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Steinbeck’s Malory I: “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”

23 Aug


“Perhaps a passionate love for the English language opened to me from this one book.” ~John Steinbeck, Introduction to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976)

Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur meant this much to Steinbeck, and more. If ever there was a love story of knightly proportions, it was this adventure of his lifelong relationship to the 15th-century Arthurian classic. He first swore fealty to it when he was 9–or, “whan of IX wyntre age,” as he would later pen in his moving dedication to his sister Mary. He confesses (in his Introduction) to some difficulty when he first faced the task of reading: “words–written or printed–were devils, and books, because they gave me pain, were my enemies.” Then a magical thing happened. His aunt gave him a cut copy of William Caxton’s Morte d’Arthur (first published in 1485) in bold, black print and with the original spellings intact.  The mystery of words such as hyght and cleave, fyaunce and yclept, drew him into a secret world with a secret language, one he shared only with his “squire,” his 6-year-old sister (in the dedication he raises her to full knighthood). He was held by their enchantment–“oddly enough I knew the words from whispering them to myself,” he recalled. These tales convinced him of their solid human reality, and he discovered in their scenes

“all the vices that ever were–and courage and sadness and frustration, but particularly gallantry. I think my sense of right and wrong, my feeling of noblesse oblige, and any thought I may have against the oppressor and for the oppressed, came from this secret book.”

Malory’s panorama of life sustained Steinbeck through childhood and inspired careful research and devoted investigation of its sources in adulthood. Finally, in 1956, Steinbeck, the successful novelist, allowed himself the privilege of turning his whole attention upon his first love and undertaking the great task of fashioning his own version of Malory, somewhere between a translation and a retelling. From his letters, we know that he continued working on it until 1965. It was unfinished at his death in 1968, but his manuscript was published by his wife Elaine in 1976, along with an Appendix of his letters from that period (edited by Chase Horton) which chart his research and writing process in illuminating detail.


The stories included in this book are a tremendous treasure, and we are lucky to have them. I chose to read Steinbeck’s stories first before referring to the letters, in order to form my own impressions, but I did refer to Malory along the way for comparison, to see how he remolded the language and to look for Steinbeck’s alterations and expansions. (Malory, of course, was retelling the Arthurian cycle as he knew it from the “Frensshe” books of Chrétien de Troyes and others.) Although Steinbeck’s first love was Caxton’s printing of Malory’s text, his research and discussions with Arthurian scholars, such as Eugène Vinaver, led him to adopt the Winchester manuscript of Malory as his foundational text for “translation.” He felt it was closer to Malory’s own phrasing and had not gone through the filter of whatever editing or cutting Caxton had chosen to do.  The Winchester manuscript (abridged, with modernized spellings) is available to the general reader in an Oxford World Classics edition.


Since I hope to convey my appreciation of Steinbeck’s telling, I will share a few of these comparisons, and then take up the romance of his writing process by considering what the letters reveal in a second post (see Steinbeck’s Malory II: The Writing of “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”).

Steinbeck’s Malory tells seven tales: “Merlin,” which recounts Arthur’s birth, and ascension to kingship; “The Knight with Two Swords,” the story of Balin and his twin Balan; “The Wedding of King Arthur,” which also includes an early quest of Sir Gawain; “The Death of Merlin,” from his own folly, and through the craft of the sorceress Nyneve; “Morgan Le Fay”; “Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt”; and “The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake.” Steinbeck felt that Malory’s writing grew in sophistication as his work proceeded, and correspondingly, Steinbeck adds more of his own observations and expansions of incidents in the later stories, especially in the tale of Lancelot. However, even in such an early incident as the appearance of Merlin to Sir Ulfius, Steinbeck added to Malory’s report of the incident.

First, Malory [Ref. 2, p. 4]:

[King Uther Pendragon:] ‘I am sick for anger, and for love of fair Igraine, that I may not be whole.’

‘Well, my lord,’ said Sir Ulfius, ‘I shall seek Merlin, and he shall do you remedy, that your heart shall be pleased.’

So Ulfius departed. And by adventure he met Merlin in a beggar’s array, and there Merlin asked Ulfius whom he sought; and he said he had little ado to tell him.

‘Well,’ said Merlin, ‘I know whom thou seekest, for thou seekest Merlin; therfore seek no further, for I am he….’

Now, Steinbeck [Ref. 1, p. 4]:

[King Uther Pendragon:] “I am sick from anger and from love and there are no medicines for those.”

“My lord,” Sir Ulfius said, “I shall go in search of Merlin the Wizard. That wise and clever man can brew a remedy to make your heart glad.” And Sir Ulfius rode out to look for Merlin.

