Once and future

Never before have I so appreciated the title of T.H. White's re-telling of the Arthurian legend The once and future King, as when I read Peter Ackroyd's re-working of Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, The death of King Arthur.

It's a long time since I skimmed through Malory's legendary book, but Ackroyd's re-working stays true to the original while rendering it in comprehensible, but still beautiful, English, while removing much of the repetition and contradictions of the Malory original.

What shines through Ackroyd's work is the power of the legend, and the centrality of Malory's own re-telling to English literature. Morte d'Arthur is a once and future book, a book planted in its own time, with firm roots into the past, and a massive influence on the literature that was to come.

How could it not? Printed in 1485 - a turning point in English history - by William Caxton, Malory's drawing together of French and Celtic legends along with Biblical lore, and tales of chivalry, turned it into an oddly British story, one that has had a part in British folklore ever since.

This shines through in Ackroyd's masterful re-telling. Parts of the narrative are ancient British legends with vague links to the Bible (Joseph of Arimathea and the Glastonbury thorn), parts appear to have connections to ancient British history now long forgotten but then still part of the oral tradition, there's bits of Romano-British history, chunks that are probably bowdlerized Crusader stories (the use of Helena, Constantine, and the holy spear are presumably all taken from there), along with Celtic legends from across Britain and France, and the knightly lore of etiquette.

So Arthur dips into the past. It was a book for its time too, for a land ravaged by civil war wanting to return to what was seen as a happier more united past. Arthur's Britain is also torn apart by war, but there is the hope that one day all will be united again.

Stretching its literary tentacles into the future, Morte d'Arthur was one of the first books of fiction to be printed in England. Along with its stablemate, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, it has remained popular to the present day. So much of Morte d'Arthur was also to find its way into later British culture. Not only Ackroyd and White, but Tennyson and Mark Twain, Henry Purcell and Harrison Birtwistle, and, of course, Monty Python. It influenced C.S. Lewis, and T.S. Eliot's The waste land owes a lot to Arthur.

Morte d'Arthur is wonderful, but the language of its time can make it difficult to read. Where Ackroyd comes up trumps is that he makes Arthur live again with language that manages to be both eminently readable and ethereal. It is a beautiful re-telling. And a must-read for anyone who loves English literature.


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