Dr Elly McCausland’s new book is an examination of the numerous adaptations of Malory’s Morte Darthur that were written for children in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here we present a sneak preview of a much longer interview that Dr McCausland recently gave to our Medieval Herald newsletter. You’ll be able to read the full version in the June issue. If you are not on the mailing list already you can subscribe here.
Since so many authors presented versions of the Arthurian legends [during the Victorian period], can we assume they all took very different approaches? Which were the most successful?
Yes – everything from simple abridgements with modern spelling to entirely new fictional universes loosely based on Malory’s characters and plot. Ascertaining their success depends on our definition of success – many of the simple, abridged versions were very successful during the nineteenth century, but the versions that still endure today tend to be those that took more liberties with Malory’s tale. Howard Pyle’s early twentieth-century edition, with its beautiful woodcut illustrations and its creative retelling of Arthur’s story, is still recognised and enjoyed today and has been rated among the top children’s books of all time. Perhaps the most successful of the interpretations I look at, though, is T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, partly due to the adaptation of the first book by Walt Disney, but also because it completely renovates and revives the Morte Darthur for a fractured post-war society.
What do you think these books tell us about their authors? Why do you think they took the route of an Arthurian story rather than another or creating their own?
Many of these texts tell us far more about their authors than any actual child reader. I am particularly interested in how the Morte enabled many authors (particularly T. H. White and John Steinbeck) to enact, through writing, a kind of ‘wish fulfilment’, to revisit their own childhoods and explore unresolved conflict or perform fantasised adventures. I think Malory’s own style has a part to play in all this – the enigmatic nature of his characters, his lack of in-depth psychological exploration coupled with the emotional complexity and intensity of the legend seems to repeatedly prompt authors to ‘fill in the gaps’ with their own highly subjective experience. Why did Lancelot behave as he did? What prompted Mordred to seek his own father’s destruction? How could Arthur’s sister repeatedly plot against him? Writing with an imagined child audience in mind forces authors to also ask questions of Malory’s narrative, almost as a child might, and every author takes a slightly different approach based on his or her own subjective experience of both childhood and adulthood, and the complicated ways in which memory intersects with both.
Which to your mind are the most inventive and unusual takes on the legend?
Sitting somewhere between children’s literature and literature for adults, written in nuanced, beautiful prose, and offering an (often disturbing) psychoanalytic reading of Malory’s characters, T. H. White’s adaptation is unlike any other. One is unsure what to make of it, and each time I return to it, I find something new. If, as Scott Hess once pointed out, the heads of Malory’s characters ‘have no insides’, White not only restores those insides, but does so with astonishing depth and pathos. One could also include John Steinbeck’s retelling. Although unfinished, Steinbeck attempts to do something similar, peering deep into the tortured psyches of Malory’s characters and identifying himself in particular with Lancelot. Had Steinbeck finished this book, what he considered to be his magnum opus, I am sure it would have been on a par with White for originality. Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence is also, of course, a highly inventive take on the legend, but not really based on Malory’s Morte.
Why did you decide to stop at 1980?
For me, the 1980s mark a dramatic shift in Arthurian interpretation, as authors depart almost completely from Malory’s Morte and start to produce fiction that is more loosely based on Arthurian themes and characters. Although White and Steinbeck produced highly original retellings, they still remain fairly faithful to Malory’s story and characterisation. In the 1980s, however, we see authors such as Susan Cooper and Marion Zimmer Bradley departing almost completely from Malory’s structure and plot, using Arthurian themes as inspiration rather than as a prescriptive template. I think any attempt to tackle post-1980 Arthuriana and the child would have to take a very different critical approach and ground itself in slightly different principles in terms of adaptation theory, so it made sense to end the project there, with a nod to the substantial changes that occurred in post-1980s Arthuriana and to further research implications.
Dr Elly McCausland is Senior Lecturer in British and American literature at the University of Oslo.