The Death of King Arthur, By Simon Armitage - Reviews - Books - The Independent

Faber & Faber, £12.99, 163pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Death of King Arthur, By Simon Armitage

 

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

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week