Is it wrong that this was the first book by Steinbeck that I’ve read? Certainly it is the kind of book one probably wouldn’t have even expected this aIs it wrong that this was the first book by Steinbeck that I’ve read? Certainly it is the kind of book one probably wouldn’t have even expected this author to have written. Known for his brooding meditations on the harsh life of the American experience in the mid-20th century, a translation/re-working of Malory’s stories about King Arthur and his knights certainly don’t seem like an obvious fit for Steinbeck. Reading through the letters written by the author himself in the appendix to this volume, however, makes it abundantly clear that the project was one that was near and dear to the author’s heart, into which he poured a significant amount of time & effort, and which he himself saw as possibly filling the role of crowning achievement of his work. I will here go on record with many other reviewers on Goodreads and state that it is a real shame that, for some unknown reason, Steinbeck never finished his work on this, though even the fragment he left us with is a significant work and one of the better treatments of the Matter of Britain I’ve read.
I must first admit that I found myself becoming slightly bored with the first third or so of the text. True to his words in the introduction Steinbeck hews very closely to his source text, Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, and generally follows his plan of “leaving out nothing and adding nothing…since in no sense do I wish to rewrite Malory …” in the first four tales: Merlin, The Knight with the Two Swords, The Wedding of King Arthur, and The Death of Merlin. I generally have little use for ‘translations’ of Malory since I don’t really see the point; the Middle English he uses isn’t really that difficult for a modern reader to approach and I generally find that ‘modernizing’ the language simply takes the reader a further step from the text without adding anything of use. Happily for us Steinbeck seems to have taken advice from his editors to heart and in the subsequent tales really starts making the material his own while still staying true to the spirit of Malory. Indeed, from the very first sentence of Morgan le Fay one can see Steinbeck breaking new ground and not simply aping his master. From here on we are treated to a really excellent interpretation of the tales that seeks to investigate the psychology of these figures from myth without reducing them to little more than modern people in medieval drag or diminishing the epic scope of the tales.
Arthur largely remains the peripheral figure he generally has to be for these tales, the enigmatic centre around which all of the other characters revolve and from whom they draw their glory. Despite this Steinbeck does attempt to invest the tragic king with some elements of individuality and provides one or two tantalizing glimpses of the man underneath the myth. We see the king’s early dissatisfaction with the trials of kingship and disappointment in the need to fight rebellion:
Soon after this, Arthur, wearied with campaigns and governing and sick of the dark, deep-walled rooms of castles, ordered his pavilion set up in a green meadow outside the walls where he might rest and recover his strength in the quiet and the sweet air.
We see his growth in wisdom as a leader of men:
Then Arthur learned, as all leaders are astonished to learn, that peace, not war, is the destroyer of men; tranquillity rather than danger is the mother of cowardice, and not need but plenty brings apprehension and unease. Finally he found that the longed-for peace, so bitterly achieved, created more bitterness than ever did the anguish of achieving it.
Indeed it is this very discontent that prompts Arthur and Guinevere, in Steinbeck’s version of the tales, to ‘trick’ Lancelot into setting an example for the other knights by adopting the lifestyle of the quest, an action that will prove to be both the greatest glory and the greatest sorrow of Arthur’s court. Throughout the work are strewn nuggets of wisdom, often coming from the mouth of Merlin in the earlier stories, and Steinbeck uses these tales of chivalry as an opportunity to meditate on the human condition. Thus we have:
”Somewhere in the world there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory.”
”You cannot know a venture from its beginning,” Merlin said. “Greatness is born little. Do not dishonor your feast by ignoring what comes to it. Such is the law of quest.”
I found myself noticing things here that I had missed or glossed over from my initial reading of Malory such as the incongruous nature of the various enchantresses generally known to be “the damsels of the Lady of the Lake and schooled in wonders.” They range from the damsel who gave to Arthur his enchanted sword Excalibur (the same maiden killed by Sir Balin for ostensibly having had his own mother burned at the stake) to the Lady Nyneve, the bane of Merlin who, despite her role in deceiving the besotted old enchanter, stealing his knowledge, and leaving him buried alive is not portrayed as evil. She does this act to gain power, but learns that with great power comes great responsibility. In the end she seems to take on Merlin’s role as protector of the realm, though in a somewhat lessened capacity, and gets her own reward for being true to the lonely path of power that accepts responsibility: the love of the good knight Pelleas. Finally there are also the four queens (including Morgan le Fay) who capture Lancelot and put him to the test with their illusory blandishments. They may or may not be members of this same circle of enchantresses, but they equally represent part of the same intriguing puzzle: just what are they? Members of a school for magic? A group of proto-feminists looking for a way to power in a man's world? Something of both or neither? Some seem to be evil, working deeds of mischance and violence, others good, though often they are no less violent in this world of martial law and divine retribution. Perhaps it’s most appropriate to say that the true test comes in that some work for their own selfish interests while others work for the common good.
