The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

by John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck’s last, unfinished written work, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, was posthumously published in 1976. In part, Steinbeck set out to retell the exploits of the Knights of the Roundtable so that his sons could enjoy reading about them as much as he had enjoyed the stories growing up. Like much of his other work, Steinbeck's King Arthur is characterized by the author's stark, simple style and detailed characterization. The story offers a different, more nuanced perspective of the love triangle between King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot.

Steinbeck's King Arthur begins with Sir Lancelot returning to Camelot from his latest successful adventures. A party is thrown in his honor. Steinbeck goes to great lengths to describe the food, drink, dancing, and festivities, all of which bore the guest of honor: weary of fame and adventure, Lancelot hardly sees himself as the perfect knight the revelers make him out to be. Guinevere, too, finds the party tiresome; her private desire is to spend time with Lancelot. Guinevere and Lancelot meet but narrowly escape the notice of King Arthur. As Guinevere leaves to attend her husband, Lancelot is left in tears, both for the loss of his love and for the impossible standards his fame requires him to uphold.

In his version of the tale, Steinbeck adds a deeper dimension to the characters of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere by allowing readers to see how complicated and tortured they are. Queen Guinevere is caught in a seemingly loveless marriage. Sir Lancelot is embroiled in a conflict of loyalty to his King versus romantic love for his Lady. The reader also develops sympathy for the hapless King Arthur, who seems oblivious to the couple’s love for each other. Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights teaches the lesson that fame is costly and that not even heroes can always pay the price.

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