The matter of Britain
Neil Philip reviews an ambitious retelling of the stories of King Arthur.
T H White wrote that, "A man who copied out the Morte d'Arthur in morse code would still be an important literary figure". The Arthurian stories are deep in the grain of our culture, and every new retelling or reworking adds to the heritage.
Oddly enough, King Arthur himself is, in the medieval sources, often a rather bland figure. The exciting adventures and moral dilemmas are reserved for knights such as Gawain, Lancelot, and Percival. It was White himself who first put Arthur effectively at the forefront of his own story, in that flawed masterpiece The Once and Future King.
Now Michael Morpurgo has gone a stage further. In Arthur, High King of Britain, Arthur gives his own first-hand account of the rise and fall of the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur is represented as an old man, living a hermit's existence outside time, waiting for the call to lead his nation once more, and brooding on his ancient wrongs. He saves a modern boy from drowning, and tells him the whole story.
This is a noble and daring concept, and for the most part it serves Morpurgo and his story well. The Arthurian stories are notoriously hard to weave into a single coherent narrative. Even Malory, attempting to create a "hoole book", actually produced a series of distinct tales. For the modern reteller, the multitudinous contradictions and alternatives in the source material are difficult to reconcile, while some key elements - Arthur's incest with his half-sister Morgause, begetting his nemesis, Mordred; Guinevere's adulterous affair with Lancelot - create problems of presentation in a children's book.
Michael Morpurgo solves these structural and thematic problems with grace and aplomb. He makes Arthur's bastard son, the bitter-and-twisted Mordred, and Lancelot's, the pure-at-heart Galahad, into a perfectly balanced pair. He portrays an unexpectedly tender relationship between the young Mordred and the childless Guinevere. He writes movingly of the cross-currents of love and friendship in the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere triangle. And he manages to interweave the spiritual Grail quest with the emotional disintegration of Arthur's earthly kingdom. This is the best-organised Arthur I know.
It is also at many points, especially as it moves to its climax, strikingly well-written. Where the relentless unfolding of the story provides its own momentum, Morpurgo's prose dances vividly across the page. Moments of high drama, such as Sir Lancelot's account of a dragon-slaying, are conveyed with a quick thrilling exactness. When action isn't carrying the narrative urgently along, the narrative tone can break down. Morpurgo doesn't always maintain the sense of a speaking voice, and Arthur's normally direct speech can suddenly stiffen into a sentence such as, "It is true that hyperbole was not unknown at Camelot." The occasional failed joke, cliched phrase, or clumsy sentence may be inevitable in a book as ambitious as this. There are, however, whole scenes that don't catch fire. For instance, there is an oddly flat account of Lancelot's miraculous healing of the wounded knight Sir Urre, proving him to be the best knight in the world. In Morpurgo's version, this is a triumphal occasion. After Lancelot pulls the rusty sword from Urre's leg, "Lancelot held the blade up in front of him and offered it to him with a smile. 'Yours, I think', he said, as the hall erupted with joyful cheering."
In Malory's version of the same incident, Lancelot feels unworthy to be the vehicle of God's mercy to Sir Urre. After the healing, "Than kynge Arthur and all the kynges and knyghtes kneled downe and gave thankynges and lovynge unto God and unto his Blessed Modir. And ever sir Launcelote wepte, as he had bene a chylde that had bene beatyn!" An emotional and psychological resonance has been lost, here, for no gain.
No writer tackling the "Matter of Britain" can now hope to make the kind of definitive statement Malory made, but it is possible to add a personal charge and a personal slant to the old stories. This, Michael Morpurgo has done. He treats the source material with respect but he makes his own story out of it, and in doing so he turns a series of adventures into the tale of one great Adventure - the attempt to create a heaven on earth, and its inevitable doom. He does not, like so many retellers, simply paraphrase Malory; nor does he, like Roger Lancelyn Green, attempt to represent the whole range of Arthurian literature.
The use of Arthur as narrator allows Morpurgo to concentrate on the central figures and their emotional tangle, and bring them alive for the modern reader. Michael Foreman's full page illustrations, by turns mistily romantic and unexpectedly vigorous, complement a book that is at once full-blooded and action-packed and suffused with sadness and regret.