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King Arthur's Death

By Michael Smith

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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 2021
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About the book

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.

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