… the once and future king

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.


Filed under Ackroyd, Peter, Arthurian myth, Epics and Sagas

16 responses to “… the once and future king

  1. He captures that archaic syntax rather well, doesn’t he? Reading the first quote I found it contrived and annoying, but as soon as you mentioned that this is in some ways a translation it seemed quite reasonable. I will worry about my inconsistency later…

    I enjoyed your objective review, Max, but I am not sure how much you enjoyed this novel?

  2. You’re probably going to call me a Luddite, but I’m a Malory man through-and-through. I had to study the whole thing at University, and I luuurved it. Did you know he wrote it while in prison? The old dog…

    Incidentally, if you’re really into very early examples of the Arthur mytheme, you should give the true progenitor Chrétien de Troyes a try (yup, most King Arthur stuff came from France – Arthur’s original ‘Britain’ being ‘Breton’) – there’re loads of good modern translations, and it’s well worth the time/effort to find and read them (the William W. Kibler prose translation is probably most eminent). Then you could try the ‘Lais of Marie de France’, which contain many of the now established Round Table myths.

    This is a really good review btw. – I may have to read it and perform my own ‘compare and contrast’ exercise.

  3. Sarah,

    I did enjoy it, quite a lot in fact, but you do have to stick with it in places. As I mention above there’s not really much by way of character or real narrative, but nor of course is it a modernist or experimentalist novel intentionally discarding character and narrative. Rather it predates those things.

    It helped that I’ve read some Icelandic sagas, Beowulf, The Song of Roland and it’s to Ackroyd’s credit that I reach for those comparisons. With all of them they come to us now packaged as novels, but they’re not novels and they’re best enjoyed I think when one remembers that.

    I thought his language worked well, but I’ve only skimmed the original. Were I more familiar with that I might like this less. Then again, the point of this is to reach readers like me who are deterred by the language or the length of the original.

  4. The foreword mentions the prison bit, though I’d come across it before. There’s a definite mismatch between his writing and his life, but then that’s true of so many writers.

    I’m aware of the de Troyes but haven’t read it. It’s what I was alluding to in part when I mentioned in passing the difficulty with referring to the Malory as the original. The Malory is the source of Ackroyd’s book though so it’s the original for the moment. Just not the original Arthur.

    Have you read Simon Armitage’s Gawain and the Green Knight? I’m very tempted by it. That story doesn’t appear here. Is it in the Malory and Ackroyd just excised it or is it a tale from another source?

    Thanks for the comment on the review itself. It was a hard one to write in all honesty and I wasn’t quite satisfied with it. Then again as I’m sure you find with your own reviews I’m happy with very few that I right and those I’m happiest with probably aren’t the better ones.

  5. Most of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is in Malory – but in a different order (the killing of the Hart, for example, is very early). But Malory is absolutely massive (my edition 1000+ pages of tiiiny writing), so I’m not surprised that Ackroyd didn’t include it all.

    I’ve skimmed Simon Armitage’s Gawain, but, like with Malory, I’m a puritan, and still in love with the original Old English I read at uni, complete with thorns (Þ), Eths (ð), Yoghs (ȝ) and Wynns (ƿ). The modern English just loses so much of the gravitas implicit in the archaic language of the original. Also, Simon Armitage’s metre is accentual syllabic (as all modern English poetry has to be) whereas the original is alliterative verse, which just suits the rhymes and the telling so much more naturally – translating poetry is so difficult, but translating rhythm is almost impossible – so this isn’t a criticism of Armitage, it’s just my own preference. I took a whole bunch of early medieval papers at uni, hence my dorkishness. But I do recommend you try to buy a facing-page translation of Sir Gawain (which was how I learnt middle-English), because there’s nothing like the original! 🙂

    And yup, I know what you mean about being happy with reviews, but I can’t believe you’re unhappy with any of yours: this makes me depressed! I think all of mine suck, and I have to force myself to stop re-editing (and re-editing and re-editing) after I’ve uploaded them. To me, all my writing is clunky and awkward and dull: all I see are flaws. I don’t review half the books I read, purely because I have nothing other than what’s descriptive to say about them.

    Still, gotta keep practising…


  6. Why did you choose to read this? It’s very different from all the books you’ve read this year.
    I haven’t read Chrétien de Troyes, but I should. For me the legend of King Arthur took place in Brittany.
    Is it frequent that the old English is “translated” into modern English? In French, the end of verbs in “imparfait” (a past tense) used to be in “ois” instead of “ais” and all the books written in “ois” (including René by Chateaubriand, so it’s rather recent) are changed into “ais” now.

  7. gaskella

    An interesting view Max. I’m another one for whom Ackroyd’s retelling fell flat. Although I was glad of Ackroyd’s pruning, I did miss the floweriness of the original. I felt the plain talking made many of the knights seem like yobs spoiling for a good fight rather than the figures of romance and derring-do, and this made it a little humdrum. However, I’ve acquired John Steinbeck’s Arthurian retelling (which being an Arthurian nut, I can’t believe I never knew about until recently!) – I’m looking forward to reading that and comparing.

  8. Thanks Max, I wasn’t aware of this, but as a die-hard, I’d stick with Malory. On another note, this made me think of the way we read The Once and Future King in school.

