The gold writing on the stone claims that only the person meant to be King of England by right of birth shall be able to pull it out of the stone’s death grip. Many knights try to pull the sword from the stone, but all end up with nothing but tired hands. One day Arthur rides over to the divine sword with the intention of delivering it to his brother. Arthur walks up, grasps the sword by the handle, and easily and fiercely draws it from the anvil and the stone. Shortly after that Arthur is declared the King of England. Many people are jealous and doubt his right to rule, but there are also many who are happy for the young fellow.
With the help of Merlin, Arthur grows up to be a magnificent king, righting wrongs and restoring peace to his kingdom. Some form of war is always occurring, and through Merlin’s guidance and prophesy Arthur is able to win many battles and become a highly respected king throughout the land. It is also in this first section that the ideas and rules of chivalry and knighthood are established; honor is very important to every knight, along with showing mercy when it is asked for and fighting for the rights of all ladies. It is clear that there is no central form of law enforcement during the time of King Arthur.
Each knight can kill another knight with no fear of punishment as long as the death is the result of an agreed joust or sword fight. Later in the story Arthur realizes that a central government will eventually be necessary, but he does not think twice upon the matter. Towards the earlier period of Arthur’s rule, Merlin takes Arthur to the Lady of the Lake. She gives Arthur a sword, Excalibur, along with a magical scabbard that protects the wearer from any loss of blood. In return, Arthur must agree to grant her a favor which she will ask of him at a future date.
Arthur agrees and takes his new possessions back to Camelot. Shortly after, Merlin prophesizes that Arthur’s son, Mordred, will grow up to destroy Arthur. Upon hearing of this, Arthur ships baby Mordred out to sea, unaware that the boat would wash back to shore and that Mordred would be cared for and raised by a man and his wife. The second section is entitled The Knight With Two Swords. A damsel comes into King Arthur’s court bearing a noble sword, claiming only the most brave and honorable of a man can take it from her grasp.
She also requires that the man be of noble blood and of good repute. Arthur, along with many other great and honorable knights, attempt but fail to take it from her hold. Sir Balin, who had been held prisoner for six months, asked for a try at the sword. He is poorly dressed, and she is reluctant to let him try. Sir Balin draws the sword effortlessly and all around him are astonished. The damsel asks for the sword back, but Balin refuses, saying he will not give it up until someone takes it from him by force.
She says that if he keeps it, Balin will use it to kill his best friend and the man he loves most in the world. Balin asks permission of the King to leave, and although Arthur does not approve of Balin’s choice, he grants him his request, only asking that he not be gone for too long. The Lady of the Lake shows up to Arthur’s court just before Balin leaves. She reminds Arthur of the favor he promised her in the past. Arthur hasn’t forgotten and tells her to go ahead and ask her favor. The Lady of the Lake asks for the heads of Balin and the damsel who brought the sword.
Arthur refuses the request, thinking it atrocious. At this point Balin remembers that the Lady of the Lake killed his mother three years prior. Balin then makes his way over to the Lady of the Lake and cuts her head off with his sword. Arthur is disgusted with Balin’s rash act and banishes him from the court. Determined to prove himself, Balin sets off to kill Arthur’s enemy at the time, Lord Royns. Along the journey, Balin meets up with his brother, Balan. Together they are able to capture Lord Royns and send him back to Camelot as a prisoner.
Along their journey Balin unintentionally causes the death of many, just as the damsel had foretold. The brothers eventually end up going separate ways and later reunite in a most unfortunate fashion. The two are forced to fight one another, although until they have both fatally wounded one another, neither one knew that they were brothers. They are considered two of the best knights in history. The third section of the book is entitled The Wedding of King Arthur. At this point in the story, Arthur gets married to a fine lady by the name of Guinevere.
Merlin predicts Guinevere will be unfaithful to him with his dearest and most trusted friend. Arthur brushes off Merlin’s predictions, thinking them to surely be a mistake. Around the time of the wedding, Arthur comes to possess the Round Table, around which 150 of the world’s greatest knights shall someday sit. One hundred superb knights are given as a gift along with the Round Table, and Arthur knows he must fill the remaining fifty spots with his own choice of knights. While the festivities are taking place, a white stag bounds in and causes a great disruption.
