Helen Cooper edited and abridged the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory, which is arguably the definitive English version of the stories of King Arthur. Completed in 1467-70, it charts the tragic disintegration of the fellowship of the Round Table, destroyed from within by warring factions. It also recounts the life of King Arthur, the knightly exploits of Sir Lancelot du Lake, Sir Tristram, Sir Gawain, and the quest for the Holy Grail. In the original blog post below, Helen Cooper states the case for King Arthur being the most successful commercial brand in English Literature (even more so than Shakespeare) and explains what Malory did that was so remarkable.
King Arthur has some claim to be the most successful commercial brand in the history of English literature, ahead even of Shakespeare. He has certainly been famous for much longer: his reputation has been growing for some fifteen centuries, against Shakespeare’s mere four. The historical Arthur, if he ever existed, was most likely to have been the leader of a war-band trying to hold at bay the invading Saxons in the wake of the withdrawal of the Roman armies, perhaps early in the sixth century. His fame was preserved in oral traditions for the next few hundred years, and only occasionally reached the written record; but after a Norman-Welsh cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth, invented a full biography for him in the 1130s, stories about him have spawned and expanded, until by now we have a deluge of retellings, historical or unashamed fantasy, for adults and children; films, television series, and wargames; parodies at all levels, not least from the Monty Python team; a tourist industry, and consumer items from toy swords to T-shirts. There is even a fast-food shop in Tintagel named Excaliburgers.
Geoffrey wrote in Latin, and the story he invented remains just about plausible in historical terms: his Arthur is a great conqueror who unites Britain under his rule, overruns much of Europe and reaches the very gates of Rome. The first overtly fictional accounts of his court, not least the knights of the Round Table, were written in French. Magic begins to creep into these new stories, and so does love: there is no Lancelot in the historical tradition. For a long time, Arthurian material in English kept largely to the quasi-historical account as outlined by Geoffrey, and anyone who wanted a detailed acquaintance with the romance elaborations of the story still had to read them in French. It was not until the late fifteenth century that a Warwickshire knight, Sir Thomas Malory, distilled the full story of the Round Table into a single English version. The result, the Morte Darthur, is one of the great works of English literature, and it underlies, directly or indirectly, almost every version of the legend produced in the anglophone world since then. Greg Doran’s 2010 production of the Morte with the Royal Shakespeare Company is the latest of these, and its script, by Mike Poulton, is impressively (and exceptionally) faithful to its original.
The qualities that make Malory so remarkable are the same ones that have made most of his literary descendants want to change him. For him, actions speak not only more loudly than words but often instead of them. Causes are often missing and motives have to be deduced, in a way that sets the imagination buzzing. Morality is carried by a few adjectives: noble, worshipful, faithful, against recreant or cowardly. The love of Lancelot and Guinevere is good because it is faithful: ‘she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end’, as Malory puts it in one of his rare authorial interventions, cutting through all the questions about
J’s current “must-read” book at bedtime is The Baby who wouldn’t got to Bed by Helen Cooper. It makes J giggle and snuggle closer to me every time – and that alone makes it a winner for me too!
said the Mother.
said the Baby
playing in his car.
“It’s still light.”
“But it’s summer,”
said the Mother.
When Mother again attempts to put Baby to bed he escapes by driving off into a magical land populated by his toys. He tries to play with each of them but they all complain they are tired and that night time is for sleeping, not for playing. Eventually even the baby’s toy car falls asleep and finally the Mother catches up with the Baby. In the end he, too, is glad to be tucked into bed.
This simple story is a sure-fire winner on many levels. The language is delightful and richer than many a book aimed at the youngest of children. Never complicated, but always witty and perceptive, the story stands up to even 100 re-readings. I particularly like these lines from when the Baby meets his toy tiger – they work perfectly with the biggest yawns you can muster (not that I need to work very hard to create yawns at the end of the day when I’m putting my kids to bed!):
“Night time is for snoring,
yawned the tiger.
Come back in the morning,
I’ll play with you then.”
Both reader and listener will enjoy the gentle humour. J loves the impish baby roaring of in his car whilst I always smile at the recognisable depiction of the Mother, who ends up both carrying the Baby and pushing his car home, or who later on pretends to call the Baby’s bluff when he finally does ask to go to bed.
And then there’s the fact that every page offer you the chance to make silly car noises – J has now perfected her “Brrrrrrrum” noise and is very proud of herself! (For a great post on reading books with silly noises do have a look at this from Sarah at In Need of Chocolate.)
Without giving away any the plot, there is a section in this story that provide the perfect thrill – just the right amount of suspense before the perfect reassurance that all is right with the world.
In addition to wonderful language, great plot, good humour, there are also magical illustrations. Subdued colours give a cosy, sleepy feeling, and visual jokes on every page provide plenty to enjoy and talk about. It’s often said, but this really is a perfect bedtime read for both kids and their grown ups.
To go with this book I wanted to do an activity that J could really do herself and so we chose to do wheel prints. We selected a variety of toy cars…
…spread printing ink on glass sheets,
3 Comments on Cars and stars, last added: 3/15/2010
National Book Award and Other Stuff...
- The National Book Awards were recently given and Sherman Alexie won in the Young People's Literature category for his first foray into YA, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. (Little, Brown). This is cool. I like Sherman Alexie and have read a number of his books for adults. I was keeping my fingers crossed for Kathleen Duey, though, and I'm bummed she didn't win for A Resurrection of Magic: Skin Hunger. But it's cool that her book gets a silver finalist sticker and I'm showing her cover in this post and not Alexie's. (I hope you found the right shoes for the ceremony, Kathleen. Zappos seldom does me wrong.)
- The New York Times Book Review recently published a special section on children's books (which features a review of Alexie's aforementioned award-winner). You can find it here. Be sure to click on The Best Illustrated Books of 2007 for a wonderful slideshow.
- I can't stop watching Gossip Girl. Oh I love that Chuck Bass. Anyone else think he's Logan Huntsberger with a healthy dose of 1980s James Spader?
- I've been light on the blogging lately--busy, busy pre-holiday stuff. And I'm off work all next week, eating pumpkin pie and whatnot, so my blog will be pretty quiet. After the holiday, I'll be back with more updates to listings in the 2008 CWIM. Stay tuned!