Monday, November 2, 2009
Of Kings and Nobel Laureates
King Arthur is the vampire of fantasy.
By that I mean that everyone has written about him, and he's come full circle from vicious Dark Ages battle leader to tragic romance hero to YA fantasy fixture. To write about King Arthur is to stand in a line that starts in 1136 with Geoffrey of Monmouth and shows no signs of ending:
Still, most Arthurian revisionists don't bring the chops that John Steinbeck did.
Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, and the United States Medal of Freedom. He wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, and East of Eden. So when he decided to delve into Arthuriana, it was significant.
Alas, he didn't live to finish it. Begun in 1956, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights was based on the original Arthurian novel, Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Steinbeck did massive amounts of research into Malory, intending to retell the stories without losing the flavor and atmosphere that had so affected him as a young reader. And he got it right...mostly. Its unfinished status means it's hard to know if what we now have is truly the manuscript Steinbeck intended. He retells seven tales, beginning with the life of Merlin and ending with Lancelot and Guinevere's first embrace. But in only the final two stories do the characters, events and moral themes really come to life.
In "Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt," three questing knights meet three women who specialize in leading knights on quests. The adventures themselves are exciting and action-packed, but what's really intriguing are the relationships between the men and women after they pair off. Each knight learns something about themselves without consciously realizing it, and each lady demonstrates the power women could wield even when denied swords and shields. The final line of Marhalt's adventure, in fact, sums up the gender issues with bone-shuddering succinctness.
But it's Ewain's adventure that finishes the chapter, and rightly so. An untried knight, he finds that his questing lady, though older than the others, is also a brilliant tactician and trainer. She schools him in technique and discipline, and presciently warns him that the longbow, a weapon easily obtained and mastered by commoners, will spell the death of the knights and their feudal society. Then she accompanies him on his first battles.
The final chapter, "The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot," brings the world's best knight front and center. We learn what kind of man inspires such a fearsome reputation, and we see how his best intents derail him toward the tragedy we all know is coming. The story ends, in fact, with the first irrevocable step on that path, and it strikes the reader's heart almost as vividly as it does Lancelot's.
These two tales alone make the book worthwhile, and with the exception of Mary Stewart's The Wicked Day, are the best contemporary Arthurian stories I've read. Oddly, in both Steinbeck and Stewart Arthur himself is a supporting character. But while Stewart chose to tell her story through Mordred (and in her earlier trilogy, the tiresome figure of Merlin), Steinbeck adopts Malory's tactic of jumping wherever the action is.
I disagree with Steinbeck when he says, as quoted in a letter, "Arthur is not a character. Perhaps the large symbol figures can't be characters, for if they were, we wouldn't identify with them by substituting our own." To me Arthur is the character, and all the others exist only to illuminate aspects of his personality. As Christopher Reeve once said (apropos of playing Superman as a fairly normal guy), "You can't play the king; the people around you play to you being king." Those people need the king as much as the king needs his people.
Teen male readers familiar with current fantasy might find Steinbeck's style off-putting in the earlier stories. And that's okay; there is no one "story" of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but rather a collection of stories created all over the world, among which readers are free to pick and choose their favorites. But if you skip to the final two chapters, I think you'll find both stories to be fun, exciting and thought-provoking.
(A note: Christopher Paolini does the introduction, and there's irony in the author of Eragon chastising modern fantasy for its "clotted prose.")