One knight also comes and takes a dog away from the court, and another man comes and takes away an unwilling lady. Arthur sends Sir Gawain after the stag, Sir Torre to retrieve the dog, and Sir Pellinore to seek out the lady and bring her back. Sir Gawain sets out on the chase for the stag, fighting numerous knights along the way, and eventually kills the stag. During one of his battles with another knight, Gawain slays an innocent lady. Upon returning to Camelot and telling of his quest, Guinevere commands Gawain to serve and defend ladies for all his life as a punishment for his crime.
Sir Torre sets out on his quest and is immediately confronted by a dwarf, who demands that Sir Torre to fight a certain two knights before proceeding. Sir Torre defeats them both and sends them back to be Arthur’s prisoners. After a bit of questioning, Sir Torre learns that the dwarf can lead him to the whereabouts of the missing dog. Stealing the dog from a sleeping lady, Sir Torre ventures back towards Camelot. Before he can make it home, however, a knight appears claiming to be of service of the lady whose dog was stolen in her sleep. Sir Torre kills him and returns to Camelot.
Arthur is pleased with Sir Torre and rewards him with an earldom of lands and a place of honor in the court. Sir Pellinore sets out after the lady, and shortly after arrives at a damsel holding a wounded knight in her arms. He considers helping them, but then decides against it, for it is not on the mission agenda. Shortly after he passes them, the damsel slays herself in despair of the death of her knight. Within a short while Pellinore comes across two knights fighting for the lady. He kills one of them and leaves the other alive, for mercy was asked of Pellinore.
Sir Pellinore picks up the lady and together they ride back towards Camelot. Eventually they come to the place where the damsel and the wounded knight once sat, only to discover that their bodies—save their heads—had been torn to pieces by wild beasts. Pellinore is deeply hurt by what he sees and immediately rides back to tell Arthur and Guinevere of the awful doings. Upon hearing Pellinore’s story, the King and Queen are not happy in the least. Merlin reveals that the girl left to die was Pellinore’s own daughter, and the knight was a good man.
Merlin also prophesizes that Pellinore’s best friend will fail him in time of greatest need. And so ends the wedding of King Arthur. The fourth section of the book is entitled The Death of Merlin. Merlin foresees how his death will be and realizes it to be a foolish way to die— a death caused by the lady Sir Pellinore brought back from his quest, Nyneve. King Arthur does not understand why Merlin does not choose to evade this certain death. Merlin explains by saying that between wisdom and feeling, wisdom never wins. Day after day Merlin follows Nyneve around, trading her company for knowledge of his magic.
The only thing Nyneve asked of Merlin was that he not use magic to make her love him; Merlin agrees, thus sealing his fate. Over time Merlin teaches Nyneve much of his magic and she becomes quite powerful. It comes to a point where Nyneve tires of Merlin panting after her, begging to lie with her. In a valiant last effort to win her affection, Merlin creates a room of unbelievable wonders under a great rock cliff. Upon its completion, Merlin beckons Nyneve to come inside and look around, but instead she casts an unbreakable spell, locking him in the room forevermore.
The fifth section of the book is entitled Morgan le Fay. Morgan le Fay is King Arthur’s half-sister. She is gorgeous, cruel, loves no one, and takes pleasure in destroying others’ lives. Because she hates Arthur and is jealous of his crown, she intricately plans his murder. Her plan begins by her making a sword and scabbard exactly like Arthur’s own and then replacing his real sword and scabbard with the fake ones. She plans to use Accolon, one of Arthur’s knights enchanted by Morgan’s dark magic, to kill Arthur. One day Arthur and a few of his knights chase a stag for many miles, eventually losing sight of it.
Only Arthur, Accolon, and Morgan’s husband, Uryens, have been able to stay close behind the stag. The three seek shelter for rest. Looking out upon the river, they see a ship and decide to board it. Upon doing so, a ring of torches ignite around them and twelve lovely damsels appear. Feasting for hours, the three eventually fall into a deep sleep. Uryens wakes up back in Camelot next to his wife, Morgan le Fay. Arthur wakes in a dungeon with twenty other captive knights. Accolon wakes up on the edge of a well, realizing he’s been under an enchantment of Arthur’s half-sister.
