The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, John Steinbeck
Flashback Friday review from 11th October, 2010
Steinbeck’s Arthur novel was never completed, and never even properly edited by him. I enjoyed it very much as it is — I do wish it’d been finished, and edited, and made more consistent. If I rated without considering that, I’d rate it at least one star less. The introduction, claiming that it isn’t changed substantially from Malory, isn’t true: there’s a lot of humanising going on, and some additional humour. If I held Steinbeck to that, too, he’d probably lose a star.
As it is, though, bearing these things in mind, he gets all the stars. I really enjoyed reading his version, particularly after the first few tales — it felt like, after a while, he felt his way into it, and some of the letters of his included at the end suggest that that’s just how it felt to him, which is nice to know. There’s a sort of tenderness in the way he treats the tales, a love for them that still allowed him to see the humour a modern audience might find in them.
I liked his treatment of Kay — a little more understanding than other writers, I think. An attempt to understand him. And the touch of someone catching Arthur crying, which I don’t recall being in Malory. And some of the descriptions of Lancelot, particularly through Lyonel’s eyes. And here was a Lancelot I could like, too, although of course Steinbeck never got to the parts where Lancelot was a traitor. Still, I felt for Lancelot, in the last few pages.
(For those who know of my affection for Gawain: no, I don’t like his portrayal of Gawain. But I’ll pass that over.)
One thing I love specially is something that people tend to find lacking in Malory — knowing what people are feeling, and I’m particularly talking about Lancelot. Malory tells us what he does; Steinbeck tries to tell us why.
And the thing I love best, oh, most of all, is this:
The queen observed, “I gather you rescued damsels by the dozen.” She put her fingers on his arm and a searing shock ran through his body, and his mouth opened in amazement at a hollow ache that pressed upwards against his ribs and shortened his breath.
My breath, too.
It’s rare because it’s a moment that really makes me feel for Lancelot and Guinevere, and for their plight. I think Steinbeck could have caught me up in their story, and hushed my dislike for all they do. I wish he’d written it: I’d like, just once, to be swept up in Lancelot and Guinevere’s story, and to buy into it as somehow justified by passion, just as they do. Other writers tell that without showing me it. (Guy Gavriel Kay perhaps excepted, but Lancelot and Guinevere aren’t the centre of the story he’s telling there.)
I enjoyed it a lot, what there is of it, and this edition also contains a lot of Steinbeck’s letters concerning it while he was writing it. Very interesting to read those and get an idea of what was on his mind.
I think part of what I love here is what the stories could have been, more than what they are.