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The Death of King Arthur

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An immortal story of love, adventure, chivalry, treachery and death brought to new life for our times. The legend of King Arthur has retained its appeal and popularity through the ages - Mordred's treason, the knightly exploits of Tristan, Lancelot's fatally divided loyalties and his love for Guenever, the quest for the Holy Grail.

316 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2010

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About the author

Peter Ackroyd

175 books1,314 followers
Peter Ackroyd CBE is an English novelist and biographer with a particular interest in the history and culture of London.

Peter Ackroyd's mother worked in the personnel department of an engineering firm, his father having left the family home when Ackroyd was a baby. He was reading newspapers by the age of 5 and, at 9, wrote a play about Guy Fawkes. Reputedly, he first realized he was gay at the age of 7.

Ackroyd was educated at St. Benedict's, Ealing and at Clare College, Cambridge, from which he graduated with a double first in English. In 1972, he was a Mellon Fellow at Yale University in the United States. The result of this fellowship was Ackroyd's Notes for a New Culture, written when he was only 22 and eventually published in 1976. The title, a playful echo of T. S. Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), was an early indication of Ackroyd's penchant for creatively exploring and reexamining the works of other London-based writers.

Ackroyd's literary career began with poetry, including such works as London Lickpenny (1973) and The Diversions of Purley (1987). He later moved into fiction and has become an acclaimed author, winning the 1998 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for the biography Thomas More and being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987.

Ackroyd worked at The Spectator magazine between 1973 and 1977 and became joint managing editor in 1978. In 1982 he published The Great Fire of London, his first novel. This novel deals with one of Ackroyd's great heroes, Charles Dickens, and is a reworking of Little Dorrit. The novel set the stage for the long sequence of novels Ackroyd has produced since, all of which deal in some way with the complex interaction of time and space, and what Ackroyd calls "the spirit of place". It is also the first in a sequence of novels of London, through which he traces the changing, but curiously consistent nature of the city. Often this theme is explored through the city's artists, and especially its writers.

Ackroyd has always shown a great interest in the city of London, and one of his best known works, London: The Biography, is an extensive and thorough discussion of London through the ages.

His fascination with London literary and artistic figures is also displayed in the sequence of biographies he has produced of Ezra Pound (1980), T. S. Eliot (1984), Charles Dickens (1990), William Blake (1995), Thomas More (1998), Chaucer (2004), William Shakespeare (2005), and J. M. W. Turner. The city itself stands astride all these works, as it does in the fiction.

From 2003 to 2005, Ackroyd wrote a six-book non-fiction series (Voyages Through Time), intended for readers as young as eight. This was his first work for children. The critically acclaimed series is an extensive narrative of key periods in world history.

Early in his career, Ackroyd was nominated a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984 and, as well as producing fiction, biography and other literary works, is also a regular radio and television broadcaster and book critic.

In the New Year's honours list of 2003, Ackroyd was awarded the CBE.

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Profile Image for Courtney Johnston.
379 reviews149 followers
December 20, 2011
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; it 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 kid, 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; adult 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—Númenor 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 uqeen, 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 ...]

Profile Image for Christopher.
645 reviews209 followers
July 30, 2014
This was my first sally forth into the Arthurian legend and it was absorbing, surprising, and absolutely lovable. This is a very different picture of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table than I got from Disney's The Sword and the Stone. For one thing, it is much, much darker. Arthur is a very Oedipal character, going to extreme lengths (e.g. drowning a shipful of infants) to avoid Merlin's prophecy that he would be murdered. Fun fact: did you know that Excalibur was not the sword that Arthur pulled from the stone? Nope, the sword from the stone broke after a bit and he just threw it away. Excalibur was a sword that was offered up to him from an arm that came out of a mysterious lake.

It's a fount of delightfully messed up characters. There's the aforementioned Arthur, the star although he is in the background of most of the book, playing second fiddle to some of the more active noble knights. His most beloved knight Lancelot, who (in a very unchivalric manner) spends years cuckolding the king. Arthur's sister, the powerful sorceress Morgan le Fay, who serves as this universe's mischievous Loki. She buried Merlin alive with spells; as far as I can tell, he's still somewhere in the belly of the earth, subsisting on earthworms. Sir Brewnour, a colorful antagonist who established teh custom of dueling to the death every man who visits his castle and killing every woman who is less beautiful than his own wife.

Of course, it all ends tragically and nearly every character meets an unhappy end. And that's all just part of the fun. I can't wait to delve deeper into the Arthurian world.

A note on this edition: This is a "retelling" of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table by Peter Ackroyd and by the look of the other reviews of this book, it's not even a great one. The naysayers posit that Ackroyd made the legend seem bland. I found it anything but bland. If I were to do it over again, I'd probably start with a different book, probably Malory or White'sThe Once and Future King or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But as it is, I am very pleased with this book.
Profile Image for Maya Panika.
Author 1 book68 followers
November 21, 2010
I’ve been a huge fan of the Arthurian legends since childhood, I read Malory’s Morte d’Arthur till it literately fell apart. I’m also a fan of Peter Ackroyd - his books on London, Dickens and Blake are memorable in bringing their subjects so vividly to life - so The Death of King Arthur was doubly disappointing to me. Malory’s stories are already so well-known, I was expecting an imaginative, inventive re-telling, something more like Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, but this was a stodgy, stolid translation rather than an interpretation, a Malory with all the magic beaten out.
Profile Image for art of storytelling.
118 reviews8 followers
October 19, 2017
Really old stories tug on your suspension of disbelief in a way that probably bugs modern readers more than it bugged readers of the time, but this reselling of Malory manages to capture what appeals to people even now about Arthurian legend. It's cool to get swept up in a story that's so old.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,007 followers
February 24, 2011
Peter Ackroyd's retelling of Malory's tales purports to be a modernisation, a revivification, even. I don't think it really achieves its goals. Flawed as Malory's work is, to the modern reader at least, I think there's a passion there and a meaning that slips through Ackroyd's fingers. He cuts liberally from the text, so that it certainly doesn't hold the richness of Malory -- if you're looking for something simplified, abridged, I might even venture to say dumbed down, then Peter Ackroyd's retelling might save you the long (but rewarding, in my opinion) job of reading Malory's original text. On the other hand, I don't think it adequately captures the original text, so perhaps you'd be better reading one of the countless modern retellings, or one of the more dynamic texts in translation (Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is fun) -- Malory's work was itself a retelling, after all.

I didn't find it enthralling, as you can tell. I didn't find it -- here, let's find some quotations from the blurb and such -- a 'magical and moving evocation of humanity's endless search for perfection, nor did I find it a 'dramatic modern story', or that it brought 'new life' to the story for our times.

One thing I did appreciate was that the introduction and even the dust jacket acknowledge that Malory was no paragon of virtue (how ironic that he wrote about chivalry and the finest knights in the world).

While this review seems fairly scathing, I didn't hate the book, either. I simply found it completely unremarkable.

I think I might start rereading Malory, now...

Wait. The GR blurb says, 'This title presents readable accounts of the knights of the Round Table.' Readable, yes. That's about the most positive I can be about it, too.
Profile Image for David.
320 reviews14 followers
July 21, 2011
Not so much a retelling of the Arthurian legends, more a new translation and abridgement. Ackroyd has taken Malory's text and retold it in the modern idiom, along the way removing much of the contradictions and superfluous descriptions of battles that clog up the original text. However by doing so he has lost some of the poetry of the language. To be honest the first part of the book is a bit of a slog and it is only when the Quest for the Grail begins that things take off we are carried along to the inevitable doomed conclusion to the story. Much of it reads like notes for a fuller retelling of the legends, or a simplified version for 'young adults'. This is not to detract from Ackroyd's achievement; he is to be applauded for keeping the legends alive and if people go on to tackle Malory's original text that can only be a good thing. Personally I prefer my Arthurian reading to be a bit fuller and I'd recommend Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalaon (but not the sequel/prequels) and T.H. White's The Once and Future King to those who seek a reinterpretation of these classic doomed romances.
Profile Image for Stacia.
825 reviews101 followers
November 6, 2016
I can't count myself in the ranks of fans for King Arthur stories. They should be exciting or adventurous (even though I have never read the originals), but instead they seemed rendered dull by this version. This thing is over 300 pages & the plot line pretty much repeats every three pages or so. I guess that makes it about 100 times I read a similar scenario over & over & over.... It becomes rather mind-numbing after a point.

A slog, but as a good knight (or lady), I stayed the course, fought the battle, & have emerged on the other side. Not sure if I made it through the reading battle scathed or unscathed....

Good luck, dear reader!
Profile Image for Inkspill.
389 reviews38 followers
January 30, 2020
This is one of the many works that is referenced in art and poetry, which I’ve been meaning to read to furnish my understandings of those works better.

I’d kind of heard of King Arthur but until now I’ve never made the connection to Guinevere, Lancelot, Sir Galahad, Sir Gawain, Merlin, Tristram, Isolde, connection to Christianity and the Holy Grail. This is a modern retell of Malory’s text (thought to be first published in 1485), which is available in two volumes on Gutenberg and written in Old English, making this Ackroyd’s retell an easier read.

Before reading this, I did compare the two. Ackroyd’s book has 6 main chapters headings, where 5 are divided further with snappy sub-headings to find that story easily. Malory’s 2 volumes are divided into 21 Books, which are further divided into chapters with long headings that describe the story to come. In comparing these, overall, I got the sense that Ackroyd covered all the important parts of the tale. His book is considerably shorter; I can only guess that his modern retell had trimmed out all the extra quests the knights venture on. Maybe Ackroyd thought it was enough to say that this happened by a quick mention rather than describing it in depth. I didn’t feel I had lost anything for this, as I still managed to come away with a clear grasp of the duty and honour the knights live by, and also Ackroyd’s retell showed me clearly how love and romance operates differently in King Arthur’s world. I came to this realisation without needing to look anything up or read about it.

When I finished, I was given a distinct impression that this was a moral tale by how Sir Lancelot does not achieve his quest of the Holy Grail. It also a tragic tale in how the love Lancelot and Guinevere have brings down the fellowship of the round table, the end of Arthur’s reign and Camelot. I’m not sure if reading Malory’s tale would have given me this same understanding to see the difference it has made when I now look at art works that give a nod to this story. This year I intend to read other stories around the myth of King Arthur and now feel more confident that I can do this.
Profile Image for Caroline.
718 reviews120 followers
March 23, 2011
Does the world need a new retelling of the Arthurian saga? Particularly one that, and forgive me for this, feels so dumbed-down?

I have read many of Ackroyd's non-fiction books and I have always been very impressed with him as a writer, but I couldn't help but be disappointed with this. It smacks of those 'modern' revisions of the Bible, where it may be more 'accessible' (and how I hate that word in connection with literature) but much of the beauty and majesty of the language is lost. This book left me cold, alas.

This is marketed as a new translation of Malory, but if Ackroyd has changed so much of the language to make it 'accessible' and eliminated much that he feels is extraneous, is it really Malory at all? Isn't it just Ackroyd's own take on the legend?

I might give this to a child to read, but it's not for adults, in my mind, and if I'm honest, if I was recommending an Arthurian tale to a child I'd usher them in the direction of T.H. White.
Profile Image for Alison.
305 reviews1 follower
October 4, 2017
I read this because I love the Arthurian legends and thought this would be more accessible than the original text. It was, but it also felt a little flat and repetitive. I've read much more exciting and interesting interpretations of King Arthur's story.
Profile Image for Ben.
615 reviews
May 12, 2022
The legend foretells that King Arthur will return in Britain’s hour of need…

Ackroyd retells the tale of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) like a surreal and fantastical dream. The stories seem to develop at random but at the same time everything feels like it has symbolic meaning, redolent of that other epic of knights and chivalry, Spencer’s The Faerie Queen (1590-96), which must have been heavily influenced by Malory.

There certainly is a lot of symbolism here, especially when the focus moves to the search for the holy grail, but even Ackroyd says that the plot “turns on sudden crises and arbitrary adventures.”

Ackroyd’s language is spare and the prose is for the most part in the guise of simple reportage. There’s not much in the way of interior monologue or psychology, and you’re left to fill in the blanks yourself as reader, if you want to.

The stories here have become the stuff of legend and, in Ackroyd’s slimmed-down retelling, they’re newly strange and thrilling.

These knights, who spend much time rescuing damsels in distress; jousting to prove their prowess and valour, and to prove the purity of those same damsels in distress (God always backs the righteous); and fighting in wars; are transitory figures, who come and go, and when they do go, it’s often with their guts or brains spilling out. The world of King Arthur is a violent one, and an honourable knight’s fortune can turn on a hastily uttered unwise word.

A tone of melancholy invades the final quarter, charting the demise of Arthur and his knights, as Ackroyd, in his introduction, says it does in Mallory too.
Profile Image for Gala.
293 reviews4 followers
April 6, 2019
Це переказ Мелорі, навіть не дуже на сучасний лад. Після прочитання стало зрозуміло на скільки Теренс Уайт близький у своєму "королі..." саме до "смерті артура...". Історія страшне християнізована, особливо в тій частині, де пошуки Грааля. Всі хороші лицарі - цнотливі, або каються. Секс приводить до неприємностей. Не до тих, що й повинен за відсутності контрацепції й медицини, а до втрати лицарської сили і т.ін. Цікаво, звідки в Ланслота що беріг вірність Гвеневері (і лицарській силі) взявся благочестивий до нудоти син Галахад, але якось воно вийшло.
Ця книга зняла моє питання чому Гвеневера врешті зрадила Артуру з Ланселотом - регулярно її хтось у чомусь звинувачує, і справидливо, і зовсім ні, та вимагає негайно спалити. І король у відповідь "ну як треба, то треба". Ланселот раз пораз змагається на поєдинках честі щоб зняти королеву з вогнища. Не дивно що все закінчилось, як закінчилось.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
36 reviews
May 19, 2022
An interesting insight into the knightly court and ideals of the 15th century, but a bit tough to read narratively.
Profile Image for Andrew Jacobson.
39 reviews6 followers
February 23, 2012
The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend by Thomas Malory; adapted by Peter Ackroyd (New York: Viking Adult, 2011. 336 pp) Originally Posted at wherepenmeetspaper.blogspot.com

Peter Ackroyd, CBE, is a British biographer and novelist. His biographies include those of Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, and Sir Thomas Moore.

