I should never write things in my head.  I do it all the time, and then I promptly forget every single word that I’ve composed.  I search for the words I had built to convey my idea, and…nothing.  Just some crickets chirping somewhere behind my left ear.  Drat.

This post will be somewhat a victim of the cricket syndrome, because I composed most of it in my head in a fit of glee whilst reading Steinbeck.  I’m beginning to think it was a tragedy of the first order that he was never able to complete it before he died. 

At first, the book almost seemed like a straight-up modern translation of Malory, simply replacing archaic words with more accessible ones.  Since I like the archaic words, this wasn’t terribly exciting, but it was nice to see old favorite stories dressed up a bit.  As I went along, I realized that Steinbeck was drawing out elements that Malory had only touched on, making things cohesive, eliminating contradictions, and bringing out more of the characters.  (Steinbeck rightly commented in his notes that those hearing the tales as they were told back then wouldn’t need these things spelled out; tone and body language of the storyteller would have made the subtleties and emotions of the stories quite clear.)  He was “keeping, or rather trying to re-create, a rhythm and tone which to the modern ear will have the same effect as Middle English did on the fifteenth-century ear.”  As he said, “Present-day people can read unlimited baseball scores in which the narration isn’t very great and fifteenth-century people could listen to innumerable single combats with little variation.”

I realized while reading “Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt,” however, that Steinbeck had been quite crafty.  Very gradually it dawned upon me that Steinbeck was telling his own story out of Malory’s.  I didn’t even recall the original quest with these three knights in Malory upon which this story was based; it was just one of countless quests, and honestly even for an Arthurian fan, they all started to blend together in Malory.  Not so with Steinbeck.  He made this story come ferociously alive.  He added a lot; to me the book savors more of Steinbeck than of Malory, but the feeling of Malory is still there, and I think that’s what Steinbeck was after.  The book got better and better from there, and when I reached the end of The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot (which was as far as Steinbeck got in the project), I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to laugh or cry, which is how I know I’ve read a really good book.

The last 60 pages of the book consist of letters to his editors about his progress on the project, and these letters were meant to be cleaned up and put together as an introduction to the finished work.  Steinbeck’s letters were just as wonderful to read as his stories because I understood what he had meant to do with his (sadly unfinished) work.

The very first letter is just a couple lines: “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.”

A letter from a week later: “I have been dipping into the Malory.  And with delight.  As long as I don’t know what is going on in the world, I would like to have a try with this.  I’m going to try anyway.”

Another letter: “[I’ve been] Just reading and reading and reading and it’s like hearing remembered music.”

And then I knew we were kindred spirits, Steinbeck and I.  No one could love the old stories like that and not be a wonderful new friend.  And he’s hit on it already, the feeling I get when I’m reading Arthurian myth: it’s just like hearing remembered music.  The stories are so timeless that they feel familiar.  According to Steinbeck (and he is far from alone in this—Milton, among others, wholeheartedly agreed), “these stories form, with the New Testament, the basis of most modern English literature.”

Steinbeck had such an awe and respect for his source material that he almost couldn’t write the thing.  He read literally hundreds of books before he began at all, and once he had begun, he seemed to be regularly terrified (appropriately so) by the scope of the project upon which he had embarked.  “I’m aching to get to work after the years of preparation.  And I’m scared also, but I think that is healthy…. It is perfectly natural that I should have a freezing humility considering the size of the job to do and the fact that I have to do it all alone.”  Comforting to know that Steinbeck, who by this time had written all sorts of great literature, still got scared and felt unequal to the task just like the rest of us who have ever put pen to paper.  (Or cursor to Word file.)  He said, “I want to forget how to write and learn all over again with the writing growing out of the material,” and “If Malory could rewrite Chretien for his time, I can rewrite Malory for mine.”

The incidental information in Steinbeck’s letters was likewise fascinating:

On memory in the past, when everything was unrecorded: “The training of the Welsh poets was not practice but memorization.  On knowing 10,000 poems, one took a position. … Written words have destroyed what must have been a remarkable instrument.” “In Shakespeare’s time a good man could memorize a whole scene from a play and write it down afterwards.  That was the only way to steal it.”

On how long it takes light to travel: “It is conceivable that what the great telescopes record presently does not exist at all, that those monstrous issues of the stars may have ceased to be before our world was formed, that the Milky Way is a memory carried in the arms of light.”

In one of his later letters to his editor: “Isn’t it odd that Malory, who knew the route from Amesbury to Glastonbury, didn’t mention Stonehenge although he had to pass it.  I think I know why.  But will tell you that when I see you.”  I would give a great deal to have heard Steinbeck’s theory on this.  He owes me a chat.

