The Death of King Arthur v. Le Morte D’Arthur

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!

I chose this book to review from a list supplied by the Amazon Vine programme.  (6.5/10)

To buy titles mentioned from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend (Penguin Hardback Classics) by Peter Ackroyd
Excalibur [1981] [DVD] starring Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson, Cherie Lunghi
Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript (Oxford World’s Classics) by Thomas Malory
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table: by Roger Lancelyn-Green
Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

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11 thoughts on “The Death of King Arthur v. Le Morte D’Arthur

  1. That’s a shame! Perhaps it’s a little bit like Chaucer, where the antiquity of the language and structure is in a big way part of its interest, and quite satisfying as a reader.

    While you haven’t sold the Ackroyd to me, though, I’m quite tempted by a copy of the original Malory, which I haven’t read!

  2. I’m a huge Arthurian fan too, so I was sad you found this a bit boring and humdrum. I suppose it was inevitable, reducing the original to modern plain English – a bit like comparing the King James Bible with the modern versions. Still, I’ll look out for this – even if I only borrow it from the library.

    Here Lies Arthur is a favourite of mine too 🙂

  3. I am not a huge fan of Arthur and his merry men, but I have read several books by Peter Ackroyd and admire him greatly. His book about Frankenstein a couple of years ago was really good and is worth seeking out

    I’m back book blogging after a month away – it all got a bit too demanding what with real life schedules to contend with!

    • I agree Ackroyd is always interesting – I loved Hawksmoor and Dan Leno & the Limehouse Golem in particular. The Frankenstein is in one of my other TBR piles!
      Great to have you back Tom.

  4. I have a whole shelf full of Arthurian themed books although I must admit I haven’t read Malory which is clearly a situation that I need to remedy.
    I actually prefer Arthur as the Romano-Celtic warlord rather than the armoured king of Hollywood – a lot of the stories seem to make more sense if you look at them from that point of view but I have to admit that I may be more influenced by Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave and Oliver Tobias in Arthur of the Britons than more scholarly works!

  5. Jenny – I think you’re right about the Chaucer comparison.

    Margaret – It wasn’t all boring and humdrum, just the wanderings – which aren’t Ackroyd’s fault plotwise! Well worth a read but not special.

    Liz – I loved the Crystal Cave – I re-read that one a couple of years ago and must catch up with the Hollow Hills and others too. I never watched the Oliver Tobias (ITV y’see – my Mum was a bit snobby about it!)

  6. What a shame! But I might borrow it from the library when Margaret’s finished with it! 🙂 My favourite will always be The Once and Future King, I think I inhabited it for most of my early teens – I was seriously in love with Lancelot. Loved the Mary Stewart series too, but haven’t read Here Lies Arthur – sounds like I should read that rather than Ackroyd.

    • Here Lies Arthur is the best recent Arthurian book I’ve read! Ostensibly an older children’s book, but equally thought-provoking for adults too – I loved it. The Once & Future King is one I read many moons ago and loved – time for a re-read definitely – especially now I have a lovely illustrated Folio edition! Thanks for reminding me about it. I like the sound of the non-fiction Arthurian book you recently reviewed too – it’s gone onto my wishlist!

  7. I thought the illustration was by Beardsley. I love his art and I love everything about King Arthur too. It’s so cool you applied to Mastermind! I’ve been meaning to read Le Morte d’Arthur for years but still haven’t but I think I would still like to. Then maybe get to Ackroyd’s version. But I hadn’t heard of Here Lies Arthur so that’s going straight onto my wishlist. I also love Edward Burne Jones’ painting of Merlin. So beautiful.

    • I’m going to look up the Burne Jones – I can’t recall it, but have three or four books of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, so hope it’ll be in one of them!

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