70 pages 2 hours read

John Steinbeck

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1976

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Summary and Study Guide


The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights is the final, unfinished work of Pulitzer-Prize winning author John Steinbeck. Steinbeck is most famous for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), East of Eden (1952), and Of Mice and Men (1937). The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights is Steinbeck’s only fantasy novel. He began writing it in 1958 but abandoned the project in late 1959 after completing seven chapters. Steinbeck died nine years later, but the book wasn’t published until 1976.

Steinbeck based most of the novel on Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, first published in 1485. Malory’s publisher used the title of the final chapter, “The Death of Arthur,” for the entire book, even though the narrative covers Arthur’s full reign. Because Malory’s Middle English text is difficult for most contemporary readers to understand, Steinbeck initially began the project with the intention of translating Malory’s book into modern English. Although he sticks closely to the source material in the first five chapters of the novel, the final two chapters incorporate new scenes and dialogue that convey Steinbeck’s own vision of Arthur’s world.

Plot Summary

The story is told by an omniscient third-person narrator and spans the timeframe from Arthur’s conception to the beginning of Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere. The setting is a generalized medieval English landscape. The book is meant to be read as a collection of stories rather than a unified narrative. All the chapters share the same general cast of characters whose individual stories are loosely tied to the central figure of Arthur and his court at Camelot. Featured roles include King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, the wizard Merlin, the evil witch Morgan le Fay, Sir Lancelot, and a variety of questing knights. Despite the episodic nature of the chapters, each one focuses on the same principal themes of the code of chivalry, the inevitability of destiny, and the use and misuse of magic.

Each chapter focuses on a different character or aspect of Arthurian legend. The first tells of Arthur’s birth and how the boy became the ruler of England by pulling an enchanted sword from a stone. It also details the struggle of Arthur’s early years as he defends his throne, acquires Excalibur, has a love affair with his half-sister, and attempts to drown his illegitimate son, Mordred. The second chapter takes place sometime after Arthur has established his rule. It tells the tale of the unfortunate knight, Sir Balin, whose desire to own a cursed sword dooms him to kill his own brother with it.

The third chapter takes place during the wedding feast of Arthur and Guinevere. A bizarre disturbance during the celebration precipitates a quest by three knights, each of which illustrates some aspect of proper knightly conduct. The fourth chapter describes Merlin’s demise at the hands of a damsel named Nyneve. Although the wizard is aware of his own destiny, his infatuation with Nyneve leaves him powerless to avert catastrophe. After learning all Merlin’s magical secrets, Nyneve seals him inside a sea cave for all eternity.

In Chapter 5, Morgan le Fay hatches a plot to seize the throne from her half-brother, Arthur. Although her plan is foiled, she does succeed in stealing Arthur’s magic scabbard, leaving him vulnerable to physical injury. Chapter 6 follows the adventures of three knights named Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt as they go questing under the guidance of three damsels. Their adventures demonstrate various aspects of the code of chivalry. Chapter 7 follows Lancelot on a quest in which he has several adventures that leave him bored with his own knightly perfection. Upon returning to Camelot, he initiates his destined affair with Guinevere and feels the misery of betraying his best friend. At this point, the unfinished book ends abruptly.