An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

April 27, 2013

Armitage: Death of King Arthur

Simon Armitage, trans. The Death of King Arthur. New York: Norton, 2012.

 Reviewed by Leah Haught (

Originally released as a hardcover edition in December 2011, Norton’s December 2012 publication of Simon Armitage’s verse translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (The Death of King Arthur) as a paperback will undoubtedly cause this edition of the poem, which aims to make the late fourteenth or early fifteenth-century poem accessible to modern audiences “in unflinching and gory detail,” to be more broadly circulated among scholars and poetry aficionados alike [1]. Presented as a facing-page translation alongside Larry D. Benson’s 1974 transcription of the Middle English text, Armitage’s rendition is a handsome addition to the relatively short list of texts that place their translations of the Alliterative Morte in continuous dialogue with the language and style of the original poem. Of equal if not more interest for scholars of medievalism, the edition also sheds light on the processes through which modern poets engage with and represent the medieval past in their work.

This is not Armitage’s first engagement with a medieval text in print. In 2006 he released a poetic translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the success of which seemed to take everyone, including Armitage, a bit by surprise. In the acknowledgements to that edition, Armitage outlines a series of fortunate coincidences that led him to the “conviction that I was put on the planet for no other reason than to work on this poem” [2]. He cites a range of experiences as contributing to this conviction, from conversations with other poets while traveling to memories of other poetic translations by the likes of Ted Hughes and J.R.R. Tolkien. Positioning himself as but one in a long line of postmedieval authors who recognize Gawain as a verse masterpiece, Armitage also relates a personal narrative of wonder and admiration. A northerner himself, his introductory materials describe the thrill associated with recognizing much of the poem’s vocabulary and geography as distinctly northern, a thrill he would go on to explore in more detail in a 2009 BBC documentary [3]. While a brief outline of Gawain’s known history is provided, Armitage’s introduction is more interested in explaining the choices he made as a translator of this highly sophisticated, canonical text. For example, although he chooses to preserve the poem’s alliterative style, he does not seek to do so using the direct modern equivalents of the Middle English vocabulary; the ultimate goal being “to harmonize with the original rather than transcribe every last word of it” [4].

The Death of King Arthur in many ways continues this trajectory as is suggested by the note on its cover, “from the translator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Armitage’s name now has cultural capital as a popular translator of medieval poems in addition to being an award winning poet in his own right. Perhaps this is why the introductory materials for this new edition are considerably less inclined to detail Armitage’s choices as a translator and, indeed, as a poet. In lieu of a personal narrative of awe, readers are given a detailed account of the Arthurian legend’s development from early Welsh folklore through Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. This speaks volumes about the role specific medieval texts play in contemporary perceptions of a medieval literary canon. Instead of explaining the artistic rationale for undertaking yet another translation of a widely admired poem, Armitage’s introduction (there is no afterword) to Death spends the better part of its eight pages contextualizing its source text as an important contribution to medieval Arthuriana; translation: the Alliterative Morte is no Gawain. But the fact that Norton (Faber & Faber in Britain) commissioned a second translation of a lesser known work and that Armitage willingly rose to the challenge of producing this translation also speaks volumes about the appeal of both Arthuriana and medieval literature for a wide variety of modern audiences.

Indeed, much of what Armitage does tell us about his approach to his latest translation seems to have audience, in the broadest sense of the word, in mind. Calling the Alliterative Morte an example of “sophisticated literary structure and storytelling at its very best,” Armitage nevertheless identifies several challenges facing a contemporary translator or reader of the poem that he addresses in one capacity or another [5]. His translation is, for example, entirely in the past tense, for the sake of meeting modern grammatical expectations, instead of employing the past and historical present like the original poem does. He has also added breaks where he thought it appropriate to do so since the Middle English version has no consistently set stanzas. It is worth noting, though, that even if the section breaks differ, the Middle English and modern translation always present the same number of lines per page so no flipping back and forth is required to compare the two versions. Of a more intrusive nature are the attempts to smooth out some of the poem’s inconsistencies, such as who dies and is buried where; Armitage removes Bedivere and Cador from the list of knights buried at Burgundy in lines 2383-85, for instance, since the former is also said to be buried at Bayonne (2379) and the latter reappears during Arthur’s final battle with Mordred. None of these emendations are particularly distracting, however, even if you happen to be approaching Armitage’s translation with more than a passing knowledge of the poem on which it is based.

Where Armitage’s translation really excels is in its ability to capture the urgency and frequent brutality of the Middle English poem through his dedicated preservation of its alliterative style. This is especially apparent during Arthur’s last campaign against Mordred, a campaign which essentially leaves no survivors. Take the following description of Mordred’s death as an illustrative if particularly gruesome example. Armitage’s translation of “And he brawles on the brand and bounes for to die” reads: “and he squirmed as he died, skewered on the sword” (4251). There is no shrinking from death and destruction here, no endeavor to romanticize or simplify the narrative’s medieval source or setting. In fact, it is precisely these darker implications and their current relevance that can be seen as appealing to Armitage as both a reader and a translator.

In a 2011 interview with Sarah Crown for The Guardian, Armitage makes the nature and extent of the Alliterative Morte’s pull for him explicit in terms that medievalists and medieval enthusiasts alike can appreciate: “the ideas it throws up about England’s tricky relationship with the continent and Catholicism, and the overarching sense of a just war taken too far. These are not untopical issues . . . There’s that sense running through the whole poem, that feeling of ‘we’ve been here before, and we’ll be here again.’ And these stories need to be told” [6]. Here we have a potent articulation of the power of medievalism to connect past and present in meaningful ways. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Norton, a publishing house with a strong popular and academic presence, has supported Armitage’s endeavors to tell “these stories” to as broad of an audience as possible. Those of us interested in medievalism should certainly thank Norton for making Armitage’s compelling translation available to readers in North America.

Leah Haught
Georgia Institute of Technology 

1)  Norton’s overview of the hardcover edition, accessed March 7, 2013,
2)  “Afterword,” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New York: Norton, 2007), 191. 
3)  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (BBC Four Documentary 2009), accessed March 7, 2013,  A follow up program of sorts, The Making of King Arthur, in which Armitage traces the evolution of the Arthurian legend throughout the Middle Ages, aired in January 2013, also on BBC Four, as part of the Norman Season. 
4)  “Introduction,” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 12.
5)  “Introduction,” The Death of King Arthur (New York: Norton, 2012), 10.  
6)  “A Life in Writing:  Simon Armitage” The Guardian (12/9/11), accessed April 7, 2013,