Sir Thomas Malory (1405-1471) was an English writer and poet, and compiler of Le Morte d'Arthur.

In Praise of Honor and Valor (Or Honour and Valour)

Always a fan of the legend of King Arthur and his knights, I’ve found enjoyment in the chivalry and altogether fascinating exploits within the collective. It’s an unforgettable story of love, adventure, treachery, and magical escapades. The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend is an attempt by Peter Ackroyd to bring the classic story by Sir Thomas Malory into the modern idiom, but I’m not sure he succeeds.

The Beginning

Arthur is raised by a knight, and becomes king when he finds his destiny enclosed in a stone.

“It has been ordained by God that the one who takes up this sword will reign over us...so the people of London set up a great cry. ‘We will have Arthur to be sovereign over us. There must be no more delay! The day has come. God’s will be done!’” (14-15).

The story begins just like you remember it, and Arthur became king. Merlin tells Arthur he will be victorious in battle and a mighty king as well. But, the retold tales are still the same: Merlin, The Sword and the Stone, Arthur and Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, Tristram and Isolde, The Quest for the Holy Grail, Arthur’s mendacious son Mordred, and Lancelot’s betrayal of Arthur with his unrequited love for Guinevere.

So, no real surprises here and not much to tell outside of why Ackroyd’s version may have some merit.

Same ‘Ol Same ‘Ol

In the attempt to retell the story of King Arthur, Ackroyd ends up dumbing it down more than bringing it into a new, fresh state. He could have done much more to enliven the story, but he simply translated it into a somewhat monotonous storyline that leaves much to be desired, especially if you’ve read the version by Sir Thomas Malory (Le Morte d'Arthur).

Sure, Malory is a bit hard to get into with all the old English, but once you’ve gained some momentum it’s pretty fascinating. Perhaps I’ve romanticized the Malory version, but the Ackroyd version, to me at least, leaves something to be desired.

There have been countless editions of the classic Malory story over the years, my favorite of which, already modernized, is The Once and Future King by T.H. White. So, my question is, was a newer version really that necessary?

At the same time, however, I think The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend is still worthwhile as it does do some justice to the Arthurian legends of old. But, if it were me, I’d stick with Malory’s original story.

Originally Posted at wherepenmeetspaper.blogspot.com
Profile Image for Mike.
Author 28 books87 followers
March 4, 2016
This "retelling" is a decent translation and (badly needed) abridgement of Mallory's Morte d'Arthur.

Which is both its strength and its weakness. The Arthurian material is wonderful. Mallory is perhaps the most inept storyteller in English literature. He sure ain't Chaucer. If you really love the Arthurian stories, read Gottfried von Strassburg, Chretien de Troyes, or any of dozens of others who have told these tales. Even T. H. White, whose extraordinarily inventive 20th-century version puts an anti-war twist on the stories.

I checked a number of passages against Caxton (Caxton's Malory: A New Edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur Based on the Pierpont Morgan Copy of William Caxton's Edition of 1485). I admit that I've never had the patience to read through Malory in the (very unabridged) original. They seemed reasonably accurate: they have the same rather flat feeling as the Caxton text. I found one strange and beautiful excess at Lancelot's death: Ackroyd describes his face as "surprised by joy," which is a wonderful anachronistic allusion to C. S. Lewis and, in turn, to William Wordsworth that's entirely unsupported by the original. I suspect that if you were to go about it more throughly, you could find more excesses like this. So be it--the book would be better if it were less Malory and more Lewis. Or White. Or Gaiman. Or almost anything.

So, if you want to read the (more or less) complete Arthurian corpus in English, go for it. This is readable. It's not wonderful. But that's Malory coming through, not Ackroyd.
Profile Image for Stacie (MagicOfBooks).
611 reviews75 followers
November 11, 2016
I will also do a video review here at my channel: http://www.youtube.com/magicofbooks

I don't have too much to really say about this book. I've already previously read "Le Morte D'Arthur" by Thomas Mallory in it's original Middle English for a college course on Arthurian legend. I mostly picked up this book simply for the beautiful cover (so shiny!), and I also wanted to just read a contemporary translation, which the cover is advertising as "a retelling by Peter Ackroyd." I think Peter Ackroyd did an okay job here with his translation. I'll quote a bit from how he decided to translate this book:

"I have tried by best to convert Malory's sonorous and exhilarating prose into a more contemporary idiom; this is a loose, rather than punctilious translation. I have also chosen to abbreviate the narrative in pursuit of clarity and simplicity. [...] Malory is often rambling and repetitive; much that would have amused and interested a medieval audience will not appeal to a modern readership. I have also amended Malory's inconsistencies."

