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King Arthur's Last Battle (Penguin Epics) by…
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King Arthur's Last Battle (Penguin Epics)

by Thomas Malory

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King Arthur's Last Battle is a reproduction of parts of the greatest story ever told of the Britons. It is parts of the Malory verion of the Arthurian legend written around 1470 which updates and translates from older sources and stories the Pendragon Cycle. The Penguin Epics edition is pretty much the raw Malory with its remarkably modern use of language and occasional remnants of something much older. The Pendragon Cycle is an extraordinary piece of work which draws together some incredible pieces of Brythonic history and mythology. Malory follows the tradition which sets the cycle in the romantic period of chivalry, backdating that more medievally inclined concept to at least the Dark Ages but probably earlier than that. As Last Battle is part of the Penguin Epics it necessarily excludes much of Malory's work in order to fit the size limitations but does include enough references to key features. The title is somewhat misleading though as this work is largely not about the Arthur part of the Arthurian cycle but instead focuses significantly on Launcelot including his romatic entanglements.

Malory's work was concluded around 1470 yet it speaks to events hundreds of years earlier with some elements quite possibly much older. It is an incredible story of Brythonic history and mythos which ties in some of the earlier governance structures of Brythonic societies with the heraldic chivalry of the then contemporaneous medieval period. The background for the story is Dark Ages Britain with its battle between Angles and Saxons on the one hand and the Brythonic inhabitants on the other.

Malory describes himself essentially as a translator. He makes frequent reference to 'the French book' from which he drew his inspiration. That French book is itself a combination of a range of inputs. Being French in origin at least in part is of course fascinating and a beautiful example of mythology moving with people as some of the Cornish did into Brittany.

Malory's work is the defining example of the Pendragon Cycle. The Penguin Epics edition does nothing to change the original. Malory uses remarkably modern English so it is easy to read. It is only the final couple of chapters in this work which are a little slower going due to language as the end of Launcelot's tale is told. It being un-refined Malory there are older terms here which are clearly Germanic in origin. Three terms appear repeatedly - seemingly modified (and conjugated) versions of the modern German verbs heißen and wissen as well as conjugated versions of the adverb lieber. Fascinating to read them in this context. The translation also occasionally misses the use of the dative case with quite a few examples where 'to' would better read as 'to me'. Given that Malory was writing about a hundred years after the Great Vowel Shift, his use of language is so interesting. Why Malory chooses to translate du Lac into du Lake is entirely unclear, most who followed Malory seem to have reverted back to du Lac.

It is also fascinating to see how some terms shift subtly when passed through centuries and languages. Malory refers to the Northgales at times. These are quite possible the Norse-Gaelic peoples also known as the Gall-Ghàidheil or foreign Gaels. They were of course a separate entity throughout much of the milennia before Malory's work.

The work dips much further back on occasion with the use of names harkening back to much older times. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the character of Elaine. She is the mother of Launcelot's child, Galahad. She is also described as the most beautiful of all the women of the era. Despite Malory's stilted description of attractive women as 'passing fair' this is a direct reproduction of the much older character from the Mythological Cycle. In that cycle Étaín is the most beautiful woman in the world, she is quite possibly a character drawn from a vastly earlier period. The use of such a similar name for the most beautiful of all is surely no coincidence.

Of course Malory brings out the pre-modern societal structure through the character of Merlin. Fascinating to read him being so directive of Uther Pendragon at the very start of the cycle and then be influential early on with Arthur. Of course Merlin just disappears from the story. In the Penguin Epics edition he plays a really quite minor role as most of the passages which would have included him are not part of this edition. A shame really because through Merlin there is a glimpse into an older world.

One drawback of the style of writing Malory draws from is that it is loaded with spoilers. Nothing is unexpected because it is all pre-ordained. Characters are fated in particular ways - Arthur most notably. Arthur's end is described in detail and then happens exactly as predicted. This happens quite often and disrupts the flow of reading in a way that writers without the need to appease a vengeful and omni-powerful deity can avoid.

The religiosity of Malory's writing is not overwhelming though is present throughout. The clearest example available in the Penguin Epics edition is the aesthetic pennance performed separately by Launcelot and Guinevere. More often the religious elements are drawn in through the morality of the characters involved. Launcelot for instance is tricked into bedding Elaine rather than she being his wife as is more reasonable to think - this preserves a bit more chivalry for Launcelot at the cost of him being made a fool of by women on several occasions.

The Penguin Epics edition focuses quite heavily on chivalry and does so through the greatest knight of his age, Launcelot. It is Launcelot who dominates proceedings. The need to condence down to 130 small pages limits the scope to include so many other great stories. The Round Table for instance is barely mentioned. There are very few of the great adventures the knights embark upon. Arthur's glorious battles are skipped over. Mordred's origins and background are barely referenced. For some reason Book Two of Malory's work is reproduced nearly in full, exploring the adventures of Sir Balin, not exactly the heart of the Pendragon Cycle. The fight between Gawane and Launcelot is entirely omitted yet is a key part of a later reference.

The cuts to this great work are painful but of course necessary to make it fit the Penguin Epics collection. This is not the definitive version of Malory's work, it is a Penguin Epics offering. Within that context as the 19th and therefore penultimate of the Epics it is a masterpiece. Naturally the full version is the better version but sitting proudly among the others in its collection, Arthur's Last Battle rightfully exists as a reference point to one of the greatest stories ever told in the form of the Pendragon Cycle. ( )
  Malarchy | Oct 20, 2014 |
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