I picked this one up a while ago simply because it had Steinbeck’s name on the cover. Turns out he was a devotee of the Arthurian legends and worked diligently for the last several years of his life to “translate” Malory’s fifteenth century telling into modern language with modern themes.
Funny thing happened while I was reading it. Steinbeck says in the introduction that he has for a long time wanted to bring to present day usage the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table…leaving out nothing and adding nothing.” But as I got deeper into it I became convinced that Steinbeck was playing a trick on everyone. He had started by simply translating the stories from Old English to Modern English, but midway into the book he had begun to insert his own stories, writing them with the same characters and themes as Malory, but creating new plots and new scenarios for them to engage in. Telling his own truths, as it were, with the props of another author. For example:
“Maybe it’s too simple, madame. But you know how children, when they are forbidden something they want, sometimes scream and storm and sometimes even hurt themselves in rage. Then they grow quiet and vengeful. But they are not strong enough to revenge themselves on the one they consider their oppressor. Such a one sometimes stamps on an ant, saying, ‘That’s for you, Nursie,’ or kicks a dog and calls him brother, or pulls the wings from a fly and destroys his father. And then, because his world has disappointed him, he builds his own world where he is king, where he rules not only men and women and animals but clouds and stars and sky. He is invisible, he flies. No authority can keep him in or out. In his dream he builds not only a world but remakes himself as he would wish to be. I guess that’s all. Usually he makes peace with the world and works out compromises so that the two will not hurt each other badly. There it is, you see.”
Now, that’s Lancelot talking to Morgan le Fay and some other witches about why some people decide to pursue the necromanic arts, but at the same time, that is pure Steinbeck. I found it hard to believe that these ideas came originally from the pen of Malory.
“Granite so hard that it will smash a hammer can be worn away by little grains of moving sand. And a heart that will not break under the great blows of fate can be eroded by the nibbling of numbers, the creeping of days, the numbing treachery of littleness, of important littleness. I could fight men but I was defeated by marching numbers on a page. Think of fourteen xiii’s—a little dragon with a stinging tail—or one hundred and eight cviii’s—a tiny battering ram. If only I had never been seneschal! To you a feast is festive—to me it is a book of biting ants. So many sheep, so much bread, so many skins of wine, and has the salt been forgotten? Where is the unicorn’s horn to test the king’s wine? Two swans are missing. Who stole them? To you war is fighting. To me it is so many ashen poles for spears, so many strips of steel—counting of tents, of knives, or leather straps—counting—counting of pieces of bread. They say the pagan has invented a number which is nothing—nought—written like an O, a hole, an oblivion. I could clutch that nothing to my breast. Look sir, did you ever know a man of numbers who did not become small and mean and frightened—all greatness eaten away by little numbers as marching ants nibble a dragon and leave picked bones? Men can be great and fallible—but numbers never fail. I suppose it is their terribly puny rightness, their infallible smug, nasty rightness that destroys—mocking, nibbling, gnawing with tiny teeth until there’s no man left in a man but only a pie of minced terrors, chopped very fine and spiced with nausea. The mortal wound of a numbers man is a bellyache without honor.”
And that’s Sir Kay complaining to Lancelot about the hassles of being seneschal, but I was sure it was really Steinbeck, not Malory, who not only put the words into Sir Kay’s mouth, but engineered the situation in which he had cause to utter them. But then I read in the book’s appendix—an amazing record of correspondence Steinbeck kept with his editor and publisher throughout his preparatory research and writing of the manuscript—that these are in fact stories from Malory. Steinbeck struggled hard to make them interesting and enjoyable for the modern reader, but at their core they are Malory’s stories. I think it is a testament to the work and skill Steinbeck poured into this work that he had me convinced that the stories were his, that they were dealing with themes and issues Steinbeck must have been concerned with in the 1950s, and couldn’t possibly have been related to any issue someone else thought relevant to the 1500s.
And the letters themselves—they are wonderful, giving us a glimpse as they do into the writer’s mind, a glimpse traditionally hidden behind the fiction, but here laid bare for all the world to see. One particularly is worth quoting in full.
I have been thinking about E.O. You know in the many years of our association there has been hardly a moment without a personal crisis. There must be many times when she wishes to God we all were in hell with our backs broke. If we would just write our little pieces and send them in and take our money or our rejections as the case might be and keep our personal lives out of it. She must get very tired of us. And also this must be a weary pattern. We pile our woes on her and they must always be the same woes. If she should suddenly revolt, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Instead of gloriously clean copy she gets excuses, and mimes and distress and former and future and bills. Writers are a sorry lot. The best you can say of them is that they are better than actors and that’s not much. I wonder how long it is since one of her clients asked her how she felt—if ever. It’s a thankless business. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a writer. The smallest activity of a writer it seems is writing. If his agonies, his concupiscence, his errors in judgment were publishable the world would be navel deep in books. One of the happier aspects of television is that is draws off some of these activities. Patience on a manuscript.
Now back to Malory or rather my interpretation of his interpretation to be followed, I hope, by my interpretation of my interpretation. As I go along, I am constantly jiggled by the arrant nonsense of a great deal of the material. A great deal of it makes no sense at all. Two thirds of it is the vain dreaming of children talking in the dark. And then when you are about to throw it out in disgust, you remember the Congressional Record or the Sacco and Vanzetti case or “preventive war” or our national political platforms, or racial problems that can’t be settled reasonably or domestic relations, or beatniks, and it is borne in on you that the world operates on nonsense—that it is a large part of the pattern and that knight errantry is no more crazy than our present-day group thinking, and activity. This is the way humans are. If you inspected them and their activities in the glass of reason, you would drown the whole lot. Then when I am properly satiric about the matter I think of my own life and how I have handled it and it isn’t any different. I’m caught with the silly breed. I am brother to the nonsense and there’s no escaping it. But even the nonsense is like the gas and drug revelations of the Pythoness at Delphi which only make sense after the fact.
I am working now on Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt, having lost a little time over the issues of the boys. It’s so full of loose ends, of details without purpose, of promised unkept. The white shield for instance—it is never mentioned again. I think I am breathing some life into it but maybe not enough. As I go along I do grow less afraid of it. But there must be some reverence for the material because if you reject these stories you reject humans.
There are two kinds of humans on the creative level. The great mass of the more creative do not think. They are deeply convinced that the good world is past. Status quo people, feeling they cannot go back to the perfect time, at least fight not to go too far from it. And then there is creative man who believes in perfectibility, in progression—he is rare, he is not very effective but he surely is different from the others. Laughter and tears—both muscular convulsions not unlike each other, both make the eyes water and the nose run and both afford relief after they are over. Marijuana stimulates induced laughter, and the secondary effect of alcohol false tears, and both a hangover. And these two physical expressions are expendable, developable. When a knight is so upset by emotion that he falls to the ground in a swound, I think it is literal truth. He did, it was expected, accepted. And he did it. So many things I do and feel are reflections of what is expected and accepted. I wonder how much of it is anything else.
Isn’t it strange how parallels occur. About a month ago, while doodling in preparation for work, I wrote a short little piece and put it in my file where it still remains. I quote from it.
“When I read of an expanding universe, of novas and red dwarfs, of violent activities, explosions, disappearances of suns and the birth of others, and then realize that the news of these events, carried by light waves, are records of things that happened millions of years ago, I am inclined to wonder what is happening there now. How can we know that a process and an arrangement so long past has not changed radically or revised itself? It is conceivable that what the great telescopes record presently does not exist at all, that those monstrous issues or the stars may have ceased to be before our world was formed, that our Milky Way is a memory carried in the arms of light.”
Where do you begin commenting on that? Isn’t that what all writers wrestle with? The nonsense from which the fiction is constructed, and the sense only coming—if at all—after it has all been written. Two other items worth quoting:
Arthur is not a character. You are right. And here it might be well to consider that Jesus isn’t either, nor is Buddha. Perhaps the large symbol figures can’t be characters, for if they were, we wouldn’t identify with them by substituting our own. Such a thing is worth thinking about surely.
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Alas! I can only agree with you—Arthur is a dope. It gets so that you want to yell—Not that again! Look out—he’s got a gun! the way we used to in the old movies when our beloved hero was blundering stupidly into the villain’s lair. Just the same as Arthur. But it goes further and even gets into the smart ones. Consider Morgan—without checking whether her plan to murder Arthur had succeeded, she goes blithely ahead as though it had. But this is literature. Think if you will of Jehovah in the Old Testament. There’s a God who couldn’t get a job as apprentice in General Motors. He makes a mistake and then gets mad and breaks his toys. Think of Job. It almost seems that dopiness is required in literature. Only the bad guys can be smart. Could it be that there is a built-in hatred and fear of intelligence in the species so that the heroes must be stupid? Cleverness equates with evil almost invariably. Is a puzzlement, but there it is.