Translating the Alliterative Morte Arthure

A page for English 344

This page offers a few tools to help you as you work on the translation assignment. First, while translation is not simply a matter of substituting modern words for Middle English ones, both the task and your reading of Middle English in general will go more smoothly if you learn some Middle English vocabulary by heart. Here, then, is a list of common (and/ or commonly mistranslated) Middle English words:

andcan sometimes mean if
anonright away, soon
avoidleave, send away; sometimes dismount
bacheloryoung knight
biggreat, strong
brachetfemale hound
brittenbeat down
burghtown, fortress
buskgo, hasten, prepare
cheerappearance; can mean entertainment
clenly (-lich)handsomely, completely
couragedesire; heart
dressset in position
eek, ekealso
enprisetry (can be spelled emprise)
fainglad; gladly
fewterto fix a spear or lance in its rest (the fewter)
foldeearth, ground
garto cause (someone to do something)
gattook, got
graithego, prepare
gramercymany thanks
keepcare for, guard
kithcountry, native land
listto wish
maugrein spite of
meetsuitable, useful
nenor, not (double negatives are OK)
nisis not
no force[I] don’t care
oughtowed; owned
orcan be or, but can also mean before
quitto avenge; to acquit oneself
rashto dash, slash
redeadvice; to advise
sadgrave, serious
sikercertain, sure
speedbe successful
sterteleap, go
stintstop; put an end to
swithefast, quick, very
tatchquality, habit
trowthink, believe
unhappyunlucky, unfortunate
warnto present
weenthink, believe
weleprosperity, joy
wendturn, go
witknow (wist)
woodcrazy, mad
yedewent (yode)

Remember that you can also go to the Oxford English Dictionary and to the Middle English Dictionary for help in finding specific words, and/ or to find a range of possible meanings for a given word (remember that even the glosses in our class text are not necessarily the ONLY way to translate a given word.

Below are passages from three published translations of the Alliterative Morte. Reading these and studying the decisions made by these translators may help you as you prepare for the translation assignment. Note that these are all verse translations: you do not have to produce a verse translation, but you certainly may choose to do so.

Valerie Krishna in The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation, ed. James J. Wilhelm (New York: Garland, 1994).

May great, glorious God, through His singular grace,
And the precious prayers of His peerless Mother,
Help us shun shameful ways and wicked works,
And grant us grace to guide and govern us here,
In this woeful world, through virtuous ways,
That we may hurry to His court, the Kingdom of Heaven,
When the spirit must be split and sundered from the body,
To dwell and abide with Him in bliss forever;
And help me to pour forth some words here and now,
Neither empty nor idle, only honor to Him,
And pleasing and helpful to all people who hear.

You who like to listen and who love to hear
Of lords of the old days and of their dread deeds,
How they were firm in their faith and followed God Almighty,
Hear me closely and hold your silence,
And I shall tell you a tale lofty and true
Of the royal ranks of the Round Table,
The flower of knighthood and all noble lords,
Prudent in their deeds and practiced men-in-arms,
Able in their actions, ever fearful of dishonor,
Proper men and polished and versed in courtly ways;
How they gained by battle glories abundant,
Laid low Lucius the wicked, Lord of Rome,
And conquered that kingdom by prowess in arms–
Hark now closely and hear out this tale.(1-25)

Brian Stone, King Arthur’s Death: Morte Arthure, Le Morte Arthur (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988).

Now may glorious God, great in His grace,
And the precious prayers of His pure Mother
Shield us from shameful deeds and shifts of sin,
And giving us grace, guide and govern us here
In this woeful world, that through worthy living
We may come to His court, the Kingdom of Heaven,
When our souls are severed and sundered from body,
Ever to abide in bliss and be with God!
May he sway me to weave some words at this time
Not empty or idle, but honouring Him,
With pleasure and profit to the people who hear them!

You who love to listen and long to hear
Of our ancestors of old and their awesome deeds,
How they were loyal to their religion and loved God Almighty,
Hear me with good humour! Yes, hold still,
And I’ll tell you a tale that’s true and lofty
Of the regal and highly-ranked of the Round Table,
The champions of chivalry and chieftains of title,
Prudent in practice, powerful in arms
And doughty in deed, ever dreading disgrace.
Courteous and kind they were, accomplished in court manners,
And won in their wars a wealth of honours,
Slaying wicked Lucius, the Lord of Rome,
And conquering that kingdom by skill in arms.
Turn hither your ears and hear this history!


