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."
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