Read The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck Thomas Malory Chase Horton Online


Synopsis Steinbeck's first posthumously published work, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights is a reinterpretation of tales from Malory's Morte d'Arthur. In this highly successful attempt to render Malory into Modern English, Steinbeck recreated the rhythm and tone of the original Middle English....

Title : The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights
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ISBN : 9780517368367
Format Type : Hardcover
Number of Pages : 364 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights Reviews

  • Jason Koivu
    2018-12-07 21:54

    One doesn't associate John Steinbeck with fantasy literature and yet here it is, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck. Go figure!It's all* here, the rags-to-riches story of how Arthur ascended to the throne, the many deeds of his knights, the magic of Merlin and Morgan Le Fay.His translation of Thomas Malory's version of the Arthurian legend is almost strangely faithful, seldom veering from that 15th century work in order to modernize the language enough for today's reader. And it is immensely readable! I breezed through from start to finish. Certainly not every story is a winner. Movies, tv series and books often skip a good number of the stories and stick with the most well-known. This gives you the lesser known stuff in full color and it is often beautiful. However, this faithful translation dismayed and disappointed the publisher, who expected a Steinbeckized version of the Arthurian tales, something more like a Grapes of Wrath-gritty tale of down-and-out knights. Don't you too make that mistake when reading this! Steinbeck was a childhood fan of these stories and with childlike devotion, he captures their essence with a picture-perfect imitation intending to flatter via flattery's sincerest form. Well done and highly worth a read!* Well, I say "all" but the book is not actually complete. Steinbeck put many years of hard work into this and yet inexplicably didn't finish it.

  • Terry
    2018-12-03 13:54

    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.”

  • Nikki
    2018-11-30 14:41

    I reread this for my dissertation, but also because I've wanted to for a while now, to see if I still loved it as much -- and I don't, I love it more. I still mourn for the book it could have been if Steinbeck had finished it, if he'd edited it to be a more coherent whole. The first few sections are well-written enough, but it's later in the stories that he really decides how to handle his material. He takes the basic events of Malory and breathes the life of a modern novel into them: thoughts and feelings, fears and hopes, humour and understanding. He makes sense of the way Kay's character changes, makes Lancelot likeable and human and his love for Guinevere a real and painful thing.(If you know me at all, you probably know that I regularly loathe Lancelot and, at best, tolerate him. Steinbeck can do what few others can, and make me not only like him, but make my heart bleed for him. Unfortunately, what time and interest he devotes to Lancelot, he turns away from Gawain, who is most of the worst aspects of himself here.)More than anything, this time, I was caught by the beauty of Steinbeck's writing. I could quote a dozen bits of this for you and I'd still be here typing up some more tomorrow morning. Again, the first few sections aren't impressive, it's when he gets to Lancelot that he really shines.I wish I could read and love Malory the way Steinbeck clearly did. But I don't mind so much finding the magic at second-hand, when it's Steinbeck showing me.

  • Kim
    2018-12-04 20:06

    I didn't choose to read this book becase I have any particular interest in Arthurian legend. Indeed, until I read this book, almost all of what I knew about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table came from these two films:and Rather, I decided to read John Steinbeck's take on Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur because of my ambition to be a Steinbeck completist*: it's Steinbeck and his writing that interest me, not folklore. From reading Jay Parini's biography of Steinbeck and Steinbeck's collected letters (Steinbeck: A Life in Letters) I knew that Steinbeck's love of Malory's work dated from his childhood. I also knew how passionate he was about this particular project. His intention was to translate Malory, rather than to re-write Le Morte, in order to make the work accessible to modern readers. Steinbeck spent several years researching Malory in particular and Arthurian legend in general before he started writing. He immersed himself in the language and the geograhy of the work and poured his heart and soul into the project. In spite of Steinbeck's passion, it remained unfinished: poor health and the magnitude of the task ultimately defeated him. For the first third of the book, I was frankly bored. Clearly, Arthurian legend is not my thing. Or else Monty Python's gags and Lerner and Loewe's music and lyrics have ruined my chances of taking seriously Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere and the whole Camelot crew. In any event, I can't work up any interest in battles, quests and damsels in distress. But then, Steinbeck stopped translating Malory and started writing like Steinbeck and the work was suddenly a lot more interesting. I particularly loved Sir Lancelot's story. I not only stopped being bored, I found myself wishing that Steinbeck had finished the work. That said, the last 25% of the book is, for someone who loves Steinbeck, the most interesting of all. It consists of a series of letters Steinbeck wrote to his literary agent Elizabeth Otis and his researcher Chase Horton. In these letters, Steinbeck is full of insight, fierce intelligence and passion. I remembered some of them from Steinbeck's collected letters, but others I either hadn't read or didn't remember. I should have read this part of the book before I embarked on the Arthurian tales. Had I done so, I would have better understood what it was that Steinbeck was trying to achieve. All in all, reading this work is a worthwhile experience for a dedicated Steinbeck fan, even though it took a long time for me to realise it. I'm glad I didn't give in to a strong impulse to abandon the work after the first chapter. That said, I won't be reading it again, and it hasn't turned me into an Arthurian fan. John Steinbeck would be very disappointed in me. 3.5 stars. *Although I'm not yet totally convinced I want to read Steinbeck's first novel, Cup of Gold, a fact that tends to undermine my would-be Steinbeck completist credentials.

