Book Review

The Death of King Arthur by Simon Armitage

a pointless book

What the absolute fuck is the point of this book?

I was in Tintagel recently, the legendary birthday of King Arthur, and the Chrétien de Troyes collection of Arthurian tales I had in my hire car’s glovebox had made it across the country unread. In Tintagel, high on the visual wow caused by watching the Cornish sunset refract across the clashing waves of the bay (it looked like liquid silver), I bought a copy of Simon Armitage’s recent translation of a medieval text that is known as The Alliterative Morte Arthure.

The Alliterative Morte Arthure is dated to around 1400 and was written in Middle English, which is difficult – though not impossible – to read (think Chaucer). Here, Armitage takes that text and makes it more modern, and he starts by Anglicising the title into the v v simple The Death of King Arthur. I bought the book because it was a quarter of the size of the Chrétien de Troyes and because – even though I’d had that bigger book, unread, in my possession for several days – I did want to read some stories about the mythical world of the Round Table. Armitage’s book is slim, was published in 2012, it is a self-consciously contemporary translation of a middle English text, so I expected it to have verve, drive, intensity, a literary frisson and all the fucking good stuff.

Everything I thought was wrong.

I haven’t read any Simon Armitage for years, and maybe I should have thought about why that was. Lack of opportunity? Not having heard of him? No, neither of these were the reason. I hadn’t read any Simon Armitage for years because I hadn’t wanted to, because I read lots of his poems at school and a few as an undergraduate and none of them made me go “ooooh”. His poetry is the kind of poetry that essays I read tell me is the most common mode of poetry, that whole “men being menny”, kind of poetry. Serious poetry, about history and nature and other old school bullshit. Maybe a lot of poetry is like that, because – bar Ginsberg and Corso – all the poetry I have ever in my life read and instantly *loved* has been by women. I honestly can’t think of a counter example off the top of my head. Ooh, look, I’m “virtue signalling” again, as the dull men will say. Aside: Go fuck yourselves, dull men.

The text Armitage is translating is known as “alliterative” due to its form. Rather than a rhyme scheme (and possibly also syllabic rhythm, I’d check but I can’t be arsed) the oldie worldie text that Armitage is working off of uses alliteration as form: there are three sounds the same in every line of verse. Coming out of the oral (tee hee) tradition, this obvs has its roots in helping the old timey bards remember their stories. Because what wasn’t going to help them remember was the plot, because it’s dull as fucking buses.

Armitage doesn’t keep the alliteration rule 100% of the time, as the original baladeer didn’t either, however he does maintain the structure, the vibe, the tone, the plot, none of which is remotely interesting as anything other than a piece of literary history. Without sounding like a dick, I don’t really see why anyone who would want to read this and enjoy it wouldn’t want to study it in the original language and read it like that. This is, effectively, a scholarly text, but published as if for a non-scholarly reader, and as if the text itself has entertainment or literary – rather than historical – merit. The language is accessible and uncomplex here, but all of the things I came to a book about King Arthur looking for are painfully absent. What did I want? Incest, adultery, magic, the holy grail, betrayal, deception, adventure and fun: I wanted and expected sins, the good, dirty, filthy ones, not just violence which, in battle, isn’t even meant to be considered a sin anyway.

I went wandering into the literature of King Arthur – a contemporary translation of King Arthur – expecting Merlin doing spells, expecting the king’s wife to be shagging one of his top knights, expecting references to Indiana Jones 3, expecting Arthur to be having an incestuous love child, and expecting, yes, some gory battle scenes where scores of people die in dramatic, bloody, sword fights. And I got that last bit, there was throat slicing and brain stabbing and dismemberment and whatever the word is for slicing out guts. The gore and the violence is there, but rather than complementing this – as Game of Thrones (TV series, obvs) does – with racy, ill-advised, gratuitous sex scenes and hot magic, it doesn’t. There is an ogre type character and there are giants, but these are very much just “big men”, rather than mythical creatures: they have no magic and though they are strong, they possess no strength that can’t be bettered by Arthur and his lads.

Arthur is killed by Mordred, his nephew, who I was expecting to be his incestuous son, which goes unmentioned or alluded to here. This absence of problematic sexuality is particularly frustrating given that this story very clearly belongs to a pre-existing and on-going tradition: the reader is expected to know who and what Arthur, Excalibur, Gawain, Guinevere etc are slash is, for when people and places and swords are introduced there is minimal exposition. The Death of King Arthur is a version of a preexisting story and, as a historical document, it shows what people liked in their stories at a particular moment in time. Because the more famous versions of Arthur’s myths are sexier, are messier, are more magical and more emblematic: this version is merely violent and kinda patriotic, both of which are nowhere near as exciting as hot sexuality.

In short, Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur is boring: it’s an academic curiosity, made accessible so dull people can read it and pretend they’re clever and that they weren’t interested in reading about sex anyway. For me, this was a deeply unfulfilling read. For me, this was shit. Something better MUST be next.

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