The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights - 3 Stars
The Appendix with Steinbeck's letters regarding the novel - 4 stars
In 1956, Steinbeck began working on what was to be his masterpiece: The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, a massive retelling of the adventures of the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Haven't heard of Steinbeck's novel? That's likely because Steinbeck gave up on it and at the end of his life the book remained far from finished. In 1976 it was published as it was, a first draft far from Steinbeck's intended tome, a novel only read by Steinbeck devotees and curious lovers of fantasy.
As it stands, The Acts of King Arthur... is not an impressive work. Steinbeck's voice—his commentary, wit, and lush descriptions—are void from most of the novel. The first half of the book is told in the most monotone summation of events; it seems that Steinbeck's job was merely taking from the original Le Morte d'Arthur and translating it into modern language.
The second half improves on this somewhat. Steinbeck allows his characters' stories and voices to come out, as well as his own. It's still very much written like a first draft, there were considerable improvements to be made in future drafts; unfortunately, Steinbeck never touched the work again. It seems he dropped the novel just as it was beginning to gel.
What's most impressive about this collection is the letters that follow the novel. From 1956 to 1965 Steinbeck shared correspondence with his agent and his editor about the project. What is published in The Acts of King Arthur... is only Steinbeck's half of the conversation, but it is easy to surmise the content of his agent's and editor's letters from his responses. The knowledge of how Steinbeck saw this book, how he worked through it, and how he ultimately decided to abandon it makes the entire project so much more interesting.
First of all, Steinbeck's lack of voice in the first half may have been somewhat intentional. He says that in the original Le Morte d'Arthur Thomas Malory seemed to learn how to write as he wrote the story, that early stories in Malory's book lacked what Malory found in later stories. Although Steinbeck didn't seem to care for Malory's earlier writing, he expressed his intention to emulate the formula. Second, Steinbeck was passionate about this book. This was to be the biggest, most important work he'd done since East of Eden and it would far surpass anything he had accomplished in his career. The stories of Arthur meant something to him and it was his desire to retell these stories in a vibrant way for a new generation, in however many thousands of pages it took. The last thing that really made an impact on me was how John Steinbeck, Pulitzer and Nobel winning author, was squashed by the critique he received. “What saddens me most,” Steinbeck says in a letter dated May 13, 1959 written to both his editor and his agent, “was the tone of disappointment in your letter. If I had been skeptical of my work, I would have felt that you had caught me out. But I thought I was doing well...” The letters continue coming from a seemingly deflated Steinbeck over the next five months, then they stop for six years. What had been something Steinbeck believed in and wanted more than anything at the time had been pushed aside and largely forgotten.
In his letters, Steinbeck almost makes The Acts of King Arthur... brilliant. Unfortunately, the work itself doesn't shine. Had Steinbeck stayed with it, he might have accomplished his goal. As it stands, the most impressive part of this book is the letters. Reading them has convinced me that I want to read the collection of Steinbeck's letters someday, because though he may not be the most brilliant or insightful man that ever lived, he has the power to make the most casual conversations meaningful, for both those working through the creative process and those seeking to better understand the human condition