It was also refreshing to see the varied characterization of the questing knights (and their three fascinating ladies) in the tale Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt. Indeed, the entire section provides Steinbeck with interesting character studies, not to mention much fodder for his social and personal concerns. Marhalt rocks and it was very nice to see a knight of Arthur’s court so clear-headed and competent without vainglory…a rare thing. He is a man with both skill and self-knowledge, the quintessential man of experience, and it’s a bit sad to know that his fate in the cycle is to be killed by that jack-ass Tristan (though Steinbeck does not himself tell this episode). The training of young Ewain (in many ways the opposite of Marhalt) by his own Lady was equally wonderful and showed how far Steinbeck had come: much of this tale seems to have been created by Steinbeck himself and yet it in no way felt like he was departing from the spirit of Malory specifically or the Arthurian tales in general.
The final entry The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake shows Steinbeck truly coming into his own. It becomes obvious here (and is confirmed by statements made by Steinbeck in the letters found in the appendix) that Lancelot was the true centre of Steinbeck’s tale and was the character through whom he hoped to develop the real through-line of his thoughts on the Arthurian corpus. Lancelot gave the author everything he needed to work through the concepts of human fallibility mixed with nearly superhuman stature. The entire theme of the greatest good often leading to the greatest evil could play out in full measure with all of its varied nuances with Lancelot. From the description of his life as a young boy, hearing Merlin’s prophecy regarding his future peerless knighthood and subsequent desire to fulfill it, to the discontent of a man who has honed himself to perfection and is looking for it in an imperfect and jaded world we really begin to get a glimmer of the power Lancelot held as a character for Steinbeck and the heights the author might have achieved had he finished his work. Alas such was not to be and we are thus left with only a fragment of what might have been so much more. Still a fragment is far preferable to nothing at all.
I can’t close without adding that the letters in the appendix were an unexpectedly intriguing look into the mind of both Steinbeck the man and Steinbeck the writer. His complete love for the Arthurian material (and especially his deeply felt personal connection to Malory as a writer)and single-minded devotion to his research came as something of a surprise to me and it was equally fascinating to get a glimpse of his personal ruminations on the writing process. In addition to these writerly concerns we get to see Steinbeck the man wrestling with his own fears and feelings of inadequacy in a work which he thought “should be the best work of my life and the most satisfying” and which he even felt contained “the best prose [he had] ever written.”...more
One of the best of the 'classic' Arthurian tales. Gawain is presented a bit differently here from many of the other ones. Usually he's a bit of a bragOne of the best of the 'classic' Arthurian tales. Gawain is presented a bit differently here from many of the other ones. Usually he's a bit of a braggart and kind of a jerk, especially to women, but here he is presented as the perfect exemplar of courtoisie. He's also a bit young and still untried, so maybe that explains it for those who want to be able to have a grand unified theory of Arthuriana.
Anyway, you probably all know the story: Arthur is about to have a New Year's feast, but according to tradition is waiting for some marvel to occur. Right on cue in trots the Green Knight on his horse, a giant of a man who proceeds to trash the reputation of the entire court and dare someone to cut off his head as long as he gets to return the favour. No one makes a move and Arthur decides he better do something about this until Gawain steps up and asks to take on this quest himself. Everyone agrees and Gawain proceeds to smite the green head from the Knight's body. Everyone is fairly pleased with the result until the Green Knight gets up, picks up his smiling head, and says: "See you next year, G. Don't forget that it's my turn then." (I paraphrase, the middle english of the poet is far superior.) Needless to say everyone is a bit nonplussed by this.
The year passes and Gawain doesn't seem to do much of anything until he finally decides it's time to get out and find this green fellow and fulfill his obligation...hopefully something will come up along the way to improve his prospects. What follows is a journey to the borders of the Otherworld as well as a detailed primer on just how one ought to act in order to follow the dictates of courtliness. Gawain ends up being the guest of Sir Bertilak, a generous knight who says that the Green Chapel, the destination of Gawain's quest, is close by and Gawain should stay with them for the duration of the holidays. We are treated to some coy (and mostly chaste) loveplay on the part of Bertilak's wife from which Gawain mostly manages to extricate himself without contravening the dictates of politeness, as well as the details of a medieval deer, boar and fox hunt with nary a point missing.
In the end Gawain goes to the chapel and finds that his erstwhile host Bertilak was in fact the Green Knight. Gawain submits himself and is left, after three swings, with only a scratch as a reward for his courteous behaviour in Bertilak's castle. Despite the apparent success of Gawain, he views the adventure as a failure since he did not come off completely unscathed and he wears a girdle he was gifted by Bertilak's wife as a mark of shame to remind himself of this. Harsh much?
