The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights: From the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory and other sources

by John Steinbeck

Other authorsSir Thomas Malory
Paper Book, 1976





New York : Ballantine Books, 1977, c1976.


The first book John Steinbeck read as a child was the Caxton Morte d'Arthur, and he considered it one of the most challenging tasks of his career to modernize the stories of King Arthur. "These stories are alive even in those of us who have not read them," he says. "And, in our day, we are perhaps impatient with the words and the stately rhythms of [Thomas] Malory. I wanted to set the stories down in meaning as they were written, leaving out nothing and adding nothing."

Media reviews

The book must be evaluated more as Steinbeckiana than as Arthuriana, not so much for its narrative foibles as because the project remained so fragmentary--including neither the Grail quest, the book of Launcelot and Guinevere, nor the Morte Arthur. A complete Arthurian cycle from Steinbeck would have been good to have. The present version remains an erratically charming curiosity.
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Chicago Daily News
"Steinbeck's tales could bring readers of all ages close to Arthurian times."
San Diego Union
"Enchantment...witchcraft...Steinbeck diligently pursues the task of bringing to life a new look at Arthur and the Round Table Knights."
Chicago Tribune Book World
"A wonderful accomplishment."
Boston Globe
"A grand recreation of Malory's meaning given added strength by having filtered through the mind of Steinbeck, who understood so much."
New York Times Book Review
"A richness of detail that transforms the vision, makes it no one's but Steinbeck's."

User reviews

LibraryThing member edwinbcn
The acts of King Arthur and his noble knights by John Steinbeck is a retelling of Malory's Morte D'Arthur. Steinbeck worked on it, on and off, for about a decade, between 1956 and 1965, before abandoning it. The unfinished manuscript was published posthumously in 1976.

It seems that in the field of literature, retelling has a negative ring. It smacks of abridgement, and simplification, especially for immature or inexperienced readers. In Western literary circles, the text is sacred and untouchable. This, unlike music, where the vitality of the cultural experience is defined by successful reinterpretation, although even here there is a discernable striving for the perfect performance.

John Steinbeck had a vision about the value of retelling. This vision resulted in the creation of so called play-novelettes, such as Burning Bright, Of Mice and Men and The Moon Is Down, which are retellings or rewrites of drama into short novellas, in order to keep them available, and readable in an enjoyable format for the wider public. Many classical plays are forgotten or seldom performed, while very few people enjoy reading drama. The play-novelettes recreate the stories from the drama in prose, which a wider audience may read and appreciate.

A similar didactic vein can be traced in the retelling of The acts of King Arthur and his noble knights. Few people will attempt to read Malory's Morte D'Arthur in the original version. In the introduction, Steinbeck relates how as a child he was mesmerized by the magic of the story and the wonder of the language, and it has been his life-long dream to share that experience render the Morte D'Arthur in a way readily accessible to modern readers.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition includes nearly 70 pages of correspondence between John Steinbeck and his editors about his research, and the development of his ideas with regard to this project. Unfortunately, only Steinbeck's letters are reprinted, omitting the answers from his correspondents, with the exception of a single letter from Chase Horton to Steinbeck, in June 1968. This correspondence makes a very valuable contribution to the book, which could have been enhanced by a critical introduction by the editor.

It becomes clear that Steinbeck invested a great deal of time and effort in this project, aiming to base the work on the best possible source, and working with eminent experts in the field of interpretation of the work. The published work is unfinished, which may partly account for the relative shortness of only 293 pages. Steinbeck also consciously omitted sections from the original text, which he felt did not fit the unity of the work.

The posthumously published version falls apart in two parts, which are stylistically very different. Some reviewers regret this division arguing that the work should have been finished in one style, pointing at the demerit of the other style.

The first five books, Merlin, The Knight with Two Swords, The Wedding of King Arthur, The Death of Merlin and Morgan Le Fay are written in a fairly close translation. This section best preserves the freshness of the original text. Much of the text seems emblematic and repetitive, with a lot of emphasis of events and description, but little or no psychology or character development. The story has a distinctive, medieval feel to it.

The final two books, Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt and The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake are novelized. In this section, the story is rewritten in Steinbeck's own, American novelistic style. The emphasis in this section is on character development, and experience of the tale. The stylistic divide is so great, that if it weren't for the characters' names, it could have been an entirely different story. The story has a typical, contemporary feel to it.

Some reviewers have expressed their opinion that it was Steinbeck's intention to rewrite the entire work in the contemporary, Twentieth Century novelistic style. The two chapters we have show that it would be a very interesting possibility. While I did enjoy reading these two books, my preference is with the style which remains closer to the original. Perhaps the book remained unfinished because of Steinbeck's indecision in this matter.
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LibraryThing member g026r
There are really two ways to aproach look at "Acts," and I can't help but feel that the manner in which one does so will undoubtedly impact the impression the work makes.