  • Nikki
    2018-11-29 21:47

    Steinbeck's Arthur novel was never completed, and never even properly edited by him. I enjoyed it very much as it is -- I do wish it'd been finished, and edited, and made more consistent. If I rated without considering that, I'd rate it at least one star less. The introduction, claiming that it isn't changed substantially from Malory, isn't true: there's a lot of humanising going on, and some additional humour. If I held Steinbeck to that, too, he'd probably lose a star.As it is, though, bearing these things in mind, he gets all the stars. I really enjoyed reading his version, particularly after the first few tales -- it felt like, after a while, he felt his way into it, and some of the letters of his included at the end suggest that that's just how it felt to him, which is nice to know. There's a sort of tenderness in the way he treats the tales, a love for them that still allowed him to see the humour a modern audience might find in them.I liked his treatment of Kay -- a little more understanding than other writers, I think. An attempt to understand him. And the touch of someone catching Arthur crying, which I don't recall being in Malory. And some of the descriptions of Lancelot, particularly through Lyonel's eyes. And here was a Lancelot I could like, too, although of course Steinbeck never got to the parts where Lancelot was a traitor. Still, I felt for Lancelot, in the last few pages.(For those who know of my affection for Gawain: no, I don't like his portrayal of Gawain. But I'll pass that over.)One thing I love specially is something that people tend to find lacking in Malory -- knowing what people are feeling, and I'm particularly talking about Lancelot. Malory tells us what he does; Steinbeck tries to tell us why.And the thing I love best, oh, most of all, is this:The queen observed, "I gather you rescued damsels by the dozen." She put her fingers on his arm and a searing shock ran through his body, and his mouth opened in amazement at a hollow ache that pressed upwards against his ribs and shortened his breath.My breath, too.It's rare because it's a moment that really makes me feel for Lancelot and Guinevere, and for their plight. I think Steinbeck could have caught me up in their story, and hushed my dislike for all they do. I wish he'd written it: I'd like, just once, to be swept up in Lancelot and Guinevere's story, and to buy into it as somehow justified by passion, just as they do. Other writers tell that without showing me it. (Guy Gavriel Kay perhaps excepted, but Lancelot and Guinevere aren't the centre of the story he's telling there.)I enjoyed it a lot, what there is of it, and this edition also contains a lot of Steinbeck's letters concerning it while he was writing it. Very interesting to read those and get an idea of what was on his mind.I think part of what I love here is what the stories could have been, more than what they are.

  • Wayne Barrett
    2018-12-01 18:49

    This is a tough one to rate. The story is great but basically it's just a retelling of Morte d'Arthurs tale. I was expecting the story from a different angle told in Stienbecks unique style so I was left disappointed. I've read so many versions that this time I think I just became overwhelmed with all the knights, damsels and cleaving of helms. I was actually having a hard time taking it serious and at some points I couldn't help but picturing scenes from Monty Pythons, Holy Grail. Every time a knight went on a quest I kept expecting him to run into the knights who say "Ni!"This would be okay for an Arthurian newbie but if you've read other versions you could probably do without this one.

  • Kirk Smith
    2018-12-01 22:08

    From a Steinbeck letter dated July 7, 1958. "There is only one complete Morte d'Arthur in existence and that is the Caxton first edition which is in the Morgan Library in New York. There is the earlier manuscript at Winchester College in England that by misfortune of lacking eight sheets at the end might be the one unimpeachable source. This then is my basic material for translation". Steinbeck loved this project and put three years into it.***** A direct quote from Wiki: Steinbeck took a "living approach" to the retelling of Malory's work. He followed Malory's structure and retained the original chapter titles, but he explored the psychological underpinning of the events, and tuned the use of language to sound natural and accessible to a Modern English speaker........Malory wrote the stories for and to his time. Any man hearing him knew every word and every reference. There was nothing obscure, he wrote the clear and common speech of his time and country. But that has changed—the words and references are no longer common property, for a new language has come into being. Malory did not write the stories. He simply wrote them for his time and his time understood them... And with that, almost by enchantment the words began to flow.[5] Steinbeck aced this one. Beautifully told.

