The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights

The Acts of so-called Arthur King and his Noble Kannnnnigits
© 1976 John Steinbeck
364 pages

It befell in the days of yore, as I rode by a book-stall in a great city, that mine eye was caught by a fair volume of great renown: the noble acts and deeds of King Arthur and his knights, written by a worthy scribe named John Steinbeck, from the fair countrie of Salinas. And I was much astonished and pleased, and took it in mine hand and paid the price thereof.  And yet so committed was I to other literary adventures that is only now,  yea  even now, that I was able to retire to my estates and cast my eye on these noble  words.  

Right, so if you’re not up on your Mallory, then I’ll translate. Two years ago while exploring a thrift store, I stumbled upon a version of the King Arthur stories by John Steinbeck, of all people. Steinbeck writes at the opening that it was Mallory who made him fall in love with language, with words that could bewitch the mind. Some stories of Arthur and his knights then follow, though not all of them: Steinbeck estimated it would be a ten-year project, given the amount of research needed to do justice to the mission, and died before its completion. 

The included tales cover the rise of Arthur,  his knights’  work in consolidating his power,   and then the rise of questing to keep  his men’s skills sharp and their minds out of mischief.    Although I found to some degree what I was expecting – Arthur, Merlin, lots of adventure and questing –   I encountered surprise after surprise. Admittedly, my sketchy-at-best knowledge of Arthurian lore helped. I knew from that faithful adaptation of Arthurian lore, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that Arthur’s father was Uther Pendragon:  I did not know that Uther was a rapacious lech  who, on spotting his vassal’s wife , the lady Igraine,   immediately attempted to make her his and resorted to sorcery  when war would not suffice. Arthur was the result.  Fortunately for Arthur, his mum’s cuckholded hubs had the good grace to immediately  get himself killed in war, sparing any nasty scenes with Medieval Maury Povich. Another surprise was the ‘death’ of Merlin,  who was sealed up in a cave after a young woman seduced him into teaching her all of his knowledge of magical lore. Sounds villainous, but no –  she simply replaces him as a quasi-guardian of the realm.   

Although it’s his name on the front cover,   Arthur plays a curiously small role after the introductory stories. Most of the stories are about Arthur’s men, and I’d heard of very few of them.  This is a world thick with chivalry and fancy,  as knights constantly challenge one another, which is so tiresome that Merlin makes Arthur invisible at one point so he won’t be challenged for the nth time that day.   There are several stories in here more interesting than most, like that of  a young knight-errant who is mentored by a would-be warrior named Lyne, who regards herself as far more able in horsemanship and war than most knights, and indeed demonstrates studied insight into the errors of custom, as she points out to the knight the ways his armor is inferior, despite its brilliant appearance, and offers him advice into adjusting his stirrups as so not to be too top-heavy. This  gives the book an interesting mix of fine technical detail along with its fantasy elements like giants and fairy-made swords.  Another surprise came in a story about Lancelot being captured by four queens, all of whom are versed in magic, who are bored with their power and wealth and want to feature Lancelot in a little game in which he, like Paris, has to choose between their beauty and bribes.  Lancelot, protected from the lady-types thanks to his courtly devotion to Guinevere, instead argues with them, and several fascinating discussions follow.  Unfortunately for Lancelot, when he returns from questing Guinevere touches his arm in thankful greeting, and  his courtly love becomes something altogether different.   The final ramifications of Lancelot’s undoing don’t feature here, though.   Perhaps my favorite moment of the book came when a man effectively tried to kill an unarmored and unarmed Lancelot,  who survives only through wit and use of the elements around him: the vanquished brute’s wife comes out to harangue Lancelot for dispatching her  oafish mate to perdition, and he tells her (in so many words) that were he not a knight, he’d  spank her.  

The Acts of King Arthur and his Knights proved entertaining and surprising. I’m glad Steinbeck took on the project and am sad he was not able to finish it, given his love of the subject and his ability to bring these stories to life in both fancy and earnestness.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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4 Responses to The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    Interesting…..! [lol]

    • Yes! An unexected but fun find. I’m glad I was able to touch on a little English folklore this RoE. I haven’t touched any of the new books I bought…..or the classics I’d meant to read….but it’s not quite over yet.

      • Cyberkitten says:

        To dig deeper you might want to try ‘King Arthur – The Making of the Legend’ by Nicholas J Higham. Inevitably I haven’t read it yet… But it *looks* the part!

  2. Pingback: April 2023 in Review | Reading Freely

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