The first is as a novel, and on this front it's not necessarily a success. Steinbeck originally set out to redact and translate the Winchester Malory into modern English, and as such the first couple of sections hew fairly closely to the original. The roblem is that, without the 15th century prose, it just comes of as a pale imitation, flat and lifeless -- like watching your favourite movie performed by cardboard puppets of all the actors. It's not until the Triple Quest and Lancelot, the last two sections that Steinbeck completed before abandoning the work for reasons unknown, that the puppets ever feel like they become replaced with actual characters -- Gawaine, vain and boastful, Kay, worn down by his duties' "thousand grains of sand", Lancelot, sad but noble. (Thankfully, though they're only two sections, they actually take up more than half of the text that Steinbeck managed to complete.)

The other way to look at it is as insight into Steinbeck himself and his writing process. The text is Steinbeck's unedited and uncorrected first draft, and is accompanied by roughly 80 pages of letters written by Steinbeck concerning his work on it, his thoughts on Malory and consequently observations on himself as well. It's frankly, at least to me, fascinating stuff and the book would be much the poorer without it.
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LibraryThing member spiphany
Although it lacks the spark and excitement of other versions of the Arthur legends (notably T.H. White's), this is still a good, solid, and very readable book. Steinbeck follows Malory's "Morte d'Arthur" fairly closely, while at the same time updating the language and tightening the unwieldy plot structure a bit. It drags slightly at times, which is perhaps inevitable, but overall Steinbeck manages to keep the story going smoothly. For readers looking for a straightforward, accessible version of the legends, this is a good place to start.

At least as interesting as the novel itself were the notes at the end--Steinbeck's letters to his literary agent and to his friend Chase Horton, who prepared the unfinished manuscript for publication. These letters provided what I found to be a fascinating insight into Steinbeck's mind and the writing process, as the project grows and alters as he works on it. What he had first intended to be simply a translation takes on a life of its own.
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LibraryThing member TheAlternativeOne
The very best modern retelling of the Arthurian Legend. If you've read Malory's version of the myth then this is your next stop. Steinbeck brings the legend back to life. The only thing wrong with this book is that his untimely death left it unfinished. Each story is an entertaining tale, full of insight about the art of chivalry, women, war, and the concepts of honor and dignity.… (more)
LibraryThing member Aelione
This was one of my favorite books a child. We had the awesome hardcover edition with the illuminated title page that John Steinbeck apparently wrote out himself in calligraphy. This book was my first introduction into the Arthurian legend, and even though I would find other books with interpretations I liked more (such as Mary Stewart's excellent trilogy), I will also hold a soft spot in my heart for John Steinbeck's interpretation of Morte d'Artur.… (more)
LibraryThing member twallace
A wonderful retelling of Mallory. Although unfinished, "The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights" is one of my favorite versions of the Arthur legend. At first Steinbeck sticks fairly close to Mallory, but as the book progresses he begins to explore the characters, the plot, and the language more and more. It's sad when the book ends, knowing you'll have to go to another source for the rest of the Arthur tales but feeling so content right where you are.… (more)
LibraryThing member turtlesleap
Steinbeck's interpretation of Malory's work is a true gem. If you are a fan of Arthurian legend, and whether or not you have struggled through Malory's version, this is a must-read. The work is unfinished. Steinbeck's correspondence during the time he was working on it appears as an appendix to the work and is vauable in itself for the insight it provides into his approach to his work. It appears that the work was put aside at some point and that Steinbeck never returned to it. The reader is left at the very beginning of the love story of Guenevere and Lancelot. Steinbeck used the Winchester manuscript as his primary source and has been faithful to Malory throughout but as the work progresses, , Steinbeck's inimitable voice becomes stronger.… (more)
LibraryThing member jayde1599
This book is a compilation of Steinbeck's interpretation of his translation of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, a book that he fell in love with when he read it at age nine. The book is unfinished and I really wish he was able to finish it or write his own Arthurian legend. As a Steinbeck fan, this book didn't hold up to his other works, but when reading the Appendix, which includes letters written to his editor and agent, one can see how much he put into just the translation of Malory's work. The book includes tales of Merlin, Arthur, Lancelot, Guinivere, and Morgan le Fay. The beginning tale, Merlin, is difficult to get into because it feels like just a translation and doesn't have that Steinbeck touch
But, tale of Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt is great! It feels complete retelling. The last story, The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake contains many adventures strung together and then abruptly ends.

