The Death of King Arthur Paperback – 1 Nov 2012
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'Armitage handles the alliterative verse with great energy and verve, attaining the momentum of a siege-tower and falling off a cliff, and relishing the opportunity for comic boastfulness and gluttonous, bloodthirsty comedy ... it rips and roars and ravishes.' --Guardian
'Powerfully absorbing ... Armitage has produced another gleaming reworking of a medieval original'. --Fiona Sampson, Independent, Books of the Year
'Exhilarating and accessible.' --Daily Express
'Exhilarating and accessible.' --Daily Express
The Death of King Arthur is Simon Armitage's brilliant new reworking of the tale of the legendary British king, translated from the Alliterative Morte Arthure.See all Product description
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The story begins with envoys of the Roman Emperor showing up in Arthur's court demanding tribute. Arthur responds by declaring war on Rome and setting off on a campaign to assert his own rights in Europe. Behind him, in Britain, he leaves his nephew Mordred as regent... a bad mistake.
Much blood and internal organs are graphically shed as Arthur fights his way across Europe, with Gawain, the greatest of his champions, in the thick of the fighting. Armitage notes in the book's introduction, that this is an older, more seasoned Gawain than the one we encountered in the Green Knight, but he remains, in his chivilrous concerns, recognisably the same character even in the midst of some very sanguinary battles.
One other thing that struck me about this poem: in it Britain is very much a nation at the heart of Europe, a Celtic kingdom that extends from southern Scotland to central France. Arthur is explicitly represented amongst the Nine Worthies as pre-figuring the unmistakeably pan-European Charlemange and Godfrey of Bouillon, a leader of the First Crusade. Hence he is more entitled to the throne of the Roman empire than the man who has demanded tribute of him. It is Ireland and the Scottish Highlands that are the place apart, the uncivilised Atlantic fringes beyond the European mainstream. How times change.
Overall this is a fine, compelling piece of work by one of the most interesting and entertaining of English poets, one who is also currently working at the top of his game.
Reading tales of King Arthur you usually find that they become immersed in magic, mythical creatures and so on, whereas surprisingly this poem in the main sticks to something more realistic, in that it is about politics and power. As in real life also characters show flaws, and thus are much more human to us, and as this takes in Europe can still be seen as quite relevant.
With the Roman Emperor, Lucius Iberius demanding tribute from Arthur I am sure most of us will be reminded about how much money the EU says that we will have to pay to leave the Union. Of course this isn’t something that you should be demanding from King Arthur, and so battles are fought on the continent as well as at home. A few may find some of the battle narratives a bit gruesome, but then war has never been clean, and here it is portrayed quite realistically, with weapons causing not only death but major injuries.
In all then this is well worth reading and reminds us all of the power of our own literature, as well as in a case such as King Arthur, reminding us of something that has become part of our national identity.
If this sounds somewhat dry and academic, be assured it's nothing of the sort: this is a Mediæval action-movie of a poem. There is blood, plenty of guts, monsters and an endless supply of battles from our heroes as they fight their way from Britain to Rome.
It starts rather quietly, but once the action moves to the European mainland the violence barely lets up for the middle three-fifths of the poem. Reading it aloud brings it to life - it works best in five or six page sections - and the reader quickly understands that the modern predilection for violent entertainment is not new. The alliteration never lets up either and consistently adds to the rhythm and power of the piece. I read it to my children, who couldn't resist acting out many of the battles.
There are several other sections that move the reader: the two dreams that Arthur has are captivatingly written, and there are several evocative descriptions of the countryside on the journey south. But the main emotional power lies in the last section of the poem where events that the title suggests will not be a spoiler take place: the death of King Arthur. The impact of this is much greater after the middle sections of the poem, and it perhaps packs a bigger punch than the earlier battles ever managed, though still in a macho heroic vein. I wanted more at the end, and I hope that there are further translations to come from the excellent Simon Armitage.
Most recent customer reviews
I'm no poetry scholar but some of lines are so lovely, so crafted the hard...Read more
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