It is with great enjoyment that I recently picked up John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. This unfinished novel was a lifetime love and goal of Steinbeck, but he died in 1968, leaving it unfinished.
In theme, it is almost a translation of the tales as written by Sir Thomas Malory. But not quite—Steinbeck does add his own flair, cutting and filling in, straightening and envisioning, simplifying and deepening. And all in American English.
The most amazing thing about the book, though, is the appendix, which contains letters from John Steinbeck to his literary agent, Elizabeth R. Otis and his desired editor, Chase Horton. Here is a treasure trove of not just Arthurian information, but also of Steinbeck’s feelings as he endeavored to write an Arthurian novel.
As I was reading these appendixes, I realized this was John Steinbeck’s blog! Not that he ever intended these letters to become public, per se, but rather I find in them the spirit of a blogger who shares his struggles, hopes, and dreams. All of his agony in researching and birthing this novel. All of his love of the tales of King Arthur. All of his psychological analysis of himself, Sir Thomas Malory, and novelists in general.
Now, mind you, this world of writing was for him made up of pens and paper, carbon-copies, postal letters, and typewriters. No computers. No MS-Word. No emails. And for that I am very grateful for the march of technology!
But his heart is there, beating fresh, and you ache for the man as you find out his literary agent was unhappy with the way he was writing the novel. It wasn’t what she expected. Steinbeck was trying to write a timeless retelling of the Arthurian legends for his generation, and this was different from his other writings.
Here is a sample from his letters:
A novel may be said to be the man who writes it. Now it is nearly always true that a novelist, perhaps unconsciously, identifies himself with one chief or central character in his novel. Into this character he puts not only what he thinks he is but what he hopes to be …
Now it seems to me that Malory’s self-character would be Lancelot. All of the perfections he knew went into this character, all of the things of which he thought himself capable. But, being an honest man he found faults in himself, faults of vanity, faults of violence, faults even of disloyalty, and these would naturally find their way into his dream character.
Maloray lived in as rough and ruthless and corrupt age as the world has ever produced … [and] he in no way minimized these things, the cruelty, the lust, and murder … but he does not let them put out the sun. Side by side with them are generosity and courage and greatness and the huge sadness of tragedy rather than the little meanness of frustration. And this is probably why he is a great writer …
For no matter how brilliantly one part of life is painted, if the sun goes out, that man has not seen the whole world. Day and night both exist. To ignore the one or the other is to split time in two and to choose one like the short stick in a match game. I like [so and so writer] and admire his work but as he is half a man, so is he half a writer. Malory was whole …
An artist should be open on all sides to every kind of light and darkness. But our age almost purposely closes all windows, draws all shades and then later screams to a psychiatrist for light.
Here is his thought on the Arthurian legends, and folklore in general:
I can tell you one thing I have finally faced though—the Arthurian cycle and practically all lasting and deep-seated folklore is a mixture of profundity and childish nonsense. If you keep the profundity and throw out the nonsense, some essence is lost. These are dream stories, fixed and universal dreams, and they have the inconsistency of dreams.
Very well, says I—if they are dreams, I will put in some of my own, and I did.
And all this encourages me, for I have, like Steinbeck, attempted to show both the light and the dark, to include the profound, to enjoy the nonsense, and to put in my own dreams and visions of Merlin and King Arthur.
Although Steinbeck “was not known for devout Christian faith” I do recommend The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.
Especially the appendix!