I think Ackroyd, for the most part, achieved his goal, because his translation does make for a smoother read and cuts out a lot of the fat and repetition. My problem with his translation is that oftentimes I felt like the story and characters were over the top and melodramtic, something I don't remember from reading the original Middle English text. Seriously, I found myself laughing on quite a few occasions when I don't think I was supposed to be laughing. Let's put it this way, if you've seen "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," you can see what that movie was parodying, and that's how I felt reading this translation, that it almost felt like a parody. And I don't think that was Ackroyd's intention for it to come across as amusing.

Overall, I do think this is a fine translation for a modern day audience if you are someone wanting to get into Arthurian legend and you don't want to spend forever trying to translate the French or Middle English originals. I appreciated what Ackroyd was trying to do with the text because he certainly cut out a lot of things that were unneeded.
Profile Image for John.
17 reviews2 followers
February 23, 2017
I enjoyed delving into the Arthurian myths especially in the safe hands of Peter Aykroyd. The stories were interesting if a little repetitive. Overall, the retelling is worth a read for historical value without igniting much excitement.
Profile Image for Kelsey Dangelo-Worth.
457 reviews9 followers
May 31, 2013
After devouring and adoring Ackryod's brilliant retelling of The Canterbury Tales, I eagerly scooped up his rendition of Malory's The Death of King Arthur, which I always wanted to read, but was always rebuffed by the confusing, clumsy archaic prose. Malory was no writer, after all. He was an imprisoned knight. So, I was excited by Ackryod's readable retelling, to read the oldest literary telling of the wonderful King Arthur tales that have intrigued my imagination for decades.
Alas--and I do not blame Ackryod at all for this, as I don't think he had much to work with--I was very much disappointed. My modern sensibilities and literary thirst simply cries from more character and story than a giant, violent bland soap opera of sex and violence, flat characters slaying red shirts, where make might right, characters whom we are constantly told are good, when they are not. Mostly the knights run around fighting over women whom they shouldn't be sleeping with, killing people they shouldn't be, and chasing after religious icons they don't understand. The story is confusing and unengaging in its simplicity and banality. It's a fascinating study in the code of courtly love and chivalry, but it certainly doesn't make for a good story. Arthur does nothing, Lancelot is an asshole, Guinevere a total bitch, and everyone else gets their brains smeared across the scenery. Frankly, it's boring. Grade: B
Profile Image for Laura Crosse.
402 reviews6 followers
March 13, 2015
Oh dear god....

You know those slapstick comedies that try so hard to be hilarious that they end up being not funny at all? This was kind of like that but it wasn't trying to be funny at all which made it possibly one of the most depressing books I've ever had to read. It was like a Monty Python skit but one that wasn't in the least bit humorous. I don't know how else to describe it.

I honestly don't know how much of the story is based on fact or fiction. I'm guessing it's loosely based on events at that time in history. However if people back then really did act like they acted in this book I am so, so very glad that I didn't live back in those times.

It was written in the weirdest, most horrible style I've ever come across. There were weird little synopsis sentences every few paragraphs which basically ruined any kind of surprise that was coming up in the following few paragraphs. It also read like something my two year old could come up with.

I've read Peter Ackroyd before and it wasn't bad. His Casebook of Victor Frankenstein was a great twist on the original so I wrongly assumed this would be something similar. A modern take on the tale of King Arthur. How wrong was I? Very.

Poor, so, so very poor.
Profile Image for Lisa Wolf.
1,608 reviews172 followers
January 24, 2012
It's hard to know how to rate this book. On the one hand, I'm sure this really is a "masterful" retelling of Sir Thomas Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur, as the blurb on the cover claims. However, never having read any earlier translations or retellings, I don't have much of a basis for comparison.

Therefore, rather than rate the quality of the retelling, I can only rate this book as I would any other, whether contemporary or classic, and that would be based on my enjoyment of the reading experience. In that regard, I can only rate The Death of King Arthur as "so-so". It was fine, but quickly became quite repetitive (which I'm sure is true of the original as well). Ultimately, I was bored. Perhaps this says more about me as a reader than about the book itself, but there you have it.

My review: lukewarm, at best. I suppose this just proves that I like my Arthurian legends dressed up in the guise of modern fiction. Give me "The Mists of Avalon" any day!
Profile Image for Scotchneat.
611 reviews9 followers
January 8, 2012
Ackroyd retells Mallory's version of events which spawned a plethora of mythology and stories. I haven't read Mallory in ages, and it was with some surprise I recalled how different this Arthur is from the latest offering on Space channel.

Mallory's texts come from continental romances and oral accounts of the age of chivalry. The knights are more revengeful and stupid, for one. Arthur is not as noble as you think (killing all boy children of a certain age a la Pharaoh to avoid Merlin's prophesy that one will be his killer--Mordred), and generally battling a lot.

Even Lancelot and Gawain and Tristram are a lot more bloody and given to the vagaries of lust and deception, even if its in the name of love.

Ackroyd's prose is pretty accessible and offers a good modern reading of the classic text. Sometimes it's good to go back to sources.
Profile Image for Lauren Lee.
186 reviews83 followers
October 13, 2016
The Death of King Arthur is a retelling of Malory's stories about King Arthur. Really what that entails is a simpler summary of the stories collected together in this volume. If you're not able to read Malory's text as well as you would like and simply want the stories then I think this is a good option. Otherwise, go for the actual text, I felt like much of the story was lost without Malory's writing.
Profile Image for Erin Britton.
531 reviews15 followers
May 9, 2017
In the wild old days of the world there was a king of England known as Uther Pendragon; he was a dragon in wrath as well as power. So goes the exciting, fitting beginning to The Death of King Arthur, Peter Ackroyd’s retelling of Sir Thomas Malory’s sublime Le Morte d’Arthur. Ackroyd’s version is certainly no reimaging, staying true as it does to the tone and subject matter of Malory’s original rather than dragging the epic Arthurian romantic saga kicking and screaming into the 21st century, although he has taken the gamble of abridging certain passages to strip out any “rambling and repetitive” elements and has deliberately attempted to convert Malory’s “sonorous and exhilarating prose” into “a contemporary idiom”. As a long-time lover of Malory’s version of the Arthurian legends I was sceptical about the wisdom and, indeed, the necessity of rewriting his tales for a modern audience, but I was pleasantly surprised by Ackroyd’s book.

The Death of King Arthur begins [as is only sensible] with an Introduction, which offers a brief insight into the life and times of Sir Thomas Malory. Malory had quite an unusual CV for a bestselling [his Le Morte d’Arthur was first issued by Caxton’s press in 1485 and has not been out of print since] novelist and, as well as being a soldier, a knight and a sheriff, was accused in court documents of “rape, ambush, intent to kill, theft, extortion and gang violence”. Despite having been raised on the works of Brut and the alliterative Morte Arthur and having seemingly strived to uphold his family’s values and traditions of the chivalric code [presumably in more of a “do as I say, not as I do” fashion], it was only while imprisoned in Newgate Prison for sundry nefarious deeds that Malory began to write his epic masterpiece. Ackroyd’s biography of Malory is necessarily short but it is hugely valuable as a means of setting the scene behind the writing of Le Morte d’Arthur and explaining the tone and values, as well as the symbolism, which Malory used in his text.

Despite being entitled The Death of King Arthur, the book is primarily comprised of accounts of the reign of King Arthur and of the heroic deeds accomplished in his name by the Knights of the Round Table. Of course, the death of Arthur is foretold by Merlin prior even to the great King’s conception and so the title also serves to allude to Malory’s bleak [no doubt influenced by his life in prison at the time of writing it] view that all roads lead to death and that all of the great events of the Arthurian canon lead unavoidably to the death of Arthur.

Now whether you first came to know of the Arthurian legends through Disney films or comics or the BBC series Merlin or perhaps through a famous literary source by the likes of Tennyson or Roger Lancelyn Green or even John Steinbeck, nearly everyone has some understanding of the exploits of Arthur and the tales of the Round Table and all the favourites are recounted here in The Death of King Arthur. Amongst the included legends, we get to rediscover the reign of Uther Pendragon and his dubious wooing of Igraine; the magic of Merlin and the Lady of the Lake; the youth of Arthur and his drawing of the Sword from the Stone; of the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere; the adventures of Sir Lancelot; Sir Gawain, Sir Bors, Sir Galahad and the Quest for the Holy Grail; and the darkness that draws in on Camelot and of the fall of Arthur. These are classic stories that resonate down through the centuries and are just as exciting and compelling now as they were when the ink was still wet on the first edition of The Mabinogion.

Overall I really enjoyed The Death of King Arthur. It doesn’t matter how many times I have read them or how many editions I own, I love the Arthurian legends just as much today as I did when I first heard of them [through T.R. White’s The Once and Future King if memory serves]. I’ve always enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s writing style previously and, even when effectively rewriting someone else, his tone in The Death of King Arthur is just as elegant and precise as I expected. His conversion of Sir Thomas Malory’s prose into a form more recognisable to modern readers is unobtrusive and doesn’t detract from the power of the original legends. In the same way, the abridgements that he has made to the text do not leave any particular gaps in the story. In fact, the changes are so unobtrusive and the language choices, while different from Malory’s choices, are not too different nor are they particularly ‘modern’. Ackroyd clearly has a great deal of affection for Le Morte d’Arthur and that has what inspired to produce such a faithful recounting of Malory’s book, but it is so faithful that it is perhaps almost redundant. Le Morte d’Arthur isn’t a difficult book to follow or understand and so, while The Death of Arthur is, because of its subject matter, a great book to read, it would have perhaps been more interesting if Ackroyd had compiled his own collection of Arthurian legends, making reference to numerous sources, rather than just reworking a book that is still both accessible and much loved.

