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Published: Sunday April 8, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday May 27, 2013 MYT 12:37:55 PM

Arthur’s legends, retold

The Death Of King Arthur Author: Sir Thomas Malory Reteller: Peter Ackroyd Publisher: Viking, 316 pages

THE Death Of King Arthur, or Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory is probably one of the most well-known titles of Arthurian literature.

Even if they haven’t actually read it, any self-respecting King Arthur fan would have at least heard of this book. It is credited with bringing to the public consciousness the legend and stories of King Arthur and his knights, as well as wizard Merlin, Queen Guinevere, the evil Morgan le Fay, and star-crossed lovers Tristram and Isolde.

Written and published in the 15th century, Le Morte d’Arthur itself is actually a compilation of old stories about King Arthur that were popular among the French nobility of the time. Sir Thomas, an English knight, reworked those stories and put them, along with some stories of his own, into a book.

And they have endured the test of time, having been in publication throughout the centuries until today!

In this abridged version, Peter Ackroyd has translated and updated Sir Thomas’ original work for the modern reader. As he says in a note on the text, this is a “loose, rather than punctilious, translation”, designed to make it more appealing to the modern reader.

The book is divided into six sections, with each section focusing respectively on the story and death of King Arthur, the adventures of Sir Lancelot, the story of Tristram and Isolde, the quest for the Holy Grail, and the love affair between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.

The stories in each section are very episodic in nature, being quite short and fairly easy to read. For readers with short attention spans, this gives them nice bite-sized stories that they can read within a couple of minutes. Parents of older children who can’t focus enough to read longer books might like to try this book out on their kids.

The downside is that the stories lack depth. This is emphasised by the repetitiveness of some of the storylines, especially the adventure or quest stories. This, unfortunately, also makes it easier to spot inconsistencies in the stories, which Ackroyd has said he had tried to eliminate.

The sad truth is, with the availability of so many retellings and reimaginations of the Arthurian stories in both print and celluloid form, this original translation fares badly in comparison in terms of characterisation and writing style.

At the end of the day, while certainly hugely more accessible than the original version written in 15th-century English, I feel that this version is still too old-fashioned in style, and too lacking in character and story development, to appeal to modern readers.

Ackroyd has played it straight in his retelling, and while I applaud his true translation of Sir Thomas’ book, his work is unlikely to gain these legends many, if any, new fans. The only people I can think of who might gain any pleasure out of reading this book are those with a scholarly interest in English literature or Arthurian purists.

Tags / Keywords: Books, Lifestyle

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