Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur

By Rob Packer

The Death of King Arthur by Simon Armitage

The legend of King Arthur needs no introduction: the ‘Matter of Britain’ has echoed through European literary history for over a millennium and The Death of King Arthur by Simon Armitage is just the most recent addition to this vast corpus. The poem is a translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, an anonymous 4000-line Middle English poem written around 1400—and not to be confused with Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.

As the title suggests, the poem is written in alliterative verse and Armitage has preserved the poetic form in Modern English. This is important and is the heart and soul of the poem: loosely every line has four stressed syllables*, generally three of these alliterate and there is no rhyme. Unlike Armitage’s 2007 poetic translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, however, the results are mixed and work best when unobtrusive:

The forest flourished in the flush of many flowers,
with falcons and pheasants and their colours and fantails
and the flash of all fowls that fly on the wing,
and the cuckoo sang clearly from the copses and groves…

Unfortunately there are plenty of bad ones—I tried a few out on a family member and was given a grimace and told to stop:

Denmark he suppressed through the power of his person,
and from Sluys to Sweden with a swish of his sword.

Or the overload of V’s here:

So I shall swear an oath to our Saviour in heaven
and devoutly make a vow to the vernicle of the virtuous,
that vengeance shall visit this great villainy
when valiant knights vie with venomous men.

Unlike Armitage’s Sir Gawain, the alliteration here is wearing and makes for a difficult read, as I felt it jumped across registers and time in search of alliteration. At times there were Tolkien-like archaisms, such as “vaunted” or “newly dubbed knights”; at others it seemed more Mills and Boon with Mordred “the devious double-crosser” or Sir Idrus’ “lusty lashes” (in the sense of whip). The most jarring, though, was the oft-repeated “right royal” which, despite its use in Shakespeare, brings to mind tabloid headlines or pantomime.

The plot, meanwhile, is one of the lesser known Arthurian legends: Arthur receives an emissary demanding tribute to Lucius King of Rome, he is incensed and goes to war, campaigning through Lorraine, Lombardy and Tuscany before he returns from Rome to Britain to deal with that “devious double-crosser”. Deliberately or not, it is hard not to see this through a contemporary prism of Britain’s relationship with Europe**. Unluckily for me, my mind recast Arthur as a bizarre composite of David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher, riding off to Europe with a rowdy rabble of backbenchers, to handbag some European “tyrants” and commissioners with a cry of “I want my money back!”

The Death of King Arthur stands at odds with Armitage’s earlier Sir Gawain translation, which I thought very readable. This poem, on the other hand, is much more variable and really has to be taken line-by-line: it’s best during Arthur’s dreams and his return to Britain but feels frightfully forced in the fight sequences with lots of conveniently alliterative personal and place names. This creates an obvious puzzle: why is one good and the other rather mediocre? I myself started to wonder—unfairly, as I haven’t read the originals—if the Gawain poet was perhaps just a more accomplished poet, or maybe I just don’t like alliterative verse?

Simon Armitage, The Death of King Arthur, Faber & Faber 2012

* Strictly speaking, lines in Old English verse are made up of two half-lines (a hemistich) with two stresses each.

** There might also be an interesting context to the original’s composition around 1400 around the time of the Peasants’ Revolt and Hundred Years’ War—a mention of English archers conjures up images of Agincourt—but this is just my speculation with an anonymous author from the East Midlands (the only surviving manuscript is in Lincoln Cathedral library, see my previous post).

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