Now Merlin was a wise and subtle man with strange and secret powers of prophecy and those deceptions of the ordinary and the obvious which are called magic. Merlin knew the winding channels of the human mind, and also he was aware that a simple open man is most receptive when he is mystified, and Merlin delighted in mystery. Therefore, as if by chance, the searching knight Sir Ulfius came upon a ragged beggar in his path who asked him who he sought.

The knight was not accustomed to be questioned by such a one, and he did not deign to reply.

Then the ragged man laughed and said, “There’s no need to tell me. I know. You are looking for Merlin, Look no further. I am Merlin.”

“You–? You are a beggar,” said Sir Ulfius.

Merlin chuckled at his joke. “I am also Merlin,” he said.

Steinbeck chose carefully those phrases with which to modernize and clarify the incident, but his biggest change was his narrative aside, commenting on the psychology of Merlin and the knight. (Interestingly, I now see that Sherlock Holmes was a Merlin among detectives, who knew how to mystify his clients upon first meeting with his powers of observation, and thereby gain the most from the initial interview.) As I read Steinbeck’s Malory, whenever I came upon certain psychological insights such as this one, I guessed that they were more like Steinbeck, the novelist, than Malory, the brilliant, but terse storyteller.

Steinbeck sometimes put these psychological enhancements into the mouth of a character, or into a little dialogue not found in Malory. After Arthur’s fight with King Pellinore, Arthur bemoaned his defeat and the loss of his sword and wondered how he could still consider himself a knight. Merlin answered him,

“…there is more to a king than a crown, and far more to a knight than a sword. You were a knight when you grappled Pellinore unarmed.”

“And he defeated me.”

“You were a knight,” said Merlin. “Somewhere in the world there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory. But you want a sword. Very well, you shall have one….” [Steinbeck, p. 44]

And the story continued with the revelation of Excalibur and its magic scabbard.

When Merlin disclosed to Arthur that his, Merlin’s, death was near, Arthur wondered why Merlin could not use his arts to save himself from an end he could foresee. In Malory, Merlin simply said, “Nay, it cannot be.” But Steinbeck (p. 99) let Merlin explain, “Because I am wise. In the combat between wisdom and feeling, wisdom never wins.” Merlin then connected his own downfall to Arthur’s foretold future, one where he would let feeling lead him on to his fate. In these early stories, Steinbeck felt a special kinship to Merlin, a wise man betrayed by passions, as he looked back over his own life. Later he would find his heart and soul in the story of Lancelot, the exceedingly noble and flawed knight, the best of them all.

Steinbeck began to give himself greater scope in his treatment of “The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake.” At its opening, he chose to reflect longer than Malory did about the paradoxical problem of knights who seek peace but are trained only for war and therefore become restless. Tournaments among the Knights of the Round Table answered this need, but for Sir Lancelot, “a stringless bow,” they were not enough and he set off in quest of knightly adventure, with his nephew Lyonel as squire. In an amusing creation of his own, Steinbeck had Guinevere suggest this idea in conversation with Arthur, who in turn allowed Lancelot to come to the necessary conclusion apparently on his own.

When Lancelot slept beneath an apple tree, and was abducted by four queens–who, including Morgan Le Fay, were also four witches–Steinbeck expanded the story greatly, as each queen elaborately pled her suit to have Lancelot choose her. Likewise, in the adventure where Sir Lancelot and Sir Kay exchanged shields, just a few words between them alter the entire motivation and bring out Lancelot’s newfound compassion for the other knight. In another episode (involving a lady, her hawk, and a trap set by her husband) Steinbeck went beyond the plain facts and straightforward emotions as Malory laid them out, delved into Lancelot’s thoughts, and added his psychological commentary (p. 277):

“As he went along his way he thought in saddened wonder about the man he had killed. Why was his hatred so great against Lancelot, who had done him no harm? He was innocent of those passions of jealousy which cause a small man to destroy what others admire, nor had he so far in his life felt the self-loathing that makes a man revenge himself on a world he blames for his own inadequacies.”

When Sir Lancelot at last returned to the court at Winchester, he resumed his “gold-lettered seat” at the Round Table and had to listen to the litany of his knightly deeds (p. 287). Wearily, he dozed as the stories grew in proportion to his fame, “exalted beyond his recognition,” and he wished to be anywhere else at that moment. He had reached the point where a man “becomes the receptacle of the wishful longings of the world,” and yet he was still alive. He found it most difficult to be a living legend. Steinbeck’s tale ended as Lancelot’s longing for Guinevere first overcame his loyalties with a betrayal, thus making the final quote from Malory both poignant and ironic (p. 293):

“And so at that tyme sir Lancelot had

the grettyste name of ony knyght of the worlde,

and moste he was honoured of hyghe and lowe.”


Sadly, Steinbeck did not finish the story of Arthur nor did he write the Story of the Grail, the Sangreall. I would have dearly loved to see his treatment of this ultimate quest and his characterization of Sir Perceval. Perceval was the Arthurian character I chose for The Fictional 100, a character who has inspired the literature of several languages, as well as the musical language of opera.

Writing this book became a quest for him (see Steinbeck’s Malory II). It was one of the last, heroic acts of the noble Knyght, Jehan Stynebec de Montray. Here is his signature, in his own script, with which he concluded the book’s dedication.




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 his letters about this project from November 1956 to 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.

Related post:


  • Visit Bibliographing for another Classics Circuit post on The Acts of King Arthur

Other stops on the Steinbeck Classics Circuit today:


Steinbeck’s Malory II: The Writing of “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”

23 Aug


“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.

Related post:


  • Visit Bibliographing for another Classics Circuit post on The Acts of King Arthur

Other stops on the Steinbeck Classics Circuit today:


Oedipus the King: The Riddle of Himself

28 Jan


As part of the Ancient Greek Classics Tour, I offer my reading of Oedipus the King, also known by the Latin title Oedipus Rex, the greatest drama that has come down to us from Sophocles (c. 496-406 B.C.). I thank Rebecca Reid for organizing this tour for the The Classics Circuit and I recommend that you check out the many interesting stops on the tour, highlighting the Ancient Greek epics, tragedies, comedies, and histories.

Oedipus ranks 6th on The Fictional 100, and the following chapter is excerpted from my book. If you would like to learn more about other Ancient Greek characters, their continuing influence, and where they rank on the list, please visit the Fictional 100 website.


6 Oedipus

With such clues I could not fail to bring my birth to light.1

Oedipus is the most striking and memorable character dramatized by the ancient Greek tragedians. This is saying a lot, because there is so much competition: Medea [26], Electra [27], Agamemnon [43], Antigone [68], to name a few. The power of Oedipus lies in the depth of his own horror at his situation, combined with its apparent inevitability.

The story of Oedipus, as part of the cycle of myths concerning the kings of Thebes, was well-known to Homer, who mentioned it briefly in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Later, composing tragic plays about Oedipus was apparently a very common thing in ancient Greece, because at least twelve such plays by dramatists other than Sophocles are believed to have been lost.2 Among these are an Oedipus by Aeschylus (for which the sequel, Seven Against Thebes survives) and one by Euripides. But Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus managed to survive. Perhaps because of their near perfection, people made more copies of them, and these came to supersede all other versions of the story. In fact, when Aristotle wrote his theory of tragedy in the Poetics, he singled out Oedipus the King as the epitome of the form, and his theory shaped the way tragedies were written and analyzed for the next two thousand years.3

            But at its debut performance in 427 B.C. (the date is somewhat uncertain), Oedipus the King won only second prize! It lost to a play by Aeschylus’s nephew, Philocles, who is barely remembered now.4 It soon became clear, however, that Sophocles’ play was remarkable not only for the shocking story it tells, but for the way in which Oedipus demands that all secrets be revealed. His gradual discovery of his unwitting crimes requires the intricate plotting that Aristotle admired so much.

When the play begins, Oedipus is already king of Thebes, a position he attained by virtue of solving the famous riddle of the Sphinx: What creature walks on four legs, two legs, and three legs? Man—because he crawls on all fours as a baby, stands erect on two as a vigorous young man, and then must lean for support on a stick, his third leg, as an old man. For this feat of freeing Thebes from the Sphinx’s power, Oedipus won its throne and its newly widowed queen, Jocasta. But now a plague ravages the city and an oracle proclaims that the only remedy is to banish the murderer of the previous king, Laius. Oedipus does not know who this could be, and in his relentless pursuit of the answer he destroys himself. His tragedy is that by seeking the truth, he will uncover his own guilt. His situation brims with paradox and irony, trapping him in his own riddle. As French anthropologist Jean-Pierre Vernant put it, “lucid and blind, innocent yet guilty, the decipherer of enigmas is for himself an enigma he cannot decipher.”5

            Because Oedipus has remained so much a part of our culture, modern readers, as much as their ancient Greek counterparts, know what is coming. Oedipus learns that he unwittingly murdered his father, Laius, and married his own mother, Jocasta, also having four children with her, a horrifying mixing of the generations in which he is both father and half brother to his children. (From an anthropological viewpoint, this need to avoid confusion in kinship structure is the primary barrier to incest, since social order rests on maintaining orderly succession between generations).6

No matter that both Laius and Oedipus, at different times, had tried to escape their fate, which had been predicted by earlier oracles. When Laius heard the prophecy that his son would kill him, he pierced and bound his newborn son’s feet (oedipus means “swollen foot”) and left the baby to die of exposure on the Cithaeron hill. But a herdsman rescued him, and gave him to the King of Corinth, Polybus, to be raised. Oedipus likewise had heard from an oracle that he would murder his father and so left Corinth, only to encounter his real father, Laius, on a crossroads, have an altercation with him, and kill him. He proceeded into Thebes, answered the Sphinx, and, completely “blind” to his true position, married his mother. When the truth came out, two hideous consequences followed: Jocasta hanged herself, and Oedipus literally blinded himself, feeling utterly guilty for what he had not been able to see and utterly repelled at seeing any longer what the world had to offer. He left the city to wander as an outcast, finding refuge in Theseus’ Colonus only as an embittered old man.

