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

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!


Excerpt 2: The Arrival of the Emissaries:

In this section, towards the beginning of the poem, we witness the arrival of the Senator of Rome, with 16 knights in attendance. The lines include a brief caesura (pause) which all contribute to the poem’s pace and metre.


So suddenly entered    a Senator of Rome,

With sixteen knights in harness,    attending to him.

He saluted the sovereign,    and also that hall,

As king to a king,  and made bows inclining;

Guinevere in her degree    he greeted as he pleased 

And bowed again to the King    to deliver his message:

“Sir Lucius Iberius,    the Emperor of Rome,

Salutes you as subject,    under his great seal

Here are its credentials, Sir King,    with its fierce words,

In truth it’s no trifle,    as his shield here shows!

Now on this New Year,    as signed here by notables,

I summon you in this hall    to sue for your lands,

That on Lammas day    and with no hindrance

You be ready at Rome    with all your Round Table,

And appear in his presence    with all your prized knights

At the Prime of the day,    in pain of your lives,

In that same capital    before the King’s self,

When he and his Senators    will be sat as they like

To hear of your answer    why you hold the lands

That owe homage to him    and his elders of old; 

Why you have rode over,    robbed and ransomed the people

And cut down his cousins,    all anointed kings.

There you shall give reckoning    for all your Round Table;

Why you rebel against Rome    and withhold your dues!

If you refuse this summons,    he sends you these words:

He shall seek you over the sea    with sixteen kings,

Burn all of Great Britain,    and butcher your knights

And bring you back as a beast    begging to breathe

Neither to slumber nor sleep    under rich heaven

As for dread of Rome    you are run to ground!

For if you flee into France    or Friesland either

You shall be fetched with force    and overthrown for ever!

Your father made fealty,    we find in our rolls

In the register of Rome,    as looks so right;

Without further trifling,    we ask for the tribute

That Julius Ceasar won    with his greatest knights!”

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