The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, Paperback Book

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights Paperback

Edited by Chase Horton

Part of the Penguin Modern Classics series

4.5 out of 5 (3 ratings)


Steinbeck's first posthumously published work, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights is a reinterpretation of tales from Malory's Morte d'Arthur.

In this highly successful attempt to render Malory into Modern English, Steinbeck recreated the rhythm and tone of the original Middle English.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Myth & legend told as fiction
  • ISBN: 9780141186306

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The acts of King Arthur and his noble knights by John Steinbeck is a retelling of Malory's Morte D'Arthur. Steinbeck worked on it, on and off, for about a decade, between 1956 and 1965, before abandoning it. The unfinished manuscript was published posthumously in 1976.It seems that in the field of literature, retelling has a negative ring. It smacks of abridgement, and simplification, especially for immature or inexperienced readers. In Western literary circles, the text is sacred and untouchable. This, unlike music, where the vitality of the cultural experience is defined by successful reinterpretation, although even here there is a discernable striving for the perfect performance.John Steinbeck had a vision about the value of retelling. This vision resulted in the creation of so called play-novelettes, such as Burning Bright, Of Mice and Men and The Moon Is Down, which are retellings or rewrites of drama into short novellas, in order to keep them available, and readable in an enjoyable format for the wider public. Many classical plays are forgotten or seldom performed, while very few people enjoy reading drama. The play-novelettes recreate the stories from the drama in prose, which a wider audience may read and appreciate.A similar didactic vein can be traced in the retelling of The acts of King Arthur and his noble knights. Few people will attempt to read Malory's Morte D'Arthur in the original version. In the introduction, Steinbeck relates how as a child he was mesmerized by the magic of the story and the wonder of the language, and it has been his life-long dream to share that experience render the Morte D'Arthur in a way readily accessible to modern readers.The Penguin Modern Classics edition includes nearly 70 pages of correspondence between John Steinbeck and his editors about his research, and the development of his ideas with regard to this project. Unfortunately, only Steinbeck's letters are reprinted, omitting the answers from his correspondents, with the exception of a single letter from Chase Horton to Steinbeck, in June 1968. This correspondence makes a very valuable contribution to the book, which could have been enhanced by a critical introduction by the editor.It becomes clear that Steinbeck invested a great deal of time and effort in this project, aiming to base the work on the best possible source, and working with eminent experts in the field of interpretation of the work. The published work is unfinished, which may partly account for the relative shortness of only 293 pages. Steinbeck also consciously omitted sections from the original text, which he felt did not fit the unity of the work.The posthumously published version falls apart in two parts, which are stylistically very different. Some reviewers regret this division arguing that the work should have been finished in one style, pointing at the demerit of the other style.The first five books, Merlin, The Knight with Two Swords, The Wedding of King Arthur, The Death of Merlin and Morgan Le Fay are written in a fairly close translation. This section best preserves the freshness of the original text. Much of the text seems emblematic and repetitive, with a lot of emphasis of events and description, but little or no psychology or character development. The story has a distinctive, medieval feel to it.The final two books, Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt and The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake are novelized. In this section, the story is rewritten in Steinbeck's own, American novelistic style. The emphasis in this section is on character development, and experience of the tale. The stylistic divide is so great, that if it weren't for the characters' names, it could have been an entirely different story. The story has a typical, contemporary feel to it.Some reviewers have expressed their opinion that it was Steinbeck's intention to rewrite the entire work in the contemporary, Twentieth Century novelistic style. The two chapters we have show that it would be a very interesting possibility. While I did enjoy reading these two books, my preference is with the style which remains closer to the original. Perhaps the book remained unfinished because of Steinbeck's indecision in this matter.