The language of the Gawain poet's middle english is beautiful and I highly recommend reading it in the original with a good translation at hand to catch the nuances of meaning. The poem is replete with an almost dreamlike quality that is made real by all of the exquisite details of medieval life that are interspersed throughout the text. This is a great book to read at Christmas time....more
This, for me at least, is difficult poetry. Without the accompanying explication penned by C. S. Lewis I would have been pretty lost. Having said thatThis, for me at least, is difficult poetry. Without the accompanying explication penned by C. S. Lewis I would have been pretty lost. Having said that, I think these volumes of poetry are amazing, and may be the greatest poetic version of the Matter of Britain from the 20th century (I'd argue that Clemence Housman's _The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis_ is the greatest prose version of that century). Williams, ironically best known as the least famous of the "big three" of the Inklings (the other two being J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis), is more well-known for his 'theological thrillers' and life as a somewhat strange Christian guru, but I think his most important literary work was done in these poems. Following the rise and fall of Arthur's kingdom, as penned by the bard Taliessin, we see Williams commenting not only on the mythical king's realm, but on issues as wide ranging as politics, economics, morality and, of course, theology.
I am nowwhere near expert enough to go into any great detail here, especially since it's been several years since I last read these poems, but I would strongly urge anyone with an interest in either the Arthurian myths or the body of work of the Inklings to give this volume a try. It has the potential to be a real eye-opener....more
As far as I'm concerned this is the edition of Malory's _Le Morte D'Arthur_ to read. The Middle English is really not so foreign that it requires 'traAs far as I'm concerned this is the edition of Malory's _Le Morte D'Arthur_ to read. The Middle English is really not so foreign that it requires 'translation' and even modernizing the spelling seems a bit superfluous to me as I felt the archaic spelling added to my immersion in the stories.
Malory is certainly not an easy read however, and his repetitions and digressions can become a bit tiring to the modern reader at times. That said, if you approach the text as a series of linked tales as opposed to one monumental novel (though there is indeed an overall story arc) it is much more easily digested. Many of the greatest moments for me were those that 'strayed' from this overarching narrative and simply told of interesting characters and wonderful scenes. These included the tragic brothers Balin & Balan, Gawain's courteous younger brother Gareth, and Sir Tristram's unlucky rival Palomides.
An enjoyable read and certainly required for any serious student or aficionado of Arthuriana....more
An incredibly moving story that takes place in the Arthurian mythos and centres around the life of a minor character from Malory, for my money this maAn incredibly moving story that takes place in the Arthurian mythos and centres around the life of a minor character from Malory, for my money this may be the best novelistic interpretation of the Matter of Britain of the 20th century. The prose is somewhat archaic (Housman follows Malory's style), but for me that was a plus, not a minus. The author gives us an unflinching look into the glory and the squalor of the Arthurian court and doesn't pull any punches.
Aglovale is the son of King Pellinore (a man known in his day for being one of the peerless knights of his generation), and the elder brother of both Lamorak (the future lover of Queen Morgause and one of the knights who will be listed along with Lancelot and Tristan as one of the three greatest of Arthur's court) and Percivale (one of the few who will gain preeminence in the Grail Quest). From the beginning we see that poor Aglovale is doomed from the start and is not likely to live up to this pedigree. As little more than a lad he is unhorsed by his peerless younger brother in front of not only his parents, but also King Arthur himself. From there things go from bad to worse. Aglovale is never able to regain his confidence and, despite some early success in Arthur's wars of succession which gain him a seat at the Round Table, he is never able to overcome his own perceived failures and lack of merit. Thus he moves from Knight of Camelot to mercenary bandit to penitant overburdended by his own guilt and sense of worthlessness.
He is a real tragic anti-hero and it is ironically not necessarily because of his quesitonable deeds, but because of his unbending devotion to truth and his inability to lie in the face of shame. Unlike some knights (such as Gawain, Kay and Agravaine...not to mention Mordred) Aglovale never denies his wrong doing and never seeks the easy way out of explanation and excuse. He calls a spade and spade and as a result ends up being showered with abuse and ignominy while other Knights of his acquantaince do deeds as bad as his own (or worse)and remain high in Arthur's favour. Indeed, Arthur is far from fully sympathetic in this tale for he seems to see in Aglovale a tacit criticism of his peerless court and is willing to let this single man bear the weight of the crimes that he refuses to deny. Still, he struggles on and manages to remain true to his own ideals even in the face of the derision and failure he meets at every turn. The flip-side of this is that Aglovale is a hard man. He spares no excuses for himself and thus does not flinch at applying the same rigorous standards to others. This of course does not win him any friends. Only his brothers and, ironically enough, Lancelot bear any admiration for Aglovale. Of his brothers only Percivale can perceive the good man his older brother is trying to be (the others view him with a sort of shamefaced admiration which vacilates between embarrassment and sympathy). For his part Lancelot sees a man able to live a life his own sense of honour could only dream of...he has too much to lose should he publicly admit to the acts he has done in private, and he honours the man he cannot afford to be.
