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, 20 February 2019

Making good progress with King Arthur - an update from the author

It's been nearly a year since I began work on translating King Arthur's Death so I wanted to send you a brief update on how the book is progressing and give you an idea of what you can look forward to when it is finally published. Unlike my translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I did not begin the crowdfunding with the manuscript ready - I started completely from scratch. No words, no illustrations, nothing! So this has been a major journey and no small achievement. I hope you will understand why things have taken a while...

The Translation

I have now completed the main translation of the 4400 lines of the poem itself. It may sound straightforward translating from Middle-English to modern English but it really isn't. As I have mentioned before, both with Arthur and with Sir Gawain, the construction of sentences, punctuation and attempting to match the alliteration of the original are all complex tasks. If, for example, you have a 14 syllable line which might contain a punctuated element - such as "the King's wardrobe" -, then it will be understood that converting this to "the wardrobe of the King" adds two syllables,  This means that two syllables must be cut elsewhere, not forgetting any challenges associated with any alliterative elements lost in the process.

After completing the translation itself, my next task is to go back on all areas I marked up in the first draft and resolve the technical translation issues I encountered. It's amazing how new solutions arise after a few months away! After that, my next challenge is to match the alliteration with that of the original (that is definitely a huge task in itself) and finally to go through one more time to ensure that the sense and style is readable and enjoyable.

The task I have set myself is to deliver a translation which can be read and enjoyed in silence or read aloud successfully. This means that flow, rhythm and musicality will be key to the success of the book. As with Gawain, I am not aiming to produce a "modern" work, I am aiming to celebrate the courtly virtues of the original author: to celebrate their alliterative achievement in a way such that, if the author were to come back today, he would enjoy it himself.

Consequently, most of the vocabulary I have chosen is etymologically-based in the language the poet would have known. This, I believe, gives an impact and metre of greater urgency - especially when combined with the poet's variation between past and present tenses. 

Contextual writing

As with Gawain, I write as a writer and also as an historian. These poems speak of their own time as well as telling a story. The work therefore will begin with a detailed contextual introduction that will cover the period in which the poem was written and the events to which he alludes (either directly or tangentially). This poem contains a rich hinterland of contemporary allusion including topics such as Just War theory, kingly excess, a chivalric critique, monarchical doubt, and the management of armies in battle. I will cover all these elements to provide the reader with a richer understanding of the poet's life and times.

Several people have said to me that what they enjoyed most about my translation of Gawain was the detailed notes and the descriptions of subjects such as mediaeval arms and armour, saints and Arthurian figures. King Arthur's Death includes a wealth of detail which, to my mind, is better explained in this way than be "dumbed down" by trying to make the poem offer descriptions (and therefore changing the accuracy of the translation). So with this book I will provide readers with the same approach as before, with glossaries or notes describing mediaeval warfare, religious concepts, arms and armour and, a key element of this poem, perceived geography. 


Finally, again as with Gawain, linocut prints will form a distinctive part of the volume. The poem is nearly twice as long as Gawain so the number of illustrations is signficantly increased as a consequence. To date, I have cut 10 of the major illustrations (each print a foot square) and my aim is to reach 32. This could be lower if I find that the poem's narrative doesn't contain signficant illustrative grammar to suggest new illustrations but, so far, I have been inspired by themes:

  • Mediaeval ships at sea;
  • individual moments of battle;
  • emotional self-conflict;
  • sweeping scenes;
  • castles;
  • dreams;
  • animals and birds;
  • individual figures (e.g. Arthur, Gawain or Mordred).

As with Gawain, I am also going to include illuminated letters to appear in the same location as they do in the original manuscript in Lincoln. These letters are cut into six inch square blocks and there are about 16 to cut. I have cut one so far... (see pledge levels - I will offer original prints of the letters to pledgers requiring one with their own initial, or that of a friend). The book may well end up with about 50 linocut illustrations - plus a small number of pen-and-ink ones where relevant.

Where from here?

As you can appreciate, this is a labour of love as much as anything. As Andy Warhol once said, according to Lou Reed on Songs For Drella, "the most important thing is work". I feel this.

Right now, King Arthur's Death is 72% (update: 74%!) funded. It's a bigger book than Gawain so the targets are higher. But this book will be magnificent when it is finished. I am tremendously grateful to those of you who have supported the book with some of the larger pledge options - this is a real help in moving the project to becoming reality.

If you know of others who would like to contribute to this project, I would be extremely grateful if you could pass on the word and persuade them to support the project. Equally, remember that pledgers can also name another person in the back of the book so you can pledge as a gift for someone else.

Finally, if you see a pledge option you would like to upgrade to and are visited by a spirit of wondrous generosity, each little nudge will spur me on (especially through the pain of cutting all those plates). If I could reach 80% funding, I feel we would be nearly there with Arthur on his journey - the last leg to walk on his long journey!

Onwards into Logres!

With warm regards,

Michael Smith

Author, Translator, Printmaker


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Arnold Williams
 Arnold Williams says:

Thanks for the update. Looking forward to the book

posted 20th February 2019

Michael Smith
 Michael Smith says:

Thank you Arnold. It really will be worth the wait, even if I say so myself! The words in the poem are fantastic and, in places, an astonishing literary achievement by someone now unknown. I hope I have done him justice!

posted 22nd February 2019

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