By Thomas Malory, adapted by John Matthews, illustrated by Will Sweeney
This is the first graphic novel adaptation of Malory’s epic tale of King Arthur, and it covers the first four books of Malory’s epic tale; from the boy king’s intoduction to the first glimpse of Sir Lancelot, the knight that will cause the fall of the Round Table.
Along the way we see the familiar elements of this legend; the boy king, the sword in the stone, the wise but mysterious wizard Merlin, The Lady in the Lake, Excalibur, the Knights of the Round Table. The legendary elements of this fantastic saga.
(How’s that for an iconic starter? From Le Morte D’Arthur by Malory, Matthews and Sweeney, published by SelfMadeHero)
Oh, I had high hopes for this one, so much potential, such a great legend to play with (And I know Joe was keen too). In theory it’s a story with everything; high adventure, noble deeds, love, friendship, betrayal, politics, and all wrapped in a magical, mystical setting of some imagined England. Granted, I’ve never read Malory’s original, but the components he put on the page are so evocative, so legendary – every bit the perfect mythic story as it’s passed into folklore.
(Lose a sword, get a better sword. More iconic magery from Le Morte D’Arthur by Malory, Matthews and Sweeney, published by SelfMadeHero)
But this graphic novel adaptation of Le Morte D’Arthur is few of these things. It’s frankly a rather crushing disappointment. Where I wanted something to inspire, to reflect the legendary nature of the tale, I get a dry, fractured summary of key events that read as a collection of scenes attempting to merely summarise a great story, rather than the distillation of greatness that all truly brilliant adaptations manage.
Perhaps it’s the fault of the original text? Or perhaps Matthews, a noted Arthurian scholar, is simply too much in love with his subject, too respectful of the subject matter to do the necessary butcher’s work on cutting Malory’s epic into the shorter graphic novel form.
Because as it is, this work read to me as merely a fractured assemblage of every key plot point from the legend, and just doesn’t manage to convey any of the greatness of the tale, of the legend that was King Arthur.
All too often every scene seems there merely to establish the moment, functioning as pure exposition where it should have been inspired myth. It almost reads as though Sweeney’s gone through the original with a highlighter and cut out everything but the essential plot points, which he’s then turned into dialogue. And it just doesn’t work, it strips all the life from the work and delivers something rather bland, sterile and overall just a little dull.
In the end, reading it once more, I found my response slightly lessened; it does have moments when it reads fairly well, and the few times when Matthews and Sweeney allow themselves the luxury of an extended sequence it does deliver something of the tale I’d hoped to be reading. But even with this second reading providing a little more enjoyment it wasn’t enough, wasn’t what I was hoping for.
And since I found myself so disappointed with the story and adaptation, I found myself not too overly enamoured with Will Sweeney’s art as well. It seemed rather flat and lacklustre, static and posed rather than conveying the epic grandeur of the battles or the intriguing politicing of the King’s many adventures. But looking back through it, with an eye to writing about it, I realise it’s not as bad as I first thought. Too often his panels, through necessity of conveying the plot, are mere snapshots of the tale, rather than great sequential art, but they’re quite attractively done snapshots – that page above for example.
It’s something of a first for me as well, since I’ve at least enjoyed every SelfMadehero book I’ve looked at so far. With Le Morte D’Arthur I wanted something that adapted the work as brilliantly as other SelfMadeHero books have adapted the lives of Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Cash or the works of Conan Doyle and HP Lovecraft. Each of these works succeeded not because they slavishly stuck to the text, merely reducing the wordcount down to fit the graphic novel form, but because they captured the spirit of the works, the spirit of the characters.
Le Morte D’Arthur just doesn’t manage that. It’s a terrible shame, because it could have been, should have been, something really, well, legendary. Of course, I could be completely wrong. You tell me.