Updated: Dec 20, 2021
It is no secret I have wanted to read the full story of the legends of King Arthur for a long time now. In fact, if it was a secret, I would not have been able to do so this week.
I received a copy of Peter Ackroyd's The Death of King Arthur in the mail not long ago from a close family friend of ours who lives in England and had heard of my desperation to read the story of the great King Arthur. I was very grateful for the gift (I may or may not have paraded around the house showing everyone my awesome copy of the book).
Having now read the book, I thought I would write a review of it as well as my other book about the tales of King Arthur (The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck) and compare the two.
I would like to preface this by saying both books are amazing. I truly do not have a preference. They both have great qualities that would make me recommend them to friends and lovers of good tales. I include them both here today because the books are incredibly different and great in their own way. Similar to fairytales, mythology, and other books that are collections of old tales, myths, legends, etc., the books have stories they highlight and their own way of telling those stories. The book that I would suggest for you to read really depends on what you are looking for.
Thomas Mallory first published Le Morte d'Arthur in 1485 and from what I can tell, there was probably some oral legend that went into it as well as portions of the book likely being told orally to others, leading to the different names (or spellings) and slightly different stories that are around these days. Ultimately, there is one original "Legend of Arthur" story (Le Morte d'Arthur) but there really is a lot more that goes into it. From what I can tell from the introductions to the two books, Ackroyd based his book largely on Mallory's text though he did shorten the book, take out redundancies, and make it more readable for modern readers. His book tells, essentially, the whole story from start to finish. On the other hand, Steinbeck seems to have included more than just Mallory's text in his research. The introduction talks about him researching extensively for his book for about three years. Steinbeck died in 1968 and the book was not published until after his death (1976) and thus, there is not a second half. Steinbeck's book is probably around the same length (in words) as Ackroyd's but he includes about half the legend, finishing before Lancelot and Guenevere's affair and the quest for the Holy Grail.
So without further ado, here's my take on the two books:
The Death of King Arthur:
The Death of King Arthur tells the whole story of the legend of King Arthur. It filled in the gaps that I had in my knowledge of the legend, something I really longed for. It was masterfully written and, true to his word, Ackroyd did take out the pieces that were unnecessary and repetitive. The book is straightforward and easy to read. There is no fluff or frills. The book would make for a good book to read to your kids at bedtime if only the story of King Arthur did not involve incest, adultery, and death (lots of death). Still, the book, I feel, does not go into deep detail about any death, incest, or adultery and I feel that you could actually still use it as a cool bedtime book for your kids who like stories of swordfight and adventure. The book is also broken up into really great bite-sized pieces. The book has chapter-like sections that identify who or what the section is about however, within those sections, there is further division. The section titles identify what is going to happen within that section. For example, perhaps the knight is going to take on another knight. Or perhaps the knight is going to be poisoned. I really enjoyed the fact that it was broken up into these smaller sections as it makes for easy stopping places in the book but I felt that if it were to be used as a storybook, these titles are extremely helpful as well (if only to avoid the adultery sections!). The book does skip over a few stories that were present in the other book (probably as a part of the attempt to avoid being repetitive) however, I really enjoyed reading the stories I had not read before. Particularly, I liked reading about Tristram who was not present in the other book. I felt that this book highlighted Lancelot and Tristram while the other focused on a number of smaller stories.
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights:
As I mentioned before, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights does not tell the entire story but rather finishes right before the story of Lancelot and does not touch on the story of the Holy Grail. If you are looking to understand the entire legend, this book is not the book for you. However, if you are looking for a tale of knights and swordfights, and adventure it might be. I never enjoyed the John Steinbeck novels I had to read for school but this John Steinbeck novel is so incredibly written nothing else can compare. Steinbeck really takes you back to the world of knights and feasts and chivalry. He doesn't tell the whole story but what he does tell, he tells at length. He doesn't overdo it though. While Ackroyd does a great job of getting rid of what is unnecessary and telling the story in a really straightforward way, Steinbeck does a great job of putting that stuff back in without making it unnecessary and telling the story in an eloquent way. He tells the story of Arthur conquering the kingdoms and a cool story of Gwain and Ewaine (and a third whose name I can't remember). I would recommend the first book to those searching for the whole story, searching for a simpler read, or searching for a book they could read to their kids. I would recommend the second to those searching for a deeper read, more eloquent prose, and more in-depth description of the action who don't necessarily need the entire story.