  • Kat (Lost in Neverland)
    2018-12-11 17:53

    I have become enchanted by Arthurian mythology as of late because of this silly little British TV show called Merlin. The show is a 'family friendly' retelling of the King Arthur legends, but with teenage/young adult characters. It's quite ridiculous and cheesy most of the time but oddly addicting. So, I decided to do my research and read some of the original legends. I picked up this (thank you, Thalia) first. This book holds a collection of stories ranging from the life and death of Merlin, the marriage of King Arthur, the tales of silly and lusty knights, the wicked half-sister of King Arthur Morgan Le Fay, the noble tale of Sir Lancelot and so on. I really enjoyed these entertaining (albeit insane and sometimes insulting to women) stories and it definitely had some very good quotes in it.The book went on an adventure itself when it tragically and accidentally (it was an accident, I promise) fell out my window. Thankfully, I rescued it valiantly from its tree prison before something worse happened. I simply wish it wasn't a library copy. Tis unfortunate that this book remains unfinished, for the ending is abrupt and I want to know what happens next! -eagerly makes popcorn to watch Merlin-

  • Celeste
    2018-11-23 21:47

    3.75 I enjoyed this book so much when I was about eleven years old but upon rereading it, the same feeling just wasn't there. The only chapter that I can truly say that I enjoyed was the last segment about Lancelot. I found that the other parts just didn't really do it for me. If you don't like long chapters, you may want to shy away from reading this book because the chapters are more like segments than anything else and can be anywhere from 8-100 pages. I wish that I could say that I enjoyed this more than I did. I will, however, hold onto the fond memories I had of this book as an eleven year old.

  • Bryn Hammond
    2018-11-16 20:05

    He found his stride with Lancelot, as my edition (which I can't find) made plain by inclusion of his author's notes: letters, mostly, about his encounter with the story. I did pore over this, novel and notes. The early tales are skeletal, as if uncertain to depart from mere translation of Malory; that of Lancelot is amply fleshed out; although Balin and Balan stick in my mind too as intermediate in his storifying.

  • Marcy
    2018-12-11 21:07

    This book was my introduction to Arthurian literature, sometime in elementary school, perhaps fourth or fifth grade. I had no idea who Steinbeck was.I saw it at a yard sale and picked it up to read again. Some of it is tedious -- the same parts that are tedious in Malory, particularly battle scenes. Some of it is amazing. I love this quotation: "Arthur looked upward and he said, 'It’s a black day, a troubled day.'[Merlin replied,] 'It is a day, simply a day. You have a black and troubled mind, my lord.'"I love the psychological characterizations, especially of Lancelot -- especially love the story of his young relative picking on him at the beginning of their quest and then humbly admiring him after seeing his response to the goading. And I actually love that the unfinished book ends with Lancelot fleeing in bitter tears from his first intimate encounter with the queen. The telling of how intensely her first casual touch affected him, and how she noticed, is exquisite. I don't like Merlin in this book all that much. All he ever seems to do is tell people horrible consequences that are going to happen because of seemingly innocent decisions they've made -- and he childishly delights in tricks and surprises. I'd like to re-read Malory and this book chapter by chapter and see more particularly how Steinbeck has redacted, edited, added to, cut short, etc, Malory's work.

  • fenrir
    2018-12-09 14:57

    << Nel cimitero presso la chiesa, nel punto più vicino all'altare maggiore, venne veduto un grande blocco di marmo e nel marmo affondava un'incudine entro la quale era conficcata una spada. In lettera d'oro stava scritto:chiunque estragga questa spada dal marmo e dall'incudine sarà Re di tutta l'Inghilterra. >>

  • Monica Davis
    2018-11-30 14:52

    What I loved about this book. beyond Steinbeck's literary style, is that it was left "unfinished" yet true to the title of "Noble Knights"...before the heart of Camelot was destroyed by an act of discovered betrayal...and Arthur remained with dignity and hope.

  • Thalia
    2018-11-26 16:03

    Read the review on my blog:

  • g026r
    2018-11-27 17:06

    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 problem is that, without the 15th century prose, it just comes off 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.

  • Andrew
    2018-12-01 20:40

    The Acts of King Arthur and the knights of the round table, don't need any presentation. Even if we hadn't read the stories, the movie has extensively documented the exploits: knights, dames in distress, battles and enemies to face. This is the first book I read by Steinbeck, although I understand that is not really his genre. I found, however, an excellent review of the work of Malory, done with passion and a personal interest in the story. Here there are all the noble virtues that characterize the medieval knights, but also some negative characteristic of a human being. Excellent material to understand the way in which it was written the work are the author's letters to his publisher, found in the appendix. Unfortunately, the novel is unfinished, but I found it fascinating anyway.

  • J. Ellyne
    2018-12-14 15:06

    I both loved and hated this book. Steinbeck died before finishing it but ten years before his death he had stopped making progress on it because the research overwhelmed him and his publisher. The more he dug into the various Arthur sources in England, the more conflicts and puzzles he found. This was revealed in the lengthy appendix, a series of letters between Steinbeck and his publisher regarding the issues revealed by the research. Since the fourth book in my series will have lots of content regarding Arthur, this will be a huge challenge for me but I am determined to take it on. Wish me luck in my quest.

