a hood, and his back was turned to the knight. He seemed to be peering at something lying on the ground. ‘Move,’ Ulfius told him. ‘Get out of my way.’ ‘Do you begrudge a poor man the space of a dusty road?’ the beggar replied. ‘Move on, or I will cut you with my sword. It is not right for a knight to argue with one such as you.’ ‘Even if I know for whom you seek? Even if I know that your name is Ulfius?’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘I am the one you wish for. I am Merlin.’ He put out his hands, palms outward, and his beggar’s clothes were transformed into robes of white satin. ‘I am the man of magic.’
Most translations seek to preserve something of the style of the original. Here my impression is that Ackroyd is more concerned with the substance – the content of the tales. Malory’s language is rich and sonorous. Ackroyd’s version is is often flatter and Adam Thorpe in the Guardian found it “deadpan” and lacking in the grace and subtlety of the original. I’ve quoted extensively here because the extent to which anyone will enjoy this book will largely depend on how they engage with Ackroyd’s prose.
I’ve not read the original in depth, but on its own terms I found Ackroyd’s version to have the feel of a Norse saga, or a Beowulf or Song of Roland. The language has a formal, often ritual, quality to it which for me matched the material. Malory is notoriously repetitive. Ackroyd avoids that but still includes some repetition where it aids that sense of a ritualised text - for example lengthy battles always seem to last for two hours which is clearly a figurative rather than literal period of time.
So they rode until they came to a fair lake with placid waters. ‘Look,’ Merlin said. ‘There is your sword.’ And, at that moment, from the surface of the water there emerged an arm clothed in white that in its hand held a shining sword. The air was filled with sweet sounds, and the light from the sword suffused the whole lake. Then Arthur saw a lady sailing towards him in a dark boat; she was wearing a black cape, and her hair was covered with a hood. ‘This is the Lady of the Lake,’ Merlin told him. ‘She lives in a great palace within a cavern. Speak graciously to her, and she will give you the sword.’
There’s little by way of characterisation. Personalities are broadbrush and often defined by a handful of traits. Sir Palomides is a skilled and powerful Saracen knight who is in love with Isolde, but she loves Tristram and so Sir Palomides is his enemy. That’s about it for Sir Palomides. Uther is a great warlord but lustful and prone to rage. That’s about it for him.
Much of what happens bears no relation to any wider narrative. Knights meet other knights waiting at crossroads or are waylaid in mysterious castles but many of these vignettes are self-contained. Where there is a larger story it’s one any reader will already know: the sword and the stone; the grail quest; the death of Arthur.
These may seem like fundamental flaws, but as noted above this isn’t a novel and it doesn’t aim for story or character. This is myth. The characters are widely drawn because they are epic. Their actions sometimes make little sense because their motives are not ours but are the motives of heroic figures driven by heroic passions.
So Griflet took up his shield and spear, and galloped into the wood. When he came up to the spring he saw a richly painted pavilion; beside it was a horse, well saddled and bridled, and on a tree was hanging a shield decorated with all manner of devices. Griflet struck the shield with his spear, and knocked it to the ground. The king came out at once from the pavilion. ‘Fair knight,’ he said, ‘why did you strike down my shield?’ ‘I wish to joust with you.’ ‘You had better not do that,’ the king replied. ‘You are still young. Your might will be no match for mine.’ ‘No matter. I wish to joust with you.’ ‘Since you are so sure of yourself, I have no alternative but to fight. From where do you come?’ ‘From the court of King Arthur.’ So the two warriors fought against each other. Their battle was hard and fierce; King Pellinor broke the shield of Griflet and, smashing the spear, laid Griflet low upon the ground with a wide wound in his side.
Here men fight because fighting is what knights do. It is honourable, and pride is the essence of knighthood and so insults must be met with blows. At least twice men suffering from grievous wounds make passionate love to their ladies and leave the beds they lie in slick with blood. These are not reasonable people because we are not in the world of reason.
Magic of course plays a part. Merlin’s gifts lie largely in glamour (illusions essentially) and prophecy. As so often in folklore he knows the future but cannot change it. He knows that he will be buried alive, but not when or why.
It so happened that Merlin also fell madly in love with a young woman, once a companion of the Lady of the Lake; her name was Nineve. He would never let her rest, but followed her everywhere; she flattered him, and pretended to welcome his favours, until she had learned all she needed from him. Still he was besotted by her, and could not be brought from her side. Merlin also told Arthur many secrets. He said that he himself would not live for much longer, and that he would be buried alive in the earth. He informed the king of many ills that would beset him, too, and warned him to keep safe his sword and scabbard. ‘Yet this also is true,’ he told him. ‘Your sword and scabbard will be stolen from you by a woman whom you trust most in the world. She wishes to take Excalibur from you. Then you will miss me, sir. Then you would rather have my wisdom than all of your wealth.’ ‘To be buried alive is a terrible thing,’ the king replied. ‘But if you see your fate so clearly, why can you not avert it by the force of your magic?’ ‘It cannot be. This is my destiny. But I do not know the day when it will come.’
It’s his obsession with Nineve that proves his undoing. The only real surprise for me in the book was that Nineve is not a villain (as I had remembered her) and Merlin is arguably a bit of a stalker. Passion before reason once again of course.
Here gifts are made of goblets that spill their contents if drunk by a woman who does not truly love her husband. Out of a hundred women at Camelot only four can pass that test. Guinevere is not among that four. Perhaps she of all people should have refused to drink, but a key theme here is how even the great are subject to the whims of chance and fate.
Arthur’s end is long foretold by Merlin, but he cannot avoid it. Lancelot is Arthur’s friend and greatest knight, but they come to war. Merlin is the greatest wizard in the land, but he is outwitted through his passion for his own student. Sir Balin of the Two Swords is warned of what will bring him to ruin, but that does not prevent it ocurring.
Tragedy runs through these stories and as I alluded to above it’s hard not to remember what kind of audience they would once have had. There are no peasants here, no common folk. Those who matter are titled or outside the class system by virtue of religious rank or magic. Marriages are political and love is a disruptive force that destroys households and alliances. Even Lancelot is undone by desire – his skill at arms cannot win a contest against himself.
Malory/Ackroyd portrays an escapist world of fantasy and adventure, but one rooted in a grimmer reality. Knights quest for adventure, but many are brutally killed and the virtuous do not always prosper. God is said to reward a just cause over an unjust one, but when Lancelot challenges men over Guinevere’s honour they know that they will lose to him even though she is an adultress. Faith may teach that God grants victory only to the righteous, but experience shows it goes to the strong.
The Death of King Arthur is a romance in the classic sense. With existence so fleeting and so fragile all that remains is passion. Malory and his readers all knew that chivalry was at best an aspirational fiction. An interesting foreword notes Malory’s many arrests and his distinctly questionable career. By Malory’s time knights were political rather than martial creatures. Like the Hagakure in Japan these are stories of a time past that likely never existed, but which still reflects glory on a more prosaic present.
All my life I’ve seen complaints about sex and violence in entertainment. As a child people complained about it on TV, and now they complain about it in songs and video games. Malory/Ackroyd gives us heroism, adventure, courtly love, the holy grail itself, but in the end this too is a tale of sex and violence. King or commoner we’re all at the mercy of chance, we all face either early death or the eventual decline of our powers and we all have to live as best we can in the meantime. The tale of Arthur and his knights has power in part because despite being so specific and remote to our world it is in fact universal. The king is, after all, the land.
Nicholas Lezard of the Guardian also reviewed this here. His take is more positive than that of Adam Thorpe and makes an interesting comparison.