Reading Group Guide
The first book that John Steinbeck ever loved was Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century narrative of Arthurian legends, Le Morte D’Arthur, and even later in his life, that book continued to be a major influence on both Steinbeck’s worldview and his creative output. In the latter half of the 1950s, having already won lasting fame as the author of Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden, Steinbeck was seized by a powerful urge to return to his first great inspiration. Setting aside the American themes and places that he explored in his immortal fiction, he took up the mammoth task of retelling Malory’s stories from a more modern point of view. Steinbeck eventually became so absorbed in this new, exciting work that he thought it might become his crowning achievement. Early in 1959, he told an interviewer that he had “learned to write and [would] not write anything more—just a history of King Arthur.”
What began for Steinbeck as an apparently straightforward work of translation and revision acquired a life of its own, as he strove not only to give new life to Malory but also to use the tales of King Arthur as a medium for his own expression. He traveled to England and Italy and read, by his own count, “literally hundreds of books on the Middle Ages.” In a strange but undeniable fashion, the book that was to become The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights transformed its author himself into a modern version of a questing knight endlessly pursuing the Holy Grail of his story. In the end, Steinbeck was able to complete drafts of only seven chapters of the book that he had hoped would be “the best work of my life and the most satisfying.” Steinbeck’s grail finally eluded him.
Nevertheless, his unfinished manuscript, published in 1976, eight years after his death, has been recognized as a work of strange, if imperfect power—both as a vigorous and keenly seen reworking of Malory’s tales and as a significant fable for modern times. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights speaks eloquently of honor and gallantry, deception and betrayal. While resurrecting the medieval mind of Malory and the legends of ancient Britain, it also comments between the lines on the anxieties and anomie of modern living. As Steinbeck wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy, “The fifteenth century [Malory’s era] and our own have so much in common—loss of authority, loss of gods, loss of heroes, and loss of lovely pride. . . . At our best we live by the legend.” In The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, Steinbeck restores the glorious spirit of this bygone age.
The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights tells both familiar stories like “The Sword in the Stone” and less well-known like the fatalistic “Knight with Two Swords.” It gives us the shining figures of Arthur and Lancelot and the darker specter of Morgan le Fay. It revives the magic of Merlin and the charm of Guinevere. Perhaps most important, it gives us the reflections of a Nobel– and Pulitzer Prize–winning writer on the mysteries of good and evil. Elucidated by a foreword by Christopher Paolini, the acclaimed author of Eragon, and supplemented by a fine appendix of selections from Steinbeck’s letters, which chronicle both the coming together and the eventual unraveling of his project, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights is an irresistible volume both for those who wish to know King Arthur and those who wish to recover a lost piece of themselves.ABOUT JOHN STEINBECK
One of the greatest American writers, and one who had an innate understanding of the strength of the human spirit, John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, California, in 1902, grew up in a fertile agricultural valley, about twenty-five miles from the Pacific coast. Both the valley and the coast would serve as settings for some of his best fiction. In 1919 he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next five years he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City, all the time working on his first novel, Cup of Gold (1929).
After marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, he published two California books, The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), and worked on short stories later collected in The Long Valley (1938). Popular success and financial security came only with Tortilla Flat (1935), stories about Monterey’s paisanos. A ceaseless experimenter throughout his career, Steinbeck changed courses regularly. Three powerful novels of the late 1930s focused on the California laboring class: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and the book considered by many his finest, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The Grapes of Wrath won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1939.
Early in the 1940s, Steinbeck became a filmmaker with The Forgotten Village (1941) and a serious student of marine biology with Sea of Cortez (1941). He devoted his services to the war, writing Bombs Away (1942) and the controversial play-novelette The Moon Is Down (1942). Cannery Row (1945), The Wayward Bus (1948), another experimental drama, Burning Bright (1950), and The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) preceded publication of the monumental East of Eden (1952), an ambitious saga of the Salinas Valley and his own family’s history.
