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

Monday, 15 April 2019

The mystery and magic of nature and its role in King Arthur

In my work translating and illustrating King Arthur's Death, I have become transfixed by the mastery of the anonymous Arthur-poet. In this brief update, I want to share with you the fabulous way in which he weaves the mystery and magic of nature into his work and how he uses its power to add suspense and mystery to his work. I have also produced a brief film about this which I'd like to share with you.

The power of nature

Middle English poems are sophisticated works of literature, embracing a wide range of philosophical and religious themes, some of which are lost to us today. Simultaneously, there are richly-fashioned references to nature; hardly surprising when we consider that mediaeval life was short, vulnerable and subject to the whims of ever-present natural forces.

We don’t need to look far to see this. The Canterbury Tales, of course, begins with a brief, yet highly evocative, reference to the blossoming of spring and the fertility of the earth. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, my translation of which was published last year, the anonymous poet supplies us with some of the finest descriptions of nature of the mediaeval period; indeed, in English literature.

These examples are not unique. The Arthur-poet, while not as sophisticated in his palette, nonetheless uses nature in much the same way: as a statement of place, understood by all, to counteract, or preface, action which is to follow. His genius is in meshing this technique into a poem which is written in an astonishingly direct and uncompromising way. A poetic counterbalance to human folly, ill-judged actions and arrogance.

Unsettling and disturbing

As a consequence, he uses nature to unsettle the reader; to counterbalance a sense of contentment with deeply disturbing events. For example, when King Arthur lands in France, he must fight with the monstrous, vile and rapine Giant of Mont St Michel. Before we are introduced to this truly hideous evocation of a well-established figure in the Arthurian canon, we are taken through beautiful woodland amid a cacophony of exquisite birdsong and natural rapture. The technique is tremendously effective.

Later, when Sir Gawain is sent with a troop of knights to forage for food, he comes across a strange land where meadows have been scythed but left without stacking or maintenance. In this quiet and mysterious environment, a sort of natural Marie Celeste, he meets by a river bank the mysterious Sir Priamus, a character of great philosophical depth and magic.

Finally, the poet creates a stunningly disturbing evocation of a magical paradise when Arthur dreams of Lady Fortune on the eve of his finest achievement, the capture of Rome. Here, Fortune controls a landscape of divine beauty, compelling a fecund orchard of the choicest fruits to bend down their boughs and offer Arthur any fruit of his choice.

This, of course, is before she eventually strips Arthur of his conceit and power, and debases him as she does every other great king whose pride has grown too great. This dream prefaces Arthur’s final decline in the final third of the poem; telling its reader that hubris is unacceptable no matter how high the monarch.

About the film

In the film, I read these three passages in the original Middle English, accompanied by the text from my translation. I wanted to recreate an evocation of nature so I filmed in a piece of ancient woodland near to where I live. I have tried to make the readings as magical as I possibly can; I hope you like them.

These few lines are but a tiny fraction of the 4300+ lines which I have translated for the forthcoming book – each line is as wonderful as the next in this fabulous work of alliterative English. Their reference to nature also reflect some of the pledge options I have produced featuring animals and birds, some of which are still available as pledges or even as upgrades to your current pledge.

In translating and illustrating this magnificent fourteenth century poem, I have tried as much as possible to evoke the subtlety, power and mystery created by this anonymous poetic genius.

If you like the film, please do share it with your friends. The book is currently 86% funded so just 14% left to go before it finally goes ahead; every pledge or upgrade now will help finally push the book over the line. 

Thank you for all your help and support along the way. We are nearly there.


Kind regards.


Michael Smith

Author, Translator, Printmaker.

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Arnold Williams
 Arnold Williams says:

Enjoyed the video.

posted 15th April 2019

Peter Wood
 Peter Wood says:

Thank you - great video!

posted 15th April 2019

Michael Smith
 Michael Smith says:

Thank you Arnold and Peter! I've just set up a Mythical Britain You Tube Channel so hopefully in the coming months I'll post other videos in this mediaeval journey - from castles to landscapes and beyond. Thank you for your support.

posted 15th April 2019

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