It might be six hundred years old, but this King Arthur story shines a bright light on today
As an historian and translator, the fourteenth century has long held a particular fascination for me: the Hundred Years War, the age of chivalry under Edward III, and a renaissance in the use of alliterative verse – a poetic style championed centuries before by the Anglo Saxons, in great works such as Beowulf. This style of poetry is fascinating too because of the light it shines on our own troubled times – in particular through its audacious and subversive criticism of the deeds of kings and rulers.
This “Alliterative Revival”, as it is known, gave birth to many famous works – including of course Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and its sister poems of the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript now held in the British Library. But not all are romances or spiritual works; many are satirical, some are reflective and others have a deep subversive undercurrent. In the library of Lincoln Cathedral, rests one such example: the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur’s Death).
Chivalry or something else?
The stories of King Arthur, of course, are the stuff of legend and part of an international inheritance, weaving together stories from Wales, England, Ireland, France and elsewhere. Talk to anyone about Arthur and without doubt their first thoughts will be of the Round Table, courtly love, jousting and chivalry. For some, Arthur is also seen as the mythical embodiment of a dormant Britain, ready to rise again. And yet…
The Alliterative Morte Arthure , transcribed by Robert Thornton in the 1440s from a now-lost fourteenth century original, tells an altogether different story of the British king. This is a story which shows the flipside of monarchy and holds a mirror to vanity – a story of the fall of kings driven by the folly of pride.
In one reading, it is possible to see this story as a great adventure in which the knights of Arthur rise up in an act of national defiance against a remote and distant Roman emperor claiming his dues and taxes from a king he views as his subject. Rich in contemporary detail, excitement and battlefield action, a contemporary audience might well have seen this King Arthur as an apogee of kingship – another Edward III, beating all before him, “taking back control”.
Dark and subversive
But it is in another reading where the story suddenly becomes more nuanced and darker, with a profound message hiding beneath its surface. This story is subversive; one which doesn’t glorify war but, without sparing any detail, highlights all its horrors. It doesn’t hold Arthur up as a shining example but instead reveals the foolishness of ambition and the perils which await those who chase selfish dreams.
Yes, King Arthur is at its centre but, step by step, this is as a king shown as conflicted example of how best – and how not – to rule. A king who appears to follow a righteous cause, only for his pride, vanity and arrogance to take over. Penned somewhere between 1375 and 1410, at a time of deep national uncertainty culminating in the overthrow of Richard II, King Arthur’s Death is a commentary on kings who fail to understand their true place and responsibility to their country.
In choosing to fight in foreign fields and leave Mordred in charge, Arthur abrogates responsibility for his kingdom, preferring the glory of foreign wars – and what a price he ends up paying. He loses his wife, all his great friends, he turns his kingdom against itself and, ultimately, he receives his death wound from his own sword of state.
A message for today
Whilst its setting may be the Middle Ages, the message in King Arthur’s Death is hugely relevant now. With nationalist and populist politics once more on the rise in Britain and elsewhere, it starkly reveals the unforeseen consequences of the politics of visionless shadow-chasing. As thousands are cast aside, their lives trashed or brought to an end, slowly the poet reveals how the allure erodes and the reality sinks in.
The message of the poem is that good government is essential to legitimate power – deeds not words; substance, not saying things people want to hear. Nationalism and populism are of course incredibly alluring because, as emotional forces devoid of tangible substance, they are impervious to criticism. King Arthur’s Death shows the outcome of such folly – an outcome we have seen time and again in Europe and elsewhere.
The appeal for me in translating this fabulous Middle English poem is precisely because it reveals the flip-side of the conventional mediaeval romance – and because its message transcends the centuries. This is a powerful, epic work but also one which, behind the action, asks its audience to consider the words rulers spout, the legitimacy of war and the folly of pride.
Another appeal is that the poem also enabled me to explore a different side to my printmaking: a darker side where the age of chivalry is stripped bare on the bloodied battlefields of Europe. These prints, influenced by the German printmaker Käthe Kollwitz, show war for what it really is: a stain upon the human race. Kollwitz, like King Arthur, warns us to beware the glitz and glamour or the dangled bauble of national zeal.
When I first started out on this book a few years ago, my commissioning editor said that the title should contain a “Spoiler Alert” because the poem’s hero dies at the end. The point is, it’s not that King Arthur dies, it’s how he ends up there that matters. Written six centuries ago at a time of national crisis, the anonymous poet of the Alliterative Morte Arthure still talks to us today.
The poem signs off with a pointed reference to the once and future king. There’s more to this than we might imagine: what’s happened before might happen again. If we let it.
(c) Michael Smith
About King Arthur’s Death: The Alliterative Morte Arthure
King Arthur’s Death(commonly referred to as the Alliterative Morte Arthure) is a Middle English poem that was written in Lincolnshire at the end of the fourteenth century. A source work for Malory’s later Morte d’Arthur, it is an epic tale which documents the horrors of war, the loneliness of kingship and the terrible price paid for arrogance.
This magnificent poem tells of the arrival of emissaries from Imperial Rome demanding that Arthur pays his dues as a subject. It is Arthur’s refusal to accept these demands, and the premise of foreign domination, which leads him on a quest to confront his foes and challenge them for command of his lands.
Yet his venture is not without cost. His decision to leave Mordred at home to watch over his realm and guard Guinevere, his queen, proves to be a costly one. Though Arthur defeats the Romans, events in Britain draw him back where he must now face Mordred for control of his kingdom – a conflict ultimately fatal to the pair of them.
Combining heroic action, probing insight into human frailty and a great attention to contemporary detail, King Arthur’s Death is not only a lesson in effective kingship, it is also an astonishing mirror on our own times, highlighting the folly of letting stubborn dogma drive political decisions.
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