It sounds a dreary tale, and there are definitely moments of drudgery in Aglovale's life, in fact many dark nights of the soul he must endure, yet despite all that a character who is not always lovable is made sympathetic and I always find myself rooting for this underdog in the shining court. In the end Aglovale's tale becomes not only a story of a fallen man struggling for redemption, but a critique of the inadequacies of Camelot and a warning of the dangers in the acceptance of any ideal that will allow falsehood to endure for the sake of public image.
H. Warner Munn’s _Merlin’s Ring_ is one of the odder fantasies I have come across in my reading, but also one for which I have a deep affection. The bH. Warner Munn’s _Merlin’s Ring_ is one of the odder fantasies I have come across in my reading, but also one for which I have a deep affection. The book is equal parts pseudo-Arthurian Romance (in both the medieval and modern sense of the word), era-spanning historical fantasy à la Phra the Phoenician, and epic hero’s journey; there is even some mild pulp sci-fi thrown in for good measure. Despite (or maybe because of) all of this melding and mixing, _Merlin’s Ring_ manages to be something all its own.
Written by one of the old standbys of the Weird Tales pulp magazine (Munn was an associate of Lovecraft and Seabury Quinn) _Merlin’s Ring_ was probably Munn’s masterwork. It is actually the second volume in a series of stories that purport to tell the tale of what happened to Arthur’s followers after the great King’s fall, but it can be read on its own quite easily. All one needs to know from the first volume (collecting two original novellas under the title Merlin's Godson) is that it describes how the wizard Merlin and the Romano-British centurion Ventidius Varro fled Britain with their followers and sailed in Arthur’s ship Prydwen to the New World. There they became kings among the Aztecs and a son is born to Varro, Gwalchmai, who has for godfather none other than the famous Merlin. Varro sends his son back to the Old World on a quest to find the current emperor and offer to him overlordship of Varro’s new domain. On the way across the Atlantic Gwalchmai has many adventures and even comes across an ancient Atlantean Swan-Ship which houses a strange robotic statue inhabited by the transmigrating spirit of an undying Atlantean princess. The two of course fall in love, but as the tale ends Gwalchmai is trapped beneath a glacier with his love, Corenice, promising they will meet again.
This volume opens several hundred years later as Corenice, now inhabiting the body of a Viking maiden, forces her family to steer their ship towards the glacier that houses Gwalchmai’s body. Thanks to having drunk his godfather’s elixir of life, as well as having possession of his magical ring, Gwalchmai has been able to weather the centuries in the ice unharmed and no older than when he was first frozen. He is freed from the ice by Corenice and so begins his renewed quest to find the emperor to whom he can give the message of his father. What follows is a meandering journey from western Europe to the far East and back again which spans centuries (Merlin’s elixir exacts periods of a death-like sleep in order to pay for long life) and takes Gwalchmai into a variety of adventures. These adventures include a somewhat admittedly twee stay in Faery where he retrieves Arthur’s sword Excalibur, a journey to China (initially in search of the supposed Christian King Prester John) in a humourous style reminiscent of Bramah’s Kai Lung stories, a voyage to feudal Japan, and a return west where he comes across Joan of Arc (an apparent descendant of his and Corenice’s) and ultimately tangles with an old foe, the alien-god Oduarpa who had been responsible for the fall of Atlantis.
In many ways it is a strange tale and not every element of it works as well as others. Still, Munn has an easy prose style and was a meticulous researcher who brings vivid life to the era-spanning adventures of his hero. Gwalchmai’s ostensible quest is really little more than a macguffin meant to propel the hero forward through time and across space as he lives out his not-quite-immortal term. The lynchpin of the story is the romance between Gwalchmai and his transmigrating love Corenice. Sometimes this romance can be stretched to the point of excess, but ultimately Munn is able to pull the story back and make us care about these characters whose fate as semi-supernatural heroes seems to always get in the way of their true desire to simply live a simple life with each other. Munn creates an interesting world populated both with real historical figures (among them Kublai Khan, Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais and Christopher Columbus), alongside mythical figures such as King Arthur, the Norse god Thor, and the Fae, as well as his own inventions in the form of Corenice, last daughter of high-tech Atlantis, and their alien foe the dark lord Oduarpa.
I imagine this book will not be to everyone’s taste, but if you like historically flavoured fantasy with a strong dose of romance and optimism then I’d recommend giving _Merlin’s Ring_ a try (either with or without the companion volume Merlin's Godson)....more