restricted access The Death of King Arthur by Peter Ackroyd (review)
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Peter Ackroyd, The Death of King Arthur. London: Penguin, 2010. Pp. 336. ISBN: 978–1–846–14193–5. $43.50.

In late Autumn 2010, Peter Ackroyd’s The Death of King Arthur was released in hardback by Penguin in the UK. When asked where the idea for the book came from, Alexis Kirschbaum, Editorial Director at Penguin Classics, revealed that she had commissioned it herself. She had a belief that the time was right for a more accessible version of Malory—and chose Ackroyd as the writer best fitted to bring that belief to market. This was good business sense: Ackroyd’s name has cultural capital, and would have impact on the review circuit as well as on bookshop shelves. His work includes an imaginative remediation of Chaucer in The Clerkenwell Tales, a biography, Chaucer: Brief Lives, and a modern retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for Penguin Classics, (a brave move since Neville Coghill’s verse translation was and is still on their lists and is still the best known and cited modern version). Like Caxton five hundred years earlier, Kirschbaum wanted to bring Malory to a wider readership. As Editorial Director of the Penguin Classics titles, it is her role to keep that list appealing to readers, drawing in new ones and tempting those already familiar with canonical texts to read them again. Penguin Classics already has the two-volume edition of Caxton’s Malory in their portfolio—a steady seller since it came out in 1969. When Kirschbaum decided that Malory was due for a revamp, she wanted to make a more streamlined, less episodic approach available to the reading public. On the Penguin Classics website ( ), she argues: ‘The stories are by now so famous that it may feel like we already know them—but how many of us have actually read Malory’s…Middle English original? Most likely, despite an interest, most of us have never been able to pick up the book. It was always a little forbidding, a little old, much too long and never attractively presented.’ She speaks with some authority about the reading habits of book-buyers and—though scholars perhaps rarely consider the commercial aspect of textual transmission and consumption—without successful marketing and sales, a book will simply cease to exist. With current media exposure for the Arthurian legends still very constant, a book launch was a logical business move by Penguin.

Kirschbaum was not just approaching this project from a publishing perspective, however. She has an MPhil after researching Edmund Spenser. In the same feature on the Penguin Classics website she reveals: ‘I’ve always been drawn to the romance (small “r”) of the Middle Ages: the jousts, kings and queens, intrigue at the highest [End Page 73] echelons of power, the quests, moral compromise, sense of duty and “man love,” not to mention the secret affairs with the potential to bring down kingdoms.’ Compare this to Caxton’s list of Malory’s appeal (‘the noble actes, feates of armes of chyvalrye, prowess, hardynesse, humanyte, love, curtoyse, and veray gentylnesse, with many wonderful hystoryes and adventures’) and the temporal shift in reading habits is plain to see. What strikes one in particular is the emphasis Kirschbaum puts on the power struggles that have politically strong ramifications. Caxton, of course, could not have been this suggestive: his readers and buyers made up a class largely within the dynamic of power, and so these two paratexts show much about the nature of publishing and reading both then and now.

Kirschbaum gave very strong direction to Ackroyd, suggesting, in her notes to him, that he cut distracting parts of the narrative, such as the tale of Balyne and all of Lamorak, to flesh out the main narrative themes, and to include more descriptive titles that link each section to a sense of the greater plot. This last note connects back to Caxton’s own practice of breaking down the tales into smaller chunks, listed in his Preface. Kirschbaum’s main stresses are for Ackroyd to make the style ‘more colloquial and modern’ but she also notes that ‘there...