The Death of King Arthur, by Simon Armitage
Following his acclaimed translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Simon Armitage’s new book – The Death of King Arthur – marks a welcome return to the world of the Round Table. While the poetic Sir Gawain has always been a popular classic of Arthurian lore, The Death of King Arthur is Armitage’s translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a four-thousand line poem written sometime around 1400, which has arguably been neglected in favour of Sir Thomas Malory’s prose Morte D’Arthur. However, despite having previously been eclipsed by its more straightforward cousin, the Alliterative Morte Arthure is a sterling, emotive example of the medieval Arthurian revival and with The Death of King Arthur Simon Armitage has done an excellent job of translating and revitalising this important text for a modern audience.
The Death of King Arthur is perhaps a surprisingly brutal and bloody tale. Unlike the Arthurian Romances envisioned by Chrétien de Troyes and the noble, somewhat sanitised adventurers described by Malory, The Death of King Arthur deals with the cut and thrust of warfare and politics and so sees King Arthur firmly returned to his warrior roots. The poem begins with an overview of the kingly career of Arthur and of his household in the castle of Carlisle and the description initially seems familiar:
“… champion knights and chivalrous chieftains,
both worldly wise and brave in battle,
daring in their deeds, always dreading shame,
kind, courteous men, courtly in their manners.”
Clearly these are chivalrous, courtly men that inspired the majority of the Arthurian legends but they are also something more. The author of the Alliterative Morte Arthure and so also Simon Armitage is quick to emphasise that, despite or indeed because of their lofty ideals, these are fighting men who are not to be trifled with:
“How they won in war the worship of many,
who ripped life from the wicked Lucius, the Lord of Rome,
and conquered that kingdom through the art of combat …”
King Arthur is very much a military leader and one who is quicker to take up his sword that other interpretations of his character would suggest. A long list of all the “castles, kingdoms and countless regions” that Arthur has taken through conquest is presented while the King and his Knights enjoy a feast in honour of recent achievements. The celebratory mood at Court is, however, quickly soured when an emissary arrives from the Emperor Lucius. Since Britain as a whole is still technically subject to the authority of Rome, the Emperor demands that Arthur swear an oath of fealty and resume the payment of taxes to the Empire.
This is a challenge to his authority that Arthur cannot overlook. He and his army therefore embark on a sweeping and largely successful military campaign which takes them almost to the gates of Rome. While Arthur’s prowess as a military leader is emphasised, he is also given a number of chances to show his noble side and so will break off from merciless conquest to avenge the honour of a noble woman stolen away by a fearsome giant. However, in The Death of King Arthur he is not the wise ruler of other interpretations of the legend. This Arthur is consumed by his idea of kingly honour and cannot take his eyes from the big picture of worldwide conquest in time to see the danger that he faces at home. King Arthur is here defeated as much by his own ego as by the plotting of his enemies.
No doubt unsurprisingly given its title, the Alliterative Morte Arthure was written in alliterating lines [so, containing words that begin with the same sound or letter] which harked back to Anglo-Saxon poetic composition and so presented some particular challenges for the translator. A useful example of the thumping, almost mechanical rhythm that the alliterative style can produce is found in this passage:
“Then Sir Cador of Cornwall commanded his comrades,
Sir Clegis, Sir Cleremus, Sir Cleremond the noble …”
It is a rarely used style and the necessary constraints that come with it make producing a coherent narrative, especially in a poem of this length, potentially difficult. In his own illuminating introduction to The Death of King Arthur Simon Armitage discusses the approach he had to take in order to maintain the alliterative style while at the same time translating the text in a way that would captivate a modern audience. There seem to have been two principle difficulties in producing this translation – the original author’s lack of consistency as to characters and locations and also his tendency to get a tad carried away with the alliteration in a way that fails to advance the story – but Armitage has overcome both of them.
The Death of King Arthur is a powerful retelling of a poetic masterpiece. Armitage has mastered the alliterative line and so more than does justice to the “mass of riotous life which courses through the narrative’s veins.”