Thursday, April 22, 2010

Book Review: “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”

This unfinished work by John Steinbeck includes an appendix of letters, mostly from Steinbeck, regarding his work on this work. The work is intended to set Mallory’s Arthurian legend in more modern English, except for chapter titles. I think it largely succeeds at telling the stories in modern English while retaining the magic of the old legends.

It starts with the strange tale of Merlin, Uthar, and Igraine. The tale is strange enough that it will not be to everyone’s taste, though I enjoyed the magic in the tale. The work proceeds from a tale of a knight with two swords, set in the early part of Arthur’s reign, through the death of Merlin and Morgan Le Fey’s first treacheries, to a quartet of tales of Arthur’s knights.

As the reader advances through the book the work becomes more and more accessible. The tale of Merlin is steeped in magic and has great deeds set down shortly, while the tale of Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt has very little magic and the deeds are set down at length. The first chapter of Lancelot’s tale is similar or even more so. It starts with Arthur noting weakness in the younger knights, who have not been tried in battle. It includes gossip and fears. The greatest “magic” it includes is a paltry affair of illusion and forboding.

This book is well worth reading, particularly if you liked Mallory’s “Morte d’Artur”.

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