In 1956, John Steinbeck began rewriting Thomas Malory’s stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. He worked on this until 1959 and stopped, unfinished. At first, he considered it a translation job. He said in a 1956 letter to his literary agent that “I’m going to make a trial run—not removing all of the old forms, nor all the Malory sentence structure, but substituting known simple words and reversing sentences which even now are puzzling.” But he ends up doing more than just translating. He elaborates, explores psychology, brings new detail, and inserts a bit of himself along the way as well. He says in his introduction:
I wanted to set [the stories] down in plain present-day speech for my own young sons, and for other sons not so young—to set the stories down in meaning as they were written, leaving out nothing and adding nothing—perhaps to compete with the moving pictures, the comic-strip travesties which are the only available source for those children and others of today who are impatient with the difficulties of Malory’s spelling and use of archaic words. If I can do this and keep the wonder and the magic, I shall be pleased and gratified. In no sense do I wish to rewrite Malory, or reduce him, or change him, or osften or sentimentalize him. I believe the stories are great enough to survive my tampering, which at best will make the history available to more readers, and at worst can’t hurt Malory very much.
Steinbeck worked hard preparing for his task. He read multiple versions of Malory, looking up obscure Middle English words in library dictionaries. He did other research as well. And the letters included in the Viking edition of The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights show an enthusiastic writer who wanted to share one of his great loves with the wider world.
Another beautiful thing is how Malory learned to write as he went along. The straggling sentences, the confused characters and events of the early parts smooth out as he goes along so that his sentences become more fluid and his dialogue gets a sting of truth and his characters become more human than symbolic even though he tries hard to keep the symbol, and this I am sure is because he was learning to write as he went along. He became a master and you can see it happening. And in any work I do on this thing I am not going to try to change that. I’ll go along with his growing perfection and who knows, I may learn myself.
This transformation, whether it’s of Malory, Steinbeck, or both, is clearly perceptible over the course of the book. The first chapter, “Merlin,” is disjointed and far from what we immediately recognize as modern narrative. The early parts of the book are very exotic in this way; the narrative logic isn’t quite our own, the dramatic arcs aren’t quite our own, and the story doesn’t really “make sense” the way we are used to making sense of stories. It’s very interesting in that way, and clearly a “Romance” rather than a novel. But you get into it, and as you get into it, it also becomes more sophisticated.
I have, for shame, never read Malory, and don’t know much about the Arthur stories except what I’ve gleaned through average cultural osmosis. Many of the happenings Steinbeck relates were familiar to me, many were not. Many characters familiar, others not. So I can’t comment at all on the real level of faithfulness to what Steinbeck claims is his original text (the Winchester manuscript). But I can say that it’s a wonderful read, made all the more so when the reader can surrender to the rules of chivalry and semi-fantastical realm of Arthurian England.
The chapter “Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt” is one of the best—and I would argue the best—and has become a bit more self-aware. Gawain and Ewain have left the Round Table so that Ewain can go questing and prove his loyalty to Arthur. When they meet Sir Marhalt and tell him what they’re after, he has a suggestion.
“I may tell you that nearby begins a great and mysterious wood called the Forest of Arroy. No one has ever passed through it without finding wonders and dangers and more adventures than he can handle. Your talk has fired my blood. If you will permit, I will ride through the forest and share the excitement of your quest. I had forgotten how good questing can be.”
This same Marhalt, when he’s beginning to remember how good questing can be, is harassed by a householder: “A knight venturing. …I know your kind, a childish dream world resting on the shoulders of less fortunate men.” This is not the only note of darkness in The Acts of King Arthur, and they do not seem entirely ill-placed—they mostly bring a reasonable dose of cynicism in every once in a while so we don’t fall completely into the same dream world. But the fairy tales are directed primarily as they were meant to be, as teaching tools of a complicated and stylized morality, dramatized and embellished histories, and, of course, entertainments.
Steinbeck’s retelling is clearly a labor of love, unfinished as it may be. His language is powerful and aesthetically pleasing, the stories are exotic and full of adventure, the characters and broad strokes are beloved and familiar. When Steinbeck prefaces the chapter “The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake” with the simple, blunt remark, “And noble it is,” he gets at why we want to read these stories—or why we should want to, or why we should read them. They are just plain good, and he is good at telling them, and I wish he had managed to put his stamp on the whole thing. Malory is in my future.
I read The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights as part of the John Steinbeck Classics Circuit Tour. Visit the tour page and check out others’ posts!