Tuesday, November 1, 2011

REVIEW: The Death of King Arthur

The stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are probably the most famous tales from the European Middle Ages to survive to the present day. First appearing in recognizable form in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, written in Latin in the 12th century, Arthur quickly became an "international sensation," especially in France, where later authors spun their own tales of the British king and his companions. Many of these later tales were only loosely connected to Geoffrey's own and were sometimes even contradictory. This is only to be expected given the wide variety of inspirations these other writers drew upon, not to mention the diversity of the audiences for which they were intended. Consequently, by the end of the Middle Ages, the corpus of Arthurian legend was a jumbled mess.

Into this environment stepped Sir Thomas Malory, a 15th century knight of Warwickshire and a member of Parliament, who, during his lifetime, was in and out of prison with regularity for a large number of crimes, including ambush, extortion, robbery, and rape. According to certain allusions he himself makes, it's believed that, while in prison, Malory wrote (or at least began to write) Le Morte d'Arthur -- The Death of Arthur -- an attempt to tell the entire story of King Arthur and his knights under a single cover. To do so, Malory needed to find ways to fit several centuries' worth of conflicting stories together and it's a matter of opinion regarding how well he succeeded. Even so, Le Morte d'Arthur is probably the most famous version of the Arthurian legends, at least in the English-speaking world, where it served as the basis for many later versions, such as Tennyson's Idylls of the King, Sidney Lanier's The Boy's King Arthur, T.H. White's The Once and Future King, and John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, among others.

Malory's original work was first printed 1485 and has been continuously in print for the last half-millennium. To call it a "classic" of English literature is probably an understatement. Of course, like most classics, relatively few people have ever read it, an omission made all the easier for some to justify owing to its archaic English. Though perhaps not as easily intelligible to modern ears as, say, Shakespeare, Le Morte d'Arthur's English is certainly closer to contemporary speech than Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. For this reason, there's long been a market for "translations" of Malory, which attempt to update its 15th century idiom for modern readers, the latest of which is Peter Ackroyd's The Death of King Arthur.

Ackroyd is an English writer and critic, well known for his biographies of famous Britons. He's also previously penned a translation of The Canterbury Tales, which at the very least indicates his familiarity with the process he's undertaking in The Death of King Arthur. In "A Note on the Text," Ackroyd describes his method of translation thusly:
In my translation I have changed the name of the text from Le Morte d'Arthur to The Death of King Arthur; this gives a more accurate summary of its contents. I have tried my best to convert Malory's sonorous and exhilarating prose into a more contemporary idiom; this is a loose, rather than punctilious, translation. I have also chosen to abbreviate the narrative in pursuit of clarity and simplcity. I hope that by these means the essential story of Arthur and his knights emerges more clearly, and that the characters of Camelot are drawn more convincingly. Malory is often rambling and repetitive; much that would have amused and interested a medieval audience will not appeal to a modern readership. I have also amended Malory's inconsistencies. Despite these alterations, I hope that I have been able to convey the majesty and pathos of the great original.
Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity will know that I regard punctiliousness as a virtue rather than a vice in translation -- all the moreso when the "translation" is simply between older and newer speech rather than between different languages. Consequently, I approached The Death of King Arthur with trepidation.

