As a child, John Steinbeck hated the written word. In the introduction to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, he writes, 'I remember that words - written or printed - were devils, and books, because they gave me pain, were my enemies.' These feelings changed when he was introduced to Sir Thomas Malory's epic, Le Morte d'Arthur. This massive work, composed in the 15th century, is the culmination of many of the scattered stories and references to King Arthur that had existed before then. Malory wrote this novel - one of the first in the English language - probably while he was in jail, and it remains to this day one of the most important versions of the Arthurian legend. Steinbeck never forgot Le Morte d'Arthur and, near the end of a literary career which saw him win the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, he returned to this work in an attempt to rewrite it using today's language. In parts a failure, but overall a massive success, Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur is a wonderful book, to be read and enjoyed if you are familiar with Malory's work or not.
It is a shame that the first part of the novel is the weakest. In the appendix to this unfinished work, which contains roughly eighty pages of letters between John Steinbeck and his literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, and also to Chase Horton, the editor of this work and Arthurian scholar, Steinbeck laments Malory's lack of focus and his attention to battles over important details of plot. The novel rushes very quickly through Uther Pendragon's war against the Duke of Cornwall, which saw him marry Igraine and sire Arthur, it rushes past Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, it rushes past the many battles between the young King Arthur and, it seems, everyone else in the world. In a paragraph years might go by, knights and Kings might die, prophecies are made and fulfilled, kingdoms fall and rise. It's a mess.
Thankfully, though, after that the novel slows down and the enjoyment of the work begins. The novel shifts from King Arthur, whose rule has stabilised as much as was possible in those war-torn days, to the Knights of the Round table. We follow the story of The Knight with Two Swords, Balin, and his brother Balan, learning of their sad fate. We witness Merlin's pathetic death, we see the rise of Morgan le Fay. In the first of the novel's two greatest chapters, we learn of the story of Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt, three Knights who went questing for a year, and vowed to tell one another of their adventures. This story, in Malory's work, was small, but Steinbeck extends it to almost one hundred pages. And finally, we have The Noble tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake, which is a story famous to all. However, the novel breaks off after this, which means we are unable to read Steinbeck's rendition of Arthur's death, or the hunt for the Grail, or Lancelot and Guinevere's betrayal.
This leaves us with roughly two thirds of the complete story of Arthur. Wisely, Steinbeck has made the focus of his work the adventures of the Knights surrounding King Arthur, leaving him as an icon, a symbol for valour and for honour. Just as wisely, Steinbeck has written the work in a style that alludes to the English of Malory's day, but does not become bogged down with words archaic or strange. Similarly, there are very little modern day literary conceits used - no grappling of conscience, no introspective weighing of options. Knights are Knights, in the truest sense of the word - they protect damsels, they help the poor and womenfolk, they strive to do good, and when they do not, they blame themselves and shoulder the burden of being a fallen man. Balin, cursed to kill his brother, cursed to be friendless, cursed through prophecy from both Merlin and the Lady of the Lake, is a very sad figure. When he tries to do good, he invariably fails. He is told by Merlin, 'In punishment for the death you are destined to strike the saddest blow since the lance pierced the side of our Lord Jesus Christ. With your stroke you will wound the best knight living and you will bring poverty and misery and despair to three kingdoms.' Later, Balin attempts to revenge the death of an honest knight, and in the process causes blight and sickness to many. Finally, he fights and kills his brother, then dies of the wounds himself.
The story of Lancelot is familiar to most, so I shall instead discuss my favourite quest, which concerned the adventures of Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt. The three Knights are offered the opportunity to travel for a year with one of three damsels. Gawain selects the young, beautiful damsel, Marhalt selects the middle aged damsel, and Ewain the older woman. We then follow each Knight for a year, when they return to one another.
Unlike in the anonymous poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is not a noble youth but a bit of a braggart. His story is the least satisfactory, perhaps because of his constant boasting and the general unpleasant nature of the characters within. Marhalt, however, is a solid, dependable Knight. He has quested for years and understands what it means to be a Knight. So, too, with his damsel, who remains nameless - she has seen life, and knows what it does and does not offer. Their story is of a domestic nature, though the ending is a surprise. Finally Ewain, with his 'ancient' damsel of 60. Her name is Lyne, and she teaches Ewain how to fight and offers a prescient commentary on what will happen to the world when the Knights disappear. Yes, people will go on to take charge of their own lives, with serfs and yeomen becoming equal to Kings and Knights - but what is lost?
'"What a dreadful thought," Sir Ewain said. "If lowborn men could stand up to those born to rule, religion, government, the whole world would fall to pieces."
"So it would,' she said. "So it will."'
Steinbeck uses the story of Ewain to show that the world of Knights is dying, and he allows both negative and positive thoughts to shine through. There is a sense, always, that Steinbeck is overall quite positive about the way of life back then, that he had great respect for the magnificence of the Knighthood, but also he could see its flaws. We know, of course, that the time of Knights is well and truly over, so it is with no little sadness we revisit these times. And then, finally, did the age of honourable Knights ever really exist? Probably not. Men were Knights and Knights were men, which meant good as well as bad, honour as well as evil. Steinbeck shows that it is not wrong to dream of a man - or a woman! - who is able to put honour and goodness, courage and valour, above themselves and above the need for material wealth, for comfort, for family.
And therein lies the crux of this work. The myth of King Arthur is one of how men and women could be, not how they ever really were. Generations of little boys and girls have become enamoured with the legend of Arthur, his Round Table, and the majestic city of Camelot, and who can blame them? The Knights of legend speak to an earlier time than any man has actually lived through, a time when it seemed that it was enough to be a good person, that love and trust were the most important things in the world, bar none. Arthur represents a dream for what could never be, but should, if only we could manage it.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning the 80-odd pages of letters at the book of the book. These letters show Steinbeck struggling to understand the work he was undertaking, with his confidence shifting between weeks when he believed he was on to something truly great, and months when his confidence ebbed so low that he never worked on it at all. They show a man in his late fifties and early sixties rediscovering the magic of something that was so important when he was a child. The sense of wonder with which Steinbeck writes of King Arthur, and of Malory, is very sweet, and shows a tenderness and boyish excitement in the author that may not be obvious from his grittier works, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and so on.
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights is unfinished, and it is flawed, but the work as a whole is significant and immensely successful in its stated goals. Read this novel to your children, read it to yourself, whatever you do, read it. It is magic, it is wonderful, but more importantly it carries with it a wide-eyed, childlike sense of wonder about the world, something which has never been more lacking than today.