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

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

King Arthur - a real lesson for Britain today

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 Death (officially known as the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the AMA) has never been more relevant in demonstrating that all events exist not so much "in the present" but ultimately only in their own final context. If there is no vision, there is nothing.

When the Emperor of Rome demands payment from King Arthur in the early stages of the AMA, we are treated to a sight we might recognise today. King Arthur is a languid king, presiding over a court which seems to have become decadent. The demands of the Roman Emperor are antithetical to British thinking (remember Arthur is King of the Britons, not King of England).

This ancient, proud land has lost its way in a time of peace but not so much that the embers of anger might not flare again before the provocative pokers of a foreign power.

Indeed, the king is outraged and is bolstered in this by the deeply patriotic and loyal Sir Cador of Cornwall - all bluster and fury, though strongly loyal in a romantic way. The Kings of Wales and of Scotland all pledge allegiance to the man they call the Conqueror - they too have resentments against injustices done to them.

Here is a unified Britain, embattled and emboldened against the predations of Rome, behind the leadership of a king firm in his belief. Arthur takes advice on the legitimacy of his actions, in the way of the Just War, and strides forth abroad to challenge the affront he has suffered.

Yet even before he arrives on the continent, Arthur is struck by doubt. He dreams of a bear and dragon, representing his struggle with the Emperor, and is troubled by the horrors he may unleash. Nonetheless, he proceeds, taking on the monstrous Giant of Mont St Michel before eventually meeting and defeating the Romans in battle.

But, as is the way of all such glory, a short term gain - an event in the present - is nothing compared to the context. To jumble up Churchill's famous speech after the battle of El Alamein in 1942, Arthur's victory at this point is not the end, nor (except in terms of the structure of the poem) is it the end of the beginning. Arthur's defeat of the Romans is, in fact, the beginning of the end.

In achieving his great victory, his flexing of the great British muscle, Arthur then believes himself to be invincible. He has taught those Romans a lesson or two. In so doing he becomes violent and unconstrained, with his assault on Metz being a shocking manifestation of his uncontrolled ego. We are reminded of the Black Prince's siege of Limoges in 1370 - at least in the way that Froissart reported it.

The poet reveals how leadership has now become vanity.

Now comes Arthur's second dream, where he is invited onto the wheel of fortune, teased and lured there by Lady Fortune herself. We see him riding with the greats of history only then, like them, to be cast down into the slutch. And of course, when he wakes, his advisers tell him of its implications.

Thus it comes to pass. Mordred, whom Arthur left in charge at home, has stolen his kingdom and his Queen. Arthur must return to reclaim his Great Britain - Britain the Broad - and fight for what emotionally is his. He defeats Mordred of course, but in so doing is mortally wounded, as well as witnessing the deaths of his most loyal friends.

King Arthur's Death tells us that leadership without vision is nothing. The poet begins by revealing that to lead a nation in languid decadence fires the embers of resentment.  Yet his great flipside to this shows that to lead a nation into the dark without a light to shine the way is an act of pure folly. A short term act, with no long-term contextual vision, is doomed to a failure of horrific proportions.

The Arthur-poet was an incredibly brave writer at a time when (English) kings were fighting wars with great destruction in France. It was not easy to criticise the powers that be. Yet, by disguising his critique in the context of an Arthurian romance, he exhibited a stunning genius in highlighting the horrors of political complacency and short-term expediency which live to haunt us still.

Today, as Britain once more lurches complacent, visionless and leaderless, with all its sails a-flap upon the salt-spat brine, its future leaders may choose to read King Arthur's Death . I hope they do. They will read that with power comes contextual understanding and social responsibility, not bluster and sound-bites dressed up as deeds. They will see that to think forever in the present only ever leads to disaster in the future. 

Pride is indeed an illusory bedfellow; seductive, attractive, yet inherently diseased and prone to cloud the senses. It has the curious ability to bubble up when all else has gone, when living for today has left nothing for tomorrow.

As Shakespeare himself might have put it, self love is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting. In the wreckage of the day's done deeds, might well we say, "My God, what have I done?"


Michael Smith

Author, Translator, Printmaker


PS - thank you to everyone for supporting my work with this poem. Today, I am pleased to say that, at 96%, we are only 4% away from being fully funded. We are so, so close to bringing the Arthur-poet alive once more more in a new (and I hope exhilarating and truly authentic) translation for the modern age. History, as they say, is in our hands.


Illustrations - all the illustrations in this update will appear in the book. Each one is a linocut, 12" x 12", taking many, many hours to cut and then print by hand. Each is then reduced in size for the book. Some original, hand-printed and signed linocuts are available as pledge options (some of which, like the animal pledge options, are smaller in size - but all hand printed and signed by me).



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Lyn Kenny
 Lyn Kenny says:

You put it very eloquently - thank you.

posted 23rd May 2019

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