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The Death of Arthur is a modern re-telling of the medieval tales of king Arthur and his knights by Peter Ackroyd.
Peter Ackroyd is best known for his history of London, the Thames and has recently started a six part book series on the history of England. He is also a well known television presenter on London and the surroundings and has a bluff manner which transfers his arguments from the written word onto TV in a concise and considered manner. He has also written fiction novels and The Death of Arthur is a modern re-working of the classic tales Morte D'arthur written by Thomas Mallory sometime in the 13th or 14th century.
Arthur is the near mythical king of the English whose life and legends have entered into modern iconography; he is the king of the sword of the stone, Excalibur, Camelot, Guineviere and Lancelot. He has been depicted many times in novel, TV and film form including two recent series on BBC and Channel 4. His tales have benn endlessly re-told, re-invented and re-worked and the precise nature of the original King Arthur has been lost.
The Death of Arthur
For many young boys the tales of such legendary figures as King Arthur and Robin Hood were a release from the uniformity of living a normal suburban life. The tales of knights of the round table, King Arthur, Guinevere, Galahad, the holy Grail, etc had a special resonance for many juvenile escapists. The legend of King Arthur sprang from a 15th tales by Thomas Mallory where he laid out the stories of Arthur to a then modern setting, here we encounter the dashing Lancelot, Gawain, Tristram, the evil Morgan the Fey, the beautiful Guinevere and at the end the hunt for the Holy Grail. The book was written sometime in the 15th century and is relatively inaccessible to the modern reader with its archaic English and awkward style. So Peter Ackroyd re-wrote the old stories but in modern English and modern English grammar. The new re-workings followed precisely the layout of the old tales, so we begin with the raping of Arthurs mother by Uther Pen dragon, the sword in the stone etc.
One of the main problems with re-workings or re-telling of old or classic tales is that some of the readers do prefer the old versions so when a new version of Beowulf was released a couple of years the book sparked a debate over the use of the very first word of the novel and experts differed even at that point. So any writer aiming to write a version of a classic tale has to be confident that the version they are telling is close enough to the original so experts don't get overly upset yet modern enough for a new audience. Peter Ackroyd managed to make the old tales come alive; here the reader can follow the stories of Arthur and his knights without tripping over the English and the flow of words.
There are a few points which this reader picked out of the tale; firstly the pursuit of knightly virtue appeared to involve an awful lot of violence. I lost count of the number of adversaries the knights meet in the tales who have their heads cut off with one stroke of the sword; this is particularly dangerous for maidens in distress. There is also a desire of the writer to tell the reader in explicit detail about the odds which the knight faced, so if they are pushed and in danger then the reader is told exactly how many knights were against our hero. There then follows a list of the many ways of killing a knight in battle, so whenever Tristram or Lancelot appear in the tales we know for a fact that extended battles are going to be just around the corner. The other thing I noticed is how little Arthur and Merlin are in the tales, yes they are mentioned often but in truth the tales are more about the various knights going around the country defending their virtue and dispelling knights without honour. Merlin appears very infrequently mainly in the first two chapters but very little afterwards.
As I said I've always loved the tales of Arthur and his knights and TS White's the once and future king is one of my favourite novels. That novel was inspired by the original Arthurian legends written by Thomas Mallory, so it was fun to read a modern version of that source which so influenced one of my favourite novels. The appearance of Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad and Tristram banged a lot of memory cells of reading TS White as a teenager. Peter Ackroyd managed to make the book flow and the stories
interesting without being bogged down in depicting knightly virtue and courtly love, indeed he displays a more rounded expose of knightly love in the 5-6th century.
There was however one problem especially during the depiction of battles and the problems over knightly love I constantly had the Monty Python King Arthur film in my head so when Lancelot gatecrashes a wedding and manages to fight the bride's father I couldn't get the scene where Lancelot arrives to rescue a maiden in distress in a castle and manages to kill everyone inside.
An interesting read, one which after a while did drag a little especially when another battle was happening or spears broken during jousts but overall it was fun and a decent effort by the author.