Arthur, Revisited

A review of Peter Ackroyd’s new treatment of Malory’s classic, Le Morte D’Arthur.

From the prolific Peter Ackroyd comes an adaptation of an adaptation: “The Death of King Arthur” is a smooth rendering into plain-seeming modern English of “Le Morte D’Arthur.”

This 15th-century work by Sir Thomas Malory is itself adapted from various French romances, with the theology omitted and the action astutely reordered. Mr. Ackroyd tells us in a short introduction that it was Malory’s “plangent and often elaborate prose” that inspired Milton, Dryden, Tennyson and Swinburne, among others, to write their poems about Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Tristram and the rest. Actually, many critics would see Malory’s style as “direct [and] unadorned,” as the scholar Elizabeth Archibald does—and it should be remembered that Malory has inspired some awful attempts on Arthur’s life as well as some classic ones. Mr. Ackroyd’s reworking belongs in a category with his attempt on the Canterbury Tales, which was published last year, and his biographies of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens and others, as part of his ongoing engagement with the literary culture of the English past.

“Le Morte D’Arthur” was the work of a man deeply enamored of the image of chivalry. Malory’s knights—particularly Lancelot, the greatest of them all—go out looking for trouble, in the hope of winning honor (Lancelot even steals a weaker knight’s armor so that he can ride out in disguise and attract more challengers). Single combat can go on for hours, sometimes with breaks, sometimes with spectators who simply have to stand and watch, their lives possibly hanging on a sword stroke. The impact of a spear throws many a knight off his horse. Blows to the helmet are brutal enough to crack a skull, and the ground is never left without a plentiful covering of gore. Yet this is a kind of processed brutality: There are rules of combat, of course, and scrupulous attention to this knightly code of conduct is rewarded with respect. Foul play—attacking an unarmed man, poisoning the tip of a sword—is the worst of crimes.

Away from the battlefield, things can be equally decorous, as when the narrator tersely turns away from a scene set in Guinevere’s chambers, shortly before the Queen and Lancelot are ambushed there. Thus, in Mr. Ackroyd’s version: “Whether they engaged in any of the sports of love, I cannot say. I do not like to mention such matters. I can assure you of one thing. Love in those days was quite a different game.”

Malory himself seems to have spent considerable portions of his adult life in prison, where he wrote at least some of his book, on various unseemly charges including rape, ambush, theft and extortion. His life and times were very different from the imagined age of chivalry and courtliness that he wrote about, and the Arthurian literary tradition was itself well-honed by then. Completed around 1470 and printed by William Caxton in 1485, “Le Morte Darthur” is “quite remote from the experience of life,” as Mr. Ackroyd explains; knights in 15th-century England were now “more likely to serve as members of parliament than as leaders in the field.”

Mr. Ackroyd’s “retelling” of this “Immortal Legend” (on the title page, it’s a retelling, on the spine of the book it’s an immortal legend) seems deliberately to mute the elaborate quality that he sees in Malory’s prose, and avoids as best it can any potentially tricky archaic language. Editions of the original tend to have well-thumbed glossaries and notes, even if the gist of Malory’s medieval English is apparent. “For thurgh our orgulyte we demaunded battaille of you, and yet we knewe not youre name,” Arthur says in the original, of a humiliating skirmish with Sir Tristram. His fellow knight, also defeated, adds: “Neuertheless by seynt crosse . . . he is a stronge knyght at myn aduyse as ony is now lyuyng.”

Mr. Ackroyd has Arthur say: “Our pride tempted us into battle. And still we do not know your name.” And the following line, treated here as a new paragraph, goes like this: “‘This man is as strong as any knight living,’ Sir Uwain said. ‘I will swear upon the Cross that I have not seen his like.'”

So while Mr. Ackroyd’s version is easily readable, it should not be taken as a straightforward attempt to capture the texture and nuances of “Le Morte Darthur.” There are certainly interpretations here that scholarly readers might query. Malory creates a particular verbal effect by having Tristram give Arthur “on the lyfte syde a grete wounde and a peryllous.” In Mr. Ackroyd’s text, this is just a “bad wound on his left side.” It is not wildly misleading, just more restrained than Malory.

Mr. Ackroyd rightly presents this as a “loose, rather than punctilious” translation, but also claims that he has “quietly amended Malory’s inconsistencies.” This isn’t quite true—there is still a nephew who is also called a brother, and the narrative darts around in potentially confusing ways (is Merlin trapped under an enchanted rock or not?).

At least the majesty of Malory’s book survives too, not least in the final chapters telling of the internal conflicts that destroy the Round Table, the passion of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the destiny that Arthur has had coming to him for a long time: death in battle. This, as retold by Peter Ackroyd, remains a bizarre but thrilling piece of writing.

Mr. Caines works for the Times Literary Supplement, and recently edited an anthology about the 18th-century actor David Garrick.

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