The Death of Arthur – A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd

Being a writer I come across a lot of books but back in July I was actually given one: Peter Ackroyd’s retelling of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. I rarely review books but this one was of interest to me on a number of levels.

I have a long standing enthusiasm for Arthurian legends but this book also reminded me of one of the first books I ever read which might be considered historical fiction. It was about King Arthur and was one of the old Regent Classics series of books which also included such giants as Ivanhoe, Robin Hood and the Three Musketeers.Arthur

Thomas Malory himself holds some fascination for me too since he wrote in the fifteenth century which happens to be my own period of special interest as a writer. Malory was an interesting character to say the least. Born in the early years of a very turbulent century, he embodied both the chivalry and the brutality of his age. He was a man of influence: a knight, landowner, justice of the peace, MP and Sheriff of Warwickshire. Yet in the 1450s – and if ever there was a decade for wheels to fall off, that was it – he was accused of a string of crimes including rape, ambush, theft and extortion. He was imprisoned too, several times. As Peter Ackroyd suggests in his introduction, the fact that at least part of Morte d’Arthur was written in prison might explain the melancholy of the work.

According to Malory, he concocted Morte d’Arthur from various traditional stories that he came across and it certainly has the feel of a collection of related stories. However, the way in which Peter Ackroyd brings these elements together is most impressive. There is a tendency for Morte d’Arthur to seem so episodic that a consistent narrative is hard to discern but I was pleased to find that this edition conveyed a clear and coherent storyline.

There are always limitations when trying to repackage a story written long ago and for a very different audience, but Peter Ackroyd does a splendid job. I think he brings great clarity to the text whilst remaining essentially true to it. Some of Malory’s tale is hard for the modern reader to tune into and there is always a temptation to subvert the text to increase its appeal. Peter Ackroyd does not do so, for which we should be grateful.

The reader must accept that the events of the story take place in a land which is not England but a kind of “alternative England.” There may have been faith, war, multiple kings and jousting in England but Malory’s created world is not the same. For one thing, in his fictional world one can hardly move for knights and gentlewomen. Hardly a page goes by without the characters stumbling over one or the other – often more than one. It seems too that knights were never happier than when lusting after “adventures” unless of course they fell asleep under a tree which also seems to occur remarkably frequently. It is also a world where magic exists, in spells, enchanted woods, Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake.

Yet this is a book first published in 1485 and we should be mindful of that. Malory’s book is heavily influenced by the events of the fifteenth century and yet the nadir had yet to be reached when the book was finished. Malory’s time saw political upheaval in England on an unprecedented scale: the overthrow of kings and a string of bloody battles. There was little chivalry to be found in the Wars of the Roses and Malory’s tale too is bitter sweet: the chivalrous knights of the Round Table are doomed to destruction from the start. The Christian faith is as important as it was in the real world yet it is packaged with sorrow. The story of the Holy Grail is pivotal to the whole tale but the pursuit of purity is entwined with the contrasting tale of two pairs of illicit lovers: Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristram and Isolde. There are no happy endings here – the clue is in the title.

Malory died in the spring of 1471 – and so did many others. We do not know how he perished but at that moment in time the English crown was being fought over in two savage battles at Barnet and Tewkesbury – almost the stuff of Arthurian legend. The savagery and the sadness of 1471 seem to be somehow foretold in the final chapters of Morte d’Arthur.

Malory’s work has endured and formed the basis of a constant thread running through literature. He immortalised Arthur and his knights and created images in readers’ minds which are hard to erase. Peter Ackroyd’s retelling will keep the images as vibrant now as they ever were.

Peter’s book can be found – amongst other places – at:

morte darthur

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, History, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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