Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ackroyd's The Death of King Arthur lacks passion, romance

Book 27: The Death of King Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, retelling by Peter Ackroyd

Simon Armitage's 2008 translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a powerful and majestic work. Peter Ackroyd's retelling of Le Morte d'Arthur is a prosaic effort that reduces this legendary tale to banality.

The passion, majesty and romance of Le Morte d'Arthur are missing in The Death of King Arthur.  Yet upon reflection, perhaps the fault lies not with Ackroyd's "retelling," but in the very notion of chilvaric tradition.

In a classic contradiction, knights boast of their honor. These are men filled with overweening pride, contemptuous of women and the lower caste, who do not hesitate to engage in lies and other deceit when it serves their purpose.

The most common deceit is to hide or withhold their identity to achieve some minor end.  And, although they profess to be good Christian men, these knights do not hesitate to engage in adultery or to murder someone who stands in their way.

Lancelot is among the worst.  He professes to serve Arthur and to esteem Guinevere above all other women. Yet he does not hesitate to cuckold Arthur.  Ultimately, Lancelot and Arthur go to war against one another and, although Mordred plays a part, it is Lancelot who so weakens Arthur's army that his kingdom inevitably crumbles.

Here is a representative fight scene between Tristram and Lancelot:

"The knight with the covered shield at last spoke out. "Sir," he said, "you fight better than any knight I have ever known. What is your name?"

"I am reluctant to tell you, sir."

"Really? I will not hesitate to tell you mine."

"Then speak."
"Fair knight, my name is Sir Lancelot du Lake."

Tristram was astounded. "Sir Lancelot? Is it really you? You are the knight I love and admire most in the world."

"Now tell me your name."

"I am Tristram de Liones."

Lancelot fell to his knees. "Jesus, why are we fighting?"
My thoughts exactly. 

Perhaps the fault does not lie with Ackroyd, but with the story itself.  Senseless fighting, betrayal, adultery, cruelty, overweening pride are too much with us today to seem romantic or the stuff of great passion.

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