Friday, 3 February 2012

The Death of King Arthur

‘Find comfort as you can as you cool in the clay.’
During my time at UNC, I took a load of really fun and interesting courses. As it turned out, ‘Arthurian Literature’ was not one of them. The problem, as I remember it, is that most Arthurian literature is very long and more than a bit repetitive. It’s great to read one every once-and-awhile, but cramming a load of them into a short college term isn’t the best way to increase your appreciation. Regardless, the class served my purpose, and I came out with a much better knowledge of Arthurian myth than previously. And there, for the most part, I have left it for the last ten-to-fifteen years.
Lately however, I have experienced a resurgence in my interest in myths and legends, which has taken me to less visited portions of bookstores. Over Christmas I wandered into the poetry section and discovered ‘The Death of Arthur’ by Simon Armitage. Contained in the attractive hardback book is Simon’s translation of a unique fourteenth century manuscript which relates the death of Arthur in 4,000 words of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse.  Despite my previous education, I had never heard of the work, and, considering the form of poetry is my favourite, I bought it without much thought.
Yesterday, I finished reading it and can heartily recommend it, even if it isn't the greatest story. Basically Arthur gets challenged by the Emperor of Rome, gathers his army, sails to France, kicks the Emperor’s butt, finds out he’s been betrayed by Mordred who he left to guard the kingdom, sails home, and kills his nephew while being fatally wounded.  But there are many points of discussion.
Perhaps the most interesting to me is the very small part played by Lancelot. In the poem, he is just another knight, a good one, but nothing special. He plays no part in the betrayal of Arthur, nor the outcome of the story.  Instead, centre stage is taken by Sir Gawain. If we didn’t know that the manuscript was written by an Englishmen, this alone would nearly confirm it.  Near the end of the poem, Gawain is killed by Mordred, and a remorseful Mordred delivers one of the best passages in the work:
Then Sir Mordred was moved to mouth this tribute:
‘He was unmatched in this world, I admit it; that man
was good Sir Gawain, the greatest of mortals
and most gracious of lords who lived under God.
A man fierce of fist, favoured in warfare,
honoured in hall above all under heaven,
the lordliest of leaders for as long as he lived,
loudly lionised in lands near and far.
Had you known him, Sir King, in his native country,
his craft and his courtesy and his kindly works,
his bravery and boldness and his deeds in battle,
his death you would lament all the days of your life.'

I can only imagine how difficult it must be to translate poetry and attempt to keep a similar alliterative rhythm, but Simon Armitage seems to do an admirable job, and there are many delightful lines and passages.

I will say that it is a very bloody tale and so destructive, that one begins to wonder exactly how the original poet felt about the glorious conquests of Arthur. Still, if you love Arthurian myth, the book is a necessary addition to your collection, but have a care...

‘for when the dragon is flown, death surely follows.’

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