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Posts Tagged ‘Arthurian Legend’

Starting a new blog is always hard. The blogger worries, will anybody read me? Will anybody comment? Will anybody care what I have to say?

 And yet, bloggers start, and slowly, they build a readership, a fan base. I have a very successful blog over on Xanga, but it didn’t become successful overnight. Everyone has to start somewhere.

“Smoky on Books” is my forum for talking about one of the great loves, great passions, in my life—my love affair with books. I come to this blog feeling pretty well qualified to comment; after all, I’ve been an avid reader all my life; have written book reviews for newspapers like the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette in Central Illinois, and magazines like SageWoman and Pan Gaia; am the author of two novels, a collection of essays, photos, and poetry on nature, and two books about writing books; and am a former community college writing instructor.

But then again, everyone’s taste in books is different, and in the end, any blog about books is the opinion of the reviewer, and nothing else. I’ve loved books others have trashed, and have hated books others have loved. Take my reviews, then, in the spirit in which they are given. In the end, pick up the books and read them yourself, and form your own opinion about them.

 Unlike many book review blogs, I don’t intend “Smoky on Books” to be solely about new releases. I also intend to write about perennial favorites of mine, the classics, and overlooked and/or obscure books written by authors famous for other works. In fact, finding and reading books in this category is one of my favorite pastimes as I scour used bookstore shelves! I also, on occasion will be conducting author interviews.

 It is with one such book that I choose to begin:

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

When you think of John Steinbeck characters, who comes to mind? Lenny and George from Of Mice and Men? The Joad family from The Grapes of Wrath? Doc from Cannery Row? Or, perhaps, young Jody Tiflin and Billy Buck from The Red Pony? How about Arthur, Merlyn, Lancelot, and Morgan le Fay of Camelot fame? No?

Me neither. That is, not until I stumbled across a copy of The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights in a used bookstore. Up until then, I had no idea Steinbeck had taken on the beloved characters of Arthurian legend. Yet there it was, sitting on the bookshelf, begging me to take it home.

Books about Camelot don’t have to beg very hard. I became enamored of Arthurian legend and lore as a tiny child, when I first saw the movie Camelot. (Being very young at the time, I even forgave the producers for casting Vanessa Redgrave, who most decidedly cannot sing, in the role of Guinevere.) My love affair grew deeper when I first picked up Marion Zimmer Bradley’s epic, The Mists of Avalon. I’ve read so many Arthurian books I’ve lost count, but I’m always game to read another. Finding one written by one of my all-time favorite authors, though, was a treat I never expected.

As a child, Steinbeck was not a reader. In fact, “words—written or printed—were devils, and books, because they gave me pain were my enemies,” he writes in the book’s introduction. But somewhere along the line, he came across Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, the first written account of the tale of King Arthur. Steinbeck fell in love with the book, reading it over and over, despite the difficulty of reading archaic English. If not for Malory, if not for Merlyn and Arthur and Lance and Gwen, who knows if he ever would have fallen in love with books? And if that hadn’t happened … I shudder to think what American Literature classes would be like today without Steinbeck.

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights was Steinbeck’s last novel. His original plan was to modernize Malory’s story pretty much word for word. This shows in the books early stories. The flowing prose and exquisite phrasing I associate with the author are nowhere to be found as the book opens: “When Uther Pendragon was King of England his vassal, the Duke of Cornwall, was reported to have committed acts of war against the land.” Compare this to the exquisite sentence with which Steinbeck opened The Grapes of Wrath: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.” Even Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding in chapter three is devoid of the heart-rending emotion Steinbeck was so capable of evoking. In fact, the early chapters have so much cleaving of skulls and whacking off of heads I nearly gave up reading it. This was not the Steinbeck I knew and loved, nor was it Arthurian legend as I love it.

But about midway through the book, Steinbeck obviously got tired of the stiff, formal language Malory used in his time. The inner Steinbeck broke free. By the time we get to the tale of Morgan le Fay in Chapter Five, the legends start sounding like Steinbeck. Oh, there’s still cleaving and whacking—this was Medieval England, after all. But there are tender moments, tender words. Beauty. “And only then did the knights look about them. On the smooth dark water they saw a little ship covered with silken cloth that hung over the sides and dipped into the water, and the boat moved silently toward the bank and grounded itself into the sandy shallows nearby.” Now that’s Steinbeck!

Alas, the novel is incomplete. Steinbeck gave up on writing The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights in 1959, long before the story as most of us know it drew to an end.  He died in 1968; the book was not published until 1976. I wonder how he would have felt about the book being published. He gave up writing it for a reason. Clearly he was not satisfied with what he had written, how he had translated Morte d’Arthur, the book that had such a profound effect on him as a child.

I have an unfinished manuscript tucked away in my drawer; most novelists I know do. I wonder how I would feel about my unfinished book being published posthumously. I don’t think I’d be very happy. But then, as proud as I am of my novels, I’d never be presumptuous enough to put them in the same class as The Grapes of Wrath or The Red Pony.

But as a Steinbeck fan, I’m very grateful his estate went ahead and had The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights published, if only because its creation was an act of love, his tribute to the book that instilled in him a love of the written word. I cannot imagine a world without Steinbeck’s novels. Can you?

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