The Death of King Arthur: A New Verse Translation Audio CD – Audiobook, 10 Apr 2012
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Invitingly ingenious and inventive. --Jeremy Noel-Tod"
Armitage, on top form, renders [Arthur] expertly. --Bill Greenwell"
Invitingly ingenious and inventive.--Jeremy Noel-Tod
Armitage has triumphed. . . . The verse requires attention; but, once you are attuned to the alliterative structure, it s as swift as the swish of a sword.--David Blackburn"
Armitage, on top form, renders [Arthur] expertly.--Bill Greenwell --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Simon Armitage is the award-winning poet and translator of both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Death of King Arthur, as well as several works of poetry, prose, and drama. He is the Oxford Professor of Poetry. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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This particular poem tells the story of King Arthur at the height of his power, controlling most of north-western Europe, when an envoy of the Emperor of Rome comes demanding tribute and an affirmation of Arthur's fealty to the Emperor. At this insult, Arthur and his allies raise a mighty army and march off to conquer Rome, sparking a war the includes warriors from across the known world. But, unknown to Arthur, his nephew, Mordred, has seized control of England, and married Queen Guinevere. Retaking his own fair England will cost Arthur much...indeed, it will cost him everything.
Overall, I found this to be a very interesting book. The translator did an excellent job of bringing the poem into modern English, producing a poem that is both alliterative and yet easy to read. I find that very lengthy rhyming poems often begin to grate on my nerves, but the alliteration of this story is noticeable but never irritating or even too heavy.
This poem does present a somewhat different Arthur - in this day and age, when we want to find the real Arthur in a small and backward part of Dark Ages Europe, the author of this book presents Arthur as a mighty emperor of world-wide importance. But in spite of that, this Arthur is also tragically flawed, bringing on a great war that benefits no one, least of all him.
This is an excellent book, on that you really should read. I recommend it to anyone who thinks that they know King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and wants to read one of the most interesting old sources.
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.
This Norton version of Benson's revised Middle English uses diacriticals for no obvious reason with no obvious justification. For instance, the modernized second word of the poem is "great". The common Middle English transcriptions have "grett". Benson's revision has "grete". The Norton version accompanying this Armitage work has "gręte" (note the tailed-E or E caudata). For another example, the modernized first word of the third line is "shield" (as a verb, as in "protect"). The common transcriptions have "schelde". Benson has "sheld". Norton has "shēld" (note the line over the 'e', known as a macron).
This Middle English poem comes from a single source, the Thornton Manuscript. Regarding the first example, the word in the Thornton Manuscript is fairly clearly spelled with the "tt" ending. You can see this from the Amazon preview for the international, single-language edition of Armitage's translation published by Faber & Faber. That book contains, and the preview shows, an image of the first page of the poem from the Thornton Manuscript. And, I have also attached an image of a facsimile of the manuscript that may show this more clearly. Regarding the second example, why does Benson modernize this to "sheld" but not all the way to "shield"? And, why does Norton add a diacritical? Although the original Middle English in the Thornton Manuscript is certainly hard to read, the Norton diacriticals seem unjustified.
The application of these diacriticals seems to be without accepted method or pattern. Benson's revision and modernization of his own transcription is seemingly for the benefit of a casual Middle English reader that may struggle with a more faithful reproduction of the original Middle English. But, any supposed benefit is undone by Norton decorating the text with such distracting, confusing, and pervasive diacriticals. That there are several scholarly critical editions of the Alliterative Morte Athure that do not make any use of these diacriticals confounds their use here, in a Simon Armitage translation meant for the casual or modern reader. The only thing that might make any sense at all would be that the diacriticals are meant as some kind of pronunciation guide. While an entirely phonetic transcription might be an interesting idea, I would think it would warrant a completely new work and not simply be Benson's revised transcription with an overlay of unfamiliar symbols.
I enjoyed Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain, and I may read his version of the Death of King Arthur, but I will read it by checking it out at my local library or by trying to find and purchase the single-language edition from Faber & Faber that does not include Norton's Middle English. I will not buy this version for the issues I have found with the diacritical-laced Middle English. Not because I am an avid reader of Middle English, but because the product as a side-by-side, dual language book is simply inferior. This has nothing to do with the quality and artistry of Simon Armitage.
Many sources for the Middle English are available in libraries and online at the Internet Archive, the Hathi Trust Digital Library, and Google Books:
1847, Morte Arthure: The Alliterative Romance of the Death of King Arthur, edited by James Orchard Halliwell, Google Book ID nas-AAAAYAAJ
1865, Morte Arthure, edited by George Gresley Perry, Internet Archive ID mortearthure00perruoft
1871, Morte Arthure, Perry's edition revised by Edmund Brock, Google Book ID K9UMAQAAMAAJ
1900, Morte Arthure, edited by Mary Macleod Banks, Google Book ID DQtEAAAAYAAJ
1915, Morte Arthure, edited by Erik Bjorkman, Internet Archive ID mortearthuremite00bjrk
1967, Morte Arthure, edited by John Finlayson (extracts)
1976, The Alliterative Morte Arthure: A Critical Edition, edited by Valerie Krishna, ISBN 089102039X
1984, Morte Arthure: A Critical Edition, edited by Mary Hamel, ISBN 0824094298
For comparison, Benson's revised transcription is available online from the TEAMS Middle English Text website via the University of Rochester. Unfortunately, there is no preview of Norton's Middle English, but in fair use for the purpose of this review, I have uploaded an image of the first paragraph. And, the entire work should be readily available in most libraries for preview.
The story opens at a Christmas day feast where King Arthur is entertaining his round table of knights and the people of his court. It is rudely interrupted by an emissary of the emperor Lucius Iberius, who is demanding Arthur pay taxes and tributes owed to the emperor. Thus begins Arthur's journey across Europe, as the reader learns of the extent of the king's lands, as well as his power and ability as a leader and knight in these descriptive and alliterative scenes of conquest. The Knights of the Round Table will eventually reach their destination, where Arthur will confront the emperor, but also meet his inevitable end.
Armitage does a fantastic job of creating a translation of this tale that is both entertaining and addictive to read, but still maintains its alliterative originality. Published in a bilingual edition, readers can enjoy glancing over at the original Middle English text and see the original lines and stanzas, and also see how Armitage has masterfully crafted this text to be alliterative as well as encompass the modern English language. Both King Arthur fans and fans of Armitage's work will not be disappointed.
Originally written on February 6, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.
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The goods: There is a name index in back. The work is a 'facing' translation so that the reader can check the original. The original is transcribed using Larry D. Benson's 1974 transcription. The reading is delightfully smooth.
My only gripes: maps would be a great addition to this work for those unfamiliar (non-scholars) with the locations and 'roads' in post-roman Britain; perhaps a kindle version in the future might provide 'linked' foot/end notes with geographic locations, family tree references and a timeline.
Otherwise, this edition is a great contribution for the non-initiated and Arthurian scholar alike.