Faber & Faber, £12.99, 163pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Death of King Arthur, By Simon Armitage
Friday 27 January 2012
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
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 3 Driving while dehydrated can be just as dangerous as drink driving, study suggests
- 4 Ben Affleck asked TV chiefs to hide slave-owning ancestry, new hacked Sony emails published by Wikileaks claim
- 5 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Glastonbury 2015: Emily Eavis says Prince rumours 'completely untrue'
One Direction: Louis Tomlinson launching his own record label, has already 'signed two acts'
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens: Luke Skywalker actor Mark Hamill admits he was suspicious of 'Star Trek guy' JJ Abrams
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate