A peculiar feature of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, is that certain characters, including Emperor Lucius, are killed twice. Simon Armitage professes mystification at this. There needn’t be. The poem (c. 1400) is to a large extent combat porn. Like all species of porn, sexual or otherwise, it craves and provides sensation, narrative plausibility coming a poor second. The author and his audience loved violence and couldn’t get enough of it; that it’s dressed in chivalric and Christian robes doesn’t disguise the bloodlust. There cannot be enough berserk killing, enough graphically and lewdly described atrocity, to sate readers’ appetites. In the name of nobility and honour, also in the name of Jesus on high and his mild virgin Mother, all parties – wronged and wronging – indulge in a splatterfest reflecting the amoralities of the time and the profound worldliness of its official religion. Unlike their Lord, these Christian elites aren’t about to be crucified for anybody.
So there’s an incoherence in this Christian poem absent from the war poetry of the Iliad, whose monarchical pagan gods were never the sort to lay down their lives for their subjects. In this Arthurian romance, fanatically belligerent tribal loyalties are confused with unsought and enforced martyrdom. Its Catholic ruling circles are hardly the meek who will inherit the earth. But speaking of inheriting the earth, it is only just to note that amoralities do not amount to outright immorality. Despite its blindness, this is a moralising work with didactic intent. Its moral lies, precisely, in what it says about who will inherit the earth.
Arthur’s Christmas at Carlisle is here rudely interrupted, just as his Christmas at Camelot had been preternaturally violated in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which Armitage also recently attempted). This time, it’s the Emperor of Rome, with outrageous demands for tribute from lands Arthur considers his. That means war. Mordred is left in charge of Britain. Arthur and his people storm across Europe, sometimes burning, pillaging and slaughtering, at other times showing tactical restraint. Europe is Arthur’s, and his writ will run. He re-imposes his authority in no uncertain terms, and in the process the Emperor and others die (twice over). But Mordred is a worm in the bud. Back home, he has annexed Arthur’s British domains, and has married and possibly impregnated Guinevere. Arthur returns to his weakened base, where he loses his life in battle along with prominent knights, most notably Gawain.
Morally, then, the reader is drawn to ponder that most deadly of the sins: pride and the lethality of over-reaching oneself. The poem is not irrelevant to our own troubled times. We too find great difficulty maintaining large-scale and supranational political structures. At immense human cost, we too invade territories from which we later withdraw, having achieved little but carnage. Imperial pride is not unique to the post-Roman world of fabulous Britain. The poem has plenty to say to a modern reader.
What, though, does it say to Armitage? He has now modernised two major Arthurian stories. The language in both originals is kinetic and expressive, self-delighting, with the firm smack of syllable and sound alliterating at length through the typically four-beat lines. Perhaps there lies the attraction. From Zoom! and Kid on, Armitage’s collections have offered poems with strongly implicit situations and oblique narrativity, his language often described as having a streetwise, colloquial lyricism. It does a poet good to revisit the resources of his mother tongue. The primal energies which emerge, for all their macho hammering on sensation, can help recuperate a certain prelingual naivete no poet can safely outgrow. Armitage’s renderings are more than homage. Here is a poet reverting, by way of self-education, to his tongue’s historic youth, and reminding himself what his current idiom can and cannot do.