When he set out to write The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, John Steinbeck hoped to retell Sir Thomas Malory's 15th century epic Le Morte D'Arthur in a way accessible to a modern audience. Although he never finished The Acts of King Arthur, Steinbeck surpassed his original intention, bringing to life some of the most revered, and least developed, characters in our literary tradition, while expanding on Malory's captivating narrative.
The Acts of King Arthur, just released in a new edition with a foreword by fantasy novelist Christopher Paolini, begins with King Uther Pendragon's seduction of Igraine and the birth of Arthur and continues through the adventures of Lancelot.
Since Steinbeck never completed the book, readers are given not a polished novel but an insight into the workings of one of America's great authors as he struggled with one of the immortal tales of the English language. At first, Steinbeck remains doggedly true to the feel of the original texts, re-creating Malory's sparse diction. As he grows more comfortable in his narration, Steinbeck allows irony and invention to create a more lifelike text.
One of his most important contributions to the body of Arthurian storytelling is in his characterization of Guinevere. Most of the classic sources present a cold, spiteful queen, but Steinbeck humanizes Guinevere and allows a glimpse into her very real love and why it so often translates into unpredictable, unforgiving fury.
Steinbeck abandoned The Acts of King Arthur just as he came to the most familiar, gripping part of the legend, Lancelot and Guinevere's destructive love affair, leaving the reader just after the pair's first passionate embrace. But without carrying the narrative to its well-known conclusion, Steinbeck unintentionally provided a fitting ending: that of the noble days of the Round Table as they gave way to the strife-torn future.
Nathaniel French is a student at Macalester College.
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights
By John Steinbeck
Penguin Group, 416 pages, $29.95