  • Elizabeth
    2018-12-06 13:40

    Steinbeck brings pretty much nothing fresh -- except his talent at telling stories directly -- to Arthurian legend. And his talent at telling stories directly is actually a problem; half of the pleasure of these legends are in the trappings, the environment, and Steinbeck strips that clean away.Not to mention that once I stop basking in the fantasy aspects of it, I start wanting to, well, punch people in the face. Which does not make me happy; I love these stories! I do not want to punch them in the face! Except -- in a world where women have no agency (and no dialogue), and men are not extraordinary, I am no longer engaged.

  • Jax
    2018-12-10 17:07

    really? I got through a bit of the first story "Merlin" and there was jack all that was new, he basically just took the legends and rewrote them but didn't seem to change anything except for some knights names. I couldn't even bother to finish it because I've read these before.

  • Elizabeth(The Book Whisperer)
    2018-12-14 15:42

    I didn't even know this book was ever written till I saw it here on good old Goodreads! Oh it was good, good, good! I love, love, love King Arthur as I have said many times before, and this book was food for my soul!

  • Stephanie Ricker
    2018-12-04 19:04

    Now I’m reading The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck, which is sort of a retelling of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Steinbeck is SUCH a Malory fanboy, it’s absolutely adorable. Somehow I’ve never read much at all of Steinbeck–a terrible oversight in my education, clearly, and one I intend to rectify. On the first day of the new year, Sam and I went to one of our favorite used bookstores in Raleigh, and there was an older man in there with a couple of his grand kids. They were checking out a large pile of books, and the grandfather said, “This kid here, he’s in the sixth grade and he’s working his way through all of Steinbeck’s works. Now he’s going through all of Agatha Christie.” The kid looked bashful. I wanted to run straight over and hug him and tell him he was marvelous, but I figured I might get arrested or something. His existence made my whole week, though.A very long update:I should never write things in my head. I do it all the time, and then I promptly forget every single word that I’ve composed. I search for the words I had built to convey my idea, and…nothing. Just some crickets chirping somewhere behind my left ear. Drat.This post will be somewhat a victim of the cricket syndrome, because I composed most of it in my head in a fit of glee whilst reading Steinbeck. I’m beginning to think it was a tragedy of the first order that he was never able to complete it before he died. At first, the book almost seemed like a straight-up modern translation of Malory, simply replacing archaic words with more accessible ones. Since I like the archaic words, this wasn’t terribly exciting, but it was nice to see old favorite stories dressed up a bit. As I went along, I realized that Steinbeck was drawing out elements that Malory had only touched on, making things cohesive, eliminating contradictions, and bringing out more of the characters. (Steinbeck rightly commented in his notes that those hearing the tales as they were told back then wouldn’t need these things spelled out; tone and body language of the storyteller would have made the subtleties and emotions of the stories quite clear.) He was “keeping, or rather trying to re-create, a rhythm and tone which to the modern ear will have the same effect as Middle English did on the fifteenth-century ear.” As he said, “Present-day people can read unlimited baseball scores in which the narration isn’t very great and fifteenth-century people could listen to innumerable single combats with little variation.”I realized while reading “Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt,” however, that Steinbeck had been quite crafty. Very gradually it dawned upon me that Steinbeck was telling his own story out of Malory’s. I didn’t even recall the original quest with these three knights in Malory upon which this story was based; it was just one of countless quests, and honestly even for an Arthurian fan, they all started to blend together in Malory. Not so with Steinbeck. He made this story come ferociously alive. He added a lot; to me the book savors more of Steinbeck than of Malory, but the feeling of Malory is still there, and I think that’s what Steinbeck was after. The book got better and better from there, and when I reached the end of The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot (which was as far as Steinbeck got in the project), I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to laugh or cry, which is how I know I’ve read a really good book.The last 60 pages of the book consist of letters to his editors about his progress on the project, and these letters were meant to be cleaned up and put together as an introduction to the finished work. Steinbeck’s letters were just as wonderful to read as his stories because I understood what he had meant to do with his (sadly unfinished) work.The very first letter is just a couple lines: “I am going to start the Morte immediately. Let it be private between us until I get it done. It has all the old magic.”A letter from a week later: “I have been dipping into the Malory. And with delight. As long as I don’t know what is going on in the world, I would like to have a try with this. I’m going to try anyway.”Another letter: “[I’ve been] Just reading and reading and reading and it’s like hearing remembered music.”And then I knew we were kindred spirits, Steinbeck and I. No one could love the old stories like that and not be a wonderful new friend. And he’s hit on it already, the feeling I get when I’m reading Arthurian myth: it’s just like hearing remembered music. The stories are so timeless that they feel familiar. According to Steinbeck (and he is far from alone in this—Milton, among others, wholeheartedly agreed), “these stories form, with the New Testament, the basis of most modern English literature.”Steinbeck had such an awe and respect for his source material that he almost couldn’t write the thing. He read literally hundreds of books before he began at all, and once he had begun, he seemed to be regularly terrified (appropriately so) by the scope of the project upon which he had embarked. “I’m aching to get to work after the years of preparation. And I’m scared also, but I think that is healthy…. It is perfectly natural that I should have a freezing humility considering the size of the job to do and the fact that I have to do it all alone.” Comforting to know that Steinbeck, who by this time had written all sorts of great literature, still got scared and felt unequal to the task just like the rest of us who have ever put pen to paper. (Or cursor to Word file.) He