Steinbeck had a close relationship with his editor and literary agent, and he seemed rather crushed when neither of them were fond of the first few chapters of his rough draft.  Their responses were not given, but I was intrigued by portions of his defense, which almost ends up being a critique of modernity:

“I know you have read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.  It is a marvelously wrought book.  All the things you wished to find in my revision are superlatively in that.  But that is not what I had wanted and I think still do not want to do.”

“Alan Lerner is making a musical about King Arthur and it will be lovely and will make a million-billion dollars—but that isn’t what I want.  There’s something else.  Maybe in my rush to defend myself I’ve missed what I wanted to say.  Maybe I’m trying to say something that can’t be said or do something beyond my ability.  But there is something in Malory that is longer-lived than T.H. White and more permanent than Alan Lerner or Mark Twain.  I don’t know what it is—but I sense it.”

“The hero is almost bad form unless he is in a Western.  Tragedy—true tragedy—is laughable unless it happens in a flat in Brooklyn.  Kings, Gods, and Heroes—maybe their day is over, but I can’t believe it.  Maybe because I don’t want to believe it.  In this country I am surrounded by the works of heroes right back to man’s first entrance.  I don’t know how the monoliths were set up in the circles without tools but there was something more involved than petty thievery and schoolboy laziness and the anguish of overfed ladies on the psycho couch.  Someone moved a whole lot of earth around for something beyond ‘making a buck.’  And if all of this is gone, I’ve missed the boat somewhere.  And that could easily be.”  “Nuts!  I believe in this thing.  There’s an unthinkable loneliness in it.  There must be.”

Steinbeck was grasping at trying to express something very nearly impossible to put into words, trying to make Malory accessible to the modern age without making it OF the modern age in the way that White’s book did.  I love The Once and Future King, but Steinbeck was right; it doesn’t have the flavor of Malory.  Once and Future accomplished its goal, and mimicking its style would only be trying to piggyback on its success, not say something worthwhile.

Steinbeck’s thoughts on modern writing and its inspiration were particularly astute: “What is in a writer’s mind—novelist or critic?  Doesn’t a writer set down what has impressed him most, usually at a very early age?  If heroism impressed him, that’s what he writes about, and if frustration and a sense of degradation—that is it.  And if jealousy is the deepest feeling, then he must attack anything which seems to be the longed-for success.”

“Malory lived in as rough and ruthless and corrupt an age as the world has ever produced.  In the Morte he in no way minimizes these things, the cruelty and the lust, and murder and childlike self-interest.  They are all here.  But he does not let them put out the sun.  Side by side with them are generosity and courage and greatness and the huge sadness of tragedy rather than the little meanness of frustration.”

“For no matter how brilliantly one part of life is painted, if the sun goes out, that man has not seen the whole world.  Day and night both exist.  To ignore the one or the other is to split time in two and to choose one…”

“There is nothing in literature nastier than Arthur’s murder of children because one of them may grow up to kill him.  Williams and many others of his day would stop there, saying, “That’s the way it is.”  And they would never get to the heartbreaking glory when Arthur meets his fate and fights against it and accepts it all in one.  How can we have forgotten so much?”

“Something happens now to children.  An artist should be open on all sides to every kind of light and darkness.  But our age almost purposely closes all windows, draws all shades, and then later screams to a psychiatrist for light.”

It’s hard to imagine Steinbeck laying this work aside for so many  years; for all of his struggles in getting it written, he so clearly believes in it and is utterly immersed in it.  He said, “I think it is the best prose I have ever written.  I hope this is so and I believe it.”  If this is true, his very best prose wasn’t even published until after his death.  His wife said, “He is beginning to live and breathe the book.  In the evening he carves wooden spoons for our kitchen and talks about Arthur and Merlin.”

His wife quoted him: “I tell these old stories, but they are not what I want to tell.  I only know how I want people to feel when I tell them.”  She said one of his colleagues thought it was the best statement about writing in all of the books about books, and she agreed.  Steinbeck talked about the “heartbreaking glory” of Arthur, and I think he’s finally put his finger on what has always drawn me to Arthurian literature.  You know it when you feel it.  “When I finish this job, if I ever do, I should like to make some observations about the Legend.  Somewhere there’s a piece missing in the jigsaw and it is a piece which ties the whole thing together.  So many scholars have spent so much time trying to establish whether Arthur existed at all that they have lost track of the single truth that he exists over and over.”  I wonder if that feeling is the missing piece of the puzzle, the universal truth in the legend that we keep coming back to over and over in countless forms, trying to recapture the heartbreaking glory.

One last quote from his letters: “Yesterday something wonderful.  It was a golden day and the apple blossoms are out and for the first time I climbed up to Cadbury—Camelot.”