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.