Thursday 26 January 2012

Peter Ackroyd's 'The death of King Arthur'

From the occasional book reviews file: Peter Ackroyd's The Death of King Arthur.


I wanted so much to enjoy this book. I hesitate to say 'love this book', because I'm not an Ackroyd fan, but the subject matter here - I am a die-hard Arthur groupie - should have made this an easy win.

However. I found Ackroyd's retelling flatfooted, emotionless, and barren. Stripped-back prose I might have admired, but here we get stripped back storytelling.

The King Arthur story has been a massive part of my imaginative life since I was little. My first introduction, I think, was Roger Lancelyn Green's 'King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table'. I still have a copy of the book, and have dipped into it frequently. [Green added the story of Sir Gawaine and the Loathsome Lady to the Arthurian repertoire, and it's one of my favourite fables of all time; that and Kipling's 'White Seal'.]

Green keeps the archaic language (hithers and thithers and thees and thous) which I found incredibly romantic as a kid. He gives a sense of the destiny that drives the Arthurian story - Arthur is a flawed man in a flawed world, trying to do the right thing, fated to fail. It's also a story of adventure and magic, quests and chivalrous acts.

From Green I moved on to T.H. White - first 'The Sword in the Stone' as a little'un, and then 'The Once and Future King' when I was in my teens. Whatever moral compass I have, I owe mostly to White. Some may find him verbose and cheesy: I find 'The Sword in the Stone' to be one of the most fine, most pure, most gently lovely things ever written. It also introduced me - through Merlin's backwards-through-time life - to irony and and a kind of proto-postmodern humour; grown-up humour.

'The Once and Future King' takes us from a funny, thoughtful, educational story to a full-blown tragedy. The triangle between Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur drives the story, and what I have always loved about this version is that White tries to turn the three into real people, not ciphers. You sympathise with all three, and every time I draw near the end of their story, the tears come rolling down.

In my first year of university, I decided it was time to buy a copy of the daddy of them all, Malory's Morte d'Arthur. I've never even attempted to read it cover to cover - I dip into and out of it, visiting the stories I picked up through Green and White. And I love the lushness of the language. I don't bother to try to follow the narrative, I just soak in the words. It is a Romance, consistent with all that that means - a meditation on courtly love, chivalry, kingship, nobility, a set of lessons for listeners couched as entertainment.

So what does that leave Ackroyd? The problem is, when you strip away Malory's language but don't add any - for the lack of a better word - psychology, you don't have romance and you don't have any reason for the actions. You don't love anyone, and you don't fear for them. You don't have that sadness of history - that sense of experiencing a long-ago loss - that Adam Gopnik recently identified as a key aspect of chidren's love of fantasy:

What substitutes for psychology in Tolkien and his followers, and keeps the stories from seeming barrenly external, is what preceded psychology in epic literature: an overwhelming sense of history and, with it, a sense of loss. The constant evocation of lost or fading glory—NĂºmenor has fallen, the elves are leaving Middle-earth—does the emotional work that mixed-up minds do in realist fiction. We know that Westernesse is lost even before we know what the hell Westernesse was, and our feeling for its loss lends dimension to those who have lost it.

Instead, Ackroyd left me dissatisfied, with a one-dimensional set of stories and no sympathy.

How to explain? Let's try this. Arthur is the son of Igraine, wife of the Earl of Cornwall, and Uther Pendragon, King of England. Uther fell for Igraine when she and her husband Gorlois visited his court, but when he tried to force himself upon her they fled for their castle. Uther, maddened for her, marched on Cornwall with an great army; Gorlois hid Igraine away in Castle Tintagel, and went himself to Caste Terribel, where Uther besieged him. Though many skirmishes were fought and many man killed, Uther came no closer to Igraine, and, as Malory puts it, 'for pure anger and great love of fair Igraine the King Uther fell sick'. One of Uther's knights went forth to seek Merlin to save the king, and in return for securing Uther's agreement that he would receive any one thing he asked for, Merlin agreed to get him into Igraine's bed.

Merlin conjured Uther into the likeness of Gorlois, and himself and one of Uther's knights into the guise of Gorlois's closest companions. When Gorlois rode forth to attack Uther's armies, Merlin smuggled the king into Igraine's bed, where Arthur was conceived. Uther left Igraine, and hours later she learned her husband had been killed in battle - bewildered and grieved, she kept her puzzlement over his seeming visit to herself. Within thirteen days Uther had secured the agreement of the nobles of England that Gorlois's widow should become his wife.

How then, to reconcile Arthur's seeming bastard birth with the legend? Here's how the four writers manage it.

