King Arthur's Death
By Michael Smith
An epic poem of the fall of kings, vibrantly translated and stunningly illustrated with linocut prints by the author of Unbound’s Sir Gawain
Publication date: February 2021Buy
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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.
Michael Smith comes from Cheshire and read history at the University of York, specialising in English and European mediaeval history. In later years, he studied as a printmaker at the Curwen Print Study Centre near Cambridge. His first book, a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, publishes in July 2018 from Unbound. You can find out more about his mediaeval-themed art and printmaking at www.mythicalbritain.co.uk.
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!
- 4th January 2021 The Battle of Camlan, the last battle of King Arthur - a short film for you to enjoy
I hope you had an enjoyable Christmas and New Year - or the best possible given the ongoing pandemic; these are unpleasant times which are trying us all. Despite this, I hope that you are enjoying your copy of King Arthur's Death which should have arrived with you by now; the book would never have been possible without your support.
Two short films for you to enjoy…23rd July 2020 Sir Robert Thornton and the writing of King Arthur’s Death
King Arthur’s Death – the Alliterative Morte Arthure – survives due to the work of one man, Sir Robert Thornton. A Yorkshire gentleman with the passion of an enthusiastic amateur, he was responsible for copying down many mediaeval poems and stories which, but for his efforts, would long since have disappeared.
The Lincoln Manuscript (MS 91)
His efforts have left of us with two significant…29th June 2020 And we're off!
The day has arrived! I'm sending a brief update to say that as of today, 30th June 2020, King Arthur's Death enters its final stage ready for publication in February next year. My understanding from Unbound is that you, as a pledger and patron of the book, will receive your copies much earlier than this so hopefully the wait will be shorter.
As previously explained, the coronavirus…26th May 2020 Why Barnard Castle makes Surquedry a word for today
One of the undercurrent themes of the alliterative poetry of the fourteenth century is the notion of "surquedry", a word which is frequently used and is a Middle English equivalent of the French surcuiderie, an overweening arrogance or pride. The poets were critical of this in contemporary mediaeval English government and it has a particular relevance to politics in Britain today.
Historical…28th March 2020 The Dunstable Swan Jewel and its Connection to King Arthur
After almost a year of suffering from a frozen shoulder, I have at last been able to return to printmaking - just as COVID-19 has forced everything into lockdown. So in the last few days, I have turned Gringolet's garage into a makeshift printmaking studio to produce my first linocut for some time: a four colour print of the Dunstable Swan Jewel in the British Museum.
…19th February 2020 Great News - the page proofs have now arrived for King Arthur!
Yesterday the postman arrived with the page proofs for King Arthur's Death - the Alliterative Morte Arthure; this means that (once I have proof-read them), the manuscript enters its final stage: to become a book itself.
The team at Unbound has done a magnificent job in bringing this together. With the cover design, illuminated letters, linocut illustrations - not to mention…16th January 2020 Monarchical loyalty in the Middle Ages - a key to understanding the King Arthur story
Key to an understanding of mediaeval stories such as King Arthur is the concept of the “Familia Regis” or royal household – a close-knit group of supporters and servants loyal to their monarch. At the same time, the monarch is loyal to his or her followers. It is a symbiotic relationship which, when upset, can have dramatic consequences.
In King Arthur’s Death – the Alliterative Morte Arthure…21st December 2019 Cover design revealed for King Arthur!!!
I had a wonderful surprise from Imogen, my editor at Unbound, who yesterday sent me the proposed artwork for King Arthur's Death - the Alliterative Morte Arthure. I simply had to share it with you. I am absolutely thrilled with the design, capturing what I see as the core essence of this magnificent fourteenth century work.
I think the designer himself (who worked on my last…9th December 2019 King Arthur - a story with hidden messages still relevant today
Most writing, whether wilfully or otherwise, often paints a picture of its own time that, as the years go by, begins to lose its context and therefore its original meaning. Thus, with King Arthur's Death (the Alliterative Morte Arthure), it is the duty of the translator not only to tell the story as originally written but also to reveal the context behind the story which confronts us today.…24th October 2019 A progress report on King Arthur - plus a special date for your diary!
