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, And his fellows and friends looked on afraid.
Lucius is no match for the sword Caliburn, Arthur's mighty "wepen" (otherwise known as "Excalibur"). With the emperor slain, Rome now belongs to him, right?
The poem's title supplies the answer. Of course not. Treachery in England forces Arthur -- after a strange dream about the Wheel of Fortune -- to rush home and confront Mordred, who "has worked great wickedness since [the king] went away." His nephew has claimed the crown -- and Guinevere too -- and you can't help feeling that the poem's author had no troubles drawing this villainous leader from real life.
The final battle between Arthur and Mordred, like all the battles in this book, is thrilling and suspenseful in Armitage's supple rendering. It is familiar in some ways -- Arthur triumphs but is mortally wounded -- and unfamiliar in others. There is no final majestic boat ride to the isle of Avalon, attended by weeping queens; no tossing of his sword into the lake by Sir Bedevere. (To Chretien: Sorry, chum.) Instead, the king dies at Glastonbury, surrounded by mourners.
Armitage's translation strategy doesn't worry about literal or word-for-word translation: He wants to give readers a good story that is accessible. His introduction doesn't say enough about his choices in this translation, but of his "Gawain and the Green Knight" translation, he explained that he wasn't interested in producing "an exercise in linguistic forensics or medieval history; the intention has always been to produce a living, inclusive and readable piece of work in its own right. In other words, the ambition has been poetry."
The same is true of "The Death of King Arthur." It possesses all of these qualities. Inclusive and readable. Poetry. In short, a success.
Bernard Cornwell takes us to another moment in the English isles' misty past when the dream of unity was a fragile, endangered thing. His novel "Death of Kings" (Harper: 321 pp., $25.99) is set in the late 9th century, a time of ferocious division and Danish domination that Cornwell has claimed as fictional territory in his "Saxon Chronicles" series.
"In the winter of 898, there was no England," says Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a mighty warrior at the novel's center. "There was Northumbria and East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex, and the first two were ruled by the Danes, Wessex was Saxon while Mercia was a mess, part Danish and part Saxon."
Uhtred can well sympathize with this sorry state of affairs. His own sense of identity is just as divided: "And I was like Mercia because I had been born a Saxon, but raised as a Dane." In the dangerous maneuvers to dominate, then, whose side should Uhtred support -- Saxons or Vikings?
Early on, the dying King Alfred and his son Edward call upon Uhtred to unite the Saxon lands against their common enemy. But why? Uhtred wonders. "Why ally myself to a man destined to fail?" he says, thinking of Alfred. And yet Uhtred is loyal to them, struggling against several Viking marauders as well as traitorous actions that end up pitting Saxons against each other.
Cornwell's story reminds us of the perilous condition of nationhood and identity in those distant times and of Viking power that, if it had remained unchallenged, could have turned the British Isles into some kind of Norse colony or outpost. Though readers have the benefit of historical hindsight, the players in Cornwell's story certainly have no idea how God (the Norse or Christian version) will determine their fates.
Cornwell convincingly sets Uhtred's adventures in the context of historical events (he is not entirely a fictional invention, by the way, but is based upon an actual ancestor of the author). He also gives us an awful sense of the conditions of 9th century warfare. No place is "more terrible than the shield wall," Uhtred says of the way soldiers lock their shields together to fend off the charges of their enemies. As he says this, he touches an object on his necklace that some could mistake for the cross of Christianity though it isn't one. "It is the place where we die and where we conquer and where we make our reputation. I touched Thor's hammer, prayed that Edward was coming, and readied to fight."
Before joining a shield wall, then, a stiff drink of ale or mead might be a good idea.
A veteran of the bestsellers lists (especially for his tales of Sharpe, an English soldier in the Napoleonic era), Cornwell knows how to move the story along with clean, clear, well-oiled prose. It's the sort of story that can be enjoyed simply for its plot, but it also supplies interesting information about Mercia and Wessex or the strains on a lord's finances to maintain and feed his troops. It's far smoother reading on the topic than you'll find in a musty old history book.
Owchar is deputy book editor of the Times. The Siren's Call appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.