For as long I can remember, like many others, I've been captivated by the Arthurian legends. I've consumed more versions that I can remember, from Steinbeck to White to Camelot 3000. But I'm still always excited and interested when a new one pops up. And when it comes with a pedigree like Peter Ackroyd's, I can't help but take notice, despite a lukewarm appraisal in the Guardian.
Viking's The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend (November 2011) is the latest attempt to bring the stories "to life with contemporary prose." Steinbeck has a similar mission statement. In the introduction to his The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, he wrote that he wanted to "set them down in plain present-day speech for my own young sons," an effort he did not live to complete. And so I thought I might place the famous paragraph, in which Arthur draws the sword from the son, side by side in three iterations for you to compare and contrast.
For those who don't know the setup, Arthur's foster brother Kay is on his way to the joust when he realizes he has (conveniently) left his sword behind. He asks Arthur to go fetch it for him.
First, the original Malory: (From Malory Works, Oxford University Press, 1971)
"I wyll wel," said Arthur, and rode fast after the swerd.
And whan he cam home the lady and al were out to see the joustyng. Thenne was Arthur wroth and saide to hymself, "I will ryde to the chircheyard and take the swerd that stycketh in the stone, for my broder sir Kay shall not be without a swerd this day." So whan he cam to the chircheyard sir Arthur alight and tayed his hors to the style, and so he wente to the tent and found no knyghtes there, for they were atte justying. And so he handled the swerd by the handels, and lightly and fiersly pulled it out of the stone, and took his hors and rode his way untyll he came to his broder sir Kay and delyvered hym the swerd.
"I will do it gladly," said Arthur, and he turned his horse and galloped back to bring his foster brother's sword to him. But when he came to the lodging he found it empty and locked up, for everyone had gone out to see the jousting.
Then Arthur was angry and he said to himself, "Very well, I will ride to the churchyard and take the sword that is sticking in the stone there. I do not want my brother, Sir Kay, to be without a sword today."
When he came to the churchyard, Arthur dismounted and tied his horse to the stile and walked to the tent, and found no guardian knights there, for they too had gone to the jousting. Then Arthur grasped the sword by its handle and easily and fiercely drew it from the anvil and the stone, and he mounted his horse and rode quickly until he overtook Sir Kay and gave him the sword.
"Of course, brother. I will be back in a moment." When he arrived at the house he found that all the servants had gone to the joust, and that the doors were locked. In great annoyance he said to himself, "I will ride into the churchyard, and take the sword that is sticking in the stone. My brother must not be without his weapon on this day." He came into the churchyard, tied his horse to the stile, and walked into the tent where the ten knights were supposed to watch over the stone. But they, too, had gone to the joust.
So he went over to the stone and, taking the hilt with both hands, lightly and easily took out the sword. Then he galloped back to Smithfield and gave the sword to Kay.
I've always been amused by Kay's initial willingness to claim the sword (and the throne) as his own, and how quickly he confesses the truth.
I'm inclined to award this exchange to Steinbeck. He takes some liberties and makes some additions but his Arthur - angry, instead of annoyed, and overtaking instead of merely galloping - comports nicely with the Arthur of my imaginings. I also enjoy the opposition of Malory's original "lightly and fiersly" which Steinbeck preserves but Ackroyd irons out. And it's interesting that Ackroyd, whose version is billed as "abridged", chooses to remind readers of the purpose of the guards around the stone. Whereas Ackroyd's "both hands" is both a nice visual and seems consistent with the use of "handels" in the Malory.
Anyway, I could do this stuff all day. I look forward to having Arthur as my companion this summer, and will report back in more detail as we progress.