Saturday, February 11, 2017

John Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

Introduction

Opening Passage:

When Uther Pendragon was King of England his vassal, the Duke of Cornwall, was reported to have committed acts of war against the land. Then Uther ordered the duke to attend his court and to bring with him his wife, Igraine, who was famed for her wisdom and beauty. (p. 3)

Summary: The unfinished Acts of King Arthur follows the Malorian tale, increasingly selectively, from the initial interventions of Merlin to the first small crossing of the line between Guinevere and Lancelot. The basic idea for the work as it stands is that it was to be a sort of summary draft, which would then be reworked by Steinbeck and made his own. Thus it is somewhat uneven. It is clear that Steinbeck did not, at the point that he was writing, quite know what to do with Merlin; in letters he remarks that Malory did not seem to know, either, and yet that the early tales concern the matter of building a kingdom, and thus are not easily left aside. He is able to do a bit more with Morgan le Fay, but it is only with the tale of Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt that he really begins to hit his stride, and it is chiefly with "The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake" that we begin to get a sense of what Steinbeck's final product might actually have been. It is somewhat sad, because it is entirely a might-have-been; Steinbeck went no further. The loss that is especially felt is that of the rest of the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere, because Steinbeck's Sir Lancelot is truly a work of art.

In general, I am wary of modernizations of tales; they tend to strip out the ability of the originals to challenge us by insisting that everyone stand where we do. But Steinbeck's modernization of Lancelot is in many ways excellent -- the essentials are faithful to the original, but the modernization is done in such a way as to raise moral questions about modernity. It depicts with particular ingenuity the problem of restlessness, that ache for something more that never quite gets satisfied with the mundane, which is implicit in Malory but is brought out with special significance by Steinbeck. Having consolidated his kingdom and turned war into peace, King Arthur discovers that peace can be as dangerous to a kingdom as war when it creates the possibility of idleness, and the moral shallowness and restlessness to be doing something, anything, that idleness creates. To handle this, Arthur, on advice from Guinevere, encourages the idea that knights should not be idle but roam the country as enforcers of the King's Peace. But this is not really a solution; it is becoming clear that there is a restlessness to this, as well, and that young men wandering around fighting is perhaps not the most stable way to cure idleness. And it is this restlessness that Steinbeck seems to suggest will lead Lancelot and Guinevere to their downfall. Malory then goes on, after a tangle of knightly adventures (Gareth and Tristram) to the Roman episode and then the Grail. Both would tie easily into the theme of restlessness, although it seems clear that Steinbeck was skeptical of the value of the Roman episode and might well have dropped it entirely. But the restlessness sets up for the Grail. In one of the letters, Steinbeck notes that we tend to think that the Grail comes first, and then we get the Quest for the Grail; but that perhaps it is the other way around -- there was a need for a Quest, and the Grail happened to be the thing to serve. Out of restlessness we seek for something better and higher. But in the end, the restlessness never quite dies, and we continue on until our defeat. But sometimes, for a while, there is a taste of the higher and better, and the quest itself was part of that higher and better thing, even if it did end in loss.

There are many other aspects of the work that are excellent. Even though it is in the earlier section, when Steinbeck is still feeling his way, the account of how the code of chivalry and the vows of the Round Table arise out of the various knightly quests is very masterfully and engagingly done. The prose is balanced, and one of Steinbeck's primary goals, to convey something of Malory without bogging down as Malory sometimes does, is certainly met. It is a lovely book that never quite was, and, indeed, a quest that ended in defeat but was worthwhile, anyway.

Favorite Passage:

She valued him with her eyes and chose her words with care. "Were you other than you are I would not conduct you to your death," she said. "Nor would I ask a boon knowing you might survive. But you are Lancelot and I dare do both. When you have had your do with Sir Tarquin, will you promise me a service on your knightly word?"

"If I would not--would you conduct me?"

"I must search for a good knight to help me, sir."

"I see. It appears that there is no damsel in the world without a problem whose solution requires the jeopardy of my life."

"Have you not sworn service to damsels and gentlewomen?"

"I have indeed. But sometimes I wish I did not have to honor my oath so often." (p. 257)

Recommendation: Recommended.

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John Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, Chase Horton, ed., The Noonday Press (New York: 1995).

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