King Arthur’s Death (commonly referred to as the Alliterative Morte Arthure) is a Middle English poem that was written at the end of the fourteenth century, probably in Lincolnshire or Yorkshire. It is an epic work, documenting the staunch independence and military prowess of a Britain enraged by imperial aggression.
This magnificent poem documents 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 to the very gates of Rome in asserting Britain’s rights and independence.
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. Eventually, events in Britain draw him back where he must now face Mordred for control of his kingdom.
Losing first Sir Gawain to his nemesis, Arthur now meets Mordred for the final showdown where he is slain. Yet Mordred’s death does not come without consequences: Arthur too is fatally wounded and we are left with the immortal line, “Here lies Arthur, once King and King to be again”.
Action on a grand scale!
The Unbound community will already be familiar with my translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (publishing July 2018). King Arthur’s Death is a different animal, albeit written at the same time. Whereas Gawain focuses on themes of religion, duty and chivalric behaviour and in many ways is a reflective and didactic work, Arthur is about action with a capital A!
King Arthur’s Death is a vivid masterpiece, a triumph of the poet’s art. It has pace, grip and passion. It has epic scale and sweeping scope. It does not dwell on the courtly love and mythical angles so beloved by French writers and instead reads almost like an anthem to martial prowess, designed to inspire military lords and their hosts in the achievement of great deeds. It celebrates chivalric feats of arms and sings to those of an independent mind.
Yet the poem also possesses a darkness to it which makes it almost an antithesis of the Arthurian romance, with a profound anti-war message hidden amongst its sweeping narrative.
Above all, it reads rapidly and maintains its excitement and pace as Arthur and his allies battle their way across the continent to face down his oppressors. Its final battle scenes, when Gawain is slain, then Mordred and finally Arthur, are both magnificently constructed and intensely moving. In many ways, its depiction of a land grown decadent seeking to rediscover past glories is a metaphor for modern Britain as the country once more tries to find its place in the world.
A new recreation of “the poem which inspired Malory”
In translating this magnificent work, I want to share with today’s reader not only the fabulous story and language of the original but also to shed light on the times in which it was written. As with Gawain, the book will examine not only what the poem was about but also the reasons why it was written and what it aimed to achieve. It is a translation, but also an interpretation, pointing the reader to new areas and different thinking of what lies behind story and myth.
Like Gawain, the work is also illustrated throughout; this time with many pen-and-ink drawings featuring scenes from the story. As before, each of these is based on extensive research and has been reproduced in the style of the fourteenth century. I also include illuminated letters, replicating where these fall in the original manuscript.
Above all, I aim to remain true to the original form of the poem, 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.
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!
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.