arthurian lady


SJSU Englsh Department>
The English Department of San Jose State University.


Composition History

       On November 11, 1956, John Steinbeck writes a brief and charged letter to his literary agent, Elizabeth Otis. It reads: "I am going to start the Morte immediately. Let it be private between us until I get it done. It has all the old magic." Thus begins a series of letters written by Steinbeck to either (and at times simultaneously) Otis or his publisher, Chase Horton about his work on The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights. These letters, when taken with his introduction to the text, reveal Steinbeck's impetus and also his methods for writing The Acts, and offer a glimpse into the writer's personality as well.

       As a child, in Malory's Le Morte d' Arthur, Steinbeck notes he found his own private textual space. In addition to a sense of pride in owning a personal copy as a child, in the yogh and thorn, Steinbeck "had a secret language" (Steinbeck xi). His introduction to The Acts reveals Steinbeck's childhood joy at being able to understand an archaic language; in Malory, he finds the proverbial 'secret club' in which children delight. However, it is precisely Malory's language that drives Steinbeck's urge to translate Le Morte; he recognizes that modern audiences don't "general har[e]...[his] own first and continuing enchantment" with the language (xiii). It is this recognition that drives him to begin his translation in an attempt to bring the same drama that spoke to him as a child to a new generation.

       While the introduction reveals Steinbeck's motivation for beginning The Acts, his letters to Otis and Chase detail his methodology. In an early letter, Steinbeck states that his task is to update Morte's language and sentence structures but not "clean it up," by which he means he will not remove adult content (297). Steinbeck's first order of business is to conduct an intense period of research and investigation into the text itself, the author, and the subject matter. His early letters discuss working heavily with various sources as a means to perfect his modern translation. Firstly, Steinbeck mentions Caxton and Winchester's translations, of which he prefers the latter since he believes Caxton differed too much from Malory in his bourgeois background. Caxton also misses the lingual subtlety Winchester preserves, including the evolution of Malory's skill as a writer throughout the text (298-299). As his letters continue, Steinbeck's methodology becomes increasingly dominated by a drive to understand both the mythical figure of Arthur, as well as Malory as a man. To this end, Steinbeck broadens his research to include interviews with various professors, scholarly articles on Malory and his work, as well as a trip to Italy (302-203). He also writes about a kind of "Morte Tour" in which he travels to Warwickshire (Malory's birthplace), the jail Malory was imprisoned in as well as "all of those places associated with King Arthur" (309-310).

       Finished with his research, Steinbeck reaffirms in July, 1958 his intention to translate the text and "re-create a rhythm and tone which to the modern ear will have the same effect as the Middle English did on the fifteenth-century ear" (318). While his research phase ultimately seemed less directed than spontaneous, leaving readers to follow his journey from letter-to-letter without an advanced itinerary, Steinbeck concisely states his intentions at the beginning of his writing phase. He will translate "a specified number of pages...every working day" while simultaneously crafting a "working diary" to monitor progress (318-319). Steinbeck starts as a textual scholar while translating; he considers that his "thought parallels Malory's...this is just what Malory had to do to his source material" (319). However, eventually, modernization begins to include artistic license and in a letter to Otis in 1959, Steinbeck states "I move along with my translation of the Morte but it is no more a translation than Malory's was. I am keeping it all but it is mine as much as his was his" (331), perhaps alluding to the additions he made to Malory's work.

       The letters reveal more than Steinbeck's rationales and methodology; the letters also reveal his emotional progress. His excited first letter and the intensity with which Steinbeck describes Arthur's value serve to humanize the famous American writer. In a letter to Horton in October of 1958, Steinbeck shares his tumultuous experience writing The Acts, describing one low point as his "own ineptness and sluggishness set[ting] me back on my heels" (324). Through the letters, Steinbeck exposes self-doubt, but also a self-reflection. In the same letter, he identifies "the prima donna side" of an author in the midst of writing; he describes himself as a writer so consumed with the task at hand, he neglects those around him. More than chronicles of libraries visited and texts consulted, the letters reveal Steinbeck's loss and recapture of resolve: "I have no doubts any more. I goddam well can write it. Just wanted you to know. In fact I am writing it" (330).