REVIEW: The Death of Arthur by Peter Ackroyd

The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend
Peter Ackroyd
336 pp / $26.95

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail — a touchstone for any contemporary retelling of the Arthurian legends — knightly valor and violence are reduced (or enhanced, depending on your sense of humor) to Arthur’s encounter with the Black Knight. “’Tis but a scratch,” the Black Knight says after one arm is lopped off. “It’s just a flesh wound,” he again protests as blood begins spraying from both shoulder sockets. There is no better modern example of the impossibility of chivalry in a time marked by violence and certain death.

Peter Ackroyd calls his The Death of Arthur a “retelling” of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Here, Ackroyd seeks to rewrite Malory’s tale for current audiences, aiming to render Malory’s version in modern English with greater conciseness and clarity. Besides simply translating Malory’s late Middle English, Ackroyd does a great deal to reconcile the inconsistencies in Malory’s rambling original. The “Tristan and Isolde” section, for example, is markedly, and thankfully, shorter. Ackroyd also adds subheadings to the chapters: “Read of a contest for love” (in “Tristan and Isolde”) and “See a great slaughter” (in “The Adventure of the Holy Grail”). The origins of “see” and “read” seem dubious, but the subtitles do serve to orient the reader when the narrative jumps, as it often does.

Malory’s original work was composed in the 15th century, probably while its author was in prison. His sources were a diverse collection of tales and folklore from French prose romances that were popular at the time, many of which featured the courtly love theme. His task, when you think about it, was quite impossible: Malory sought to reconcile and condense the various legends, which were floating around in disparate forms. The result is repetitive, hard to read, and lacks the familiar narrative structures like setting and characterization. Thomas Caxton published Malory’s completed work in 1485, and, as Ackroyd points out in the introduction, it has been in continuous print ever since.

The language of Malory’s original, though, recalls a special, intangible quality of the Arthurian legends. Compare, for example the following from Malory’s version:

Than the kynge dremed a mervaylous dreme whereof he was sore adrad…hym thought there was com into hys londe gryffens and serpentes.

The following is Ackroyd’s retelling:

[King Arthur] was disturbed by a dreadful dream. He dreamed that dragons and serpents had invaded his land.

Just the appearance of Malory’s Middle English, the placement of “hym thought there was com” versus “invaded,” gives the reader a different picture of King Arthur.

Malory’s English is more similar to Modern English than Chaucer’s Middle English, and most current editions simply change the pronouns and spellings. Ackroyd says that he hoped to draw the characters more “convincingly,” perhaps because Malory’s version isn’t as rich in what we would call character development and narrative consistency. Knights appear and disappear in disparate segments; time moves forwards and backwards in uncertain leaps. In this way, the work tends to resemble bits of gossip shared between close friends. Yet, most of what we now associate with Guinevere, Lancelot, and King Arthur are products of Malory’s retelling, even though the origins are much earlier. His very language seems infused with the feel of Arthurian times, the strange combination of betrayal, violence, and idealized love. (Malory likely served under the army of Henry V, who was, not surprisingly, compared to King Arthur.)

Ackroyd’s other nonfiction works include a retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as well as works focusing on Dickens, Shakespeare, and London: The Biography. A reader might assume that he seeks to recreate the canon of medieval British history so that the works aren’t lost because high schools students are no longer required to learn Middle English. Perhaps there are other lessons readers can still take from the tales. At the end of Ackroyd’s version King Arthur is overthrown by his bastard son, and sadly discovers that public opinion is easily swayed against him: “Here was the sovereign who had most loved the fellowship of his warriors of the Round Table. Yet the lords of our country were disloyal to him and lacking in reverence. What was the reason? The English are forever unstable and untrue, seeking novelty in new guises. Nothing satisfies us for long.”

But, on the other hand, does culture actually risk losing these books? The Arthurian legends are so fully integrated into Western consciousness, it seems that Malory’s work is constantly being retold. George R.R. Martin’s series Game of Thrones has distinct overtones of Malory’s 15th century England — knights ride horses, the king rules from a vaguely British-looking medieval castle (at least on HBO), and family ties are constantly questioned. Like Greek tragedy, Arthurian legends reveal the tenuousness of familial bonds — just because Mordred is blood doesn’t mean King Arthur won’t try to kill him (or that Mordred won’t oust his father). Half sisters and other men’s wives are fair game for sexual intercourse. The bonds that some would like to assume have been inviolate since the beginning of time are proven to be treacherous, flimsy, and dangerous. Consider King Arthur’s origins story: he is taken away from his parent’s home, treated as an adopted son, and has trouble convincing people that he is the heir. These were not romantic times.

Arthurian legends also reveal the glory of legend, and the sheer number of adaptations speaks to the power of these basic tales. A great deal of the allure is, in fact, the paradox of chivalry and betrayal, rape and courtly love. Most retellings rely on this duality. Ackroyd attempts to keep the spirit of Malory’s King Arthur while making it more accessible for the modern reader, a challenging task given how influential these stories are even today.

The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend

by Thomas Malory

— Jessica Pishko is a current MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University. She also has a J.D. from Harvard Law School. You can follow her on Twitter @jesspish.

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