Review by

Is it wrong that this was the first book by Steinbeck that I’ve read? Certainly it is the kind of book one probably wouldn’t have even expected this author to have written. Known for his brooding meditations on the harsh life of the American experience in the mid-20th century, a translation/re-working of Malory’s stories about King Arthur and his knights certainly don’t seem like an obvious fit for Steinbeck. Reading through the letters written by the author himself in the appendix to this volume, however, makes it abundantly clear that the project was one that was near and dear to the author’s heart, into which he poured a significant amount of time &amp; effort, and which he himself saw as possibly filling the role of crowning achievement of his work. I will here go on record with many other reviewers on Goodreads and state that it is a real shame that, for some unknown reason, Steinbeck never finished his work on this, though even the fragment he left us with is a significant work and one of the better treatments of the Matter of Britain I’ve read.<br/><br/>I must first admit that I found myself becoming slightly bored with the first third or so of the text. True to his words in the introduction Steinbeck hews very closely to his source text, Malory’s <i>Le Morte D’Arthur</i>, and generally follows his plan of “leaving out nothing and adding nothing…since in no sense do I wish to rewrite Malory …” in the first four tales: <i>Merlin</i>, <i>The Knight with the Two Swords</i>, <i>The Wedding of King Arthur</i>, and <i>The Death of Merlin</i>. I generally have little use for ‘translations’ of Malory since I don’t really see the point; the Middle English he uses isn’t really that difficult for a modern reader to approach and I generally find that ‘modernizing’ the language simply takes the reader a further step from the text without adding anything of use. Happily for us Steinbeck seems to have taken advice from his editors to heart and in the subsequent tales really starts making the material his own while still staying true to the spirit of Malory. Indeed, from the very first sentence of <i>Morgan le Fay</i> one can see Steinbeck breaking new ground and not simply aping his master. From here on we are treated to a really excellent interpretation of the tales that seeks to investigate the psychology of these figures from myth without reducing them to little more than modern people in medieval drag or diminishing the epic scope of the tales.<br/><br/>Arthur largely remains the peripheral figure he generally has to be for these tales, the enigmatic centre around which all of the other characters revolve and from whom they draw their glory. Despite this Steinbeck does attempt to invest the tragic king with some elements of individuality and provides one or two tantalizing glimpses of the man underneath the myth. We see the king’s early dissatisfaction with the trials of kingship and disappointment in the need to fight rebellion: <blockquote>Soon after this, Arthur, wearied with campaigns and governing and sick of the dark, deep-walled rooms of castles, ordered his pavilion set up in a green meadow outside the walls where he might rest and recover his strength in the quiet and the sweet air.</blockquote> We see his growth in wisdom as a leader of men: <blockquote>Then Arthur learned, as all leaders are astonished to learn, that peace, not war, is the destroyer of men; tranquillity rather than danger is the mother of cowardice, and not need but plenty brings apprehension and unease. Finally he found that the longed-for peace, so bitterly achieved, created more bitterness than ever did the anguish of achieving it.</blockquote> Indeed it is this very discontent that prompts Arthur and Guinevere, in Steinbeck’s version of the tales, to ‘trick’ Lancelot into setting an example for the other knights by adopting the lifestyle of the quest, an action that will prove to be both the greatest glory and the greatest sorrow of Arthur’s court. Throughout the work are strewn nuggets of wisdom, often coming from the mouth of Merlin in the earlier stories, and Steinbeck uses these tales of chivalry as an opportunity to meditate on the human condition. Thus we have: <blockquote>”Somewhere in the world there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory.”</blockquote> and <blockquote>”You cannot know a venture from its beginning,” Merlin said. “Greatness is born little. Do not dishonor your feast by ignoring what comes to it. Such is the law of quest.”</blockquote><br/><br/>I found myself noticing things here that I had missed or glossed over from my initial reading of Malory such as the incongruous nature of the various enchantresses generally known to be “the damsels of the Lady of the Lake and schooled in wonders.” They range from the damsel who gave to Arthur his enchanted sword Excalibur (the same maiden killed by Sir Balin for ostensibly having had his own mother burned at the stake) to the Lady Nyneve, the bane of Merlin who, despite her role in deceiving the besotted old enchanter, stealing his knowledge, and leaving him buried alive is not portrayed as evil. She does this act to gain power, but learns that with great power comes great responsibility. In the end she seems to take on Merlin’s role as protector of the realm, though in a somewhat lessened capacity, and gets her own reward for being true to the lonely path of power that accepts responsibility: the love of the good knight Pelleas. Finally there are also the four queens (including Morgan le Fay) who capture Lancelot and put him to the test with their illusory blandishments. They may or may not be members of this same circle of enchantresses, but they equally represent part of the same intriguing puzzle: just what are they? Members of a school for magic? A group of proto-feminists looking for a way to power in a man's world? Something of both or neither? Some seem to be evil, working deeds of mischance and violence, others good, though often they are no less violent in this world of martial law and divine retribution. Perhaps it’s most appropriate to say that the true test comes in that some work for their own selfish interests while others work for the common good.<br/><br/>It was also refreshing to see the varied characterization of the questing knights (and their three fascinating ladies) in the tale <i>Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt</i>. Indeed, the entire section provides Steinbeck with interesting character studies, not to mention much fodder for his social and personal concerns. Marhalt rocks and it was very nice to see a knight of Arthur’s court so clear-headed and competent without vainglory…a rare thing. He is a man with both skill and self-knowledge, the quintessential man of experience, and it’s a bit sad to know that his fate in the cycle is to be killed by that jack-ass Tristan (though Steinbeck does not himself tell this episode). The training of young Ewain (in many ways the opposite of Marhalt) by his own Lady was equally wonderful and showed how far Steinbeck had come: much of this tale seems to have been created by Steinbeck himself and yet it in no way felt like he was departing from the spirit of Malory specifically or the Arthurian tales in general. <br/><br/>The final entry <i>The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake</i> shows Steinbeck truly coming into his own. It becomes obvious here (and is confirmed by statements made by Steinbeck in the letters found in the appendix) that Lancelot was the true centre of Steinbeck’s tale and was the character through whom he hoped to develop the real through-line of his thoughts on the Arthurian corpus. Lancelot gave the author everything he needed to work through the concepts of human fallibility mixed with nearly superhuman stature. The entire theme of the greatest good often leading to the greatest evil could play out in full measure with all of its varied nuances with Lancelot. From the description of his life as a young boy, hearing Merlin’s prophecy regarding his future peerless knighthood and subsequent desire to fulfill it, to the discontent of a man who has honed himself to perfection and is looking for it in an imperfect and jaded world we really begin to get a glimmer of the power Lancelot held as a character for Steinbeck and the heights the author might have achieved had he finished his work. Alas such was not to be and we are thus left with only a fragment of what might have been so much more. Still a fragment is far preferable to nothing at all.<br/><br/>I can’t close without adding that the letters in the appendix were an unexpectedly intriguing look into the mind of both Steinbeck the man and Steinbeck the writer. His complete love for the Arthurian material (and especially his deeply felt personal connection to Malory as a writer)and single-minded devotion to his research came as something of a surprise to me and it was equally fascinating to get a glimpse of his personal ruminations on the writing process. In addition to these writerly concerns we get to see Steinbeck the man wrestling with his own fears and feelings of inadequacy in a work which he thought “should be the best work of my life and the most satisfying” and which he even felt contained “the best prose [he had] ever written.”

