Bothari’s #CBR4 Review #34: The Death of King Arthur by Peter Ackroyd
You know that let-down feeling you get when you find out an actor you like is a raging loon, or a republican, or otherwise unworthy of your devotion? (Adam Baldwin, nooooo!) This book gave me that feeling in the beginning, but it got better toward the end. I went through a major King Arthur phase while I was in middle/high school, and have kept a soft spot for stories of Camelot, so when I saw this, billed as a retelling of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, I grabbed it.
I’ve read mostly flowery interpretations of the legend, with lots of drama and fleshed out characters and, you know, actual story. This reads like a letter a fourth-grader is forced to write to a distant grandparent: The knights heard there was a war. The knights put on their armor and armed themselves. They departed in great haste. Each knight took squires and pages. There was a great battle. Many knights lost their lives. The Knights of the Round Table won. They went home.
I’m sure Peter Ackroyd was sticking closely to the Malory original, but the “just the facts” style made the book hard to get into. Plus, knights are stupid! That’s where the let-down feeling comes in. There are lots of people who know about the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, but by the rules of the time, the victor of any contest of arms is favored by God. Therefore, if Sir Agravain accuses Lancelot and Guinevere of having a fling, and Lancelot insists they aren’t, and then beats Sir Agravain in a joust, that’s the end and Agravain is wrong. Obviously it’s a lie, otherwise Agravain would have won. And Arthur just goes along with it, and loves Lancelot for his feats of strength. Lancelot’s insistence on Guinevere’s purity and honesty gets a little insane by the end. I know it’s my own fault for expecting the romanticized version of the story, but the bare-bones liars and adulterers getting away with it because of birthright and strength made me think less of poor Arthur.
Further evidence of chivalric stupidity: there are dozens of hermits and recluses and mysterious maidens (plus Merlin himself) who are forever spouting prophesies, and no one EVER listens to them. “Don’t touch that sword, Sir Whatever, it is meant for another, and you will surely die if you carry it into battle.” Sir Whatever: “But it’s shiny, and I like it, so I shall do it anyway.” Sir Whatever is immediately skewered. And that happens over and over! Don’t go into this battle: oops, dead. Don’t get on that boat: oops, dead. Don’t pick up that magic sword/shield: oops, maimed and living in a hermitage for the rest of his life.
Don’t go into this expecting a grand and tragic love story. It’s a lot of senseless fighting, a lot about God (the search for the Holy Grail takes up most of the middle of the book), and not much character. But by the end of the book, my let-down feeling did get better, because I could see the seeds of the epic stories that other people have taken and run with. Even though Malory/Ackroyd only provided the basics, others saw that the tales of Sir Gawain, Sir Galahad, Tristram and Isolde, Merlin, and the love triangle to end all love triangles could be built on those beginnings. It was interesting to see the seeds of those ideas, even if it was a little disillusioning.