King Arthur’s Death by Michael Smith

Reviewed by Rob Spence

Last year, I reviewed Michael Smith’s excellent new version of the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He has now turned his attention to the  Morte Arthure, one of the outstanding examples of fourteenth century alliterative poetry. As with the previous volume, this edition is published via the innovative crowdfunded Unbound platform, and the result is a beautifully produced illustrated book which is a fitting companion to the Gawain.

The original poem survives only in one copy, made around 1440, and currently in the library of Lincoln Cathedral. The poem was composed in a dialect of south Lincolnshire, and is a significant component of the corpus of Arthurian legend. Malory’s later Morte d”Arthur is clearly indebted to this poem. 

As with his version of Gawain, Michael Smith has produced a modern English version of the poem that preserves the alliterative rhythm of the original, and drives the narrative forward with great energy. The challenge for the translator must be to suggest the muscular music of the fourteenth-century poet while rendering the language in a form suitable for twenty-first century readers. Michael Smith manages this with commendable skill, producing a style which carries the reader headlong into the last days of the mythical king as he resists the Roman yoke and enters into his final confrontation with Mordred. 

The alliterative style lays heavy emphasis on rhythmic patterns facilitated by a four-stress line with a pause in the middle, in which three of the stresses alliterate. Michael Smith is at pains to preserve as much as possible of the poetic effect of this style, and so goes to great lengths to maintain fidelity to the original text. Thus, for instance, where the original reads 

“Drawes in by Danuby and dubbez hys knyghtez”

Smith’s version reads

“And draws in by the Danube  and dubs his new knights”

thus managing to keep the primary alliteration and the syllable count close to the original.

What distinguishes this edition from those previously published, apart from Smith’s sensitive translation, is of course his images. As in the Gawain book, the current volume benefits from a generous helping of strikingly dramatic linocuts, as well as some beautiful stylised capitals to begin each section. The linocuts are, Smith says in his introduction, influenced by the work of the twentieth-century German artist Käthe Kollwitz, whose illustrations often depicted the privations of war. And certainly, they add to the dark and sombre atmosphere of the narrative, which leads inexorably to the Isle of Avalon and the end of a chivalric ideal.

Smith’s illustration for the rear cover

To those who might see this publication as somewhat recherché and perhaps not really relevant for today’s readers, I would point out that the universal themes of leadership and courage speak to us now just as much as they did to the poem’s original audience. Smith has managed to produce a version that maintains the power and magic of the original, while investing it with a thoroughly modern and viscerally affecting sensibility.

Smith provides an excellent introduction, and extensive explanatory notes, so the present-day reader is never left to navigate the narrative alone. Physically, the book is of the usual high standard from Unbound, with the illustrations really adding to the impact of the poem. I am already looking forward to Michael Smith’s next venture, a new version of the medieval French romance of William and the Werewolf.

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Rob Spence’s home on the net is robspence.org.uk.  You can also find him on Twitter @spencro

Michael Smith, King Arthur’s Death (Unbound, 2021). 978-1783529087, 208pp., hardback

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