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An epic work of battle and betrayal, vibrantly translated and stunningly illustrated with linocut prints by the author

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!

Read more...

Remembrance Day 2018 - a Personal Dedication for King Arthur

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Mt knowles grave  second right  foreground looking over cemetery

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…

The stunning alliteration in King Arthur's Death

Friday, 2 November 2018

Gawain and gawain 2

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…

Secrets of King Arthur's Death revealed by the Battle of Agincourt

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Battle of agincourt wikipedia

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…

How King Arthur's Death reveals the methods and horrors of mediaeval siege warfare

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Battle of nevilles cross public domain

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…

Heraldry in King Arthur's Death

Friday, 21 September 2018

Shield mb   king arthur

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…

King Arthur - did he let pride get the better of him?

Monday, 10 September 2018

Arthur rage bw mb

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…

King Arthur's Death - was its writer a mediaeval Quentin Tarantino?

Monday, 20 August 2018

Tarantino arthur

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…

The Art of Darkness - printing the illustrations for my translation of King Arthur's Death

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Giant mont st michel mb

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…

The Poet as Witness? Fourteenth Century Warfare in King Arthur's Death

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Battle cropped mb

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…

King Arthur - what makes a translation truly authentic?

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Daniel hahn 2

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…

This original hand-pulled linocut print of Sir Hugh Calveley could be yours!

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Hugh calveley image for unbound

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…

The Accountant as Insult in the Morte Arthure

Monday, 18 June 2018

Brabantsche yeesten f

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…

Enter the Dark Side of Chivalry - Meet the other Sir Gawain.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Medieval dead edward iii v2

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…

King Arthur and the Giant of Mont Saint Michel – a gripping mediaeval horror story

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Cerne abbas giant big

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…

Dragons and Dreams – the Uncertainty of Mediaeval Kings

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Round table 2

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…

Sharp eyes and steady hands - Illustrating the Alliterative Morte Arthure

Saturday, 31 March 2018

King arthur cropped with water mark

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.

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Eric Shaffstall
Eric Shaffstall asked:

Michael, would you ever consider producing a set of playing cards? I have supported both of your book projects and thoroughly enjoy your linocut prints. I think they would make a wonderful set of cards. I imagine something like this: A standard deck with Gawain, Guinevere, and Arthur as Jack, Queen, and King; maybe Mordred as Joker. Perhaps with the obverses decorated with heraldic imagery and the reverses with something grand like the bear and dragon of Arthur's dream or the red and white dragons of Merlin's prophesy.

Michael Smith
Michael Smith replied:

What a great idea Eric - and thank you for your support for my work. I'm sorry it's taken a while to answer your question. I'll have a look at this idea in detail - the costings may be difficult but it's a really good suggestion. Michael

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