“This is destined to be the largest and I hope the most important work I have ever undertaken.” ~John Steinbeck, from a letter to Elizabeth Otis, August 7, 1957, appended to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976)
While working on his great project to translate Malory’s Morte d’Arthur for modern readers, John Steinbeck wrote long letters to his literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, and his editor, Chase Horton. These letters are collected and reprinted in an Appendix to Steinbeck’s Arthurian stories, unfinished at the time of his death in 1968, but published in 1976 by his wife Elaine. His letters open a window onto the fascinating process of literary creation, from the intial excitement and exuberant planning, through research and gestation of his ideas about the deep meaning of the characters and their struggles, and on to his own struggles to fashion an appropriate storytelling language and retell the tales in his own way. We read of the starts, stops, and reversals–some of them quite heartbreaking. This is the novelist near the end of his life going on his own “Grail Quest,” if you will, and his attempt is brave and dedicated, heroic in a way different from the literary triumphs of his youth.
It is wonderful to catch the excitement he felt as he began. On November 11, 1956, he wrote from New York to Elizabeth Otis (ERO in the letters), “I am going to start the Morte immediately. Let it be private between us until I get it done. It has all the old magic.” He was anxious to do a lot of reading to prepare, but he also wanted time to ruminate, to think himself into the characters. In one exchange with Otis about the nature of Arthur, his side of the conversation is tantalizing indeed:
“Arthur is not a character. You are right. … 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. … [Jan. 2, 1957] … Somewhere there’s a piece missing in the jigsaw and it is a piece which ties the whole thing together. So many scholars have spent so much time trying to establish whether Arthur ever existed at all that they have lost track of the single truth that he exists over and over. … [Jan. 3, 1957]”
Furthermore, Steinbeck wanted to understand Sir Thomas Malory as deeply as he could, what his life had been like, especially his three years in prison when he had the enforced leisure to bring together the reading and experience of a lifetime and write Le Morte d’Arthur. As he worked through his impressions of Malory and their implications for the tales, he brought Chase Horton into the conversation, along with Otis. Steinbeck wrote, “A novel may be said to be the man who writes it” [April 26, 1957]. He said that the novelist brings himself (or herself!) into the novel through a “self-character”–a spokesman who expresses for the author “not only what he thinks he is but what he hopes to be.” A writer may do this unconsciously, he said, but Steinbeck himself seemed well aware of it: “You will find one in every one of my books and in the novels of everyone I can remember.”
Steinbeck made an excellent case that Lancelot was Malory’s “self-character” and the story of the Grail Quest was where Malory faced both the dreams and limitations of his own life, through Lancelot. Steinbeck argued that in midlife a man knows that he will not win the Quest himself, but his son can–hence, Galahad. As he wrestled with the moment when he, Steinbeck, could bring his selfhood to this archetypal story, he gained a new understanding of what Malory had achieved–not simply an English retelling of the 12th-century French Arthurian contes, but a coherent novel of his own making and his own time in history:
“the Morte is the story of Sir Thomas Malory and his times and the story of his dreams of goodness and his wish that the story may come out well and only molded by the essential honesty which will not allow him to lie.” [April 26, 1957]
In March 1958 he began writing. One of his first decisions was to change the title–to either “The Acts of King Arthur” or “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.” He wanted to take “a living approach rather than a deathly approach to the whole subject” [March 4, 1958]. He felt the “Morte” was a small part of the whole, and his title should reflect its real subject more faithfully than the one Caxton chose for his first printing of Malory. In fact, Steinbeck never wrote his chapter on the Death of King Arthur.
Almost from the beginning, Steinbeck expressed some uncertainty about his approach and the sort of language he should adopt for his retelling. He worried about his ability to enter the mindset of the times and interpret the ghosts of the past. He refers to “a curious state of suspension … kind of a floaty feeling like drifting in a canoe on a misty lake” [March 14, 1958].
He planned to draw upon both the Caxton first edition and the Winchester manuscript and do a fair translation into modern English. (While he used both, in the end he relied more heavily on the Winchester manuscript.) His thinking on this vital matter reached a decisive point by July of 1958. He was feeling hampered by sticking too closely to Malory’s language and structure. He realized he had to write for the modern ear, just as Malory wrote for the “English ear” of the 15th Century. Everything changed once Steinbeck decided that he was not aiming for a “period-piece” but a new way to convey the content of the stories for his own time:
“An amazing thing happens once you drop the restrictions of the fifteenth-century language. Immediately the stories open up and come out of their entombment. … I am so familiar with the work now that I am no longer frightened of it. … where once I would have been reluctant to add anything, I no longer am.” [July 9, 1958]
He resolved to allow himself to fill in the gaps where he felt modern readers would not catch the meaning because of the societal norms and codes of behavior that were assumed as common knowledge in medieval times. He wrote to Otis and Horton a few days later with a fine example of this method, which he called his “experiment”:
“Now in the first mention of her [Igraine], Malory says she was a fair lady and passing wise. When she hears that her husband is dead and in some way she cannot understand she was tricked–Malory says, ‘Thenne she marvelled who that knight that lay were her in the likeness of her lord. So she mourned pryvely and held her pees.’
“My God! There’s all the character you need if you only point it with a repetition. I have translated as follows: ‘When news came to Igraine that the duke her husband was slain the night before, she was troubled and she wondered who it was that lay with her in the image of her husband. But she was a wise woman and she mourned privately and did not speak of it.'” [July 11, 1958, Steinbeck’s emphasis]
See my Steinbeck’s Malory I for more comparison passages, showing how Steinbeck clarified or expanded upon Malory’s lean tales, especially by enhancing psychological insight through new narration or interpolated dialogue.
Steinbeck worked in his garage in his New York home, but by August of 1958 he had built his own “Joyous Garde”–a prefab workroom that he added to facilitate his daily writing routine. Nevertheless, by October he was feeling “like an engine that is missing fire in several cylinders… the engine doesn’t run.” The myths he had steeped himself in were keeping him from sleeping, as auditory and visual images paraded through his imagination.
In March of 1959, he and his wife Elaine set up housekeeping in the Somerset countryside. He continued his travels to places with Arthurian associations in Cornwall and elsewhere in England, and the whole time was idyllic and tremendously nourishing to his writing. He was very careful about setting and wanted to be able to describe the terrain and flora accurately. But most of all, he hoped to wake the “sleeping Arthur” and manifest the right language and solutions to his confusions. He wrote to Chase Horton, “The twentieth century seems very remote. … Moon shots indeed!” [March 24, 1959] He repeated that he was no longer afraid of Malory, now that he found himself on that author’s “home ground” and he felt he was the one to write these stories not just for “a little island set in a silver sea, but the world.” At last he settled on the language that he believed could contain this dream: “a close-reined, taut, economical English, unaccented and unlocalized. I put down no word that has not been judged for general understanding. … I think it is the best prose I have ever written.” To Elizabeth Otis, he confided his growing confidence in the writing: “the words that gather to my pen are honest, sturdy words, needing no adjectival crutches” [March 30, 1959].
He soon finished drafting and refining his “Merlin” and at last allowed Otis and Horton to see his manuscript. We can only imagine what they wrote back to him from Steinbeck’s response, but Otis’s comments and Horton’s apparent lack of them stung him deeply. Yet he remained gracious and magnanimous in his response of May 13, 1959. Although he admitted to being shocked, he professed to understand their reasons for being “confused” and “disappointed”–“you expected one kind of thing and didn’t get it.” It broke my heart when I read, “I hope I am too professional to be shocked into paralysis.” One does not have to read between the lines too much to infer that his agent and editor were expecting something along the lines of T. H. White’s Once and Future King, but in a recognizable Steinbeck idiom. Acknowledging that it did not sound like him, he tried to explain to them why he didn’t want it to.
His defense of what he wrote is fascinating because it shows his command of the broad Indo-European tradition of myth and legend. He saw Arthur as a legendary figure, out of time and therefore timeless–“I wanted an English that was out of time and place as the legend is. … I am trying to make it available, not desirable. I want the remote feeling of myth, not the intimate feeling of today’s man. … [not] a popular book, but a permanent book.” [May 13, 1959]
It shouldn’t surprise us that his agent and editor wanted something more commercial and less scholarly. Ironically, in today’s market, I think Steinbeck’s “Acts of King Arthur” could have more readily found a commercial niche as epic fantasy. Witness the fact that the recent paperback reissue by Penguin has a Foreword by Eragon writer, Christopher Paolini. But Steinbeck wasn’t at the place in his career where he was concerned about his commercial niche but rather his niche in literary history. He wanted to fashion a work that would join the centuries-long Arthurian literary genealogy. Coincidentally, Steinbeck mentioned that Alan Lerner was busy writing a musical about Arthur (which would be Camelot!) and he predicted that it would be “lovely and make a million billion dollars [!]–but that isn’t what I want.” He had a persistent sense that Malory was tapping into something more fundamental, and he wanted to keep digging for it, beneath the superficial charm that fueled some Arthurian adaptations.
Steinbeck continued writing more of the tales, his way, and his treatment grew freer and more richly expansive in Lancelot’s tale, the last one he finished. In his final letter about the project, from July 8, 1965, he reported that he still struggled on with Arthur but he was excited about something new he was trying, “strange and different, but not bad.” I wish we could see where he was headed but I am so grateful for what he have of his efforts.
We may disagree with Steinbeck’s assessment of competing works such as Camelot, The Once and Future King, or Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Each in its own way brings out some valid aspect of the Arthurian myth cycle. But I do admire Steinbeck’s fidelity to his own quest, something that we may allow such a great artist in the waning years of his literary adventures. I cannot help but be inspired by his faith: “I must gamble on this feeling about it. … Kings, Gods, and Heroes–maybe their day is over, but I can’t believe it” [May 14, 1959].
1. Steinbeck, John. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights: From the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory and Other Sources (Ed. by Chase Horton). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976. Includes an Appendix of Steinbeck’s letters on the project from November 1956 through July 1965.
- A Penguin paperback edition (2008) makes this book, complete with Steinbeck’s letters, readily available again. It includes a new introduction by fantasy novelist Christopher Paolini.
2. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript (Ed. by Helen Cooper). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. An abridged selection of Malory’s stories, with updated spellings.
3. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur (Intro. by Elizabeth Bryan). New York: Modern Library, 1994. Complete Caxton text in one volume, with modernized spellings. It also has Caxton’s Book and Chapter headings, which are tremendously useful for finding particular episodes.
4. Hardyment, Christina. Malory: The Knight Who Became King Arthur’s Chronicler. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. An excellent biography covering Sir Thomas Malory’s life, the circumstances of his writing the Morte d’Arthur, and the sources he drew upon.
- Visit Bibliographing for another Classics Circuit post on The Acts of King Arthur
Other stops on the Steinbeck Classics Circuit today:
- Reading Thru The Night East of Eden
- Meditations of a Teenage Philosopher East of Eden, Tortilla Flat, The Winter of Our Discontent