That trepidation was somewhat justified, as Ackroyd's translation is much more than that; it is, as the cover of the book proclaims, a "retelling" of Le Morte d'Arthur. It is a very good retelling, one that is both coherent and often beautiful, but I hesitate to say that it is Malory's tale. Now, my hesitation might, ultimately, be a matter of semantics and my own sense that there's no need to "translate" from 15th to 21st century English. Even as an American, I don't find Malory's English hard to grasp and its rambling and repetitive character is very often the root of the "sonorous and exhilarating prose" that Ackroyd rightly praises. Consider the following passage, which opens the book. Here's Malory's version (using modern spellings):
It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England, and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that held war against him long time. And the duke was called the Duke of Tintagil. And so by means King Uther sent for this duke, charging him to bring his wife with him, for she was called a fair lady, and a passing wise, and her name was called Igraine.
Ackroyd's "translation" reads:
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. She was wise as well as beautiful, and it was said that she could read the secrets of any man's heart on the instant she looked at him.
Quite the difference, isn't it? Ackroyd's version is by no means unlovely. Indeed, there is poetry in it -- "a dragon in wrath as well as in power," for example -- but it's not really a translation so much as a retelling and indeed an embellishment upon what Malory wrote. I have no problem with that whatsoever, but I'll admit to being baffled as to why Ackroyd considers his book a translation of Malory rather than a new book altogether. Not only do his words differ from those of Malory but he adds details nowhere to be found in the text, such as Igraine's ability to read the hearts of men simply by looking at them. I mention my complaint with some sheepishness, since, as I said, Ackroyd's prose is smooth, vibrant, and often moving. The Death of King Arthur is an excellent introduction to Arthurian legend and even longtime aficionados may find enjoyment in it, but it's not Malory -- or at least it's no more Malory than was T.H. White or John Steinbeck.

20 comments:

  1. Retelling via rewriting is the essence of the Arthurian tradition, so Ackroyd is no outlier in that regard. Annoying that the press is marketing the book under Malory's name, though.

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  2. Annoying that the press is marketing the book under Malory's name, though.

    That's my only real beef with the book. Except in the vaguest sense, this isn't Malory, at least no more than any book of Arthurian tales in English is likely to be. I like Ackroyd's retelling; it's very conservative and doesn't put a modern spin on things or try to use them to advance an agenda, but it's not Malory.

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  3. My favorite retelling of the Arthurian tales was by Bernard Cornwell. In his trilogy (The Winter King, Excalibur, The Scourge of God) he tells the story from the point of view of one of Arthur's warriors. The story is set in 5th century Britain during the Anglo-Saxon invasions and is as true to history as one could get, with Chainmail and scale being the best armors of the day. There are no flashy spells, no plate armor, no fantastic nonsense. Just a bunch of ex-Roman Britains (and one misplaced Saxon) defending their homeland from an inevitable barbarian conquest. There is mysticism and magic however as well as druids and the stories draw heavily from old British and Welsh mythology.

    I highly recommend that you check it out.

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  4. James - Which translation of Mallory do you prefer? I've always heard the old two volume Penguin version is awesome.

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  5. I agree with Rob. By means of putting Malory's name on that cover, Ackroyd apparently attempts to lend authority to his own project. Seems rather underhand to me, and, arrogant to boot. It's kind of like informing the reader that you have "fixed" Shakespeare by virtue of removing bothersome conventions. Contemporising the bard happens on stage all of the time (with various degrees of success), but to claim that such efforts possess any real authority would render any such production a laughing stock.

    A translator, on the other hand, has a proper responsibility to the text, and must attempt to elucidate the writers meaning and intention. Artistic license is not the domain of the translator.

    Personally, I was delighted to get my hands on the Norton Critical Edition of Le Morte Arthur (ed. Stephen H.A Shepherd). It presents an extensively footnoted unabridged text that covers both the Winchester Manuscript and the Caxton edition. A great work like this deserves to be unravelled slowly like the wonderful puzzle it is, and every reader can make an assessment of the content based on their own reading and the academic material available. Malory is worth such efforts!

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  6. Nice post. I see no reason to apologize for highlighting your reservations about something or someone you generally admire. (Other than one's spouse.) It strikes me as the most useful kind of review. You've obviously taken the time to appreciate Ackroyd's work honestly and thus are most qualified to say what can and cannot be recommended about his approach.

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  7. Sir Malory's telling of the Arthurian legend is the only one I read as a young lad, so it is in my mind, the only telling of the tale that I enjoy.

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  8. Arcadayn, the Penguin modernization of Caxton's Malory is by Janet Cowen and is indeed excellent.