This week my illustrated translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death), reached a new milestone as I received the first copyedit from the editorial team. I'm so pleased to have the same team working on the book as on my translation of Gawain: the questions are probing and compel me onwards to be sure of accuracy!
It's a daunting task to go through this, but a worthwhile…29th September 2019 Fabulous mediaeval literary inspirations found in Herefordshire
When I am translating - and writing about - the fourteenth century poets who inspire my work, I am also inspired by the world in which these poets lived. Theirs was an environment in which people's lives could be cut short in an instant, when food supplies could collapse, when plague, pestilence and war were never far way. A terrible time but also a time of beauty and great cultural richness.…3rd September 2019 What did the knights of King Arthur look like?
In our minds, the knights of King Arthur probably resemble a Hollywood melange of extravagant "Techincolor", inordinately-sized and bedecked battle helmets, and hand-to-hand combat on horseback. While there is nothing wrong in this, it is important to remember that an Arthurian romance is set in the time in which it was written. What King Arthur does the poet-writer of the Alliterative Morte Arthure…22nd August 2019 The Devil comes at night - the loneliness of kings in the Alliterative Morte Arthure
As anyone in a position of leadership knows, being the person at the top is a lonely business. In mediaeval times, to be king or emperor brought with it great power and responsibility but also periods of great doubt. King Arthur's Death, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, addresses this theme in the two dream sequences of King Arthur when, disturbed by his visions, he asks for the opinion of his "philosphers…20th August 2019 Exciting News about King Arthur!!!
Today a new milestone was reached in my translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death) - the manuscript and all the illustrations has now been sent to Unbound. The book now begins the next part of its journey - becoming the book which you helped to make happen!
Labour of love
This has been an all-absorbing project over the last eighteen months…4th July 2019 Recreating mediaeval illuminated letters - a short film
As many of you will know from my translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I like to illustrate my works with linocut prints. So I have produced a brief film showing how I produce the letters which will appear in the book - from the cutting through to the printing and finally the publication of the work in the finished book!
Art is very important to my approach. I make these linocuts to…4th June 2019 King Arthur's Death - here's what will happen next...
As you know, last week my translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death) hit 100% funding and now takes its last steps before being handed over to the team at Unbound to turn it into a book. I thought I would just send a quick update to let you known what is happening next with the book.
22nd May 2019 King Arthur - a real lesson for Britain today
- Firstly, as of today, I have completed all the linocut illustrations…
When I first began work on the King Arthur's Death, I was aware that deep within it lay a message for today's leaders too: beware the folly of your own pride. Never did I think, as the year has progressed during my translation and illustration of this work, that its message would become ever more relevant and pertinent.
In today's tumultuous and febrile political environment, King Arthur's…13th May 2019 Some contemporary secrets revealed by the Allliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death)
The Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death) is a fabulous poem - not just for its poetic magnificence, but also because of its wealth of contemporary detail. With this in mind, I wanted to embellish an earlier post about its coverage of King Arthur's siege of Metz. So I have produced a small film detailing how and why mediaeval sieges were fought and what the poet might have had in mind in…26th April 2019 Kingship and spirituality in King Arthur's Death
It is important to see the Alliterative Morte Arthure - the fourteenth century poem we now know as King Arthur's Death - as not so much an Arthurian romance but as a reflection on kingship. This is why it was written: a statement of the conflict between religious or spiritual duty and martial or "chivalric" state politics. It is a mirror on the dichotomy of kingship in the late fourteenth century…15th April 2019 The mystery and magic of nature and its role in King Arthur
In my work translating and illustrating King Arthur's Death, I have become transfixed by the mastery of the anonymous Arthur-poet. In this brief update, I want to share with you the fabulous way in which he weaves the mystery and magic of nature into his work and how he uses its power to add suspense and mystery to his work. I have also produced a brief film about this which I'd like to share with…29th March 2019 A short video bringing alive the 14th Century King Arthur poet
In this brief update, I wanted to share with you a short video I have made giving some context to my forthcoming translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death). In this small section, I am reading some of the opening lines of the original manuscript; the sub-titles below each page give a flavour of the translation. I hope this conveys some of the flavour of what you can expect…22nd March 2019 King Arthur is nearly funded!
