Review: The Death of King Arthur

The Death of King Arthur

by Peter Ackroyd

Reviewed by Judith Reveal | Released: November 10, 2011

Publisher: Viking Adult (336 pages)

“For the reader interested in the specific history of one set of tales, or the complete story of Arthur, his knights, his queen, and Camelot, The Death of King Arthur is a great read and a piece of history that should continue to be relayed in its entirety for another 500 years.”

Peter Ackroyd’s retelling of the Arthurian tales is clear and on-point apropos the original tales. Although he clarifies, he does not deviate from or embellish upon the original style of Sir Thomas Malory’s work. And the title offers the reader only a snippet of the book’s content, since the tales include much more than just Arthur’s death.

The introduction to the book discusses Malory as a knight who “. . . came from a family steeped in the values and traditions of the chivalric code.” This opening gives us background into the man whose life would have been formed by this code, and yet we learn that he turned to crime and spent time in prison. It was during this time that he is determined to have penned Le Morte d’Arthur, a collection of stories with themes of chivalry and Christian virtue; stories often steeped in magic.

The question of chivalry is a large one to wrestle with. The Knights of the Round Table are charged (most often of their own accord) to leave the safety of the king’s domain, and search for adventure. They may do this in the name of their king, or their queen, or just because it is expected of a knight. Regardless, their adventures end in confrontation with knights of other realms, and with some frequency their fights last for two hours. The significance of a two-hour time frame is not explained, but the ground is bloodied, the knights are tired, and in many instances, they just stop fighting, fix their wounds, compliment one another on their fighting skills, and depart. Curious, to say the least, but they have achieved their destiny: to have an adventure.

The question of how women fit into the code of chivalry is another peculiar issue, but answered by Arthur’s statement after Lancelot saves Guinevere from the stake, and Arthur declares, “Queens can be replaced. But how can I find again such a noble company as that of the Round Table?”

In the cases of two of the strongest stories—Tristan and Isolde; and Lancelot and Guinevere—the knights are in love with their queens and that love is returned. These relationships don’t seem to be of much concern—even to the kings who tend to either not recognize, or turn a blind eye to, the situations.

Oh, there are moments of anguish, but for the most part, kings have more to worry about than who they think their wives may be sleeping with! There are also instances when women do not fare well if a knight deems them unworthy of life, and heads do, indeed, roll.

Many of the stories are infused with sorcery and evil witchcraft, raising the specters of familiar literary characters such as Merlin, Morgan le Fey, and Mordred. Although according to 21st century reading standards, use of these techniques makes outcomes “convenient,” but when read in the context of 15th century writing, we tend to accept these conveniences. Malory relates several tales of how kings and knights came upon their hardware, i.e. swords, by dislodging them from large stones; magic spells and potions cause brave knights to come under the control of others, but the knights win in the end.

While these tales at times may veer off course, each story is short and so, the story comes around full circle: from Arthur’s birth, through his years as king, to the seeming betrayal by his wife with his best knight, and finally to his death. As with all good literature, the story builds to its final climax, which in this book is the final section, The Death of Arthur when the tale of treachery and the inevitable battle is fought and chivalry returns to the fold.

Mr. Ackroyd stays true to the construction of these stories and lays them out in seven parts: The Death of King Arthur, The Tale of King Arthur, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot du Lake, Tristram and Isolde, The Adventure of the Holy Grail, Lancelot and Guinevere, and The Death of Arthur. Each section relates to the others, and is also a series of related tales within itself.

For the reader interested in the specific history of one set of tales, or the complete story of Arthur, his knights, his queen, and Camelot, The Death of King Arthur is a great read and a piece of history that should continue to be relayed in its entirety for another 500 years.

This book review was prepared for the New York Journal of Books and is reprinted with their permission. Please visit their website: www.nyjournalofbooks.com for a complete listing of book reviews.

Reviewer: Judy Reveal lives in Maryland. She is the author of Around Greensboro and the Lindsey Gale Mystery series including Cheating Death, The Music Room, A House to Kill For, and historical fiction (2013) The Brownstone.

© Roy Bartels 2012