I enjoyed the book, especially after the Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt tale. It is just difficult to read an unedited and unfinished book. Had he completed the book, it would have been one of Steinbeck's greatest adventures. Reading the letters at the end shows how much he strived for perfection and the amount of worry and work that he put into his writing. Reading the letters redeems the disappointment of reading the unfinished tales because it shows what Arthur and his knights meant to John Steinbeck.
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LibraryThing member drewandlori
It's a shame that Steinbeck, a huge fan of Arthurian literature, never finished more than a fraction of his version of the Morte d'Arthur. I think the project, as he envisioned it, was just too big. But parts of it are fantastic, especially the later parts after Steinbeck realized that he's a far better writer than Thomas Malory and should probably do this his own way.… (more)
LibraryThing member contessak
Sadly unfinished, the story abruptly ends when Lancelot and Queen Gueniviere first begin their affair. Still - a fantastic rendition of the Arthur story in plain modern English. Steinbeck tried to stick as close to the Mallory as possible while making the story accessible to a modern readership.
LibraryThing member Borg-mx5
The tale of Arthur and his knights told in modern english. Oddly enough, I remember the details from this book better than other Arthurian tales. It does not read like other Steinbecks but it is still compelling.
LibraryThing member chrisblocker
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights - 3 Stars
The Appendix with Steinbeck's letters regarding the novel - 4 stars

In 1956, Steinbeck began working on what was to be his masterpiece: The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, a massive retelling of the adventures of the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Haven't heard of Steinbeck's novel? That's likely because Steinbeck gave up on it and at the end of his life the book remained far from finished. In 1976 it was published as it was, a first draft far from Steinbeck's intended tome, a novel only read by Steinbeck devotees and curious lovers of fantasy.

As it stands, The Acts of King Arthur... is not an impressive work. Steinbeck's voice—his commentary, wit, and lush descriptions—are void from most of the novel. The first half of the book is told in the most monotone summation of events; it seems that Steinbeck's job was merely taking from the original Le Morte d'Arthur and translating it into modern language.

The second half improves on this somewhat. Steinbeck allows his characters' stories and voices to come out, as well as his own. It's still very much written like a first draft, there were considerable improvements to be made in future drafts; unfortunately, Steinbeck never touched the work again. It seems he dropped the novel just as it was beginning to gel.

What's most impressive about this collection is the letters that follow the novel. From 1956 to 1965 Steinbeck shared correspondence with his agent and his editor about the project. What is published in The Acts of King Arthur... is only Steinbeck's half of the conversation, but it is easy to surmise the content of his agent's and editor's letters from his responses. The knowledge of how Steinbeck saw this book, how he worked through it, and how he ultimately decided to abandon it makes the entire project so much more interesting.

First of all, Steinbeck's lack of voice in the first half may have been somewhat intentional. He says that in the original Le Morte d'Arthur Thomas Malory seemed to learn how to write as he wrote the story, that early stories in Malory's book lacked what Malory found in later stories. Although Steinbeck didn't seem to care for Malory's earlier writing, he expressed his intention to emulate the formula. Second, Steinbeck was passionate about this book. This was to be the biggest, most important work he'd done since East of Eden and it would far surpass anything he had accomplished in his career. The stories of Arthur meant something to him and it was his desire to retell these stories in a vibrant way for a new generation, in however many thousands of pages it took. The last thing that really made an impact on me was how John Steinbeck, Pulitzer and Nobel winning author, was squashed by the critique he received. “What saddens me most,” Steinbeck says in a letter dated May 13, 1959 written to both his editor and his agent, “was the tone of disappointment in your letter. If I had been skeptical of my work, I would have felt that you had caught me out. But I thought I was doing well...” The letters continue coming from a seemingly deflated Steinbeck over the next five months, then they stop for six years. What had been something Steinbeck believed in and wanted more than anything at the time had been pushed aside and largely forgotten.

In his letters, Steinbeck almost makes The Acts of King Arthur... brilliant. Unfortunately, the work itself doesn't shine. Had Steinbeck stayed with it, he might have accomplished his goal. As it stands, the most impressive part of this book is the letters. Reading them has convinced me that I want to read the collection of Steinbeck's letters someday, because though he may not be the most brilliant or insightful man that ever lived, he has the power to make the most casual conversations meaningful, for both those working through the creative process and those seeking to better understand the human condition.
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LibraryThing member keylawk
Reprinted by heirs of Steinbeck's 1952 presentation of the Thomas Malory stories of King Arthur in modern usage. This work makes these incredibly significant "stories" available to modern readers. Steinbeck apparently preceded the scholar Campbell in recognizing that the Round Table is the first great step by the West away from the eternal struggles which blemish middle-eastern civilization. The quest. The search for grail that has been lost. And to beat a new path in the finding of it.

Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California, wrote this partial revision while at Somerset, England in 1959. It was unfinished. This work includes his letters to his agent prior to his death in 1968.

The letters describe his plans and hopes. He does not even attempt to "eliminate the realities" -- Pendragon did take the wife of Cornwall -- and evenso there will be innocent children reading this, "I think children not only understand these things but accept them until they are confused by moralities which try by silence to eliminate reality". [297] He says "These men had WOMEN and I am going to keep them."
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LibraryThing member KRM35
The stories of course are wonderful. Better yet is Steinbeck's reproduced correspondence on planning, writing and struggling with this project. Anyone who has ever written seriously will appreciate this peek into the process of the Nobel Prize winning and peerless author.
LibraryThing member AlCracka
Steinbeck re-wrote Mallory? Really? Why didn't anyone tell me about this?
LibraryThing member The_Literary_Jedi
Based on the Winchester extent text by Sir Thomas Malory for Le Morte d'Arthur. The retellings by Steinbeck use the same chapter headings as Malory and the same base story structure. The difference is in the emotional through-line in Steinbeck's versions. Where Malory focused more on the chivalric nature of the adventure, Steinbeck liked to look at how the character themselves adapted and handled the situations they found themselves in.

Overall, one of the better retellings of the Arthurian legends focuses on the more historical idea of Arthur than on the magical or fantastical elements.

*All thoughts and opinions are my own.*
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LibraryThing member dulac3
Is it wrong that this was the first book by Steinbeck that I’ve read? Certainly it is the kind of book one probably wouldn’t have even expected this author to have written. Known for his brooding meditations on the harsh life of the American experience in the mid-20th century, a translation/re-working of Malory’s stories about King Arthur and his knights certainly don’t seem like an obvious fit for Steinbeck. Reading through the letters written by the author himself in the appendix to this volume, however, makes it abundantly clear that the project was one that was near and dear to the author’s heart, into which he poured a significant amount of time & effort, and which he himself saw as possibly filling the role of crowning achievement of his work. I will here go on record with many other reviewers on Goodreads and state that it is a real shame that, for some unknown reason, Steinbeck never finished his work on this, though even the fragment he left us with is a significant work and one of the better treatments of the Matter of Britain I’ve read.

I must first admit that I found myself becoming slightly bored with the first third or so of the text. True to his words in the introduction Steinbeck hews very closely to his source text, Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, and generally follows his plan of “leaving out nothing and adding nothing…since in no sense do I wish to rewrite Malory …” in the first four tales: Merlin, The Knight with the Two Swords, The Wedding of King Arthur, and The Death of Merlin. I generally have little use for ‘translations’ of Malory since I don’t really see the point; the Middle English he uses isn’t really that difficult for a modern reader to approach and I generally find that ‘modernizing’ the language simply takes the reader a further step from the text without adding anything of use. Happily for us Steinbeck seems to have taken advice from his editors to heart and in the subsequent tales really starts making the material his own while still staying true to the spirit of Malory. Indeed, from the very first sentence of Morgan le Fay one can see Steinbeck breaking new ground and not simply aping his master. From here on we are treated to a really excellent interpretation of the tales that seeks to investigate the psychology of these figures from myth without reducing them to little more than modern people in medieval drag or diminishing the epic scope of the tales.

Arthur largely remains the peripheral figure he generally has to be for these tales, the enigmatic centre around which all of the other characters revolve and from whom they draw their glory. Despite this Steinbeck does attempt to invest the tragic king with some elements of individuality and provides one or two tantalizing glimpses of the man underneath the myth. We see the king’s early dissatisfaction with the trials of kingship and disappointment in the need to fight rebellion: Soon after this, Arthur, wearied with campaigns and governing and sick of the dark, deep-walled rooms of castles, ordered his pavilion set up in a green meadow outside the walls where he might rest and recover his strength in the quiet and the sweet air. We see his growth in wisdom as a leader of men: Then Arthur learned, as all leaders are astonished to learn, that peace, not war, is the destroyer of men; tranquillity rather than danger is the mother of cowardice, and not need but plenty brings apprehension and unease. Finally he found that the longed-for peace, so bitterly achieved, created more bitterness than ever did the anguish of achieving it. Indeed it is this very discontent that prompts Arthur and Guinevere, in Steinbeck’s version of the tales, to ‘trick’ Lancelot into setting an example for the other knights by adopting the lifestyle of the quest, an action that will prove to be both the greatest glory and the greatest sorrow of Arthur’s court. Throughout the work are strewn nuggets of wisdom, often coming from the mouth of Merlin in the earlier stories, and Steinbeck uses these tales of chivalry as an opportunity to meditate on the human condition. Thus we have: ”Somewhere in the world there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory.” and ”You cannot know a venture from its beginning,” Merlin said. “Greatness is born little. Do not dishonor your feast by ignoring what comes to it. Such is the law of quest.”