said, “I want to forget how to write and learn all over again with the writing growing out of the material,” and “If Malory could rewrite Chretien for his time, I can rewrite Malory for mine.”The incidental information in Steinbeck’s letters was likewise fascinating:On memory in the past, when everything was unrecorded: “The training of the Welsh poets was not practice but memorization. On knowing 10,000 poems, one took a position. … Written words have destroyed what must have been a remarkable instrument.” “In Shakespeare’s time a good man could memorize a whole scene from a play and write it down afterwards. That was the only way to steal it.”On how long it takes light to travel: “It is conceivable that what the great telescopes record presently does not exist at all, that those monstrous issues of the stars may have ceased to be before our world was formed, that the Milky Way is a memory carried in the arms of light.”In one of his later letters to his editor: “Isn’t it odd that Malory, who knew the route from Amesbury to Glastonbury, didn’t mention Stonehenge although he had to pass it. I think I know why. But will tell you that when I see you.” I would give a great deal to have heard Steinbeck’s theory on this. He owes me a chat.Steinbeck had a close relationship with his editor and literary agent, and he seemed rather crushed when neither of them were fond of the first few chapters of his rough draft. Their responses were not given, but I was intrigued by portions of his defense, which almost ends up being a critique of modernity:“I know you have read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. It is a marvelously wrought book. All the things you wished to find in my revision are superlatively in that. But that is not what I had wanted and I think still do not want to do.”“Alan Lerner is making a musical about King Arthur and it will be lovely and will make a million-billion dollars—but that isn’t what I want. There’s something else. Maybe in my rush to defend myself I’ve missed what I wanted to say. Maybe I’m trying to say something that can’t be said or do something beyond my ability. But there is something in Malory that is longer-lived than T.H. White and more permanent than Alan Lerner or Mark Twain. I don’t know what it is—but I sense it.”“The hero is almost bad form unless he is in a Western. Tragedy—true tragedy—is laughable unless it happens in a flat in Brooklyn. Kings, Gods, and Heroes—maybe their day is over, but I can’t believe it. Maybe because I don’t want to believe it. In this country I am surrounded by the works of heroes right back to man’s first entrance. I don’t know how the monoliths were set up in the circles without tools but there was something more involved than petty thievery and schoolboy laziness and the anguish of overfed ladies on the psycho couch. Someone moved a whole lot of earth around for something beyond ‘making a buck.’ And if all of this is gone, I’ve missed the boat somewhere. And that could easily be.” “Nuts! I believe in this thing. There’s an unthinkable loneliness in it. There must be.”Steinbeck was grasping at trying to express something very nearly impossible to put into words, trying to make Malory accessible to the modern age without making it OF the modern age in the way that White’s book did. I love The Once and Future King, but Steinbeck was right; it doesn’t have the flavor of Malory. Once and Future accomplished its goal, and mimicking its style would only be trying to piggyback on its success, not say something worthwhile.Steinbeck’s thoughts on modern writing and its inspiration were particularly astute: “What is in a writer’s mind—novelist or critic? Doesn’t a writer set down what has impressed him most, usually at a very early age? If heroism impressed him, that’s what he writes about, and if frustration and a sense of degradation—that is it. And if jealousy is the deepest feeling, then he must attack anything which seems to be the longed-for success.”“Malory lived in as rough and ruthless and corrupt an age as the world has ever produced. In the Morte he in no way minimizes these things, the cruelty and the lust, and murder and childlike self-interest. They are all here. But he does not let them put out the sun. Side by side with them are generosity and courage and greatness and the huge sadness of tragedy rather than the little meanness of frustration.”“For no matter how brilliantly one part of life is painted, if the sun goes out, that man has not seen the whole world. Day and night both exist. To ignore the one or the other is to split time in two and to choose one…”“There is nothing in literature nastier than Arthur’s murder of children because one of them may grow up to kill him. Williams and many others of his day would stop there, saying, “That’s the way it is.” And they would never get to the heartbreaking glory when Arthur meets his fate and fights against it and accepts it all in one. How can we have forgotten so much?”“Something happens now to children. An artist should be open on all sides to every kind of light and darkness. But our age almost purposely closes all windows, draws all shades, and then later screams to a psychiatrist for light.”It’s hard to imagine Steinbeck laying this work aside for so many years; for all of his struggles in getting it written, he so clearly believes in it and is utterly immersed in it. He said, “I think it is the best prose I have ever written. I hope this is so and I believe it.” If this is true, his very best prose wasn’t even published until after his death. His wife said, “He is beginning to live and breathe the book. In the evening he carves wooden spoons for our kitchen and talks about Arthur and Merlin.”His wife quoted him: “I tell these old stories, but they are not what I want to tell. I only know how I want people to feel when I tell them.” She said one of his colleagues thought it was the best statement about writing in all of the books about books, and she agreed. Steinbeck talked about the “heartbreaking glory” of Arthur, and I think he’s finally put his finger on what has always drawn me to Arthurian literature. You know it when you feel it. “When I finish this job, if I ever do, I should like to make some observations about the Legend. Somewhere there’s a piece missing in the jigsaw and it is a piece which ties the whole thing together. So many scholars have spent so much time trying to establish whether Arthur existed at all that they have lost track of the single truth that he exists over and over.” I wonder if that feeling is the missing piece of the puzzle, the universal truth in the legend that we keep coming back to over and over in countless forms, trying to recapture the heartbreaking glory.One last quote from his letters: “Yesterday something wonderful. It was a golden day and the apple blossoms are out and for the first time I climbed up to Cadbury—Camelot.”

  • Wade
    2018-11-30 22:03

    This book is a monument to King Arthur and his Noble Knights, to Sir Thomas Malory, and to John Steinbeck. Steinbeck's love affair with King Arthur started at an early age and continued all through his life and his love of Malory's use of language is evident in all his works, not that he sounds or feels like Malory, but that Malory showed him language as an artform, and while the former used the pallet and style of 15th century English, the latter's was made of 20th century American. As to the content of the book, if I knew nothing of the backstory, I probably would have given it 3 or 4 stars, but I will touch on the back story in a moment. The characters are colorful and the tales fanciful, and while they are tales from long ago, at their heart they will always be applicable because they deal the hearts and minds of men and women without being too firmly attached to a historical context, and Steinbeck does an amazing job of recrafting the stories, not in today's context, but with today's language and filling in spaces where we require insight. The two big shortcomings for me, were that the book has no proper ending, and that Steinbeck seems to have lost his voice, somewhere in the writing, and I is Steinbeck's voice that I so looked forward to in this retelling.The reasons for the shortcomings is that John Steinbeck died while this book was still a manuscript; the story had yet to be completed and even the parts that had been writing were far from the polished, meticulously worded, form of his other works. For me, what brought this book up from being, simply an unfinished work, was the appendix of nearly 100 pages of correspondence concerning the research, wrestling, and writing of what Steinbeck expected to be his most important work. In these pages we get to see his love of Malory and Arthur and how reverence of them turns to companionship, and finally to uncertainty as he seeks to write a version that honors the original, oral tradition by putting it into the vernacular. I truly found the appendix the most inspiring and heartbreaking section of this book because, while he poured himself into it, the vessel into which he poured, remained unfinished.I don't know that I would recommend this to all, simply because I see many limitations on the appeal, had he finished his masterwork I have no doubt I would have insisted that all read it, but as it is, it is an insightful telling of King Arthur, set on a backdrop of one of the greatest American authors quest for his Holy Grail.

  • Nabila
    2018-12-15 15:41

    John Steinbeck was nine years old when he first read Caxton Le Morte d'Arthur. He fell in love with it and decided to re-write the novel in 1956. He tried to retell the novel in a more modern English, but stopped working on it in 1959. He never managed to finish it. The work was eventually published posthumously in 1976, several years after his death.To be honest, the reason I decided to read this book was because of John Steinbeck. I've heard so much about Arthurian legends, but I didn't know the actual stories. So when I found out about Steinbeck's adaptation of this Arthurian legend, I decided to give it a try. I knew that this would be very different from Steinbeck's other books. There would be no George and Lenny or places like Salinas. Even with no expectations whatsoever, I'm still disappointed.This is the kind of book that I would have loved to read when I was nine years old. But now I only found the knights to be silly. The only believable character was a knight named Sir Kay, who was so burdened by logistics of throwing feasts that he wasn't knightly anymore:"A heart that will not break under the great blows of fate can be eroded by the nibbling of numbers, the creeping of days, the numbing treachery of littleness, of important littleness. I could fight men but I was defeated by marching numbers on a page. Think of fourteen xiii’s—a little dragon with a stinging tail—or one hundred and eight cviii’s—a tiny battering ram. If only I had never been seneschal! To you a feast is festive—to me it is a book of biting ants. So many sheep, so much bread, so many skins of wine, and has the salt been forgotten? Where is the unicorn’s horn to test the king’s wine? Two swans are missing. Who stole them? To you war is fighting. To me it is so many ashen poles for spears, so many strips of steel—counting of tents, of knives, of leather straps—counting—counting of pieces of bread."Sir Kay, you're the most reasonable character in the whole book (and it sounds like you need Arabic numerals). Why would you go out on quests and jousts and risk your life just for honor and fame anyway? Your fellow knights need to find some other amusements in life. Like reading.

  • James Foster
    2018-12-06 13:59

    When I was a kid, we had only one bookshelf in our trailer (we didn’t call them “manufactured homes” back then). It was at the end of the hall. It held a set of blue books and a set of red books. The blue books were the Encyclopedia Americana. The red ones were the Harvard Classics. I spent countless hours with both sets. One volume of the Harvard classics especially enchanted, Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. I loved that I couldn’t tell what some of the words meant without saying them out loud. And some of the sentences conveyed meaning, even though I couldn’t actually tell what they were saying. I loved the possibility of communicating with archaic language, and the idea of complete dedication to a virtuous Ideal. Steinbeck captured that same love of language, and the strange-familiar colorations of the Arthur legends, in “The Acts of Arthur and His Nobel Knights”. This volume retells the Arthur stories that preceded the Morte. These are the stories about Merlin building a kingdom, and of Arthur keeping it. The stories are from the Winchester edition of Mallory’s works, so they are not Steinbeck’s fabrications. But the language in his retelling loses none of the charm of the original. The tales sometimes feel historical, sometimes silly, sometimes surreal. I found the tale of Balin particularly artful. The image of the Lady slowly walking over the surface of the Lake, carrying Ex Calibur, was haunting. These stories captured the joy and charm I remembered from my childhood, but with the sophistication and artistry of a modern master. There is an appendix with letters between Steinbeck, his agent, and his editor. These provide valuable insights into Steinbeck’s motivation for re-telling the tales, and into how he went about it. According to the letters, the volume was never finished. But I would never have guessed that from the stories alone. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves language, or to anyone who has ever been charmed by Courtly behavior and Knights errant. In fact, anyone who appreciates excellent writing and engaging stories will enjoy it. This is one of the best “light” reading books I can recommend for a soft summer afternoon.

  • Peter William Warn
    2018-12-05 17:07

    Summary: John Steinbeck provides an engaging retelling of the Arthurian legends. His letters about the project provide fascinating glimpses into his obsession with stories that brightened his youth._____John Steinbeck won the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature, but he died in 1968 before he could realize his destiny. The author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men left unfinished his version of Sir Thomas Malory's compilation of the legends about King Arthur and his noble knights. It was this work that Steinbeck described in 1957 as "destined to be the largest and I hope the most important work I have ever undertaken." The considerable chunk of the work that Steinbeck was able to complete follows the familiar parts of Arthur's story, from his being raised by Merlin to his using Excalibur and his noble knights to unite England. Steinbeck tells the stories in modern English but always suggests a magical time long ago. He also fleshes out much of the story that might now be less familiar, including varied quests by numerous knights and Lancelot's adventures, which tend to be overshadowed by his betrayal of Arthur. Steinbeck's tale ends just as Lancelot and Queen Guinevere are about to commit the adultery that will ruin Camelot. Because he was not able to complete it, Steinbeck's delightful presentation of the legends ends with his tantalizing suggestion in a letter to his agent that what he was planning to write about Arthur would be "strange and different." Steinbeck sought to introduce the Arthurian legends to contemporary readers whom he worried might otherwise get their understanding of the myths from comic books. Arthur lives at the end of Steinbeck's book, which is not an irony brought about by the author's death. Steinbeck sought to remind the world that the work most commonly called Le Morte D'Arthur is about much more. The original title for the Malory manuscripts that Steinbeck interprets is The Birth, Life and Acts of King Arthur, of his Noble Knights of the Round Table, Their Marvelous Enquests and Adventures, the Achieving of the San Greal, and in the End Le Morte D'Arthur with the Dolorous Death and Departing Out of this World of All of Them. Malory's stories hold power over readers, even over readers who are familiar with them only through the varied works they have inspired, from the stage and movie musical Camelot to the DC Comics version, Camelot 3000. The characters are like dinosaurs: larger-than-life figures who are gone but whose lingering, captivating presence suggests worlds full of wonders. Steinbeck's graceful retellings capture the sorcery, chivalry and intrigue that make the stories powerful. Merlin knows that he and Arthur are destined to suffer betrayals by the women they love, but he knows too that they are powerless to escape their fates: Every man who has ever lived holds tight to the belief that for him alone the laws of probability are canceled out by love. Even I, who know beyond doubt that my death will be caused by a silly girl, will not hesitate when that girl passes by. Therefore you will marry Guinevere. You do not want advice--only agreement. Although they cannot change their natures, the characters have keen understandings of them. Arthur's half-sister Morgan Le Fay, for instance, comes close to seducing Lancelot because she knows what he wants: With power you can try on cities like hats, or smash them when you tire of them. Power attracts loyalty and requires none. . . . It is the one possession that does not flag or become tedious, for there is never enough of it and an old man in whom the juices of all other desires are dried up will crawl on his tottering knees toward his grave still grabbing with frantic hands for power. Much of Steinbeck's story follows Lancelot. He comes across as a charming crank on whom the burden of being universally hailed "the greatest knight in Christendom" does not always rest easily. This Lancelot complains at length and with apparently unintended humor that women are always demanding that he perform some bit of gallantry for them. Even so, his honor demands that he ask every woman he encounters if there is something he can do for her. The emphasis on Lancelot in what is supposed to be Arthur's story seems odd, until one reaches Steinbeck's letters about the project. His literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, and his editor, Case Horton, share much of Steinbeck's correspondence about the project to which he devoted more than a decade of extensive research throughout Europe. These letters provide fascinating insights into Steinbeck's thinking along the way, from his envying Malory for the time he could commit to his writing (Malory apparently spent much of his life in prison) to his admiring the progress Malory made as a writer. In one of his letters, Steinbeck suggests that Malory and he shared many of a novelist's traits: "A novelist not only puts down a story but he is the story. He is each one of the characters in a greater or a less degree." Malory, Steinbeck argues, saw himself in Lancelot. The energy Steinbeck put into studying Malory's writings and the varied histories and other sources that provided context for them suggests Steinbeck identified with his characters as well. His writing is fueled by the conviction and energy that a knight would have needed to seek the Grail. Death may have prevented Steinbeck from seeing his quest to its end, but he produced a work that drives readers' imaginations on quests of our own.

