King Arthur’s Death (commonly referred to as the Alliterative Morte Arthure) is a Middle English poem that was written in the north of England at the end of the fourteenth century. A source work for Malory’s later Morte d’Arthur, it is an epic tale which documents the horrors of war, the loneliness of kingship and the terrible price paid for arrogance.
This magnificent poem tells of the arrival of emissaries from Imperial Rome demanding that Arthur pays his dues as a subject. It is Arthur’s refusal to accept these demands, and the premise of foreign domination, which leads him on a quest to confront his foes and challenge them for command his lands.
Yet his venture is not without cost. His decision to leave Mordred at home to watch over his realm and guard Guinevere, his queen, proves to be a costly one. Though Arthur defeats the Romans, events in Britain draw him back where he must now face Mordred for control of his kingdom – a conflict ultimately fatal to the pair of them.
Combining heroic action, a probing insight into human frailty and a great attention to contemporary detail, King Arthur’s Death is not only a lesson in effective kingship, it is also an astonishing mirror on our own times, highlighting the folly of letting stubborn dogma drive political decisions.
Chivalry exposed by the horrors of war
The Unbound community will already be familiar with my translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (now published). Like Gawain, it tells its readers much more than appears at first glance…
Whereas Gawain focuses on themes of religion, duty and chivalric behaviour, Arthur concentrates on the frailty of kingship, the depravity of men and the marital duties of knighthood.
Combining pace, grip and passion, King Arthur’s Death has epic scale and sweeping scope. Yet, it does not dwell on the courtly love and mythical angles so typical of the French romances of the period. Instead, by contrasting courtly politesse with the brutal horrors of war, it highlights the delusional vanity of the chivalric ideal and the terrible impact of poor decisions.Indeed, King Arthur’s Death is almost an antithesis of the Arthurian romance, boldly written and with a profound anti-war message hidden amongst its sweeping narrative. It is as if the poet himself is weary of the Hundred Years War, the backdrop to his life and times, and is calling on princes to show greater judgement and compassion for their people.
Help King Arthur’s Death be told anew!
As with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, my approach to translation centres on re-casting the words of the original in such a way that if the poet came back today the language, flow, alliteration and metre would all be relevant to him. Yet it must also have flow and relevance to the modern reader.
As with Gawain, the book will not only be accessible, but will also examine why King Arthur’s Death was written and what it aimed to achieve. It is a translation, but also an interpretation, pointing the reader to new areas of learning and different thinking of what lies behind story and myth.
Again, it will be illustrated throughout; containing a wide range of linocut prints featuring scenes from the poem and also, in the introduction and notes, pen-and-ink drawings based on contemporary manuscripts. As before, all of these will draw on extensive research and have been reproduced in the style of the fourteenth century.
Readers of Gawain will know that I aim to remain true to the original form of the poem. My focus will be on capturing its pace and punch and brevity of form which, I hope, will bring alive this magnificent poem once again. A poem which many have claimed to be the poem which inspired Malory.
King Arthur’s Death can only happen with your help. Please do pledge for this brand new, illustrated translation of this epic poem and let its voice speak to us again!
In these changing times, its message demands to be heard anew.
Excerpt 1: Sir Cador battles with the King of Lybia.
This scene gives a flavour of the poet’s great pace but also of his understanding of the speed of battle and the tactics of warfare in the fourteenth century:
Then Sir Cador the keen as becomes a true knight,
Cries out “A Cornwall!” and fewters his lance,
And strikes straight through the battle on a great steed;
Many strong men he struck by his strength alone.
When his spear was snapped he eagerly sprung
And swept out his sword which never failed him,
That cut swathes most wide and wounded great knights,
And he works in this way to anguish their flanks
And hews at the hardiest halving their necks asunder
Such that all blends with blood where so his horse barges!
Many nobles that lord did bludgeon to death,
He topples down tyrants and empties their saddles,
Then turns from his toils when he thought the time right!
Then the Lybian king cries full loud
At Sir Cador the keen with cruel words:
“You have won worship and wounded knights;
You act for your boldness like the world is your own -
I am right here and waiting sir, by my word;
Hold yourself fore-warned you had better beware!”
With cornet and clarion many new-made knights
Listened out for the cry, casting lance to the fewter,
Forged forth on their foe on steeds like iron
And felled as they first came full fifty at once;
Shot through the schiltrons and shattered lances,
Laid down in a pile great noble lords,
And thus nobly our new men use all their strengths!
But new nonsense is here that saddens me greatly:
That king of Lybia takes a steed that he liked
And acts most lordly with silver-lioned shield,
Surrounds the melee and piles in amongst it;
Many lords with his lance their lives he steals!
Thus he chases the child-knights of the king’s chamber
And kills in the fields those most chivalrous knights;
With a spear for the chase he chops down many!
Recently, I appeared in a discussion at the Bradford Literature Festival with Daniel Hahn discussing my new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (also published by Unbound). In just one afternoon, I realised that the work I had been involved with for the last five years had suddenly become something - a serious translation. My next project, King Arthur's Death, has taken on a new responsibility…
As part of the crowdfunding campaign for my new translation of King Arthur's Death (the fourteenth century Alliterative Morte Arthure written during the reign of either Richard II or Henry IV), I'm pleased to announce a special prize for one lucky pledger for the book!
Once the number of backers reaches 250 (Hardback pledge level or above), everyone who has pledged at those pledge levels will…
Being written in England around 1400, King Arthur’s Death sheds a fascinating light on the tactics, techniques and sheer plain talking of the English soldiering class around the time of Agincourt. Whoever wrote this astonishing poem was well-versed in how armies were organised and paid for, and, in so being, he highlights a side of warfare which still haunts us today: financiers don’t like fighters…
Battle plays a major part in the vivid writing of the fourteenth century masterpiece which is King Arthur’s Death (the Alliterative Morte Arthure; one of the key sources for Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur). Yet its anonymous poet chooses to tell us a tale not so much of chivalric romance but of the brutal horror of war. This is particularly true when we consider Sir Gawain, a leading character in…
Above: The Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset - the basis of, or a model for, the predatory rapine giant in King Arthur's Death?
Giants and ogres are a common feature in mediaeval literature and in King Arthur’s Death (the Alliterative Morte Arthure) we are shown one who is surely one of the most gruesome to have been created. How did the poet manage to create such a vile beast, and one who remains…
When kings in the past were faced with aggression from abroad, how did they react – and why? In the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur’s Death) we are given significant insights into the diplomacy and thinking of mediaeval kings. It makes for gripping reading, far beyond what we might expect from such a poem.
Mediaeval life was dominated by religion, war and the whim of God. If calamity…
My new translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur’s Death) begins a new journey for me: translating a vibrant poem of the late fourteenth century (which, incidentally, has a number of hidden meanings) and illustrating it in pen-and-ink. For this post, I want to show you the process I use in my illustrative work, focusing on an illustration of King Arthur himself.
These people are helping to fund King Arthur's Death.