Right then a dwarf loyal to Morgan appears and puts Accolon back under the enchantment. Accolon receives the real Excalibur and magic scabbard from the dwarf and is told that he must fight Arthur tomorrow and bring his head back to Morgan le Fay. Arthur is told that in order to escape prison he must on behalf of the lord holding him captive. The next day Accolon and Arthur fight. During the battle Arthur becomes aware that his sword is faulty and his scabbard not working. He also sees that the knight he is fighting possesses the real Excalibur and scabbard.
Eventually getting the real Excalibur and scabbard back in his possession and defeats his opponent. He learns shortly after that his opponent is actually from his own court, and Sir Accolon begs Arthur’s forgiveness explaining that he was under the enchantment of Morgan le Fay. Arthur forgives Accolon, but is furious with his half-sister. Shortly after the battle, Accolon dies of a head wound and Arthur orders him shipped back to Morgan as a present for her kindness. Meanwhile, thinking Arthur to be dead, Morgan attempts to kill her husband in his sleep, but her son Elwain stops her before she can do so.
When she is caught in the act, she pretends that she was under a spell and asks Ewain’s forgiveness. In the morning she leaves Camelot in search of Arthur; and when she finds him sleeping, she steals his magic scabbard and takes off on her horse. Arthur wakes, learns what has happened, and sets off in pursuit of her. When Arthur is about to catch her, she turns herself and her followers in stones so that Arthur cannot find them. Morgan later orders a message delivered to Arthur saying that he should live in fear of her, but truthfully Morgan le Fay feared Arthur.
The sixth section of the book is entitled Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt. Arthur is now very cautious of those associated with Morgan le Fay, and thus asks Uryens to prove his loyalty by banshing his son, Ewain, from Camelot. Until Ewain has proved himself on a quest, Arthur will not allow him back in his presence. Meanwhile, Morgan sends Arthur a cloak, though not like any typical cloak. This one was luxurious beyond measure, incorporating many fine jewels and vibrant colors. It is delivered to Arthur by a damsel, and upon hearing who the cloak is from, Arthur asks the damsel to put it on herself.
When she does so, her skin turns black and she falls to the ground heaving in convulsions while the corrosive eats through her flesh and shrivels her. Gawain, Ewain’s friend and cousin, accompanies Ewain on his quest and the two soon after meet up with a knight named Marhalt. As a trio they continue on their questing. One day, he three come across three ladies waiting in the woods. The ladies explain that each knight shall have one of them as company on their quests to come, and in a year’s time the knights will return to this very point in the forest to tell of their adventures.
Gawain selects the youngest damsel who is in her teenage years, Marhalt selects the middle age lady who is of thirty years, and Ewain selects the oldest lady who is of sixty years. While questing, the young damsel becomes rather sick of Gawain. Gawain constantly brags about himself, and the young damsel can think of nothing other than how much he annoys her. She eventually leaves him for a frog-faced dwarf and Gawain claims he is happy of her departure, for she was a chatterbox. Gawain soon after learns of knight named Sir Pelleas, who desires a lady he cannot have—much like the case of Merlin.
Gawain offers to help him out by going and talking to Ettarde, the lady whom Pelleas most desires. Pelleas waits for two days while Gawain is away conversing with Ettarde, and then decides to go see what is taking so long. Pelleas ventures over to the castle in the middle of the night and discovers Gawain and Ettarde in bed together. He nearly kills them both in their sleep, but cannot bring himself to complete the act, for he has never done a horrid thing like that all his life. Nyneve, Merlin’s previous paramour, finds Pelleas emotionally distraught.
She helps him by casting a spell on Ettarde so that she may feel the longing for Pelleas that he felt for her. The spell also ensures that Pelleas will despise Ettarde just has s he despised him. Nyneve agrees to stay with Pelleas until he finds his true love, and in doing so the two live happily together all their lives. Marhalt has a much different questing experience. His lady thinks him to be very charming, for Marhalt is very talented and aware of his fighting prowess, but does not boast about it. Along his quest Marhalt defeats many knights and wins a tournament.
