This is Simon Armitage's second shot at an alliterative epic. His Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2007) was highly entertaining: perhaps more entertaining than this version of Morte Arthure, but only because Gawain contains more startling images. As a feat of re-telling, The Death of King Arthur is more remarkable and sustained. One single decision makes it: consistency of tense. Epic medieval poems switch from past to present in a way that jars modern ears. Armitage held to this in Gawain, but here chooses past tense throughout.
This suits Morte Arthure, far less well-known than Malory's or Tennyson's versions. It suits it because it has the quality of history as well as drama. Written by an unknown author in about 1400, borrowing heavily from Layamon's Brut, it will surprise readers expecting swords in stones, a lake-deep lovely, and the dashing Lancelot. This Carlisle-based Arthur is a brassed-off warrior enraged by being asked to pay tribute and taxes to Rome. He assembles an army, sails to the continent, and powers across France to Italy, subduing everywhere from Lorraine to Tuscany, and slaughtering anyone en route. There is much cleaving. Enemies are chopped in two (vertically and horizontally). If you're squeamish about evisceration, go back to Tennyson's Idylls of the King.
The problem for a modernising poet is archaism. Armitage opts to stick with it, but to render it less obtrusive (this isn't as free as the late Christopher Logue's Iliad, nor as Armitage's terrific Odyssey). The lists of who's being pitted against whom can be tiringly exhaustive, but Armitage captures the original's oddity while making it accessible.
The language's gruesome energy is sometimes diluted, but that's a small price to pay for this revival. Here's Sir Kay's death in the original: "At the turning that time the traitour him hit/ In through the felettes and in the flank after/ That the bustous launce the bewelles entamed,/ That braste at the brawling". Armitage makes this "as he tried to turn the traitor hit him,/ first in the loins, then further through the flank;/ the brutal lance buried into his bowels,/ burst them in the brawl". The word order is quietly shifted. We might lose "felettes" and "bustous"; we gain that vicious "buried into".
Morte Arthure isn't mere gusto and guts. Arthur is fallible; has dark, rich dreams; and has fatally left Britain and Guinevere to Mordred. What Armitage captures is the emerging idea of characterisation to offset the hacking and spurting. Gawain is slightly suspect, dodgy like Achilles in the Iliad. It's as much his tale as Arthur's. Armitage, on top form, renders him expertly, revelling in the weird consonantal jazz that alliterative verse demands.
Bill Greenwell's new collection, 'Ringers', is published by Cinnamon