    Helen Cooper did an excellent modernization of the Winchester MS of the Morte for Oxford World's Classics.

    The Norton World Classics Malory is good, but I ultimately find the attempt to replicate the Winchester MS's typographical features to be unwieldy and distracting.

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  9. Which translation of Mallory do you prefer? I've always heard the old two volume Penguin version is awesome.

    I don't really have a favorite as such. I've read and enjoyed the Penguin one that you mention, as well as another whose translator I can't recall. Since college, though, I've always preferred my Oxford University Press edition of the original text edited by Vinaver to any translation.

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  10. A translator, on the other hand, has a proper responsibility to the text, and must attempt to elucidate the writers meaning and intention. Artistic license is not the domain of the translator.

    I wholeheartedly agree and Ackroyd exercises a fair degree of license in his "translation." Again, I like this version of the legend of Arthur, which follows the pattern of Malory very closely, but it deviates enough in its words and presentation that it's really a new work rather than Malory's own.

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  11. Oh this is taking me back to my college days and my Medieval history degree. The Penguin translation was the one to read, and you can often find it in used bookstores, especially in towns with any decent liberal arts college.

    I confess I liked Mallory more than T.H. White. I also really liked Geoffrey of Monmouth, which has a lot of Arthurian material, I know I'm probably in the minority on both of those preferences.

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  12. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the unity of Malory's text, so I was glad to readyour criticisms of this. Almost every Arthurian writer retells Malory, but I hate when they try to lay claim to his name on top of it.

    As far as the version to read, I like the old Penguin version for the Caxton printed text. For the Winchester manuscript reading, I go with the one-volume paperback from Oxford University Press that Vinaver titled Works. It has the same text as the big two-volume set, but without all of the extra scholarly commentary and footnotes. The two-volume is great for research and study, but not so easy to carry on the bus.

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  13. Personally I much prefer reading the original Malory. The middle English is very simple since his vocabulary is restrained, and only some modernization of spelling is required for most people. If you can read the King James Bible, you can read this. I did enjoy Vinaver's edition, although I had to smile at his contention that Malory did not intend the Morte to be one whole story, but rather an anthology.

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  14. Reading the brief Mallory quote above, hearing it with my mind's ear, just makes me want to return to the olde text. Mallory isn't a 'classic' by accident.

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  15. "By means of putting Malory's name on that cover, Ackroyd apparently attempts to lend authority to his own project. "

    I don't think Ackroyd needs to do that. He has a name and prestige of his own, as a writer. (Booker prize shortlist, among numerous other awards and a CBE.)

    I think they're saying that to make clear that he stays fairly close to the story as Mallory told it, as opposed to being one of the numerous versions that go farther afield.

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  16. I think they're saying that to make clear that he stays fairly close to the story as Mallory told it, as opposed to being one of the numerous versions that go farther afield.

    That's certainly true, although I feel the need to point out that Ackroyd consistently refers to what he is doing as "translation" of Malory, though the North American edition cover calls it a "retelling." It could just be that, for Ackroyd, the two terms are equivalent. I haven't read his The Canterbury Tales, so I can't say whether it adopts the same approach.

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  17. IMO Mallory's English is modern English, there is no need for 'translation' - the idea is very strange.

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  18. +1 Translation? PAH! I read Malory when I was 12.

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  19. Mallory's work is from 1485; most classifications of English put that as Middle English, not Modern English. (The ISO standard line is 1500.) The idea of translation is far from ludicrous; false friends are a lot worse problem with this level of separation than into an unrelated language.

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  20. The idea of translation is far from ludicrous; false friends are a lot worse problem with this level of separation than into an unrelated language.

    It's certainly true that there are occasionally some rough spots in Malory but nothing that can't be handled by some footnotes or something similar. I don't really see the need for a full-fledged "translation" when 90%+ of the text is intelligible without much effort.

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