Review by

Steinbeck's Arthur novel was never completed, and never even properly edited by him. I enjoyed it very much as it is -- I do wish it'd been finished, and edited, and made more consistent. If I rated without considering that, I'd rate it at least one star less. The introduction, claiming that it isn't changed substantially from Malory, isn't true: there's a lot of humanising going on, and some additional humour. If I held Steinbeck to that, too, he'd probably lose a star.<br/><br/>As it is, though, bearing these things in mind, he gets all the stars. I really enjoyed reading his version, particularly after the first few tales -- it felt like, after a while, he felt his way into it, and some of the letters of his included at the end suggest that that's just how it felt to him, which is nice to know. There's a sort of tenderness in the way he treats the tales, a love for them that still allowed him to see the humour a modern audience might find in them.<br/><br/>I liked his treatment of Kay -- a little more understanding than other writers, I think. An attempt to understand him. And the touch of someone catching Arthur crying, which I don't recall being in Malory. And some of the descriptions of Lancelot, particularly through Lyonel's eyes. And here was a Lancelot I could like, too, although of course Steinbeck never got to the parts where Lancelot was a traitor. Still, I felt for Lancelot, in the last few pages.<br/><br/>(For those who know of my affection for Gawain: no, I don't like his portrayal of Gawain. But I'll pass that over.)<br/><br/>One thing I love specially is something that people tend to find lacking in Malory -- knowing what people are feeling, and I'm particularly talking about Lancelot. Malory tells us what he does; Steinbeck tries to tell us why.<br/><br/>And the thing I love best, oh, most of all, is this:<br/><br/><I>The queen observed, "I gather you rescued damsels by the dozen." She put her fingers on his arm and a searing shock ran through his body, and his mouth opened in amazement at a hollow ache that pressed upwards against his ribs and shortened his breath.</i><br/><br/>My breath, too.<br/><br/>It's rare because it's a moment that really makes me feel for Lancelot and Guinevere, and for their plight. I think Steinbeck could have caught me up in their story, and hushed my dislike for all they do. I wish he'd written it: I'd like, just once, to be swept up in Lancelot and Guinevere's story, and to buy into it as somehow justified by passion, just as they do. Other writers <I>tell</i> that without showing me it. (Guy Gavriel Kay perhaps excepted, but Lancelot and Guinevere aren't the centre of the story he's telling there.)<br/><br/>I enjoyed it a lot, what there is of it, and this edition also contains a lot of Steinbeck's letters concerning it while he was writing it. Very interesting to read those and get an idea of what was on his mind.<br/><br/>I think part of what I love here is what the stories could have been, more than what they are.

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