I found myself noticing things here that I had missed or glossed over from my initial reading of Malory such as the incongruous nature of the various enchantresses generally known to be “the damsels of the Lady of the Lake and schooled in wonders.” They range from the damsel who gave to Arthur his enchanted sword Excalibur (the same maiden killed by Sir Balin for ostensibly having had his own mother burned at the stake) to the Lady Nyneve, the bane of Merlin who, despite her role in deceiving the besotted old enchanter, stealing his knowledge, and leaving him buried alive is not portrayed as evil. She does this act to gain power, but learns that with great power comes great responsibility. In the end she seems to take on Merlin’s role as protector of the realm, though in a somewhat lessened capacity, and gets her own reward for being true to the lonely path of power that accepts responsibility: the love of the good knight Pelleas. Finally there are also the four queens (including Morgan le Fay) who capture Lancelot and put him to the test with their illusory blandishments. They may or may not be members of this same circle of enchantresses, but they equally represent part of the same intriguing puzzle: just what are they? Members of a school for magic? A group of proto-feminists looking for a way to power in a man's world? Something of both or neither? Some seem to be evil, working deeds of mischance and violence, others good, though often they are no less violent in this world of martial law and divine retribution. Perhaps it’s most appropriate to say that the true test comes in that some work for their own selfish interests while others work for the common good.

It was also refreshing to see the varied characterization of the questing knights (and their three fascinating ladies) in the tale Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt. Indeed, the entire section provides Steinbeck with interesting character studies, not to mention much fodder for his social and personal concerns. Marhalt rocks and it was very nice to see a knight of Arthur’s court so clear-headed and competent without vainglory…a rare thing. He is a man with both skill and self-knowledge, the quintessential man of experience, and it’s a bit sad to know that his fate in the cycle is to be killed by that jack-ass Tristan (though Steinbeck does not himself tell this episode). The training of young Ewain (in many ways the opposite of Marhalt) by his own Lady was equally wonderful and showed how far Steinbeck had come: much of this tale seems to have been created by Steinbeck himself and yet it in no way felt like he was departing from the spirit of Malory specifically or the Arthurian tales in general.

The final entry The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake shows Steinbeck truly coming into his own. It becomes obvious here (and is confirmed by statements made by Steinbeck in the letters found in the appendix) that Lancelot was the true centre of Steinbeck’s tale and was the character through whom he hoped to develop the real through-line of his thoughts on the Arthurian corpus. Lancelot gave the author everything he needed to work through the concepts of human fallibility mixed with nearly superhuman stature. The entire theme of the greatest good often leading to the greatest evil could play out in full measure with all of its varied nuances with Lancelot. From the description of his life as a young boy, hearing Merlin’s prophecy regarding his future peerless knighthood and subsequent desire to fulfill it, to the discontent of a man who has honed himself to perfection and is looking for it in an imperfect and jaded world we really begin to get a glimmer of the power Lancelot held as a character for Steinbeck and the heights the author might have achieved had he finished his work. Alas such was not to be and we are thus left with only a fragment of what might have been so much more. Still a fragment is far preferable to nothing at all.

I can’t close without adding that the letters in the appendix were an unexpectedly intriguing look into the mind of both Steinbeck the man and Steinbeck the writer. His complete love for the Arthurian material (and especially his deeply felt personal connection to Malory as a writer)and single-minded devotion to his research came as something of a surprise to me and it was equally fascinating to get a glimpse of his personal ruminations on the writing process. In addition to these writerly concerns we get to see Steinbeck the man wrestling with his own fears and feelings of inadequacy in a work which he thought “should be the best work of my life and the most satisfying” and which he even felt contained “the best prose [he had] ever written.”
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LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
Except for Steinbeck's version of the tale of Beaumains, this is flat and uninteresting. His redaction of the tales is just pedantic and the prose just lies there, with no spark or sense of place or time. I bought it, and then I got rid of it. Read the real Malory Penguins instead. Please!
LibraryThing member Czrbr
Book Description: New York, NY, U.S.A. Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1976. Fine copy; A very beautiful copy of this stated First Edition/First Printing in Fine condition. Missing dust jacket



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