Towards the end of his quest, his lady takes him to the young Earl Fergus who is in need of help killing a giant. Marhalt reluctantly kills the giant, for he knows the giant is but an oversized man with a child’s mind. The treasure Marhalt receives as a prize prompts him to stay at Earl Fergus’ castle for a long while with his lady. Eventually Marhalt and his lady grow apart, each not liking the changes they see in one another. She leaves Marhalt for a young knight, and Marhalt returns to the place where the three knights were scheduled to meet at the end of the year. Ewain experiences the best quest of the three knights.
He explain to his lady, by the name of Lyne, that he picked her because he was young and inexperienced and that her wisdom would do him good. Lyne reveals that she had hoped he would pick her, for she wanted to mold him into a true knight. Lyne also reveals that she knows more about the art of being a knight than any other person in the land. It was her life dream to be the greatest knight that ever lived, but her gender prohibited her from doing so. Instead, she fulfills her dream by training other knights to be the best knights in the land. For ten months she trains Ewain to become a true knight.
Although he began very weak and unskilled, at the end of the ten months Ewain is strong, fit, and ready to fight the fiercest competitor. Lyne then takes him to a tournament where Ewain defeats all knights who challenge him. Soon after she informs him that a lady called the Lady of the Rock is fearing that her castle will be taken over by her two corrupt brothers. Ewain battles the two brothers, defeating them, and restoring peace to the castle and land of the Lady of the Rock. In return, the Lady of the Rock offers Ewain the chance to live with her and rule over the castle and her land for all time.
Ewain knows it to be a great offer, but declines for he wishes to tell of his quest back at Camelot. At the end of the year, Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt meet up and ride back to Camelot together to tell of their magnificent adventures. The seventh and final part of the story is entitled The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake. Lancelot is the best known knight in the world, for no one can defeat him. He loves his queen, Guinevere, more than anyone, although not in a way to disrespect his king. Lancelot’s only love is his queen, along with the art of fighting.
In Lancelot’s eyes, no other damsel can compare to Guinevere. Lancelot claims that one cannot be a great knight along with being a husband and father without being half qualified at each. Peace has finally come to Camelot, all wars have come to an end, and no new war even peeks over the horizon. As much joy as Arthur thought peace would bring, he finds it actually destroys his kingdom more so than war itself does. His knights grow weary from lack of fighting, and the spirit of everyone seems to fall with every moment there is not a quest or battle to take part in.
Arthur does not like this strange phenomenaa, so he sends Lancelot and Lancelot’s nephew, Lyonel, out on a quest to solve all the little problems of the land. Figuring that if he can eventually encourage more of his knights to uptake these seemingly unimportant tasks, Arthur hopes they might feel like they are contributing something larger than themselves, and then the spirit of knighthood and merry making could return to all of Camelot. Along their quest, Lyonel and Lancelot stop to rest under an apple tree. While they are sleeping, a knight by the name of Sir Tarquin rides towards them.
Lyonel wakes up at the sound of Sir Tarqin’s approaching, but Lancelot remains fast asleep. Seizing this opportunity to prove his talent to Lancelot, Lyonel hurries off to prepare to fight Sir Tarquin while Lancelot remains sleeping. Sir Tarquin is a great and powerful knight and not one to be fooled with. Upon Lyonel’s request to joust he is amused that such a young boy should even attempt to dismount such a knight as himself. Sir Lyonel and Sir Tarquin ride hard and fast toward one another, and the blow Lyonel delivers upon Sir Tarquin spins him all the way around, nearly knocking him off his horse.
Impressed by the boys skill and luck, Sir Tarquin offers to make peace with the boy to avoid truly hurting him. Lyonel refuses, demanding that Sir Tarquin yield or fight. At this the two men joust again, but this time Lyonel ends up badly wounded. Sir Tarquin takes Lyonel back to his home as prisoner along with many other knights. Learning that Sir Tarquin’s main goal is to kill Lancelot, Lyonel now wishes he had not left Lancelot sleeping and undefended under the apple tree. Lancelot slept and slept until Morgan le Fay and three other women of dark magic stumbled upon him lying under the apple.
