The Death of King Arthur
Faber and Faber, 2012
In a follow-up to his 2007 translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Simon Armitage has turned his attention to the 15th-century epic poem, the Alliterative Morte Arthur. Armitage has set himself a monumental task: to make this bloody battle epic accessible to the modern reader. This has already been done by numerous scholars and poet-scholars; it’s all the rage these days for big-name poets to try their hand at translation of blasts from the medieval past. Seamus Heaney’s critically acclaimed rendition of Beowulf is arguably the most prominent, and more recently, we have seen re-workings of Dante’s Inferno by Mary Jo Bang and the Iliad by Alice Oswald (Memorial). In fact, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most often re-interpreted of the lot, having seen renditions from such luminaries as J.R.R. Tolkien, Marie Borroff, and – preceding Armitage by less than a decade – W.S. Merwin. The results are mixed at best.
The Alliterative Morte Arthur is a Middle English alliterative poem consisting of around 4,400 lines that recounts the latter part of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The poem survives in a single exemplar, the early 15th-century Lincoln Thornton Manuscript. As a contemporary English poet and novelist whose publication record spans nearly 20 years, Simon Armitage is well placed by virtue of both reputation and repertoire to take on the linguistic challenges posed by Britain’s earliest epics.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight proved a particularly deft showing, if only because Armitage’s exacting care and enthusiastic engagement with the text are abundantly apparent. He manages to preserve both sense of meaning and intrinsic rhythm, and on those rare occasions when the preservation of alliteration eludes him, his word-choice almost always feels apt.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with Armitage’s second foray into medieval translation, no matter how determined he may have been to free the poem from the fetters of repetition and rectify inconsistencies of tense. The key to understanding the importance of these features is quite simple: these poems are living witnesses to a time when oral tradition was still strong and vital, and migration between past and present tense were considered a matter of course. Past tense recounts history, gives weight to events in the grand scheme of centuries; present tense conveys the blood-hot immediacy of battle, or the eerie realism of portentous dreams and nightmares. However, my primary criticism is not necessarily Armitage’s choice to streamline his entire translation with the consistent use of past tense. It is his outright failure to cut repetition and offer a suitable, revitalising alternative—hardly a tall order, given Armitage’s considerable skill and formidable reputation.
Thankfully, praise is due in other quarters. The decision to stick with past tense is, no doubt, an understandable choice when confronted with a modern audience whose expectations of editorial style demand such consistencies. Navigating the 4,000-line text, a chore even for scholars familiar with the poem’s structure and Middle English itself, is simplified by the provision of italicised summaries at the bottom of every page. These notes give hints as to what is happening in the episode at hand: “The poet introduces the poem“, “Christmas at Carlisle with the Round Table“, “Messengers arrive from Rome“, and so forth.
Armitage excels particularly in the rendering of battle and all of its attendant horrors. In Arthur’s clashes with the armies of his foe du jour, the Emperor of Rome, no severed artery or cleft skull goes undocumented. From the episode “Where Sir Valiant gains revenge”:
Then our leader, Valiant, levelled his lance
and with unerring accuracy caught his enemy exactly,
spiking him through the small ribs a span above the waist
so steel plate and spleen were skewered on the spear.
Blood spurted and splurged as the horse sprang about,
then he sprawled lifeless and spoke no longer.
This is hardly stuff for the faint of heart, redolent of such graphic cinema staples as Braveheart, Gladiator, and 300. Armitage also has a keen ear for dialogue, particularly in instances where its primary function is to convey hyper-masculine, warrior bravado (nearly all of them). Gawain, more than a touch out of character when compared to the version of him who tangled so skilfully with the Green Knight both on and off the battlefield, is a prime example of such displays. It is strangely fitting that Armitage’s most successful alliterative renderings tend to occur in Gawain’s sweeping speeches, which are as numerous as (or even exceed) those made by Arthur.
Broadly speaking, in The Death of King Arthur, Armitage has produced a respectable simulacrum of the Alliterative Morte Arthur. On some finer points of execution, his efforts prove somewhat lacking in the determination and verve we have come to associate with nearly every effort to which he turns his hand. Then again, with such a fresh and laudable starting point as his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the curse of the blockbuster sequel was bound to apply.