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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".  He says "These men had WOMEN and I am going to keep them."
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.”
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.