The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights Analysis

John Steinbeck

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

To revive Arthurian legends in one transformation or another has been popular in the twentieth century, but no one besides John Steinbeck has set out to do exactly what he intended: to translate Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur in language for our time, adding, omitting, and changing nothing. Keith Baines’s translation appeared in 1962 after Steinbeck had put his work aside, but Baines’s version is greatly compressed. Had Steinbeck finished his project in the way that he planned, he would have made a fine translation, much better than Baines’s. But first he changed his concept of the work, making the story more and more his own. Then, dissatisfied and discouraged, he left off working on it, though he never abandoned it in his mind. What is published here is part translation and part very free adaptation and amplification of less than one-fourth of Malory’s work. In addition, there is included Steinbeck’s correspondence about his undertaking with his agent Elizabeth Otis and his friend and aide on the project, Chase Horton. This correspondence is extremely interesting and valuable in the insights it offers into the creative process.

Steinbeck’s interest in Malory stemmed from his childhood love of the Morte d’Arthur. An abridged version of the work, given to him when he was nine years old, was the first book he ever owned. In a short preface to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, he emphasizes how much he loved the language of Malory and how it helped him learn to love reading. He also speaks of the honesty of the work—its recognition of evil and cruelty—as well as its idealism. And so, late in life, he determined to set down the old stories in a contemporary style in the hope that sons—his own and others—might find them still alive and bewitching.

With the sense that his work would transmit to a new generation a heritage that was both literary and moral, Steinbeck felt a deep sense of dedication. His letters show that in the two years of preparation before he began to write, he made two trips to England and one to Italy, consulted scholars, read hundreds of books, and made microfilm copies of many manuscripts. He studied Arthurian legends and medieval life in immense detail. When he found that writing, once begun, proceeded slowly, he went to Somerset in Arthurian country near Glastonbury and lived there in a cottage for several months, during which time he did most of the work on the manuscript. He had a feeling that he had embarked on the greatest work of his life and that the writing might take him ten years.

This translation offered for Steinbeck the challenge of a new beginning. “I want to forget how to write and learn all over again with the writing growing out of the material,” he said. He wanted to shed all his old mannerisms and old tricks and achieve a timeless style with the dignity and plainness of the best American speech. In this attempt he was successful. He uses standard words, quite simple ones for the most part, although he does not condescend to youthful readers; that is, he does not fear to use ignoble or charlatan. He reduces the length and complexities of many of Malory’s sentences, while retaining plenty of ands and thens to give something of the same ongoing rhythm. The penalty for eliminating the quaintness of Malory is a certain flatness; Merlin’s statement to Arthur that “one in your position should not be without a wife” does not sound quite so fine as “a man of your bounty and noblesse should not be without a wife.”

The translation of the first section, “Merlin,” gave Steinbeck a great deal of trouble; he worked at it without at first making much progress, and finally got through it with many complaints about the difficulty of doing the Battle of Bedgrayne, a rather tiresome and confusing battle in the original. He was finding that he needed to explain some words and ideas—tourney, for example—to compress at times, and to linger over and point up significant events, such as Arthur’s unwitting incest with his half-sister and the consequent begetting of Mordred, which Malory disposes of in a sentence. He inserted touches of characterization, making Merlin more of a psychologist than a supernatural being, and also a person with a childish delight in surprises. The dreamlike atmosphere he created in the last part was based on a suggestion in Malory.

By this time he was proceeding with pleasure and confidence. Some scenic description, a bit of sermonizing, details of characterization that lessen the distance between character and reader were added, but...

(The entire section is 1907 words.)


Atlantic. CCXXXVIII, November, 1976, p. 118.

Booklist. LXXIII, October 15, 1976, p. 294.

Kirkus Reviews. XLIV, September 1, 1976, p. 1025.

Library Journal. CI, October 15, 1976, p. 2178.

New York Times Book Review. October 24, 1976, p. 31.

Wall Street Journal. CLXXXVIII, November 18, 1976, p. 22.