When Morgan arrived at his side, she put him under a deep sleeping enchantment, and when Arthur woke up he was in a dark, dank dungeon. The four witches soon after appeared and explained to him that they have everything in the world but the world’s greatest knight. Each takes her turn offering to fulfill Lancelot’s deepest desires in many different ways. Lancelot says he will have nothing to do with any one of them, and the four leave the dungeon in rage. Later that night, the damsel who brings him food helps him to escape the dungeon and together they find freedom from the witches’ lair.
Upon hearing of Lyonel’s poor fortune, Lancelot rushes back to the house of Sir Tarquin to rescue his nephew. A great battle between Lancelot and Sir Tarquin then ensues, resulting in the death of Lancelot’s foe. Freeing all the knights previously held captive, Lancelot meets up with Sir Kay, King Arthur’s right hand man all his life. Sir Kay claims he is falling apart as a man and a knight due to the stressful job of being the accountant for all of Camelot’s goods and belongings. In an effort to bring back the reputation of Sir Kay, Lancelot takes Sir Kay’s armor and rides back to Camelot, jousting all who dare cross his path.
Surely enough, Sir Kay’s reputation begins to build as a fierce knight. When the real Sir Kay rides to Camelot wearing Arthur’s armor, no one dares challenge him. Eventually the people of the land start to figure out what is going on. Finally, both men arrive at the castle and go their separate ways. King Arthur requests to meet with Lancelot up in his quarters, accompanied by Guinevere. Guinevere leaves the room upon Arthur’s request, and Lancelot wishes the king a good night. As Guinevere is walking out of the room, Lancelot feels a part of him leave with her.
When Arthur finally dismisses Lancelot, Lancelot walks down the stairs, is beckoned by Guinevere into her room: “Their bodies locked together as though a trap had sprung. Their mouths met and each devoured the other. Each frantic heartbeat at the walls of ribs trying to get to the other until their breaths burst out and Lancelot, dizzied, found the door and blundered down the stairs. And he was weeping bitterly” (Steinbeck 293). And so concludes The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. Part Two: Character Analysis Lancelot is a great yet torn man.
He lives and breathes to be the greatest knight in the world, yet he does not truly know of love. The love he has for Guinevere is all he knows, but he obviously cannot have her as his own for she is married to King Arthur: “’It is well known, and so secret,’ said Lancelot. ‘I love the queen. And I will serve her all my days, and I have permanently challenged any qualified knights who may say she is not the fairest and most virtuous lady in all the world. And may she have only honor and joy from my love, as I have sworn’” (Steinbeck 219). When Lancelot was a child, Merlin prophesized Lancelot’s future greatness.
Although it has come true, Lancelot does not wish others to think he did not have to work for such a title as the greatest knight in the world. Lancelot wants others to be aware that greatness must be earned, and is not something merely stumbled upon. One thing Lancelot does not understand is treachery, for he has none within himself. Treachery was the thing that could cause Lancelot to be blindly cruel, for cruelty is caused—in Lancelot’s mind—by fear of the unknown. In one case Lancelot stumbles across a man ready to slay his wife. The lady asks for the help and protection of Lancelot, to hich he agrees. The husband claims he is sorry and will not hurt his wife, but as Lancelot is riding away the husband cuts his wife’s head from her body: “Then, because this was foreign and frightening to him, rage overcame Lancelot, who was ordinarily a cool, calm man. He drew his sword and his face was black with ferocity and his eyes vindictive as the eyes of a snake…Then Lancelot, sick with disgust and sickened by his own rage, broke free and leaned against a tree, trembling and feverish. The lady’s head, dirty and blood-splashed, grinned at him from the road where it had fallen” (Steinbeck 279).
Part Three: Author Biography John Ernst Steinbeck was an American author who lived from 1902 to 1968 (Infotrac 1). He was born in Salinas, California and died of heart disease in New York, New York (Infotrac 1). Stanford University was where Steinbeck worked toward his degree, from 1919 to 1925 (Infotrac 1). John Steinbeck had a few more marriages than most, getting married three times throughout the course of his life (Infotrac 1). During his life Steinbeck had many different jobs, from a fruit-picker, an apprentice painter, laboratory assistant, reporter, and writer to name a few (Infotrac 1).