The last decades of his life were spent in New York City and Sag Harbor with his third wife, with whom he traveled widely. Later books include Sweet Thursday (1954), The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957), Once There Was a War (1958), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), Travels with Charley in Search of America (1962), America and Americans (1966), and the posthumously published Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (1969), Viva Zapata! (1975), The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976), and Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (1989).
Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 and in 1964 he was presented with the United States Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Steinbeck died in New York in 1968. Today, more than thirty years after his death, he remains one of America’s greatest writers and cultural figures.DISCUSSION QUESTIONSIn one of his letters about the writing of The Acts of King Arthur, Steinbeck observed, “One of the greatest errors in the reconstruction of another era lies in our tendency to think of them as being like ourselves in feelings and attitudes.” In what feelings and attitudes do you feel most different from the fifteenth-century author, Sir Thomas Malory, whose work Steinbeck revised? How do these differences complicate your reading of Arthurian stories?From the time he began work on The Acts of King Arthur, Steinbeck resolved not to “clean . . . up” the morality of the stories for the younger members of his audience. He argued that “children not only understand these things but accept them until they are confused by moralities which try by silence to eliminate reality. These men had women and I’m going to keep them.” Do you agree with Steinbeck’s decision not to conceal the sexual motives that underlie many of these tales? Why or why not?One of the attractions that the stories of The Acts of King Arthur hold for young readers is that they tell of men who get to act like boys. However, Arthur and his knights inevitably have to take on adult responsibilities, like Sir Kay in his role as seneschal. What, in these stories, do characters gain and lose in the process of growing up?In his introduction to The Acts of King Arthur, Steinbeck implies that his chief intent is to write a book for children or young adults. Nevertheless, one finds moments that plainly express the insights and disappointments of a middle-aged man in his text. Who do you think is the real audience for Steinbeck’s narrative?Steinbeck believed that, as he wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, Malory acquired more grace and insight as a writer. Steinbeck hoped to preserve this sense of evolving artistic mastery in his retelling of Malory’s work. In what ways do you observe this metamorphosis in The Acts of King Arthur?Steinbeck stated in a letter to Elizabeth Otis that King Arthur “is not a character.” He also wrote, “This is the nature of all heroes.” What did he mean by this? Having read Steinbeck’s treatment of Arthur in The Acts of King Arthur, do you think Steinbeck was right? If so, what is it about Arthur that prevents Arthur from being a character? If, on the other hand, you think that Steinbeck succeeded in presenting Arthur as a character, how did he accomplish it?How much of Merlin’s influence rose from his magical powers as opposed to his knowledge of psychology and human nature? Is his wisdom in itself a kind of magic?Sir Balin, the protagonist of “The Knight with the Two Swords,” is one of the “best and most blameless” knights in The Acts of King Arthur, and he strives always to do the right thing. However, the results of his actions are routinely disastrous. Whereas we tend to expect stories for children and young adults to tell of perfidies punished and virtues rewarded, the story of Sir Balin offers no such reassurances. Is there a moral lesson to be taken from this story? If so, what is it, and, if not, what function does this story serve in the text as a whole?The story line of Sir Ewain, the tale of the inexperienced young hero who gains wisdom and skill under the tutelage of a much older, unlikely mentor, has been reprised in countless films, including The Empire Strikes Back and The Karate Kid. Why do you think this kind of tale has such durable appeal?Sir Lancelot so entirely devotes himself to perfecting himself as a fighter that he seems immune to romantic desire until the closing pages of Steinbeck’s manuscript. However, Lancelot worries that he may be seen as “not a man” because of his lack of interest in women. What qualities constitute manliness in The Acts of King Arthur? How do they differ, if at all, from more modern ideas of manliness?Female characters like Morgan le Fay are responsible for much of the moral upheaval, treachery, and wickedness in The Acts of King Arthur. However, women like Sir Ewain’s mentor Lyne can be invaluable guides and supports to the male characters. What anxieties about women are expressed in The Acts of King Arthur, and