Last night I was delighted to see that the funding for my translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death) reached 80% of its final target. This is a wonderful achievement and I wanted to thank you for your support with this project to date. I could not have reached this point without your help.
With now just 20% left to go we're so close to making this…11th March 2019 The extravagance of mediaeval feasting in the court of King Arthur
Whether during the holy days, or in celebration of weddings or victories, or as part of welcoming a monarch during their travels, feasting for mediaeval royalty and the nobility was often a magnificent display of wealth and a demonstration of the social order. In King Arthur's Death we are treated to a description of mediaeval culinary magnificence so grand that we can hardly imagine it today…20th February 2019 Making good progress with King Arthur - an update from the author
It's been nearly a year since I began work on translating King Arthur's Death so I wanted to send you a brief update on how the book is progressing and give you an idea of what you can look forward to when it is finally published. Unlike my translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I did not begin the crowdfunding with the manuscript ready - I started completely from scratch. No words, no…6th February 2019 Making a four colour linocut print of King Arthur and Excalibur
It has taken me a while but I have at last managed to produce a four colour linocut print of King Arthur wielding Excalibur, which I wanted to offer as a pledge option for supporters of my translation of King Arthur's Death. This article takes you through the process, which in total took between 7 and 10 solid days of hard work...
The basis of my research.
King Arthur's Death, or the…17th January 2019 The incredibly moving lament of King Arthur for his dead knights
Towards the end of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the fourteenth century poem I am translating and illustrating for Unbound, we finally arrive at the moment where Arthur fights with, and defeats, the odious traitor Mordred. Here, seriously wounded and on the verge of death, King Arthur makes a speech so powerful and haunting it is spine-tingling to hear it even now, 600 years after it was first written…10th January 2019 Some lovely new linocut prints featuring animals and birds
I've recently taken a short break from my printmaking work for King Arthur and have been producing a small range of prints featuring animals and birds from mediaeval bestiaries. I'm so pleased with them I thought I would offer a small selection of them as pledge options for supporters of my King Arthur translation. Let me tell you more about them and how they were made...
Bestiaries in the…2nd January 2019 Merlin and the Legend of Dinas Emrys - Arthurian mythology in the heart of North Wales
Britain is a land of myth and legend, at the centre of which the stories of King Arthur are amongst the most renowned. At Dinas Emrys in the mountains of North Wales, history and myth combine in a potent mixture to deliver one of the most important sites in the Arthurian canon.
Here, in this lonely, rain-sodden place, the British king Vortigern was told by the boy Merlin of two fighting dragons…19th December 2018 King Arthur's Round Table Celebrates Christmas - but then, strangers arrive...
In the English literary tradition of the Middle Ages, Christmas is a time of huge significance and symbolism. With King Arthur’s Death, as with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the warmth of the holiday period is beautifully conveyed; a time when lordly households drew in on themselves in the midst of winter, and maybe hear of strange tales and magical stories…
Following an introduction to the…28th November 2018 A film showing the printmaking process for my translation of King Arthur's Death
As well as being an historian, I am also a printmaker. The combination of both these areas comes to play in my forthcoming translation of King Arthur's Death (as indeed it did in my translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, also via Unbound, published July 2018), for which I am producing at least 32 linocut prints. In this brief update, I provide a short film showing how I print the linocut…7th November 2018 Remembrance Day 2018 - a Personal Dedication for King Arthur
As Remembrance Day beckons on 11th November, 100 years after the end of the WW1, the war to end all wars, I am reminded of a trip I made a few years back in search of the graves of two of my great-uncles. Like all such quests, there is a sense of loss, futility and deep sorrow for those who sacrificed their lives in a manner so depraved and cruel that even now it beggars belief that leaders could…2nd November 2018 The stunning alliteration in King Arthur's Death
The Alliterative Morte Arthure is a masterpiece of fourteenth century regional English poetry. It has pace, it has vim, it has detail, it has message. Above all it has a poetic delivery which makes it stand high as one of the finest works of literature from those dark days of the Hundred Years War. Its delivery is exemplified by its chosen form: the steady percussion of its alliteration.
