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

Thursday, 22 August 2019

The Devil comes at night - the loneliness of kings in the Alliterative Morte Arthure

As anyone in a position of leadership knows, being the person at the top is a lonely business. In mediaeval times, to be king or emperor brought with it great power and responsibility but also periods of great doubt. King Arthur's Death, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, addresses this theme in the two dream sequences of King Arthur when, disturbed by his visions, he asks for the opinion of his "philosphers" - his advisers or confidants.

Three tenets of a Just War

It's important to remember that in going to war mediaeval kings had to be sure their intention was correct, they had authority to go to war and that their cause was just. If a war was not fought on this basis, a king's army was damned; after all, how is it right for a Christian to fight a Christian under God's law?

King Arthur's Death makes us question the legitimacy of Arthur's own actions. When he first approaches France early in the poem, he dreams of a bear fighting a dragon and is reassured that the dragon represents him in his actions. It would seem that the philosophers are telling Arthur that he is fighting a just war because the Roman emperor Lucius is making unfair demands. While Thomas Aquinas and others might question this as a fundamentally legitimate justification and authority, the poem seems to suggest that Arthur's actions at this stage are legitimate.

By the time of the second dream, by when he has slain the Roman emperor, beseiged Metz, ravaged many towns and cities across Europe and now rests before the walls of Rome, ready to seize the crown, Arthur is changed. Now he dreams of Lady Fortune who invites him to climb the wheel only to dash him asunder.

This time his advisers tell him that he is doomed; he has brought his own world crashing down because of his "surquedry", his overweening pride. Rather than fight Lucius for the right to be independent, Arthur instead has had his head turned by the possibility of becoming Holy Roman Emperor. He has become obsessed with his own power and strength; along the way he has caused inumerable deaths - including to many Christians.

Reflection on the deeds of kings

The stunning quality of this magnificent poem is that it does not tell us didactically what Arthur is doing wrong but infers it by his actions. The poem may be heroic, it may have elements of a mediaeval chanson de geste (a song of deeds), but its true quality is that it lets the reader reflect on the action and make their own conclusions. 

The biggest conclusion we can make is that, at the top of society, there is nowhere else to go. Monarchy, like leadership, is a lonely business. Despite how we act in public, it is when we are alone that the doubt creeps in.

Enjoy the film

The attached film goes into a little more detail about this theme, and contains two translated passages from the forthcoming book. I hope you enjoy it - and do please circulate it to anyone else you think will enjoy supporting my translation:

Kind regards

Michael Smith,

Author, translator, printmaker

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