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

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

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 little more...

The Art of Darkness

This magnificent poem - nearly twice the length of Gawain - possesses an inner spirit and message which, once you get into it, really gnaws at you. It deals with self doubt, arrogance, conceit, failure, and the fragility of leadership. Yes, it sings a martial tune in the way of the Song of Roland but ultimately it asks its contemporary audience to examine its own conscience about leadership and where it takes us. It very much has a voice for today in this regard.

So the way I have decided to illustrate the book is to adopt a chiaroscuro mentality.

In many ways, King Arthur's Death is about life in the shadows, a place where many of us live when we cast away the pretence of how we choose to project ourselves.

Consequently, the illustrative methods needed to support this work must work hand-in-hand with the poem's feel if they are to be successful. I liken the approach a little to looking in the bathroom mirror and trying to see the reflection not as yourself but as someone completely different.

Using the linocut methods I employed in Gawain, I am moving beyond the vanity of chivalry. I am exploring the horror and anxiety which truly dwells within our heads when the lights go down.

Relief printing is my medium

(above: inked up plates ready for printing on the Albion press)

This poem has a darkness which my pen-and-ink work could not accurately replicate. While my pen-and-ink work will serve to illustrate the notes and introduction for my new translation, the mood created by the poem itself can only be characterised by relief printing in linocut.

As some of my readers will know, relief printing involves cutting away at a plate and then inking up what is left behind - the high (or relief) parts. Often, a plate inked up for the first time (see above) makes great art in itself.

However, the real joy is when we come to print the plates onto the paper using a nineteenth century cast iron Albion Press. This is a process done entirely by hand, with subtle adjustment of pressure to get the right results...

(above: plate of King Arthur's Dream ready for printing on the Albion Press)


The contrast between light and dark offered by linocut printing is perfect for King Arthur's Death. We can create a dark background, cast light onto faces, show dark figures dwelling in the background.

It is perfect for showing the haunting melancholy of King Arthur when he wakes from his dream about the dragon and the bear. It is ideal for showing the anger of Sir Gawain when he meets the Roman Emperor Lucius. It has an astonishing power in depicting the monstrous Ogre of Mont St Michel.

(above: Queen Guinevere collapses when Arthur leaves to fight in France)

Own an original!

It's been a journey to arrive at the right style for this most magnificent of fourteenth century epics but I'm there at last. I have a total of 32 linocuts to produce for the work; so far I have completed five of them.

Four of these I have created in a special red/black two colour finish to offer as pledge options for King Arthur's Death (you can see them on the main page). I have hand-printed two of each of these which, as part of the pledge option, also include everything up to the King Arthur Dedicated level as well as the signed, original linocut print.

If you have already pledged for King Arthur's Death and would like to upgrade your pledge to include one of these prints, you can do that via your Unbound account. If you are new to Unbound and have yet to pledge, it's really straightforward - just click here, select the pledge option you would like (the blue buttons next to each pledge level), and follow the instructions.


Thank you for supporting my work.

Kind regards


Michael Smith,

Translator, Printmaker and Champion of the Alliterative Revival




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