The Death of King Arthur, Hardback Book

The Death of King Arthur Hardback

4.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


"The Alliterative Morte Arthure" - the title given to a four-thousand line poem written sometime around 1400 - was part of a medieval Arthurian revival which produced such masterpieces as "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and Sir Thomas Malory's prose "Morte D'Arthur". "The Death of King Arthur" deals in the cut-and-thrust of warfare and politics: the ever-topical matter of Britain's relationship with continental Europe, and of its military interests overseas.

Simon Armitage is already the master of this alliterative music, as his earlier version of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (2006) so resourcefully and exuberantly showed.

His new translation restores a neglected masterpiece of story-telling, by bringing vividly to life its entirely medieval mix of ruthlessness and restraint.


  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber
  • Publication Date:
  • ISBN: 9780571249473

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Showing 1 - 2 of 2 reviews.

Review by

There's a lot to like in Simon Armitage's second foray into the world of Anglo-Saxon English literature. His command of the alliterative line is sure, and he manages to keep the form driving the poem forward, rather than getting bogged down in heavy sound.Where this book falters is nothing to do with Armitage's translation. It is, as the cover blurb states, strongly concerned with "channel crossings, battle formations, naval engagements, rearguard actions and forays". In other words, it's heavy on "the carnage and horror of war", as Arthur and his men fight their way across Europe to challenge the might of the Pope in Rome. And even more than the Gawain poet, the original author of the Alliterative Morte D'Arthur goes into detail after bloody detail of the slaughter that takes place. And for me, that was where the piece as a whole suffered -- too much about battle formations and bodies cleaved in two by mighty sword blows, and not enough (despite the cover blurb's claim) about the psychology of Arthur himself, let alone the machinations of Mordred or the private thoughts of Guinevere. Despite the title, the main concern of the poem is the events that conspired to have Arthur out of the country, rather than the immediate circumstances that lead up to his death.It is always a difficult choice when translating a poem: how closely must you stay to the original, and how much latitude can you permit yourself? In this case, I think Armitage has stayed too faithful to the original text. Some judicious editing would have balanced the poem more, and prevented interest from waning through the mid section. I would have loved Armitage to have taken more liberties, and perhaps have expanded the physiological aspects of the poem on his own terms. Less faithful to the text perhaps, but more faithful to the history of this canonical story.In summary, it's a very decent revisioning of an important historical poem. But nowhere near as effective -- or impressive -- as his translation of Gawain.

Review by

 This is another superb translation of a middle English poem into modern language by Simon Armitage. Like [Sir Gawain and the Green Knight] it is an alliterative poem, with the rhymes and rhythms not coming from the ends of each line, but the alliteration within each line. The extends in this poem to stretching the alliteration over several lines. This type of rhythm seems to drag you along, it works really well with the descriptions of the battle and the action, seeming to hurry forward through these passages.Tells the tale of king Arthur who receives at his court a summons from the Emperor of Rome to go and pay tribute. Arthur says (paraphrasing) "Blow that for a lark" and sets out to conquer Rome. It's all going swimmingly well until he has a nasty dream where he seems the lady fortune and is cast out by her and the wheel of fate turns. From here it's down hill all the way. At home his regent, Mordred has done what all regents do and turned against the crown - it's not going to end well and it doesn't. You know Arthur's going to die (the title does rather give that away) but that doesn't mean that it isn't an emotional send off that tugs at the heart strings.I simply adore the style of writing. There is something about the alliterative style that I find just sweeps me up. I love the word play and juxtaposition of stresses in the lines. It always feels to me that I should be declaiming it, and maybe that's part of its charm - it harks back to a much older tradition, when stories were told not read.I really ought to try some of Simon Armitage's modern work, rather than simply the translations, but these are just wonderful and he certainly has an ear for this - it is stuff of the highest quality.

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