Monday, May 05, 2008

Steinbeck's Acts of King Arthur [Review]

[an entry in fulfillment of the Once Upon A Time II challenge]

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

John Steinbeck, edited by Chase Horton

Copyright: 2007, Viking, New York; ISBN 978-0-670-01824-6

402 pages

Folklore or folk literature; a re-telling of King Arthur and associated legends

This book was originally published back in 1976, some years after the death of Steinbeck in 1968. The work is essentially an unfinished manuscript of Steinbeck's re-working of Malory's Morte D'Arthur. Malory's work had captured Steinbeck's childhood imagination. His interest was in tweaking Malory in re-telling the stories in a fashion that would attract subsequent generations of readers, knowing that Malory's vocabulary and sentence structure might be found intimidating. This work, made up of 7 sections, shows how far he had gotten in this effort. The writing is not without flaws. Some sections, such as the opening tale of how Arthur came to be King, is very close to the original, in keeping with the statement Steinbeck makes to his editor early on in the process (see the Appendix) that he doesn't necessarily mean to add much to the stories. Later sections such as Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt seem, in my opinion, to have been revised to a greater extent, the story-telling incorporating more of Steinbeck's sense, humor and skill. The Appendix of the work gives insight into Steinbeck's working practices, incorporating research, travels to the locations named in the legends, etc.

Extract: King Arthur buried Lot in a rich tomb separately,but the twelve great lords he placed together and raised a triumphal monument over them. Merlin by his arts made figures of the twelve lords in gilded copper and brass, in attidues of defeat, and each figure held a candle which burned day and night. Above these effigies, Merlin placed a statue of King Arthur with a drawn sword held over his enemies' heads. And Merlin prophesied that the candles would burn until Arthur's death and at that moment would go out; and he made other prophecies that day of things to come.

(That segment came from the first section of the manuscript, the segment that is closer to Malory in its style and approach, but below is a second extract from the tale of Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt.)

The last month fled under the demands put upon it. Never had the lady been so critical, so caustic, so insulting. An action which in the past had drawn a little praise brought shrill attack. With blazing eyes she raked him and her thin mouth dripped poison as she tried to squeeze into him all her knowledge, her observation and invention. And then one evening of a day that had been soaked and shriveled with invective and despair, her voice dropped. She stepped back and looked at him, dirty, sweaty, weary, and insulted.

"There," she said. "That's all I can give you. If you aren't ready now, you never will be."

It took him a little time to know that the training was over. "Am I a good knight?" he asked at last.

"You aren't a knight at all until you are tested. But at least you are the earth out of which a good knight may grow."

Those two extracts each have an entirely different tone. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights may seem to read unevenly as a result. It may also have had much to do with the reason the manuscript was not published in Steinbeck's lifetime; for more discussion on this point, you may want to read this 2004 article from a scholarly journal published through San Francisco State University.

Feedback: Steinbeck offers a very masculine version of Arthurian legend. It isn't that he doesn't have strong women in these tales. He does. He offers the Lady Lyne (the woman in the second extract above) who clearly has both the brains and the strength of character to mold a strong and sensible knight. His version of Morgan Le Fay is entirely believable. But these two women are framed as supports to the main thread of the stories in which they appear. They are only important insofar as they highlight the character of the knights with whom they are involved. By contrast, the king and his knights are in the forefront, and to a limited extent realistically portrayed. These might be men that Steinbeck worked with or saw along the roadside.

Do I prefer this version of Arthur to that of Tennyson's Idylls of the King? You may remember that I had issues with the Victorian interpretation. And the answer to the question is both yes and no. I would rather my legendary figures be bigger than life, more formal and awe-inspiring in presence. As much as Tennyson's Arthurian figures are unrealistic ideals, Steinbeck's figures of legend are recognizably ordinary. There's a comment that King Arthur makes about his marriage to Guenevere that rang in my ear just a tad too much like a businessman talking about rejecting his stockbroker's advice. I could hear the tone of voice precisely. "Merlin was with me when I chose her. He tried to dissuade me...That was one of the few times I differed with him. Well, my choice has proven him fallible." There is another conversation between Sir Kay the Seneschal and Sir Lancelot that also has echoes of the business world of the '60's. That just did not work for me.

I still think fans should read Steinbeck's Arthurian tales. The work is incomplete and perhaps a little awkward, but the author still managed to evoke an echo of the meaning. Something about the Arthurian legend -- no matter who is recreating the tales -- awakens a wistfulness in me. It isn't so much a "white knight" syndrome (wishing for someone to come along and fight the battle for one) as it is the wish that we could persuade Everyman to accept the challenge to life's battle with the humility to gracefully win or lose once a best effort has been made. Guinevere says it well at one point "It's one thing to make one self great, but quite another to try to be not small."