Review by Maryann Corbett
THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR: A NEW VERSE TRANSLATION
by Simon Armitage
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110
2012, 295 pp. $15.95
The Norton edition of The Death of Arthur: A New Verse Translation is the North American publication of Simon Armitage’s new book, and it came out just this past December. But the work was released in the United Kingdom, by Faber and Faber, a full year ago. Widely reviewed and widely praised, it was until very recently an equal among several finalists for the T. S. Eliot Prize. So it might seem a bit late to be offering an opinion on it now. But I have been Arthur-mad, and mad for poems in the old alliterative meter, for more than 40 years, and it’s impossible for me to resist.
American audiences may need an introduction to this poem more than British readers do. The title certainly needs clarifying: The work being translated is not Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century prose work, the forerunner of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, not to mention uncounted other genre fantasies. Here Armitage is re-presenting the poem known as the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a 4346-line poem in Middle English, written in the fourteenth century by an anonymous author, and preserved in a single fifteenth-century copy by Robert Thornton, an enthusiastic amateur copyist who didn’t entirely understand the scribal conventions he was imitating, but who was so hungry for books that we are in his debt for the preservation of quite a few poems that survive only in his copies. (For a glimpse—not very clear, but at least a glimpse—at a page of the original, look here.)
The Alliterative Morte Arthure was certainly one of Malory’s sources, but the magical fantasy and the courtly romance in Malory have their roots elsewhere. The Alliterative Morte Arthure is mainly a poem about war. One love scene, two dream visions, and various parleys and exchanges of boasts also appear, as well as a miraculous healing, some court splendor, and a war-monster worthy of the Orc scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. But the bulk of the poem is battle, recounted in epic style. Armitage is said to have described the poem, at the Eliot Prize reading, as Britain’s Iliad. (Credit goes to Katy Evans-Bush for reporting on that event.)
And Armitage’s approach to the translation is faithful to the vivid, energetic, sweepingly physical force of the original poem. As in his 2007 translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Armitage uses the original poem’s meter, which is the four-stress alliterative line that was characteristic of Old English poetry and that was brought back (as we think) into use in Middle English—brought back splendidly in works like Gawain and Pearl and Piers Plowman, but briefly, before pentameter and rhyme swept all before them in the rush of the Renaissance. The critic Paul Deane has argued that modern readers no longer know how to hear the old accentual, alliterating meter, and I’ve written at greater length elsewhere about the challenges of translating the alliterative long line. But the critical and popular success of Armitage’s translations pretty effectively quashes the notion that readers can’t hear and feel that older music.
Here’s a passage that offers a sampling, both of the poem’s visceral quality and of its sonic oomph:
The King brought Excalibur crashing down,
shearing off cleanly the corner piece of his shield
and slashing a six-inch wound to his shoulder,
spattering his chain mail with shimmering scarlet blood.
He shuddered and shook, shrank back just a little,
but then shockingly and sharply in his shining armor
the felon struck forcefully with his fine sword,
slicing through the rib plates to our Sovereign’s side;
through hauberk and heavy armor he opened him up
with a wound to his flesh half a foot wide.
The few critics who have had negative things to say about the book have said them about the unrelenting and graphic battle descriptions. The contemporary reader might have moments of cognitive dissonance: A passage about knights fighting on and on, blood running from their fatal wounds, might trigger unfortunate flashbacks to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the ceaselessness of the fighting sometimes feels a bit like an online war game. Another, more sober element that made me pause is the lingering shadow of the Crusades: the fact that the armies singled out as Arthur’s implacable enemies in the battles are so often Islamic, or “Saracens.”
Of course that content is a feature of the original, which Armitage presents as accurately as possible while sticking with the sound patterns. Once in a while, he reaches for a startlingly slangy word to complete an alliteration (“Austria and Germany and umpteen others”) but this happens less often than it did in his Gawain, and he generally keeps to very accessible middle, modern diction. Other aspects of the poem that he renders honestly are the stock phrases that are typical of oral epic composition, but that repeat rather too often for contemporary taste. “So help me Christ” seems to appear with every occasion that calls for an alliterating K-sound.
Armitage’s one departure from the original is a concession to smooth storytelling: He uses a consistent past tense, while the original ping-pongs between present and past. And smooth storytelling is a benefit, because the poem has narrative strengths enough to be worth reading as more than a historical curiosity. The basic plot is that Lucius Iberius, the Roman emperor, demands homage and tribute from Arthur, claiming to be rightful sovereign of lands in Europe that Arthur occupies. To repel the challenge, Arthur fights his way toward Rome, eventually besting all opposing armies, and then decides to take Rome itself. At that moment, he learns that Mordred, whom he has left in charge in his absence, has usurped the throne of Britain, and he returns with his armies for the final battle in which both Arthur and Mordred are killed. Arthur’s psychological states come through in the opening dream vision, the hubristic turn to conquest when the original challenger has been fought off, and the final dream of the fall from Fortune’s wheel. Armitage presents the story clearly, adding a few textual breaks to support the structure.
He also gives us the original text on the facing pages, and he maintains a line-for-line equivalence of the translation with the original. Both of those choices mean that this translation works equally well as a course textbook and as a curious newcomer’s introduction to medieval poetry. The original spelling has been regularized in the facing-page text, which is Larry D. Benson’s edition, and punctuation has been added to ease reading; both of these are normal and useful choices for students. I do wish that the book’s introduction contained some explanation of the diacritical marks that have apparently been added to Benson’s text. The marks are clearly editorial, and clearly there to aid pronunciation in reading the Middle English aloud, but they don’t help much without an indication of what sounds they mean.
Textbook use may be, in the end, the most important role this book will have, however strong the author’s and the publisher’s hopes for a general audience. When the popular hullaballoo subsides and the book retreats to the backlist, it will continue to be important in a context that gives readers more guidance than the book itself can contain, with a teacher and the wealth of available online helps. There are so many questions the poem raises: How did the original poet see his work—how much is history, how much entertainment? Who made up the audience who probably first heard his poem, read aloud to some assembled company? What does the poem say about how its hearers saw England’s relationship to Europe? What did all this mean a hundred years later to Robert Thornton, who copied the poem as we have it? The poem deserves answers. It deserves to be understood in all its aspects, and Simon Armitage’s translation will help a fresh generation of readers to begin to understand it.
Maryann Corbett holds a doctorate in English Language and Literature from the University of Minnesota. Her translations from Old English have won the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, and new work is forthcoming in Modern Poetry in Translation. Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared widely in print and online. She is the author of two full-length collections of poems, Breath Control (David Robert Books, 2012) and Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter, forthcoming from Able Muse Press. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and works for the Minnesota Legislature.