Friday, December 9, 2011

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, from the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory, By John Steinbeck

The King Arthur cycle has always held a special place in my heart. Those gallant knights in shining armor, their code of chivalry, and their everlasting conquests, recall an age unspoiled by our more modern concerns. I, for one, savor a time when a knight’s word was his oath and when the chaste surpassed puberty. Give me banners flapping in the wind, animal horns sounding over the rolling green, and warriors charging into battle – their tragic ends remembered long after their dragons have been slain and their kingdoms lay in ruins. 

Everyone is familiar with the tale and the primary characters involved. Reviewing the plot isn’t important here anyway. What matters is Steinbeck’s ability to draw you into an ancient world, make you believe in events both dubious and extraordinary, allowing you to see beyond the words to the pristine pastures, the mysterious forests. But more important still are the convincing relationships – a knight’s steadfast devotion to his king, the sorrow of unrequited love, the treachery of dukes and witches.       

And such stories can be ideal instruments of insight. After all, moral tales – or stories of instruction – don’t have to be ponderous or dogmatic. Consider this sample exchange between king and enchanter, when, after a particularly bad day for Arthur (learning he’d been tricked into sleeping with his half-sister and later bested by a knight who broke his blade), he mourns to his mentor:

“You must be proud to serve me, Merlin, a defeated king, a great and worthy knight who does not even have a sword, disarmed, wounded, helpless. What is a knight without a sword? A nothing – even less than a nothing.”

“It is a child speaking,” said Merlin, “not a king and not a knight, but a hurt and angry child, or you would know, my lord, that there is more to a king than a crown, and far more to a knight than a sword. You were a knight when you grappled Pellinore unarmed.”

          “And he defeated me.”

“You were a knight,” said Merlin. “Somewhere in the world there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some are made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory¼

At the back of the book are letters Steinbeck wrote to his agent and others as he grappled with the material. In one such letter, he remarks: “¼the Arthurian cycle¼is a mixture of profundity and childish nonsense”. And “I tell these old stories, but they are not what I want to tell. I only know how I want people to feel when I tell them.”

If this isn’t a genius defining his magic, magicians beware; magic is dead. In another letter: “Kings, Gods, and Heroes – Maybe their day is over, but I can’t believe it.” 

Neither can I.


Other works in the Arthurian vein

Stephen R. Lawhead has written at least six books involving the Arthurian Legend, also known as the Pendragon Cycle. I’ve read only the second book: Merlin. Richard Monoco wrote a King Arthur trilogy. I’ve read only the first two: Parsival, or a Knight's Tale and The Grail War.

If you enjoy poetry, you’ll love Idylls of the King by Alfred Tennyson. Personally, I have yet to fully appreciate poetry. Its inarticulate nature bugs me: if prose could be compared to the smooth flow of film, verse is a slideshow. Still, this was very good.    

The only series I’d really recommend, and recommend heartily, is Mary Stewart’s Merlin TrilogyThe Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment. I’ve yet to find its equal. Told in first person from Merlin’s perspective. Stewart is a master storyteller. Exceptionally well written and engaging. 

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