Stuck at a loose end the other night, I picked up a Wordsworth Classics edition of Tales from King Arthur, a version of Andrew Lang's 19th century classic Book of Romance. It's the first lot of Arthurian tales I've read for a while, but of course by now I know all the characters so well, having encountered and re-encountered them through umpteen books - from T. H. White's The Once and Future King through to Edmund Spencer's Faerie Queen. I haven't read the Thomas Malory (that's another book I've been avoiding finishing for about a decade now - my excuse is that I have only the last half. It's easier to start something you can't finish than finish something you can't start, evidently).
Lang's main achievement seems to have been to translate the courtly manners of the original Arthurian stories into contemporary language. This seems to throw up occasional oddities of phrase, though -
While the King was wondering what sort of a beast this could be, a Knight rode by, who, seeing a man lying under a tree, stopped and said to him: 'Knight full of thought and sleepy, tell me if a strange beast has passed this way?'The old narrative devices can seem very creaky. We learn in opening one story that 'it was the King's custom that he would eat no food on the day of Pentecost, which we call Whit Sunday, until he had heard or seen some great marvel.' For the story to proceed the marvel has to happen, and so 'Sir Gawaine was looking from the window a little before noon when he espied three men on horseback, and with them a dwarf on foot, who held their horses when they alighted.' Some visitors including a person not confined to the conventional height paradigm is a very meagre marvel indeed. Funnily enough, though, this turns out to be one of the best stand-alone stories, with one of the best illustrations:
Grail story, starting it with a little essay about the history of the Arthurian myths. There's a lot of obvious concatenation of the various knight's tales that goes on; he uses the phrase 'and they had many adventures' or 'and many more adventures happened to them' an inordinate amount of times during the saga. He doesn't do a bad job, all up, of giving a shortened version of the tales, but he does end up leaving out some of the best parts - for instance, the wholly incidental but very beautiful story of the wounded king, restored to good health by the grail.
We do learn a good deal about the knights and their various imperfections, especially Lancelot, which is all quite interesting given his dalliances with Queen Guenevere. (Lang doesn't go into much detail there, either - he generally seems to proceed by omission, following the opposite approach to, say, John Boorman in his film Excalibur, where he tells as many stories as possible by making everything happen to a few central characters. In Excalibur, Arthur is the wounded king, for instance.)
I quote enjoyed it, on the whole. Trouble is, I've finished it now, and I'm left asking again, er, where do I go from here? Probably should do some work or something. Damn reading on the trains! It only leads to trouble!