Our book today is John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, the bulk of which was written toward the end of the author's life, and the collected parts of which were published in 1976 after his death. The Steinbeck Arthur has recently been republished in one of those very nice Penguin Classic "deluxe" editions with a Foreward by bestselling teenaged fantasy writer Christopher Paolini - a curious act of faith on Penguin's part, not only to hope that The Acts of King Arthur - surely the despised stepchild of all Steinbeck's writings - will find an audience among modern readers, but to entrust the introduction of such a work to Paolini, who is eighteen or so and would likely have met with some harsh words from Steinbeck himself on the subject of presumption.
And, alas, there's presumption aplenty on display in the lad's brief essay. Steinbeck is more pitied than praised for his well-intentioned but bumbling efforts in his Arthur, although Paolini does notice that the book gets better as it goes along (this would turn up a red flag for older readers, most of whom will have learned that when an odd or complex book seems to get better as it goes along, the improvement is almost always happening in the reader, not the book). At one point Paolini muses interestingly on a might-have-been I hadn't thought of: what Steinbeck might have written had he decided to indulge in the fad of the late 60s and write a fantasy epic. But mostly Paolini is writing out of his depth and trying not to sound it:
As it stands, The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights is an incomplete collection of first and second drafts. For writers and Steinbeck scholars, it provides a valuable glimpse into the inner workings of Steinbeck's creative process, and reveals difficulties that even the best authors can encounter. For everyone else - and especially nine-year-old boys who love accounts of "kyngs and knyghtes and grete deeds" - it is a worthy addition to one's library.
I wish I had read Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights when I was nine.
The immediate tempting rejoinder to that last line is: you mean eight years ago? But there's more wrong here than typical teenager arrogance (although that "one's" is precious, as is the above-it-all perspective of that "even the best authors"); the main problem with Paolini's Foreward is that it assumes Steinbeck's Arthur is for children. At least, I can't think of a more charitable explanation for that bewildering admission that our baby-faced author wishes he'd read the book when he was little more than an infant - certainly it seems and odd thing to wish about reading any Steinbeck, one of the most unapologetically adult of all 20th century American authors.
And Paolini's not alone - a great deal of the initial reaction to the book was deeply puzzled, and more than one person assumed that since the work was opaque to them, it must be intended for children. Even Steinbeck's wife was slow to see its deeper currents, although she eventually did see them, or some of them. Part of the problem is cyclical and therefore mysterious: the Arhurian urge strikes a surprising number of authors who are otherwise busily going about their normal writing activities - we don't know whence the urge comes or whither it goes, but while it's on an author, he'll seclude himself, he'll visit Stonehenge, he'll bore dinner guests with tales of genealogical research - and he'll often produce a book unlike any of his others.
This has happened to more authors than you'd think - and a wider variety, from great writers like John Cowper Powys to crappy drivelers like Deepak Chopra. Even some of our most shrewdly cosmopolitan writers (John Berger and Anthony Burgess come to mind) have felt the pull and written weird stuff as a result, and the urge has entirely taken over, mind-control-style, a convention hall full of science fiction authors who were not able to break free. I wholesale guarantee there's an Arthur novel sitting in J. D. Salinger's house right now (or ... shudder ... 200 of them - could the urge be the reason he went silent?), and of course there's the 20th century's greatest example, T. H. White's The Once and Future King. Even a casual reader of Steinbeck will see at once that he had one eye on White's towering achievement the whole time he was writing his own book - which is a fatal enough hindrance in a writer of Steinbeck's own native strengths. Hence his Arthur's odd uneven texture.
Although, pace perky presumptuous Paolini, there's so much of that native strength on display here! Take for instance the joy with which knightly popinjay Gawain is mocked out of his own mouth as he leads a less-than-appreciative damsel through the forest:
"How fortunate that you fell to me," he said. "If it had not been so, I would have contended for you. You do not answer. That is easily explained. You are very young and you had never the company of a gallant knight from the great world. You are blushing, I know, although I cannot see your face. Well, that is proper in so young a damsel. Perhaps your tongue is tied with confusion at the honor you have been paid - or maybe you were taught to keep silence when a knight speaks. That is the good old-fashioned way. Too seldom practiced now. You must not be afraid or too impressed with me. You will see that beneath my royal position and the aura of my knighthood I am as human as you are, a man, in fact, in spite of appearance. You are dazzled, my dear, and I can easily understand that."
And much later in the book (right around the part where Paolini allows that Steinbeck is, you know, starting to write well), there's a tossed-off meditation on the animal kingdom that's as clear a statement of the late-Steinbeck world-view as anything:
As though the unanswered challenge of the chief bird had cleared the air of suspicion, the small and quiet emerged from the wood, but their smallness did not mean that they were meek - only cautious. Each one had war against others and endless difficulties with his fellows: matters of property, treasure trove, violations of respect for size and age and strength - mice and moles, ferrets, weasels, and small snakes, hurrying to some shelter now the night was coming. Government among a single kind was hard enough. Among many kinds it was impossible, and always had been, for the small creatures were not peaceful or kindly or cooperative. They were as quarrelsome and as selfish, as greedy and vainglorious, as sneaky and pompous and unpredictable as humans, wherefore it is hard to understand how they get their eating and breeding done at all, let alone increasing, building nests and burrows, preening fur and feathers, sharpening beak and claw, storing food and guarding it, and still having time to quarrel and snap and curse one another, and only occasionally taking time to love and to die.
The main thing that goes wrong with Steinbeck's Arthur - although it goes less wrong less often than some critics have always maintained - is that it sometimes tries to out-White White, which is inevitably disastrous, since The Once and Future King towers too steep and solitary to be attempted by other authors, however talented. But such portions of the book are infrequent - the main body of the work glitters with great prose. Penguin is to be commended for bringing The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights before a forgetful reading public in such a fine, sturdy format. The choice of cover art is markedly odd - the clumsy sketch appears to be the work of a visually-impaired small child, when surely a who's who of contemporary fantasy artists would have loved a chance to strut their Arthurian stuff (the last edition of the book featured art by fan favorite Darrell Sweet) - but the book itself is a great addition to the Penguin "deluxe" series.
I very much enjoyed re-reading it, and I'm glad I wasn't nine years old to do it, but rather a twenty-something stone cold hottie. Maybe that's Paolini's problem: maybe he's just not attractive enough to appreciate Steinbeck's book. He should hit the freeweights and then try again.