  9. I agree, Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France are probably the earliest.
    They very well might be the source of my love of fantasy.
    Emma, should you start reading Chrétien de Troyes or Marie de France, there is no more excuse for not reading fantasy. Since you read Le petit Prince… You are on your way.
    Max, it’s quite amazing how myths an fairy tales are often violent. Long before Nobody even frowned while reading Perrault to their children although especially his fairy tales are gruesome.
    Thanks for brining this book to my attention. I’ve always been taken with the Arthurian legends, in all their forms.

  10. Caroline,
    The Little Prince was a re-read, and it was as good as in my memory.
    Years ago, like everybody, I read Les Dames du Lac by Marion Zimmer Bradley (I have no idea of the original title). That was before Dune.
    I hated Dune so much that it put me off SF and fantasy, like when you get sick with Brussel sprouts and can’t swallow them anymore.

  11. Tom,

    I never reedit once I’ve uploaded. If I did I’d spend all my days rewriting the early ones, which now seem to have massively overlong paragraphs. A year from now I’d correct these for some other fault. They are what they are.

    Old English. I’m sure they are better in that, but it’s a challenging thing to learn. I agree Ackroyd had to make cuts, though it’s a slight shame that one of my favourite tales was among them.

    Emma, this isn’t really in old English which (unless Tom corrects me) is really a different language. This is readable in the original, just challenging. It’s not common to translate works from that period, no.

    I read it because I’ve enjoyed a lot of Ackroyd’s writing in the past and because I thought this was something he might do well. Also it’s good to mix up one’s reading on occasion.

    I note you hated Dune. Did you write it up? I don’t recall seeing one. Dune’s fairly hardcore sf. I’m not sure it’s one I’d recommend to people who aren’t fans of the genre. Then again, it is a classic so if you’re going to try the genre there’s an argument for trying a classic. Anyway, I won’t pretend it’s without flaws (it has plenty). You gave it a fair try which is as much as Herbert could have asked for.

    gaskella, a Steinbeck retelling? How extraordinary. Do let us know what it’s like.

    Guy, with the reverse-chronology Merlin yes? A classic definitely.

    Caroline, as a child I was given a book of fairy tales. My mother didn’t I think realise it was a volume intended for adults who wanted to read the original tales. A lot of people died, mostly quite horribly. I loved it of course.

    On fantasy I’d say the best fantasy is often not that which is commercially successful (today anyway). I’ve reviewed Dunsany here and I still think he’s marvellous. Emma, if you’re curious (I can’t remember if you commented on those right now) I excerpted two very short tales in their entirety so people could get a feel for him. He’s out of copyright which made that possible. A wonderful and whimsical writer.

  12. Hi,
    I read Dune when I was 16, my best friend’s favourite book. Terrible experience as I said. I’m very dedicated to friendship: I even watched the movie. Terrible experience, bis.
    I’ve been trying SF again since last year. (Fahrenheit 451 for example)
    I’ll check out Dunsany. Perhaps I can find a kindle version.
    I can’t make myself read Tolkien even if I know I’m missing something there.

  13. At risk of being hunted down by irate fans I wouldn’t read Tolkien again myself. Sure he has some wonderful descriptive passages and the worldbuilding is excellent, but as actual novels the Lord of the Rings trilogy leave much to be desired.

    The Hobbit’s fun. If you read Tolkien at all I’d read that. In the end though I preferred the films. I don’t often say that.

    Bradbury at his best could write some very powerful prose. Fahrenheit 451 is a classic for a reason, though part of that reason is I admit the subject matter.

  14. Hey,

    I obsessively re-read and correct my blog posts. I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help myself – I see tiny grammar errors, misapplied commas, poor word order: and I just *have* to correct it. I know… I’m a big dork.

    And yup, Old English is a very, very different language. Chaucer etc. is, technically ‘middle English’, and pretty close to what we speak today. Mostly when people talk about ‘Old English’, what they probably mean is ‘Middle English’.

    In case you’re interested, this is what proper Old English looks like: here’s the opening sentence of the original Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

    Siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz seset at Troye,
    Þe þorȝ brittened and þrent to brondez and askez,
    Þe tulk þat þe trammes or tresoun þer worȝte
    Watz tƿrȝed for his trichecheþ þe trewst eð erthe;
    His watz Ennȝas þe athel, and his hiȝ ð e kynde,
    Þat siÞen deprecedde prouinces, and patrouÞes bicome
    Welneȝe of al Þe wele in Þe west ile.

    I think it’s pretty darn cool, but since university I’ve forgotten large chunks of it (shame on me, I know): but if anyone’s particularly keen to get into this stuff, I’d recommend the version of SGandtheGK that was edited by Tolkien. Plus a really good Old English dictionary. 😉


  15. Tom,
    This is fascinating to me. I think I’m going to stick to modern English though, I already have enough difficulties and needs for a dictionary with this one.

    PS: about re-reading your blog posts and correcting tiny mistakes. I have a radical remedy for this: write in a foreign language like me. You have no choice, either you live with the mistakes or stop writing. So far I live with the mistakes…

  16. Pingback: A notable. A knight. | Pechorin’s Journal

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