Geopolitics of a king

Simon Armitage’s ‘The Death of King Arthur’ is an adaptation of the poem ‘Alliterative Morte Arthure’

The Death of King Arthur, by Simon Armitage, Faber, RRP£12.99, 192 pages

Not Malory’s epic but the little-known “Alliterative Morte Arthure”, written around 1400 and preserved in a single copy in Lincoln Cathedral. So what does Simon Armitage’s adaptation add that’s not simply for the Arthurian completist?

This is the once and future king’s story as geopolitics. Facing demands to pay allegiance to the Roman Empire, Arthur and his knights set out to conquer Europe, confronting warlocks and giants en route to the gates of the celestial city.

At times it just seems like one damn battle after another, limbs dispatched faster than you can say “Monty Python”. But slowly the anonymous poet’s purpose becomes clear, as Arthur over-asserts himself. Chivalric idealism is belied by prosaic barbarism, what today might be termed war crimes, and the wheel of fortune turns.

While the introduction over-eggs the psychological elements of Arthur’s portrayal, the poem still manages to speak across the ages, not least thanks to Armitage’s playfully robust verse.

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