The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

John Steinbeck

Book cover

A very interesting piece to read, though not terribly good. “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights” was the last book that Steinbeck ever worked on, and it remained unfinished at the time of his death (though he seems to have stopped working on it several years before). This volume contains a number of tales that Steinbeck did write, in what I think are varying degrees of completion, as well as an appendix containing letters written by Steinbeck to his editors while he was working on the project.

The endeavor was to be a translation of Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur”, which had captured Steinbeck’s imagination. Unfortunately, I must say that most of the stories in this book are pretty boring, and seem not at all up to Steinbeck’s usual standards of richness. In fact I nearly put this book down after the first couple, which basically strike me as bland recountings of events. But I stuck with it because of my love for Steinbeck, and ultimately I was glad I did. The two tales at the end, “Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt” and the tale of Lancelot, are by far the best in the book. The Lancelot story especially was wonderful to read, with a great deal of depth in the character of Lancelot and very good writing. Unless you are really interested in understanding Steinbeck as a writer, I’d recommend just reading these last two tales and leaving the rest alone.

Having read all of them, though, it was also much more interesting to read the appendix containing correspondence between Steinbeck and his editors. This in itself is like reading a Greek tragedy. Having finished the tales, you know that they are not particularly good on the whole. But the entire first part of the correspondence consists of Steinbeck writing excitedly to his editors about the project, describing how deeply he is getting into it and how he thinks it could be the greatest work of his career (this was after he had already written his most famous books). And then, inevitably, he sends a manuscript to his editors and they basically tell him that it sucks. (It’s even more dramatic because you don’t get to see their letters, only Steinbeck’s, so you have to interpolate what they wrote to him.) It is interesting, if sad, to see how he reacts to this, and also great insight into his writing process to read all of the correspondence.

This did get me into the King Arthur stories again, though. My dad and I read “The Once and Future King” together when I was younger, and I liked it for a while, but as I recall we petered out sometime during the story about the Questing Beast. Reading this made me somewhat interested to try reading “Le Morte d’Arthur” itself, Tolkien’s translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, and maybe “The Mists of Avalon”.

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars