Day 1210: Le Morte D’Arthur

Cover for Le Morte D'ArthurIt’s time for my review for the latest Classics Club Spin, and the spin assigned me Le Morte D’Arthur to read by the end of April.

If I’d been aware of how long this book is, I might have thought twice about putting it on my Classics Club list. It’s not the length that made it so difficult to read, though, but the repetitiveness of one knight after another getting into a joust and smiting right and left.

I tried hard to finish this book, but after a month of reading it (interrupted by a few other books), I decided to skip to the last two books (out of twenty-one), which deal with Lancelot’s break with Arthur and the end of Arthur’s kingdom. All told, I read about 400 pages.

I actually began eager to read the original of the Arthurian legends or at least as original as we have. The introduction to Cassell’s unabridged edition says that we don’t know the source of the book, although Malory makes many references to “the French book.” The structure of the book suggests that it may be a compilation of every Arthurian story known to Malory, as it is full of chapters about fight after fight. In fact, after a while I pictured Britain, particularly Cornwall and Wales, as seething with wandering knights, who, when they encounter one another, go immediately into battle. I was also struck by how often they don’t recognize each other even when in the same room and presumably out of armor.

There are some sustained story lines, such as the tale of Tristram and La Beale Isoud, and they are interesting, but they’re broken up and sprinkled in among the fights, and of course they too involve fights.

Women are fairly negligibly treated, not surprising for the time despite the patina of chivalry, which is supposed to suggest otherwise. We don’t see much of them or learn what they are like. In fact, Arthur says at the end of the book that he isn’t as upset about losing Guenever as the loss of his knights “. . . for queens I might have enow, but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company.” Which might give us a clue why Guenever preferred Lancelot. In any event, characterization isn’t a strong suit of medieval literature.

I would say that this book is best for dipping into rather than trying to read all at once. It is an important work of literature, and sometimes the language is quite charming. However, its form is very foreign to us now and shows us just how far literature has come. (There is a glossary in the back of the version I read, which unfortunately I didn’t discover until the end.)

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Day 745: The Buried Giant

Cover for The Buried GiantI thought from what I read about The Buried Giant that it was a historical novel set in the days after the Romans left Britain. But it is really a fable or a fantasy novel or both.

Axl and his wife Beatrice are an old British couple who decide to go on a journey. They have recently become aware that their memories of the past are poor, as are everyone’s, but they vaguely remember they have a son. Years ago, their son moved to another village, and Beatrice has been wanting to visit him. Finally, they decide to go.

Beatrice has difficulty remembering the way to their first stop, a Saxon village she has visited before, but they find it by evening. The village is disturbed and possibly dangerous for the visiting Britons. A boy was taken by an ogre, but a strange warrior has brought him back. The villagers have seen a bite on the boy and want to kill him. But the warrior saves the boy, named Edwin. Once Axl and Beatrice leave the village the next day, they find themselves traveling with Edwin and the warrior Wistan.

This novel features ogres, pixies, treacherous monks, a British lord on the lookout for the Saxon warrior, an Arthurian knight, and finally a dragon whose breath has made everyone forget the past. It is about reconciliation, memory, aging, and death. As a fable, it doesn’t really characterize its protagonists; they are more like symbols. As such I wasn’t really compelled by the story.

In addition, a history class I have been taking recently indicates that it is unlikely any Britons would have been mixing freely with Saxons at this time. By the time the Anglos and Saxons began settling England in earnest, all the Britons had been pushed off to far western England and Cornwall. Although this novel does not really mention which part of England they are in, I understand that Britons did not tend to mix with the Angles and Saxons.

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