Green elides the topic somewhat (fittingly, I guess, for someone writing for children in the 1950s):

...Uther fell in love with Gorlois's wife, the lovely Igrayne, and there was a battle between them, until Gorlois fell, and Uther married his widow.

He visited her first in the haunted castle of Tintagel, the dark castle by the Cornish sea, and Merlin the enchanter watched over their love. One child was born to Uther and Igrayne - but what became of that baby boy only the wise Arthur could have told, for he carried it away by a secret path down the cliff side in the dead of night, and no word was spoken of its fate.
Malory tidies the ends up so that Igraine becomes a heroine, and not an exploited and betrayed woman:
The Queen Igraine waxed daily greater and greater, so it befell after within half a year, as King Uther lay by his queen, he asked her, by the faith she owed to him, whose was the child within her body; then she was sore abashed to give the answer. Dismay you not, said the king, but tell me the truth, and I shall love you the better, by the faith of my body. Sir, said she, I shall tell you the truth. The same night that my lord was dead, the hour of his death, as his knights record, there came to my castle of Tintagil a man like my lord in speech and in countenance, and two knights with him in likeness to his two knights Brastias and Jordans, and so I went unto bed with him as I ought to do with my lord, and the same night, as I shall answer unto God, this child was begotten upon me. That is the truth, said the king, as ye say; for it was I myself that came in the likeness, and therefore dismay you not, for I am the father of the child; and there he told her all the cause, how it was by Merlin's counsel. Then the queen made great joy when she knew who was the father of her child.
Here's Ackroyd:
Day by day Igraine grew greater with child. Uther lay with her one night and asked her, on the faith she owed to him, whose offspring it was. She was too ashamed to answer. 'Do not be dismayed,' he told her. 'Tell me the truth, I shall love you all the more for your honesty.'

'I will speak the truth to you, my lord. On the night that my husband died a stranger came to Tintagel in his shape; he had the same speech, and the same countenance,as the duke. There were two companions with him, who I thought to be Sir Brastias and Sir Jordans. So I was deceived. I did my duty, and lay beside him in our bed. I swear to God that, on that same night, this child was conceived.'

'I know, sweet wife, that you are speaking the truth. It was I who came to the castle. I entered your bed. I am the father of this child.' Then he told her of the magic of Merlin, and she marvelled at it. But she was overjoyed, too, that Uther Pendragon was the sire of her offspring.

God, I hate that use of 'offspring'. The two passages are nearly the same, but I find Ackroyd's so charmless.

'The Sword in the Stone' doesn't explain Arthur's origins at all. The task of explaining this falls to four small boys - the brothers who would become Arthur's knights Gawaine, Gaheris and Gareth, and the traitorous Agravaine - huddled together in a draughty tower, telling each other a well-worn family story.
"So when our Grandfather and Granny were winning the sieges, and it looked as if King Uther would be utterly defeated, there came along a wicked magician called Merlyn --"

"A nigromancer," said Gareth.

"And this nigromancer, would you believe it, by means of his infernal arts, succeeded in putting the treacherous Uther Pendragon inside our Granny's Castle. Granda immediately made a sortie out of Terrabil, but he was slain in the battle --"


"And the poor Countess of Cornwall --"

"The chaste and beautiful Igraine --"

"Our Granny --"

"-- was captured prisoner by the blackhearted, southron, faithless King of the Dragon and then, in spite of it that she had three beautiful daughters already whatever --"

"The lovely Cornwall Sisters."

"Aunt Elaine."

"Aunt Morgan.'

"And Mammy."

"And if she had these lovely daughters, she was forced into marrying the King of England - the man who had slain her husband!"

They considered the enormous English wickedness in silence, overwhelmed by its denouement. It was their mother's favourite story, on the rare occasions when she troubled to tell them one, and they had learned it by heart.

One of the things that fascinated me, reading back over the different versions of this chapter, was that White's retelling takes Malory's words and inserts into the children's story verbatim:
"The chaste and beautiful Countess of Cornwall," resumed Gawaine, "spurned the advances of King Uther Pendragon, and she told our Grandfather about it. She said: 'I suppose we were sent for you that I should be dishonoured. Wherefore, husband, I counsel you that we depart from hence suddenly, that we may ride all night to our own castle."
Call me a romantic, but for me, White will always best convey the heart of Malory's tale. Sure, he brings a Tolkienesque dying-of-the-days to it, a note that Ackroyd strips out. But Ackroyd also takes all the emotional heft out of the story, and doesn't replace it with anything. I wish it was otherwise - I'm sure others will react differently to me - but, well, THWHITE4EVA.

[I drafted this review in my email. When I got to Goodreads, this was the final sentence of the very short description of the book: "This title presents readable accounts of the knights of the Round Table." I could have saved some typing ...]

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