While World War II was taking place Steinbeck served as a special writer for the U. S. Army Air Forces (Infotrac 1). He wrote a large number of plays, novels, short stories, and screen plays, many of which were later heralded as classics throughout the country (Infotrac 2-6). As a young child, a version of the Caxton Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory captivated Steinbeck (Steinbeck xi-xii). He loved the old spellings of words, and to see words written in the story that were no longer used in his time (Steinbeck xi-xii).
This story was his place of escape from the outside world as well as a place of solace (Steinbeck xi-xii). Steinbeck found many resemblances between his own life and the life of the characters in the story, which was one of the many reasons he felt drawn to the book all his life (Steinbeck xii-xiii). It was a part of him, and his love for it spawned him to write his own version of the great story: “For a long time I have wanted to bring to present-day usage the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. These stories are alive even in those of us who have not read them.
And, in our day, we are perhaps impatient with old words and the stately rhythms of Malory. My own first and continuing enchantment with these things is not generally shared. I wanted to set them down in plain present-day speech for my own young sons, and for other sons not so young—to set the stories down in meaning as they were written, leaving out nothing and adding nothing—perhaps to compete with the moving pictures, the comic-strip travesties which are the only available source for those children and others of today who are impatient with the difficulties of Malory’s spelling and use of archaic words.
If I can do this and keep the wonder the magic, I shall be pleased and gratified” (Steinbeck xiii). Part Four: Critique Throughout The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, there are paragraphs taken from the writings of Malory. Like Steinbeck, I found the style of writing quite captivating. There were words that I had never heard of before, along with many strange spellings of words commonly used today. For example, “Now leve we thes knyghtes presoners, and speke we of sir Lancelot de Lake that lyeth undir the appil-tre slepynge” (Steinbeck 226).
I find that as humans, we have an undeniable attraction to the things of times before us. This old form of the English language, when compared to the standards of today, has a unique refreshing and charming flow to it that we don’t typically associate with the language of today. I was not able to find any professional critique on this particular story, at least in the form of a book. Many of the critiques of his works I’ve seen are of his more famous stories like Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men.
On the back cover of The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, John Gardner of The New York Times Book Review acclaims, “[Steinbeck] embellishes Malory’s spare legend with a richness of detail that transforms the vision, makes it no one but Steinbeck’s. ” Although I have not read Malory’s writings, I can understand why Gardner notes the great detail Steinbeck incorporated into the story. Steinbeck’s words work together to help the reader form a vivid picture of the story: “The morning was kind to battle.
The first blackbirds of spring responded to the sun and warmed their song in the bushes that edged the moat, and the meadow grass was golden green…Young Ewain was early awake, edging his sword, grinding the head of his black spear to an immaculate point, and last, he anointed his armor with clarified fat and rubbed it gently into every moving piece with his fingertips” (Steinbeck 198). Although the customs of knighthood are beaten into the reader throughout the entire book, I didn’t tire of it all that much. With every new section of the story came a new adventure.
I very much enjoyed how the book was written such that one understands the inner thoughts of many different characters. Learning how the evil Morgan le Fay thought while scheming against King Arthur, or seeing into the noble yet troubled mind of Sir Lancelot proved a great way to bring the reader into the story. This story helps the reader get a glimpse into what life was like back in the times of knights, perhaps minus the dragons and magic. By the end of the book, I had learned a great deal about chivalry and the importance of it to knights.
Also, I learned many of the customs that knights and common people partook in during the time, from feasting to tournaments, or striving hard to maintain one’s honor in the world. Steinbeck’s choice to rewrite Malory’s and others’ works into a more reader-friendly version was a smart and magnificent decision indeed. This book read just like any other book one might find on the list of most popular novels today. Also, the characters in this story experience near the same type of feelings of trouble, heartache, success, honor, and despise that every person experiences in the world of today.
Overall, I would recommend the book to anyone interested in reading an intricate story, or just wanting to cast their imagination into the magical and adventure-filled times of King Arthur and his knights. Part Five: Bibliography John Ernst Steinbeck. 2004. Contemporary Authors Online, Gale. Infotrac. March 6, 2009.
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