Poetry: The Death of King Arthur, Unknown & Simon Armitage

The Death of King Arthur

Translated by Simon Armitage from the Alliterative Mort Arthure, Author Unknown

Publisher: Faber and Faber
Pages: 163 including notes  – plus introduction (Hardback)
Form: Epic Poetry


Like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Alliterative Mort Arthure survives in a unique manuscript by an anonymous author, and is written in a measure which harked back to Anglo-Saxon poetic composition. Unlike Gawain, whose plot hinges around one moment of jaw-dropping magic, 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 interest overseas.

The outcome is announced in the poem’s title, and from their stronghold in Carlisle, Arthur and his army embark on a campaign which takes them almost to the gates of Rome, before he is forced to turn back to deal with matters closer to home. But along the way there are as many challenges for the translator of this poetic romance as are faced by its protagonist. . .

. . . A new kind of actuality is present in The Death of King Arthur, whose chivalric code cannot gloss over the carnage and horror of war, or the flaws of a king who is as much a human being as a figurehead. . .

Snipped down version of inside dust jacket

I’m going to start off with the disclaimer that I do not read a lot of poetry and don’t feel particularly comfortable analysing it.This makes me a bit of an uncultured idiot when it comes to trying to write a review, but I’m going to do my best. When I do read poetry – and I’m trying to do so more – my preference also lies very heavily towards old-fashioned narrative  and epic poems that tell an interesting story.  Since I find the King Arthur legend (or legends) one of the most interesting stories there are, buying this book when I spotted it in the shop was a complete no-brainer.  I don’t know what a serious poetry fan or scholar would make of it (nor do I particularly care) but as a piece of Arthurian literature – especially as a piece of medieval and British Arthurian literature – I found it to be an unpolished gem of a book.

The Death of King Arthur tells the story, with no magical frills or whistles, of Arthur’s last invasion of Europe and his return home to face – and eventually die at the hand of – the treacherous Sir Mordred. It’s a familiar story to almost everyone who’s read even a single children’s ‘life of King Arthur’ type book. What makes this version different, however, is that it does not follow the French Romantic tradition of having Lancelot and Guinevere’s adultery as the cause of Arthur’s downfall – in fact there’s no mention of any affair between them and Lancelot gets only a walk on part – instead it’s pure politcs and territorial war that takes Arthur out of Britain and gives Mordred the chance to seize power. As someone who finds Lancelot a rather dull (dare I say ‘Mary-Sue’) character who gets too much exposure at the expense of other knights, I really welcomed this angle. Once the sword’s pulled out of the stone Arthur often seems to fade into a background character – here he’s no doubt the main character with both moments of incredible military skill and high emotion.

This ‘unromantic’ motivation also makes for an ‘unromantic’ poem that focusses not on the idea of courtly love and lofty ideas of ‘Albion’ but positively revels in the horror and brutality of medieval warfare. It’s gloriously unapologetically bloody and violent, to open a few pages purely at random gives me:

Then good Sir Gawain on his grey steed
gripped a great spear and speedily spiked him;
through the guts and gore his weapon glided
till the sharpened steel sliced into his heart.

Then eagerly Arthur opened his enemy’s visor
and buried the bright blade in his body to the handle
and he squirmed as he died, skewered on the sword.

leaving wounded warriors writhing in his wake;
he hacked at the hardiest and hewed them at the neck,
and all ran red wherever he rode,

There are decapitations, guts spilling out of war wounds, people being impaled through the loins…you think of a nasty way to die and I can almost promise it’s there. Little-me would have loved this poem!

Alas, I’m no longer little-me and I do demand a bit more character development and deeper storytelling to go with my macabre enjoyment of gruesome descriptions. After a promising non-Lancelot focussed start, the middle section gave way almost to a list of who was killed by who in what vividly described way. Most named only appear once or twice and with the exception of Arthur and Gawain (and perhaps Kay if I’m feeling generous) it’s very hard to feel anything for the knights on either side of the battles. I have to confess to several times being confused as to who was fighting who and why. It’s no Odyssey (or even Aeneid) that you could write an essay just on the psychology of a sidecharacter, and for a long time during the middle section I feared I was going to have to give this three stars, but it redeemed itself. Once news of Mordred’s treachery (and the implication of Guinevere’s as well in this story) reaches Arthur things get back on track. It’s still more endless guts and blood but the motivation – and the cost – is both more familiar and more relatable. Even the battles become more interesting with a wonderful description of naval warfare sticking out especially. And once one of Arthur’s favourite knights is slain on the battlefield there is, in my eyes at least, a beautifully powerful depiction not just grief on Arthur’s part but guilt and shame from the murderer as well. It’s a tantalising hint of the author’s ability at portraying emotions that is, sadly, a little too set aside in favour of bloodshed for most of the poem.

There are other glimpses prior to this – particularly in the second of the two prophetic dreams Arthur has (one of the very few ‘fantastical’ elements of the story) – where Arthur sees himself rise on the wheel of fortune  only to be thrown off again. But it was his grief at seeing his friend’s body and the way he openly wept, threw himself on the corpse and had to be almost dragged away before his grief turned to anger and vengeance that struck me. That’s a more human and emotionally Arthur than I’m used to and it packed a punch that I wasn’t expecting after the rather scant emotional story of the rest of the poem.

The rest of it is solid stuff, for what it is. The various wars take up the majority of the poem but there is one traditionally Arthurian type of adventure near the beginning where Arthur pauses his warplans to rescue a kidnapped damsel from a monstrous ogre-like figure who cuts off the beards of the knights he kills and turns them into what I can only imagine is the sexiest patchwork gown imaginable. Apart from that though it’s (more) blood, guts and simplistic and unsympathetic ‘he was rude to me, so I’m going to kill him’ from then on. I enjoyed it, and I’m happy to admit to loving the blood and guts, but it wasn’t until the last section that I felt emotionally invested in the story.

As for its quality as a poem… I don’t know. I found it less well crafted than Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , and I found myself stumbling over the words and puzzling to make out the rhythm more often – but I also know I’ve been cursed with the worst sense of rhythm (and tone) imaginable and it’s probably perfectly simple for anyone with half an ounce of musical talent. I like this alliterative style of poetry though, it’s one I find very accessable. How much of the language and alliterative bits I liked (or didn’t) is down to the original author and how much Armitage I couldn’t say, and wouldn’t like to guess at. Another translation may well be better – I don’t know, but I did enjoy this one.


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