Ultimately, The Death of Arthur is a solid retelling of the excellent saga of King Arthur and his knights and, while it might not piqué the interest of those who know and love Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, it is a thrilling and true collection of the classic British legends that have inspired and enthralled generation after generation of readers.
Profile Image for Tom Graham.
2 reviews
December 4, 2010
When you combine one of the greatest legends of all time and someone of Peter Ackroyd's previously evident writing ability you really expect something better than this. If you are considering this as your first experience of the arthurian legend then read Malory's original instead. If you want more read T.H.White's retelling. If you still want more then repeat.
Profile Image for Pure Ideology.
6 reviews
March 30, 2019
The tale contained within is one of the great stories, although here it is somewhat weighed down by a prose that feels somewhat uninspired some of the time, even if occasionally it rises to the task it has set for itself.
Profile Image for virankha.
7 reviews
August 28, 2021
The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend gets a very practical 3/5 stars.


I picked this book up as it was officially withdrawn from the public library. It had not been checked out in the five years it had lived on dusty shelves. But its cover was so beautiful: window panes of the story nestled across the cover, surrounding the illuminated text, illustrated in a bright and blue-grey, flecked tastefully with gold. It captured the majesty and the tragedy I feel reading the King Arthur stories. I was incredibly intrigued, to say the least. (Cover Artist: Stuart Kolakovic)

If I am generous, this book functions in the same way The Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles does. It tells the story of the original text with a compromise between capturing some of the prose and keeping the story readable.

The introduction of this text gets into the philosophy of Sir Thomas Mallory, the author of the original story. Ackroyd talks about how Mallory is speculated to have written this in prison and how Mallory was ruminating on the end of courtly love and chivalry and tradition, all this contributing to the sadness of his version of the story. This made me very excited to dive into this loose and streamlined translation.

This is where this book failed me, in contrast to even Fagle's The Odyssey (which I had a very mediocre time reading), is that the entire spirit of the text is flattened and dehydrated in an extreme way that totally separates you from the pathos of the characters in the story? I don't even know how this was achieved. The most horrible things were happening to some of the characters and I was unnervingly amused by their tears and quandaries. Although I think this would even be forgivable if the whole affair did not feel so pointless (For example: It's this over and over and over again.) I blame Ackroyd for this pointlessness rather than Mallory because many of the contradictions in a lot of the characters' behavior are smoothed over with slightly more intense (and even unwieldy and circuitous) prose. Not because it distracts you, but because you follow the character and their emotional reality so much better. To me, that has always been the most important thing -- holding the emotional thread of the story together. It keeps all these random knight names sticking in your head. It keeps the story followable and memorable. Ultimately, without it, there just isn't anything left to care about.

TL;DR - Ackroyd, you went just a tad too far in your pursuit of practicality darling.


I feel bad for my bafflement and apathy and dislike of this story. 3/5. I'm partially unjustified in this feeling. I picked up this book in a very low-stakes way. I was trying it out. It didn't do what I wanted it to, but I also didn't seek it out specifically. It was a very pretty but accidental acquisition. I finished the whole book, and I found myself gradually enjoying it as I progressed through the story and understood its function. I was not moved. I was not thinking about morality or philosophy. Even the story itself would vanish from my head the moment I put the book down. But I would be an idiot if I did not acknowledge that there are probably many people out there who would have a much better time pursuing a dry but sensible retelling of the story. There is a net positive, I feel, if it encourages people to understand and experience this monumental text.
While I did not seek this out, at the same time, I realize some people may encounter this book accidentally, like I did. I am not the intended audience, but I gave this book a shot and felt it warranted a review.

If you think this retelling is for you, give her a try ;)
Profile Image for Sebastian Palmer.
277 reviews1 follower
February 18, 2022
I first reviewed this, for Amazon UK, in 2010. This is a complete rewrite, or different review, however (same rating though).

This is my first taste of Ackroyd’s writing, and I must confess, it was a slog getting through this book. Ackroyd mentions trying to retain the “plangent and sonorous” language of Malory’s original – although from what I can tell this was in itself a somewhat patchy synthesis of older tales – but this is an aspect that, for me at any rate, is lost in translation.

