The Arthurian stories have always been a source of enjoyment for me. In fact when I was a child and even as a young teenager, the abridged versions of these legends were fascinating to me. I voraciously devoured anything I could get my hands on about Arthur, or Lancelot, or Gawain. (Sir Gawain was my favourite and, if I’m honest, the more romantic and fanciful part of my childhood imaginings always wanted to be like Gawain – but chivalry, a decent steed and a Green Knight against whom I could pit my wits and courage were in pretty short supply on the streets of Glasgow in the 60′s!)
Until the last couple of years though I’d read nothing of Arthur as an adult, though I’ve watched and enjoyed the BBC series “Merlin”! That changed when Simon Armitage’s version of ‘Gawain and The Green Knight’ was published. The tale of the Green Knight had always been one of my favourite stories but reading it in poetic form was a revelation for me. I raved about it for weeks afterwards and for my poor family and for my colleagues at work I became a bit of a Gawain-bore! I even managed to persuade the staff book club at work to have it as the chosen title one month. (Everybody hated it – the Philistines – but I soldiered on Gawain-like, upholding the honour of Arthur and his knights through the darkest corridors of the un chivalrous nest of vipers and heathens that was the Local Government Civil Service where I worked at that time!!)
So having loved Simon Armitage’s version of Gawain, I was really looking to reading his version of the Morte D’Arthur. However it never quite hit the heights I’d expected and I actually found it a little flat in places to read. I think part of the reason was that the alliterative style that I’d loved on every single line in the Gawain book didn’t have that same effect as consistently in this book. I’ve thought about it since I’ve finished reading it and can only put it down to the sheer length of the Morte D’Arthur poem. I think it weighs in at more than 4000 lines – and essentially I found 4000 odd lines of alliterative verse a bit wearying in places. Having said that some of it was superb – especially the descriptions of the blood and gore and horror of the battles for places like Metz and Lorraine. Among the parts I especially loved were these:-
‘Then chieftains could be witnessed on chalk-white chargers
chasing and chopping down chivalrous chevaliers,
regal Romans and royal kings,
their ribs ripped apart by ripe steel.
Brains burst through their burnished helmets,
battered by blade on those broad fields,
They hewed down heathens with hilted swords,
with a host of hundreds by the edge of the holt,
No silver could save them or secure their souls,
not Sultan, nor Saracen nor senator of Rome.’
‘ Then our chivalrous men charged their chargers
and chased and chopped down many noble chieftains,
hitting out heartily at helmets and shields, hurting and hewing through those heathen knights.
Through kettle-hats they cleaved, cutting to the shoulder -
such a clamour of captains was never heard on earth!’
Great, gratuitous, gruesome gory alliterative stuff!
The poem is a huge sweeping panorama of the final battles of Arthur leading to his death at the hands of the traitor Mordred. I enjoyed this overall sweep of the story, though in places I found the poem’s tendency to go off into tangents and then come back again broke up the flow of it a little for me. As befits the legend that is Arthur, and as befits a 4000 line poem, there’s a vast range of characters but they all have a bit of a ‘walk-on part’ feel with the exception of Arthur himself. And perhaps that was also an issue for me in being slightly underwhelmed on reading it – while I always fancied myself becoming Gawain or Lancelot I never really fancied myself as Arthur!
While parts of the book didn’t quite hit the mark for me in some ways, what I did enjoy, and hadn’t expected, was the pleasure I got from reading something with such fantastic origins and with such a wonderful history. All the time I read it and even now writing about it, I’m conscious that this is a poem that’s hundreds of years old and is part of a tradition of story-telling which has been passed from generation to generation over centuries.
I believe there are only two surviving copies of the original Morte D’Arthur in existence and one of these is in the wonderful library at Lincoln Cathedral. Simon Armitage is due to appear there in May to talk about the Morte D’Arthur. If you’d like to know more about it you can get details from Lincoln Cathedral.
Even though I couldn’t praise this in the way I could Gawain and the Green Knight, I’m still in love with the wonderful world of Arthur and the Round Table and I think the chance to hear Simon Armitage speak on it is something I wouldn’t want to miss! And when I’m there listening, in my head I’m sure there will be a part of me that fantasising about being the wonderous Sir Gawain!