  • Gala
    2018-12-02 21:46

    З кожним розділом книга оживає делі більше, герої стають усе глибшими, а історії сильніше захоплюють (не зважаючи на те, що я знаю, як вони розвиватимуться), а потім вона обривається на півслові, на повороті до трагедії. У даному виданні остання третина - листування Стейбека з видавцем та редактором, і воно виявилося таки же цікавим, як і сама книга, хоча і не дає відповіді на питання, чому ж вона залишилася незакінченою.

  • S. Daisy
    2018-11-14 20:51

    This is not a full review, but rather a warning for the unwary: This book was never completed and it leaves you hanging at a critical moment. Also, the author has taken many liberties with the original Thomas Mallory book, and he himself states in the appendix that the liberties he'd taken would have shocked Mallory.Just so y'all know.

  • D.L. Luke
    2018-11-21 17:50

    I wish he had finished writing the book, alas!

  • Raymond
    2018-12-08 20:51

    Wow! I had no idea how amazing and exciting the stories of King Arthur could be! For a very long time, I've wondered again and again about the contents of this epic tale, but never got around to actually researching it myself. Since this book is one of Steinbeck's works, it was only a matter of time before I read it. I suppose that he- like I- discovered the magical beauty to these stories. Unfortunately, I have not heard the entire tale- Steinbeck never finished this book. However, I did learn an extraordinary amount about the story of King Arthur and his knights. The book begins with Arthur's birth, heir to the throne, son of Uther Pendragon. Merlin makes dozens of appearances, and I was very pleased to find out that he is as witty and clever as Dumbledore himself, though maybe a little more traditional. I have also found myself adoring Lancelot- the strongest knight in which the round table has ever been blessed to have. The tale of King Arthur seems maddeningly serious, so once Steinbeck went into the stories concerning Lancelot, a comical tone was adopted. I was very pleased that I read this book, and I hope to read/learn more about the entire tale. This book also contained some very interesting views on humanity, and the deepest recesses of the human mind. There is a particular scene I like during Lancelot's story, whenever he is being held prisoner by Morgan la Fay, Arthur's half sister (and a complete witch, literally and figuratively). Morgan la Fay and three witch queens try to offer up their best gifts, pleading for Lancelot's love, which of course he denies. The dialouge through the course of the scene is very engaging, and it had my mind reeling even after I put the book down. There seems to be some very important lessons in this book, the kind that we usually relate folk lore stories with. I think it would be great to read the original version of King Arthur, in that old language as it is, though Steinbeck does provide glimpses of how the old tale was written, and it is my guess that I'd take a month or two to read through everything, pausing between every few words just to clarify what they meant.

  • Perry Whitford
    2018-12-07 13:53

    I read The Grapes of Wrath a long time ago, not through a school assignment, just because it's hard to avoid when you first get into ploughing through the classics. It didn't impress me much, though I could see how it made waves when it was first published for the insight into American poverty it portrayed through the desperate yet noble Joad family.Steinbeck's first literary love was for Malory's rendering of the Arthur legend, formed since boyhood and growing with him throughout his life to the point where he decided to translate a modern version from the Winchester manuscript. I think he had a youthful audience in mind, but he doesn't spare on the gore at all, staying true to the visceral nature of the original where helms are cleaved and brains splattered all over the place on page after page of jousts and battles.Rather like The Grapes of Wrath, I read Morte d'Arthur a long time ago too, so I can't recall just how literal a translation this is. I recalled that Merlin dominated early and then left for good, that Arthur himself played a passive role for the most part, while Lancelot had the fullest story. Steinbeck's version was following that course before he suddenly gave it up just as Lancelot and Guinevere were getting it on, so he never got as far as the Grail quest and the rise of Mordred.It's difficult to give too much praise for an unfinished work, one which he had plenty of time to complete before his passing. However, I do feel like re-visiting the original Malory now in order to finish the rest of the story, so I guess Steinbeck would have been happy with that result.