The Death of King Arthur by Peter Ackroyd
I am a huge fan of all things Arthurian – having always enjoyed books about myths and legends by Roger Lancelyn Green et al as a child, it was seeing the 1981 film Excalibur that turned this interest into a bit of an obsession. I read most of the old texts and applied to Mastermind with Arthurian Myths and Legends as my specialist subject even – but didn’t get an audition – probably just as well! I still devour any books I come across about the subject, and Philip Reeve’s marvelous Here Lies Arthur is one of my desert island books, (reviewed here).
In those days I had a seriously chunky edition of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur with beautiful illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley (left). Those drawings fit so well with the 15th century prose, but the original is not an easy read, which brings me finally to Peter Ackroyd’s new re-telling of Malory. Needless to say, I was extremely excited to get a review copy and put it straight to the top of the pile. I find Ackroyd an interesting author and have enjoyed many of his books.
In the introduction he tells us a bit about Malory and how he came to write Le Morte D’Arthur, before a note about his retelling of the story in loose translation into a ‘more contemporary idiom’ with a streamlined narrative to avoid Malory’s repetitions and inconsistencies. All the stories we know so well are still there – how Uther begot Arthur and Merlin took him away; how Arthur pulled the sword from the stone and became King; how he got Excalibur; Lancelot and Guinevere; the Grail Quest; the last battle against Mordred, plus some we do not know quite so well but are in Malory – like the take of Tristan and Isolde.
What struck me though reading Ackroyd’s version was how much padding there is in between the main stories. In between Arthur becoming King, sending his knights on the Grail Quest and the last battle – what’s a knight to do? Ride off into the countryside of course and do all things chivalric like rescuing damosels in distress, jousting and fighting all comers with silly (Pythonesque, sic) names like Sir Bagdemagus, Sir Collegrevaunce and Sir Gilbert the Bastard. Frankly, there’s an awful lot of these interludes and it all gets a bit repetitive – theoretically Ackroyd has done some light pruning to avoid some of this.
Although it was good to remind myself of some of the lesser known tales within, as told in its contemporary idiom I found it all a little bit boring and humdrum. Just compare sentences from the very first chapter when Igraine has urged her husband the Duke of Cornwall to take her home to avoid being dishonoured by Uther …
Malory : As soon as Uther knew of their departing so suddenly, he was wonderly wroth.
Ackroyd: As soon as Pendragon knew of their departure he grew very angry.
Yes, I missed the floweriness of the original language. This plain speaking also made many of the knights seem like yobs spoiling for a good fight rather than the figures of romance and derring-do one would normally imagine. The loose plot and arc of stories aren’t Ackroyd’s fault of course, but the rendering of them into modern English loses a lot of the original’s specialness. However, what Ackroyd has achieved should be welcomed by anyone who doesn’t have the time and energy to devote to the original, but wants to read the classic story, although you could do worse than Lancelyn-Green’s children’s version! (6.5/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you.