The Death of King Arthur, by Peter Ackroyd, Penguin Classics RRP£20, 316 pages
In the 15th century Sir Thomas Malory condensed, compiled and translated his own selections from the vast corpus of Arthurian legend and romance that then existed in France. His epic version of these stories, Le Morte d’Arthur, has bestowed to posterity a powerful set of chivalric images: knights on horseback, courtly love, the constant need for adventure and the consummate proving of high honour in the quest for the Holy Grail. Interwoven with these themes, at times contradicting or undermining them, come treachery, enchantment, lies, brutality, incest, adultery and constant violence. Destiny alone cannot be changed, not even by magic.
Peter Ackroyd’s new version of Malory’s tales again selects and shortens, setting high aspiration against the falling away of those unattainable codes of chivalric and courtly conduct. They cannot hold up against the imperatives of military virtue that dominated Malory’s life: Ackroyd mentions a court record, discovered at the beginning of the 20th century by an American scholar, which accused Malory of “rape, ambush, intent to kill, theft, extortion and gang violence”. He adds: “That is probably a good summary of the career of a 15th-century knight.”
The greater part of this book looks at the fates of individual knights and their adventures, which tend towards a baffling sameness. “He charged forward and caught one of the kings with his spear, killing him instantly. Gawain galloped out and gave the second king such a stroke that he fell dead to the ground. Arthur dispatched a third, and Sir Griflet gave the fourth king a blow that broke his neck. Sir Kay, true to his word, dispatched the fifth king with his sword.”
As there is little of either the characterisation or the strong narrative thrust that marks nearly every paragraph of The Song of the Nibelungs, Homer or Virgil, it is hard to maintain interest.
Despite hearkenings of chivalry, women are often beheaded, guests imprisoned, odd relations glossed over. Arthur is barely criticised for his incompetent attempt to drown all noble male children born on a particular first of May. Grievances are either suddenly obliterated or, more often, persist in forms too tangled to impinge. “The lady who brought the sword to the court is false and unfaithful. She has a brother who, by the strange chance of battle, captured and killed her very own lover. She was enraged by this, and so she went to the Lady of the Lake for revenge. The Lady of the Lake gave her that sword, and told her that the knight that took it from its sheath was destined to kill her brother before himself being destroyed.”
Provocative sub-headings don’t help: “Read of the magic goblet”, or “Learn of Tristram in the dark prison”, or “See the sword with the strong strokes”. You find yourself thinking “Just say no”. There are too many too similar incidents that do not develop into stories. One minor knight called Sir Dinadan stands out, alone, for his lugubriousness. Says he to Tristram: “I once sought the company of Lancelot and it cost me three months in bed. I was in such pain. God save me from both of you. Especially you.” This is really the only memorable thing anyone says and it is a delight when young Dinadan turns up.
But things do improve when the knights finally disperse in search of the Holy Grail and Lancelot declares again his love for Guinevere. A surprise narrator suddenly appears, praising spring – “We walk in the garden of May” – and good women: “there is no earthly honour higher than that of service to a maiden.” Well, yes and no, as we can see all too clearly. The end of the Company of the Round Table, the futile, ghastly battlefield, and the deaths of Lancelot and Arthur do move the heart, but only a little.
The sparse language and deliberate lack of colour create a series of static backdrops. The castles and palaces are seldom differentiated. The fair forests and chapels on lonely headlands and the jousting fields come and go, all two-dimensional. And the knights and ladies and dwarves and squires glide in their predestined tracks like cutout cardboard figures. Nothing is remarkable or resonant.
I am sure that the fault here lies with Malory and not with Ackroyd. Why is Malory so dull? The reason, I would hazard, is simply that Malory was not a professional storyteller, unlike Homer, the anonymous Nibelung scribes, or the various authors of The Arabian Nights. For Arthurian tragedy and beauty and human truth and dolour, it is better by far to turn to Tennyson.
Elspeth Barker is the author of ‘O Caledonia’ (Black Dog Books)