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The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights    by John Steinbeck order for
Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights
by John Steinbeck
Order:  USA  Can
Viking, 2007 (2007)
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Okay, fans of swords-and-sorcery fantasy - but more especially fans of Arthurian legends - you now have something new (well, not actually new) to whet your insatiable appetites for fantasy masterpieces. Here, in this new edition of the last book John Steinbeck worked on before his death, you have a highly readable and endlessly intriguing retelling of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur.

First of all, why read Steinbeck's 20th century version rather than Malory's? Well, let's begin by acknowledging the obvious difficulties in Malory's canonical epic: At something like 1100 pages, the first 15th century edition (written by Malory sometime between 1450 and 1470, much of it during his imprisonment, and then edited and published by William Caxton in 1485), Morte d'Arthur includes 21 books which include a total of 507 chapters; moreover, the 15th century diction, syntax, and narrative style (even in modern editions) can simply overwhelm modern readers (most of whom lack the kind of reading experience and commitment-to-task demanded by Malory and Caxton).

True, fantasy and literature purists will legitimately argue two unassailable points: first, this book by one of America's most famous authors is not exactly traditional Steinbeck (and there are many other Steinbeck novels that are much better - albeit different - than this offering); and second, there is no real substitute for reading Malory's and Caxton's version of the Arthurian legend.

I would wholeheartedly agree that the original eight Arthurian tales are very much worth a reader's patience and investment of time. Morte d'Arthur begins with the birth and rise of Arthur and follows with seven other sections: King Arthur's war against the Romans; Lancelot; Gareth; Tristan and Isolde; the Holy Grail quest; the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere; and the breaking of the Knights of the Round Table and the death of Arthur. Those tales are singular and important in the history of fantasy literature.

As for Steinbeck, he had been spell-bound as a young child by the Caxton Morte d'Arthur, and later in his life - when he had established himself as an accomplished novelist - he then set about re-imagining the Arthurian tales so that his children, and other readers (like you and me), would be able to enjoy the timeless stories without being encumbered by the 15th century language of the original.

Steinbeck's version departs from the original in important ways (some stylistic and some substantive), and the early sections (especially the preliminary sections on Merlin, the Knight with Two Swords, and the Wedding of King Arthur) move along a bit awkwardly with simplistic characterizations and lackluster narrative - as if the writer was not yet comfortable with his material and was still overwhelmed by his predecessor's treatment of the legend.

However, Steinbeck hit his stride in the final sections (the Death of Merlin; Morgan le Fay; Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt; and the Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake), and the intensity of Steinbeck's narrative style finally corresponds to and reinforces the scope and power of the legend.

In fact, I agree with Christopher Paolini (who wrote the book's introduction) in his assessment that the two final sections 'are masterpieces of both Arthurian fiction and fantasy in general.' The final sections, by themselves, are sufficient reasons for reading Steinbeck's fascinating version of a timeless legend. You won't be disappointed.

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