Arthurian mythology in the twentieth century : T.H. White and John Steinbeck's interpretations of Malory's Morte d'Arthur

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This thesis sets out to analyse and evaluate T.H. White's The Once and Future King and John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, two novels based on the Arthurian legend, and to investigate their reliance on Malory's Morte Darthur. A close critical reading of both texts is provided. The thesis begins by setting the novels in the context of the body of twentieth-century literature inspired by the Arthurian legend, and notes that both aspire to provide a fresh interpretation of the Morte Darthur. A broad outline of certain themes in the Morte Darthur which become central concerns in The Once and Future King and The Acts of King Arthur is given. A mythopoetic approach to the Morte Darthur is used, and it is examined as tragic and elegiac mythology in which archetypal characters appear. In the treatment of T.H. White's The Once and Future King, selective use is made of various contextual approaches to literature. In the first volume, The Sword in the Stone, the interaction of the work with the genres of comedy and fantasy is examined, and it is concluded that White makes use of both to create a pastoral idyll. It is suggested that the next three volumes, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind, demonstrate a progressively ( tragic vision in which the idealism of the first volume is sorely tried by the relentlessness of fate, and the machinations of human beings. It is indicated that White creates his most successful balance between romantic idealism and pessimistic realism in The Ill-Made Knight. It is also argued that The Candle in the Wind fails to maintain the intensity of Malory's tragedy and that The Book of Merlyn, the author's alternative ending to the saga, provides a more fitting ending to the entire cycle, although marred by White's bitterness and polemic argument. John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights is examined in the light of the author's original aims to translate the Morte Darthur. It is suggested that the first chapters in which he does this are flat and sometimes laboured in comparison with the original, but that his last two sections, Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt and The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot, provide a fresh and inventive approach. It is argued that in The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot, Steinbeck comes to grips with the drama at the heart of the Morte Darthur as he introduces the eternal triangle in which the central characters are situated, and explores the potential for failure, even chaos, within the Round Table itself. The thesis concludes by drawing parallels between the two works and comparing their respective merits. It is maintained that while Malory's Morte Darthur cannot be improved upon, it is transmuted in the hands of White and Steinbeck into rich, lively and thought-provoking novels.