Once upon time Britons were also wholehearted Europeans! Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur

img_1078Simon Armitage follows up his exquisite translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with this translation of the Alliterative Morte d’Arthur. Again, as Heaney also did so brilliantly with Beowulf, he manages to render into contemporary language the poem while remaining true to the original’s spirit and content. The almost monotonous relentlessness of the violence in this poem however makes it a somewhat less satifying work that those other two, but it is still an entertaining excursion to the Dark Ages.

The story begins with envoys of the Roman Emperor showing up in Arthur’s court demanding tribute. Arthur responds by declaring war on Rome and setting off on a campaign to assert his own rights in Europe. Behind him, in Britain, he leaves his nephew Mordred as regent… a bad mistake.

Much blood and internal organs are graphically shed as Arthur fights his way across Europe, with Gawain, the greatest of his champions, in the thick of the fighting. Armitage notes in the book’s introduction, that this is an older, more seasoned Gawain than the one we encountered in the Green Knight, but he remains, in his chivilrous concerns, recognisably the same character even in the midst of some very sanguinary battles.

One other thing that struck me about this poem: in it Britain is very much a nation at the heart of Europe, a Celtic kingdom that extends from southern Scotland to central France. Arthur is explicitly represented amongst the Nine Worthies as pre-figuring the unmistakeably pan-European Charlemange and Godfrey of Bouillon, a leader of the First Crusade. Hence he is more entitled to the throne of the Roman empire than the man who has demanded tribute of him. It is Ireland and the Scottish Highlands that are the place apart, the uncivilised Atlantic fringes beyond the European mainstream. How times change.

Overall this is a fine, compelling piece of work by one of the most interesting and entertaining of English poets, one who is also currently working at the top of his game

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