The…21st October 2018 Secrets of King Arthur's Death revealed by the Battle of Agincourt
Historians of military tactics in the Hundred Years War have long dwelled on the use of the longbow in battles such as Agincourt, Crecy and Poitiers and how archers were organised to best effect on the battlefield. The use of the term herce by the chronicler Froissart to describe the configuration of blocks of archers in relation to individual "battles" of knights in the English armies has been…7th October 2018 How King Arthur's Death reveals the methods and horrors of mediaeval siege warfare
In King Arthur's Death, when the king besieges the city of Metz, we are given a detailed insight into the ways in which sieges were fought in this period. What this reveals, as do other elements of the poem, is that its anonymous fourteenth century writer had detailed knowledge of military matters. We are left tantalised as to who the poet really was, and to whom he was connected.
The options…21st September 2018 Heraldry in King Arthur's Death
One of the fascinating features in the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death) is its detailed reflection of fourteenth century English politics, culture and, of course, warfare. This is particularly the case when it comes to the poem's accurate descriptions of the heraldry of Arthur's knights and his foes. But does the heraldry reveal coded secrets of its own - about the people for whom…10th September 2018 King Arthur - did he let pride get the better of him?
King Arthur's Death is an alliterative poem which at once celebrates the triumphs of King Arthur while also demanding of the reader they address their views of war, ethics and morality. If the first half celebrates the former, the second half is when we are left questioning our own moral compass. At what point does Arthur the King become Arthur the flawed man?
This magnificent poem of 4000…20th August 2018 King Arthur's Death - was its writer a mediaeval Quentin Tarantino?
King Arthur's Death - the Alliterative Morte Arthure (the AMA) - is a 14th Century poem unlike any other. Its contrast between the banal and the heroic, the violent and the natural, gives this anonymous poet the style of a mediaeval Quentin Tarantino. His work is truly groundbreaking and utterly astonishing...
For me, the appeal of King Arthur's Death is that it is hugely divorced from the…9th August 2018 The Art of Darkness - printing the illustrations for my translation of King Arthur's Death
As part of my journey in translating the 14th Century epic, King Arthur's Death (the Alliterative Morte Arthure), a key issue for me has been trying to convey the "gut feel" of this magnficent poem. I have been pulled in a number of directions but now I have arrived at a style which suits my own methodology and fully supports the intended message of this literary masterpiece. Let me tell you a…25th July 2018 The Poet as Witness? Fourteenth Century Warfare in King Arthur's Death
To the untrained eye, the 14th century alliterative poem, King Arthur’s Death might be seen as a simple Arthurian romance. Nothing could be further from the truth. This vibrant, action-packed poem possesses a deep irony - possibly based on the poet’s personal exposure to the brutality of mediaeval warfare - and a detailed knowledge of other poems and sources in the Arthurian canon which he uses…5th July 2018 King Arthur - what makes a translation truly authentic?
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…24th June 2018 This original hand-pulled linocut print of Sir Hugh Calveley could be yours!
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 goes above 250 (Hardback pledge level or above), I will make this print available as a pledger's…18th June 2018 The Accountant as Insult in the Morte Arthure
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…7th June 2018 Enter the Dark Side of Chivalry - Meet the other Sir Gawain.
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…1st May 2018 King Arthur and the Giant of Mont Saint Michel – a gripping mediaeval horror story
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…11th April 2018 Dragons and Dreams – the Uncertainty of Mediaeval Kings
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…31st March 2018 Sharp eyes and steady hands - Illustrating the Alliterative Morte Arthure
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.