            He is sometimes charged with pride, what the Greeks called hubris, an overconfidence that he could outwit Fate and thereby escape it. This seems unfair to him, however, because he merely did the best he could to avoid doing evil, and when confronted with the truth he punished himself mercilessly. His bitterness at the end reflects his frustration: His sincere efforts to avoid outraging the laws of the gods and society only made it more inevitable that he would transgress them.

            After the Greeks, the Oedipus story continued as a strong current in Europe in plays by the Romans Seneca and Julius Caesar (Caesar’s is lost), the Frenchmen Corneille and Voltaire, the Englishman Dryden, and the Austrian Hugo von Hofmannsthal, to name a few.7 Above all, Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was responsible for a revolutionary interpretation of Oedipus at the turn of the twentieth century. He understood it not as a tale of the outlandish fate of one unfortunate man, but as a parable of the psyche of every man:

 If Oedipus Rex moves a modern audience no less than it did the contemporary Greek one, the explanation can only be that its effect does not lie in the contrast between destiny and human will, but is to be looked for in the particular nature of the material on which that contrast is exemplified.…It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. . . . Here is one [Oedipus] in whom these primaeval wishes of our childhood have been fulfilled, and we shrink back from him with the whole force of repression by which those wishes have since been held down within us.…Like Oedipus, we live in ignorance of these wishes.8

 This first published statement of the Oedipus complex appeared in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, where he also cited, as evidence, Jocasta’s assertion that men dreaming of sleeping with their mothers is commonplace.9

As a cornerstone of psychoanalysis, the Oedipus complex is the form in which the myth of Oedipus now affects us most in modern culture. Jean Cocteau’s Oedipus in The Infernal Machine (1936) reflects Freud as much as Sophocles. Furthermore, no modern production of Hamlet has been the same since Freud applied his Oedipal analysis to it (see Hamlet [1]). We have become used to skepticism about whether the Oedipus story is a genuine reflection of our own subconscious wishes, but, of course, that is just what Freud would expect.

            The predictability of our reaction to the Oedipal situation makes it potent material not only for high drama, but for the lighter touch of pop culture as well. In an interview with Larry King, actor Michael J. Fox was asked to account for the tremendous popularity of his 1985 movie Back to the Future. He cited as one crucial factor the story’s resonance with the Oedipus myth. The film’s time-traveling teen hero, Marty McFly, finds himself transported back to 1955 and brought face to face with his own amorous teenage mother. He must divert her attentions away from himself and toward the young man who will become his father. The paradoxes of time-travel physics provide the weird workings of Fate, and McFly must work hard to avert an Oedipal disaster that would obliterate his own future.10

            Oedipus has come down to modern times with little loss in the force of his personality. His violation of the incest taboo makes him a focal point for the experience of our deepest fears and, if Freud was correct, our most secret desires. Watching Oedipus on stage or reading his drama may allay our fears for a while—we believe we have escaped a fate like his—but again and again, an attraction deeper than we suspect pulls us back to him.


1. Sophocles, “Oedipus the King,” trans. David Grene, in Greek Tragedies, vol. 1, eds. D. Grene and R. Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), lines 1058–59.

2. Walter Kaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 108–9.

3. Ibid., p. 195.

4. Ibid., p. 114.

5. Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Oedipus,” in Greek and Egyptian Mythologies, ed. Yves Bonnefoy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 199.

6. Ibid., pp. 199–200.

7. Kaufmann, p. 109; Lowell Edmunds, Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later Analogues (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).

8. Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 4, ed. and trans. J. Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953), pp. 262–63.

9. “Before this, in dreams too, as well as oracles, many a man has lain with his own mother.” Sophocles, “ Oedipus the King,” lines 981–82.

10. For further discussion of Back to the Future and time-travel paradoxes, see J. Richard Gott, Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), pp. 11–13.

Excerpted from The Fictional 100: Ranking the Most Influential Characters in World Literature and Legend by Lucy Pollard-Gott, chapter 6.

Copyright © 2009 Lucy Pollard-Gott, PhD. All rights reserved.



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