The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend

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The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend. Thomas Malory.
Adapted by Peter Ackroyd.
Viking. November 10, 2011.
ISBN: 978-0670023073

Ackroyd, perhaps best known for his door-stopper fictionalized biography of Charles Dickens, has turned his hand to Malory’s compilation of Arthurian tales. Malory created his compilation/re-telling of various Arthurian texts while in prison. He used a number of sources, both French and English, to create his work (though Ackroyd only refers to Malory’s French sources). Malory’s title was The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table but when William Caxton printed Malory’s Morte D’Arthur in 1485, he referred to the entire collection with the attention-grabbing title of the last part; Le Morte Darthur.
Ackyroyd says his intention in this “translation,” as he calls it is

to convert Malory’s sonorous and exhilarating prose into a more contemporary idiom; this is a loose, rather than punctilious, translation.

In fact, what Ackroyd has done is to butcher Malory’s prose, and insert entire sentences into the text, drastically changing the story. For instance, here’s the opening of the first book in Malory’s version, which delineates the circumstances of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon’s attraction to Igraine, the wife of the Duke of Cornwall.

It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England, and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that held war against him long time. And the duke was called the Duke of Tintagel. And so by means King Uther sent for this duke, charging him to bring his wife with him, for she was called a fair lady, and a passing wise, and her name was called Igraine.
So when the duke and his wife were come unto the king, by the means of great lords they were accorded both. The king liked and loved this lady well, and he made them great cheer out of measure, and desired to have lain by her. But she was a passing good woman, and would not assent unto the king. And then she told the duke her husband, and said, I suppose that we were sent for that I should be dishonoured; wherefore, husband, I counsel you, that we depart from hence suddenly, that we may ride all night unto our own castle. And in like wise as she said so they departed, that neither the king nor none of his council were ware of their departing.

And here’s what Ackroyd makes of it:

In the old wild days of the world there was a king of England known as Uther Pendragon; he was a dragon in wrath as well as in power. There were various regions in his kingdom, many of them warring one against another, and so it came about that one day he summoned a mighty duke to his court at Winchester. This noblman was of Cornwall, and he was called Duke of Tintagel; he reigned over a western tribe from the fastness of his castle on the rocks, where he looked down upon the violent sea. Uther Pendragon asked the duke to bring with him to court his wife, Igraine, who had the reputation of being a great beauty. She was wise as well as beautiful, and it was said that she could read the secrets of any man’s heart on the instant she looked at him.
When the duke and his wife were presented to the king, he rose from his throne and invited them forward with open arms. “Come,” he said, “embrace me. This dragon will not bite.” They were treated with all possible courtesy and honour by the whole, court, but the lady Igraine had seen into the king’s dark heart. She knew well enough that he wanted to violate her. He looked at her with lust and cunning. The moment came when he took her by the shoulders and whispered something in her ear. She shook her head, disgusted, and broke away from him. She went to her husband at once and told him what had occurred. He was enraged, so angry that he smashed his fist against one of the tapestries that lined the wall of the great palace. “We were summoned here to be dishonoured,” he said. “I will never submit to that. Pride is the essence of knighthood.”

This isn’t a translation, or really, even a retelling; it’s a hack-job. The prose is crude, without any vigor or life. The characterization and subtlety of Malory’s narration and dialog have been flattened, and the circumstances of the episodes altered in telling ways. Ackroyd has introduced his own reading in a particularly annoying flat-footed and didactic fashion; his take on the character of Uther is fairly typical of his tendency to iron out any subtleties.
Ackroyd appears to be the textual equivalent of a tone-deaf musician. For instances, where Malory says of Morgan Le Fay “And the third sister Morgan le Fay was put to school in a nunnery, and there she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy.” Ackroyd gives us “Igraine’s third daughter, Morgan le Fay, was put into a nunnery where she learned the mysteries of the magic stone as well as other secret arts.” The “magic stone” is entirely Ackroyd’s invention. The farther you read, the more Akroyd wrenches the story, and the prose, out of all recognition. If you’re a fan of Akroyd’s other work, then by all means, read this, but don’t read it thinking you’re reading a translation of Malory. You’re reading Akroyd’s take on Malory’s take on the matter of Britain.
Cover of John Steinbeck's Acts of King ArthurRather than look to Ackroyd’s book for a modernized Malory, I’d look to John Steinbeck’s masterful re-telling. Steinbeck never finished his version; his re-telling stops at the beginning of the love affair between Lancelot and Guenivere, but it’s still well-worth reading. While Steinbeck was thinking of his audience as young boys and teens, from ten on, the writing is not at all dumbed down, and Steinbeck has made these tales as much his as Malory’s, without turning them into heavy-handed toneless prose. The collection of letters between Steinbeck and his editor and others about the book at the end are interesting in that they reflect Steinbeck’s desire to due justice to Malory’s language and style, while making the stories live for younger readers.
If you’re not interested in Steinbeck’s re-telling, I heartily endorse Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy. Stewart has adroitly produced a genuine retelling (though one based on Monmouth more than Malory), with all the skill at story telling and prose that Ackroyd’s ham-fisted rendition lacks. Malory’s prose is really not that difficult; you can easily find modern editions of the version printed by William Caxton, or one based on the Winchester manuscript, which was probably used by Caxton, with revision. Do take a look at The Malory Project “an electronic edition and commentary of Malory’s Morte Darthur (1469-70), with digital facsimiles of the Winchester Manuscript (British Library, Add. MS 59678) and John Rylands Copy of Caxton’s first edition” is an ongoing project, and worth keeping an eye on.

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