what qualities define a good woman?Merlin is deceived and entrapped by a beautiful young woman, even though he knows it will happen. Asked to give the reason, he answers enigmatically, “Because I am wise.” In what sense does Merlin’s downfall occur because of his wisdom, rather than in spite of it? Is Merlin right when he observes, “In the combat between wisdom and feeling, wisdom never wins?” Why or why not?While ostensibly Christian, Arthur and his knights subscribe to an ethic that evidently matters more to them than Christian observance: the code of chivalry. How does chivalry differ from religious morality? How does each respond to needs that the other neglects to consider?When Lyne and Sir Ewain see a group of peasants practicing archery, Lyne remarks that they are witnessing “the death of knighthood.” Steinbeck wrote The Acts of King Arthur at a time when he and much of the world were deeply worried about the threat of nuclear war. What comment is he making in the archery scene about the relationship between improved military technology on one hand and the fate of honor and social order on the other?In one of his letters about The Acts of King Arthur, Steinbeck wrote, “Cleverness, even wisdom, is the property of the villain in all myths.” With the exception of Merlin, the Arthur stories tend to be more admiring of characters with physical strength than those with superior intelligence. What accounts for this seeming bias in the tales and, perhaps, in modern life, for jocks over nerds?Steinbeck called writing “the lonesomest profession in the world.” Does his sense of loneliness creep into the writing of The Acts of King Arthur? In what places and in what ways?In the story of Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt, Steinbeck writes of “the sweet voices of . . . troubadours, singing of brave deeds and wonders . . . singing what everyone would like and hope to believe.” What is the relationship between the heroes who do the deeds and the troubadours who, like Steinbeck himself, turn the deeds into tales of wonder? How is each one dependent on the other?Also in the story of Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt, a “dark man” cynically describes the life of knight-errantry as “a childish dream world resting on the shoulders of less fortunate men.” As a whole, does The Acts of King Arthur support or refute this characterization? Are Arthur’s knights noble heroes or monumental escapists?When Sir Lyonel at first rides with his uncle Lancelot, he does so in hopes of bringing back stories with which to mock both Lancelot and chivalric honor. Yet he ends up loving Lancelot and wanting to protect him. What accounts for his change of heart?What are the weaknesses of Sir Lancelot’s personality? In what situations do they emerge? Why are his strength and nobility not enough to help him in some circumstances?Around the same time that Steinbeck was working on The Acts of King Arthur, Lerner and Loewe were writing the musical Camelot, and T. H. White was publishing The Once and Future King. Why do you think the late 1950s and early 1960s saw such a surge of interest in King Arthur? Is this question partly answered by Steinbeck’s letter to Jackie Kennedy, quoted in the introduction to this guide?The Acts of King Arthur, a work meant at least in part for a young audience, is a book of pervasive physical violence. Overall, is the violence of the stories an attractive feature or a repellent one? Can violent stories produce artistic effects and teach lessons that nonviolent stories cannot?Arthur’s knights function brilliantly as an army, but far less well when he tries to turn them into a kind of armor-clad police force. Why?In the story of Lancelot, Morgan le Fay gives an astonishing soliloquy suggesting that the lust for power is central to all human endeavors. What does this speech say about her character, and how does it show that she doesn’t “get” the values of Arthur and his knights?At the outset of the story of Lancelot, Arthur is “astonished to learn that peace, not war, is the destroyer of men.” What does this paradox mean, and do you believe it? Is it less true in the modern world, when warfare is exponentially more destructive than in Malory’s or Arthur’s time?If you know some of Steinbeck’s earlier work, like Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath, you have surely observed that The Acts of King Arthur differs considerably in tone, setting, and subject matter from the books that made him famous. Is The Acts of King Arthur still recognizably Steinbeck, or might these retellings have been the work of any talented author? What, if anything, is distinctly Steinbeckian about this text?After he set aside the manuscript of The Acts of King Arthur, Steinbeck went on to write such books as The Winter of Our Discontent and Travels with Charley. Thus, he had time to finish The Acts of King Arthur if he had so chosen. No one is entirely sure why Steinbeck left The Acts of King Arthur unfinished. What is your most reasonable speculation as to why he abandoned the project?