An updated retelling of the tales of King Arthur and his knights.
As the uninitiated reader will learn from the preface to this extensive work, the tales of King Arthur, as modern audiences know them, were translated from the French and compiled by Englishman Sir Thomas Malory. A version of his work was set in print for wider consumption by William Caxton in 1485. Then, in 1934, a second Malory manuscript, which was arguably closer to his original intent, was discovered in Winchester, England. This latest rendition by translator Davis (The Canterbury Tales, 2016, etc.) is a lengthy amalgam of the Caxton and Winchester works, retelling what he felt were the “best” parts of each. In this way, the reader is launched into his version of a wild world of knights, chivalry, horses, and bloodshed, with details that may be unfamiliar to many. The work is broken up into individual books; Book Five, for example, sees King Arthur battling his way to Rome, and Book Thirteen details the famed quest for the Holy Grail. Many tales center on the desires of particular knights, and for the most part, those desires extend toward the realm of combat. As depicted here, knights—of which there are many—seem to love nothing more than to attack, preferably on horseback. Jousting is the most common activity, and the text vividly recounts knights being knocked off their perches. At one point, for instance, Sir Tristan deals such a blow to his opponent that the latter “fell upside-down from his horse, and the blood burst out from the vents of his helmet.” However, although these passages are full of action, such scenes eventually become tedious. If anyone ever stops to wonder whether the life of a “Fair Knight” holds any meaning outside of fighting, it is rarely expressed.
Still, for those readers who may be expecting a straightforward quest narrative, Davis’ compilation contains a number of unexpected elements, including some highly specific religious detail. Book Two, “The Tale of Balin,” for instance, provides background on Joseph of Arimathea’s involvement with the Holy Grail, and the aforementioned Book Thirteen, about the quest for the artifact itself, also involves an explanation of the parable of Jesus and a fig tree, which appears in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew in the New Testament. Davis’ text can be repetitive in places, and the style of the retelling, as a whole, doesn’t ultimately read with the ease of a modern story. However, many readers will still find it illuminating to see how Davis presents all the parts of the legend of King Arthur that the popular culture has ignored since the days of Malory. Indeed, there are some truly odd moments here; at one point, for example, the great Sir Lancelot kills someone with his bare hands for not letting him ride in his cart, and at another, it’s pointed out that Sir Gawain “loved all kinds of fruit, especially apples and pears.”
A new collection that intriguingly sheds light on a famous legend.