Book Review – The Death of King Arthur by Peter Ackroyd

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The Death of King Arthur is a modern re-telling of Sir Thomas Malory’s original Le Morte D’Arthur. It spans the life of King Arthur and includes the sword in the stone, stores of Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere’s love, the quest for the Holy Grail, and the classic romance of Tristram and Isolde among others.

I picked up The Death of King Arthur largely because it’s the focus of the current storyline in Once Upon a Time, but also because I’d never actually delved into the legend properly, and as I’m English I thought I should rectify that. I was surprised to learn that Camelot is said to have been in Winchester, which I live very close to, and there were a few other things that I was unaware of, like the fact that the sword in the stone isn’t actually Excalibur.

But I have to say that I found the book a struggle to get through. While it’s a modern re-telling, the style of the prose is historical and I found it to be monotonous. The stories themselves are interesting for the most part but they feel like a collection of stories chopped down and stitched together rather than one continuous narrative with arcs and subplots. There’s not much to be said for character depth, and the motivations of the characters leave a lot to be desired. In his introduction Ackroyd says that he trimmed a lot down because Malory tended to be repetitive, which I’m glad he did because if he hadn’t then I don’t think I would have made it through the whole thing.

There are some amusing parts, and it did make me laugh at how often Merlin disguised himself for no reason at all, but ultimately I found the story lacking in dramatic grandeur. It really felt by-the-numbers ‘A man woke up and he went to a tree and then this happened and then he was tired so he ate and slept but then something else came along and blah blah blah,’ and perhaps you think I am being too harsh since there’s obviously some merit to the legend as it has lasted to the present day, but when you compare it to other ancient texts, like the works of Homer, (and really, in the grand scheme of things The Death of King Arthur isn’t really that ancient) it’s lacking in a number of dramatic aspects.

On the one hand I’m glad to have read it for the sake of reading it, and there are parts that I genuinely enjoyed and found interesting. It is a part of my cultural heritage and I always find it interesting to go back and read the original legend of something after it has been adapted etc over the years, but purely as something to read I found it mostly dull and if it had been any longer I wouldn’t have continued reading it.

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