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The Siren's Call: A once and future epic

Simon Armitage's translation 'The Death of King Arthur' presents a familiar legend in an unexpected light; Bernard Cornwell pits Vikings against Saxons in 'Death of Kings.'

April 27, 2012|By Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Times

Behind the action of Simon Armitage's marvelous translation of the Middle English epic "The Death of King Arthur" (W.W. Norton: 306 pp., $26.95), there's an unmistakable mood of bitterness.

It has nothing to do with Arthur's fate — yes, there's plenty of bitter sorrow after Arthur's last battle against Mordred, but that's not what I'm talking about. There's another, different bitterness here that belongs to the anonymous maker of this poem, which appeared long before Thomas Malory ever celebrated the legendary warrior-king in his prose "Le Morte D'Arthur."

You who are listeners and love to learn

of the heroes of history and their awesome adventures

who were loyal to the law and loved Almighty God,

come closer and heed me; hold yourselves quiet

and I'll tell you a tale both noble and true

of the royal ranks of the Round Table…

Appearing around 1400, "The Death of King Arthur" — referred to in scholarly circles as AMA, the "Alliterative Morte Arthure" — presents Arthur and his knights on a military campaign against Lucius Iberius, emperor of Rome, who offends Arthur by demanding revenues from Britain as part of his empire. "If this summons is snubbed, he sends you this warning," explains the Roman emissary visiting Arthur's court. "He shall see you overseas with sixteen kings/ and burn Britain to oblivion…"

You can just imagine what Arthur and his knights think. Angered, the king declares his sovereign right to rule Britain and refers to his own Roman roots (Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us Arthur is descended from the Trojans) before deciding to march on Rome.

Armitage, who produced a celebrated translation of "Gawain and the Green Knight" in 2006, acknowledges a political dimension to his own poetry and that certainly applies to his translations. You can read "The Death of King Arthur" with a strong sense of irony informed by recent world events. When Arthur crosses the channel to meet Lucius' forces, which seem like a multinational coalition, it's hard not to think of military alliances today, of occupiers and invasions:

From Crete and Cappadocia many noble kings

came and came quickly, minding his command…

From Babylon and Baghdad came the boldest men,

knights and their knaves, waiting no more.

From Persia and Pamphilia and the lands of Prester John

every Prince who held power prepared a force….

But instead of drawing parallels between that world and ours, there's another historical context worth considering: the one of the poet who wrote this epic. That's where the unmistakable notes of bitterness enter. I hear them as the imperial emissary, returned to Rome to report Arthur's defiant response to the emperor, describes the English king as:

the worthiest, the wisest and most muscular in warfare

of the millions of men I have met with in this world,

the knightliest creature that Christendom has known

among kings or conquerors crowned upon earth;

of bearing, of boldness, of brutal expression

the most chivalrous knight to ever come beneath Christ.

How can he go on like that before the emperor? Isn't this a bad idea — especially if he wants to keep his head?

Of course, but the years preceding the appearance of "The Death of King Arthur" were especially dark times for the English people, and such praise for an idealized ruler speaks to those times. The bitterness is between the lines.

France's Charles V hammered at English forces as the Hundred Years' War continued; the English people at home were also hammered by high taxes and unpopular rulers. Discontent exploded in a peasant uprising of the early 1380s. The territory of Gascony — a part of the English claim to French lands — was in a tug of war between French and English forces. And don't forget, presiding over this period was Richard II, an ineffectual monarch to some historians in handling such crises.

This was the world, then, in which the Arthur poem emerged. That explains (to me, at any rate) why it contains so much feverish, elaborate praise of Arthur and his knights and so many celebrations of their unified military courage. The poem yearns for a reality that didn't exist.

"The Death of King Arthur" is a 4,000-line prayer for better days.

As Armitage points out, the poem also seeks to replace the great Arthurian legends of a French chronicler, Chretien de Troyes, with something written by an English hand. That is why there is little here of Guinevere and Lancelot and no mention of the Grail or the Lady in the Lake — major elements in Chretien's romances.

Instead, as we follow Arthur's forces into French territory, the king fights a cannibalistic ogre and there are countless skirmishes between the sides before Arthur and Lucius, finally, lock swords:

Our bold King spun about with the sparkling bridle

and rode within reach to run him through,

piercing mail and man with his mighty sword,

opening him slantwise from his Adam's apple.

So ended the Emperor at Arthur's hands,

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