By January 15, 2012 1 Comments Read More →

When Le Morte d’Arthur Sounds Like French, Read The Death of King Arthur

As a young man I know that I was a literary snob.  I claimed that I had read all the classics with an emphasis on the early superheroes.  My favorites were d’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, Robin Hood and King Arthur.

As an old man, I now realize that my claim to having read the classics needs to be footnoted with references to the works I actually read:  Howard Pyle and the Classics Illustrated Comic Books. 

I know this to be a fact because as an adult, I have actually re-read Dumas and enjoyed the writing (in fact, just writing this makes me want to read this great novel again).  Along with a vain attempt to read the real Moby Dick, these returns to my past victories made me realize that things were missing out of the versions I so fondly remembered. 

As an adult, I could not have told you the origins of either Robin Hood or King Arthur while being able to tell you Errol Flynn played one in the films and I can sing most of the songs from Camelot.  Perhaps there is no harm in the acquisition of a story no matter how it is uploaded but I am pretty sure for quite a period in my life I thought Howard Pyle wrote these tales. 

Recently when my library ordered The Death of King Arthur: Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur:  a Retelling by Peter Ackroyd, it reinforced the fact that I believe I have never read Malory while managing to be very familiar with all the tales that he gathered. It is pretty cool that Malory’s work can be included on bibliographies of jail house writing but not so cool that it was not published until fourteen years after his death.  Perhaps it is also not so cool that Malory borrowed from various previously published versions of these tales, included some tales from other legends and made at least one story up all on his own.  Just thinking about reading something originally written in French, translated into Middle English, with a questionable sense of chronology and pedigree is giving me a headache now.

So, thank you, Peter Ackroyd.  Not only has he provided a “more contemporary idiom” but he also chose “to abbreviate the narrative in pursuit of clarity and simplicity” to avoid points where Malory was “rambling and repetitive.” 

Age does change the way I view all things.  I am sure as a young man, all the whacking and thrashing seemed thrilling.  I am sure I truly believed that no one was really hurt in the forging and maintaining of a 5th century kingdom.  I can say with all certainty that as a boy I had no idea what it meant to “lie down” with a woman despite the fact that all the knights appear to want to do that very thing with their queen.  How quickly chivalry becomes almost farce when seen with the eye of experience. 

Here is a brief sample of the issues from the story of Tristam and Isolde (p. 134-135)

He approached her in a rage.  “Madam,” he said, “Here is the letter that has been send to you.  And here is the letter you sent in reply.   Alas, lady, did you not know how much I loved you? Did you not think of the lands and the treasures that I have forsaken for you? I am heartbroken that you have betrayed me.”

Then he turned to Kehadius…”For all your falsehood and treason, I will have my revenge.”  He drew out his sword. “Prepare yourself.”

At the sight of the sword, Isolde swooned.  When Sir Kehadius saw Tristam come for him, he had no choice.  He jumped out of the bay window of the chamber. 

After reading this book, I feel the whole story should be labeled a tragedy.  While starting with the most noble of intentions, Arthur’s Camelot was rife with betrayal, adultery and murder.  While my approach to this story this time was more somber, that does not make the telling of the tale any less powerful or any less necessary to be read in our time. 

Ackroyd’s translation makes it all clear and accessible to any book discussion group who would wish to read this “immortal legend. ”  Contained within this tale are all the shortcomings of mankind that we still exhibit today.  On display are egos exhibited through the practice of warfare, jealousy based on power, and the endless need to seek romantic love while performing the base needs of lust.  While the overly romantic code of the times still has some resonance in terms of hero worship, discussion groups will also focus on the waste of a good idea on individuals who are unable to carry out its basic tenants. 

The quote I carry with me most from returning to this legend is this:

Lancelot fell to his knees.  “Jesus, why are we fighting?” (p. 161).

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

1 Comment on "When Le Morte d’Arthur Sounds Like French, Read The Death of King Arthur"

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  1. newrambler@gmail.com' laura says:

    I remember reading most of Le Morte D’Arthur during detention one week in eighth grade. Actually, given that I skimmed most of the many, many passages of smiting, it might be more accurate to say I read only a fraction of it. But I’d just finished The Once and Future King, and I was desperate. Sad stories, all of them.

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