The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights by John Steinbeck. Review by R.S. Gibson
"Boileau said that Kings, Gods and Heroes only were fit subjects for literature. The writer can only write about what he admires. Present-day kings aren't very inspiring, the gods are on a vacation and about the only heroes left are the scientists and the poor." — John Steinbeck
The first book which John Steinbeck read and fell in love was Sir Thomas Mallory's Le Morte De Arthur. In later life Steinbeck would write to his literary agent that he was convinced that the Arthurian myth contained important universal truths and symbols.
In the Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights it was his intention to bring Mallory’s great work to the attention of an audience who may have been disinclined to struggle through the antiquated language of the original text. However John Steinbeck was determined that his version of the legend would deal respectfully with "stately rhythms" of Mallory’s original. Steinbeck's Acts was to be a full blooded and uncompromising edition of the Tales of Camelot; these tales were not to be simplified or bowdlerized.
Over a three-year period Steinbeck extensively researched the available manuscripts of Le Morte de Arthur and any relevant documents related to it. He also consulted with prominent academics in England and Europe. Finally, he set to work on what the author hoped would be the capstone on his literary career. Sadly, at the time of his death the work was incomplete only 293 unedited pages, which were published posthumously by Steinbeck’s literary agent along with their correspondence on the subject.
What the reader gets in the volume are seven pieces of prose covering the period of the myth up to Lancelot and Gawaine's realization of their feelings for each other. Although foretold by Merlin and doomed by Arthur's terrible sins there is no fall of Camelot here and no death of the King.
The five shorter stories cover Merlin's education of Arthur and how Arthur became king, the tale of Balan Le Savage the knight of the two swords and the terrible curse he labored under. Also here are the stories of how "dark, and haughty" Morgan Le Fey necromancer and queen conspired to slay her brother and rule in his stead. The two longer tales tell of a typical year's questing by three very different knights of Arthur's fellowship and the last and longest piece in the book is (part of) the noble tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake.
I very much enjoyed reading this book. Steinbeck's research really pays off here with a vividly painted land full of religious symbols, pagan myth and lots of passionate full-blooded characters. What I particularly enjoyed were the descriptive passages and the attention paid to the natural world surrounding the characters. Like other writers who have come to the Arthurian legend, John Steinbeck can't resist putting his own interpretation on things and the world he creates is obviously a fantastic never-never land where Celtic pagan figures and late medieval innovations are to be found peacefully co-existing. But this doesn't jar the readers' sense of belief which is a sign of a confident and accomplished writer.
R.S. Gibson works by day to support himself and his growing book collection. By night he dreams of a career in comics. He is a long time fan of alternative reality fiction.