The stories making up this book feel like small tales from an oral tradition, one in which any one of the many small adventures described might plausibly be little gems, when taken individually. Or perhaps they were simply tall tales told to pass a cold night huddled round the fire? Sometimes with a moral, sometimes just for the thrill of the adventure.

The trouble is that in this version, the sense of homogeneity is not one of an overarching larger story, or even the charismatic voice of one particular storyteller, but rather instead, a patchwork of oft-repeated formulae – a hunt, a jousting tournament, the discovery of a chapel/hermit – which to me were dull rather than exciting.

And there are times when different narrative voices seem to intrude, with no real consistency, such as when the narrator momentarily refers to the reader’s potential doubts regarding a particular miraculous occurence. Such a note really jars, as almost nowhere else are the many such occurrences in any way questioned. A similar but different moment is a reflection on the bizarre theme of courtly love, that does run like a thread throughout these tales: again, out of the blue, the narrator suddenly addresses the reader, and again, it jars somewhat.

Ackroyd may well be right in thinking that some modern readers (perhaps some of the people he had in mind are more watchers than readers?) might not have the palate for Malory’s version, but, in this age of visual recycling – I’m thinking of all the cinema and TV remakes of older books/films and so on – this smacks somewhat of a literary equivalent, so I think the dumbing-down charge made elsewhere, by other reviewers, rings true.

It’s been said that Tennyson’s version of this material (The Idylls of The King) says more about Victorian England than it does about the times from which the mytho-poetic subject allegedly springs. I think perhaps the same could be said of this version, and, sadly, it reflects rather poorly on our times, as lacking in either depth or a grand vision. Dare I even suggest that this may have been a project motivated more by a desire for profit from an ever popular subject, than the pure love of it?

By way of contrast, I’d like to refer the potential reader of this book to Tolkein’s fabulous book The Legend of Sigurd And Gudrun. Arising from Professor Tolkein’s work as an academic philologist, this posthumous publication is, by contrast, very clearly a work driven by a deep and abiding love of his subject, a subject ostensibly similar or parallel to Arthurian legend (the Celtic and Nordic myths even connecting at points, through characters such as Tristan and Isolde), including similar aspects of storytelling: warring clans, betrayal, revenge, shifting alliances, feats of arms, love and honour, portents, omens, charms and potions.

But where Ackroyd loses the magic, Tolkien succeeds in retaining it, perhaps even enhancing it, so that the story remains compelling and exciting, as opposed to the rambling hotch-potch on offer here. I couldn’t in all honesty recommend this.
Profile Image for M..
Author 3 books49 followers
October 31, 2022
The Death Of King Arthur, Peter Ackroyd’s translation of Le Morte D’Arthur, is declaimed by some more learned scholars that myself as a low quality version that summarizes and abridges the content. Having only read this version, I can say that it’s as good a starting point as any could be. Le Mort is a long, linear collection of repetitive short episodes that can get bogged down in sections in this version. A fuller version might be good, but this version is more than enough to digest on a first pass.

Believe to be mistitled at the printing press in its first edition, Le Mort D’Arthur actually follows Arthur’s life from pre-conception to postmortem, though the largest portions in the middle of the book do not follow or involve Arthur at all. Sir Thomas Mallory wrote most or all of this book while in prison, translating and revising preexisting French stories of The Once And Future King who unified A Kingdom from Ireland to parts of France. Much of the beginning of this story has been pretty well represented by Disney and the love triangle of Lancelot and Guinevere and Arthur has been rehashed a few times, but the tone is lost in screen adaptations.

Led by Merlin on most fronts, Arthur’s conception, birth, childhood, and ascension to the throne are miraculous every step of the way. Once he has taken his place, established a round table of mythic quality knights, and unified the kingdoms of England, he falls out of the story completely. Merlin gets trapped under a rock and we never hear about him again. Then the majority of the book follows the star-crossed lovers of Tristan and Isolde and of Lancelot and Guinevere.

There is so much repetition here. Tristan and Isolde are similar but different from Lancelot and Guinevere. Within their two plots, the stories go on and on in cyclical repetitions of random adventures, treacherous strangers, and dangerous liaisons. The random adventures in strange woods and random castles become so repetitive that picking up the story again became less and less intriguing.

Eventually, the Grail plot and the ultra-holy Sir Galahad made the story interesting again and from there the plot really develops into a complex and compelling direction. The Death Of Arthur, in the end, is one wrapped up in complex treachery, vengeance, and fatalistic ignoring of wisdom and sound advice. The development and stages of redemption and failure in the latter parts of Lancelot’s life are really fascinating.

It’s easy to see oral tradition and a collation of a long series of tales in this book that could be cleaner and more cohesive, but the chivalric and romantic elements are as pure as you could wish for if your interested in the elements that went on to influence so much ongoing literature.
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