Then he bellowed, he roared, and frenziedly swung
Full fiercely at Arthur, but struck into the ground.
A sword’s length in the sod swiftly he smote,
So that Arthur near swoons from the sweep of his strokes.
But swiftly the king strains himself fiercely,
Thrusts in with the sword so it punctured the groin:
Both the guts and the gore gush out together
And enslime all the grass on the ground where he stands.
Then he casts down the club and lays hold of the king,
On the crest of the crag clutches him in his arms,
Wraps him right round, to rupture his ribs;
So hard he hugs that hero, his heart nearly bursts.

Then the mournful maidens fell to the earth,
Kneeling and crying, and clasped their hands:
“Christ deliver this knight and keep him from grief,
And let not that fiend fell him from life.”
Yet is the monster so mighty he hurls him under;
Wildly they writhe and wrestle together,
Welter and thrash out through the thornbush,
Swiftly tumble and turn and tear their garb;
Ungently from the crest they struggle together–
Sometimes Arthur on top and other times under–
From the height of the mount down to the rough rock,
They slack not till they fall at the short of the sea.
Then Arthur with a dagger savagely strikes,
And stabs the hulk straight up to the hilt;
The wretch in his death-throes wrings him so hard,
Three ribs in his side he squeezes to splinters.(1124-51)


The giant bellowed and bawled and battered fiercely
And hard at Arthur, but hit the ground;
A sword’s length in the soil he struck his club.
The sound of his savage blows nearly stunned the King,
Yet he quickly came to the encounter again
And struck with his sword, slitting open the loins
So that the guts and the gore gushed out together,
Making the grass greasy on the ground he trod.
Then the giant cast away his club and clutched the King
On the crest of the crag, clamping him in his arms,
And enclosing him completely to crush his ribs,
Hugging him so hard his heart almost burst.
Then the grieving girls knelt on the ground,
Hands clasped, crying and exclaiming aloud,
“Christ comfort this knight and keep him from sorrow,
And foil that fiend who would fell him in death!”

The sorcerer was still strong enough to roll on top,
And wrathfully they writhed as they wrestled together,
Weltering and wallowing in the wild bushes,
Tumbling, fast turning and tearing their clothes.
They toppled down from the top in tumult together,
With Arthur over him and under by turns,
From the height of the hill to the hard rock below,
Not ceasing though they struggled at the sea’s edge.
Then Arthur stabbed him savagely with a dagger,
Repeatedly hitting into the hulk to the very hilt.
So strongly the scoundrel squeezed him in death-throes,
He broke three ribs in his royal breast.


He whips out Caliburn, all freshly whetted,
Hastes to Golapas, who had hurt the most men,
And cleaves him just at the knees cleanly in two.
“Come down,” cries the king, “and speak to your comrades!
You are too high by the half, I tell you in truth;
You will be handsomer soon, with the help of my Lord.”
And with his steel sword he struck off his head.
Stoutly into that struggle he strikes at another,
And sets on seven with his stalwart knights–
Till sixty were so served, ceased they never.
And thus in that skirmish the giants are slain,
Laid low in that battle by lordly knights.

Then the Romans and the ranks of the Round Table
Arranged themselves in array, rearguard and all,
And on helms went to work with stout weapons of war;
With strong steel they sundered splendid mail,
They arrayed themselves well, these royal men,
And thrust in skillfully on steel-grey steeds,
Fiercely flourished with flashing spears.
Sliced away ornaments fastened on shields;
So many battle-fated are fallen on the field
That each brook on the forest floor flows with red blood.
Thus swiftly lifeblood is left on the sod,
Swords are broken in two, and dying knights
Loll full length, lurching on lunging steeds;
Worthy warriors’ wounds, ruptured ribs,
Faces gruesomely framed in tangled locks
Were all trampled, trod down by steeds in their trappings.
The fairest on earth that ever were framed
Stretched as far as a furlong, a thousand all told.(2123-52)


He brandished Excalibur the brightly burnished,
Got close to Golopas, who had done greatest harm,
And cut him in two clean through the knees.
“Come down!” said the King, “And account for it to your fellows!
You are too high by half, I have to tell you.
You’ll be even handsomer soon, with Our Lord’s help!”
And with his steely sword he struck off his head.
Sternly in that assault he struck another,
And set on seven more with his stalwart knights:
Till sixty giants had been so served, they never ceased.
So this assay saw the destruction of the giants,
Outjousted by gentle knights in the doings of the day.
Then both Romans and ranked knights of the Round Table
Drew up afresh their rearguards and the rest,
And hacked at helmets with hardy war weapons,
Slashing with strong steel through splendid mail.
Yes, they did things duly, those daring warriors,
Fixing lances in fewters freely on their iron-grey horses,
With their skewering spears savagely dueling,
And shearing off shields their shining goldwork.
Felled on the field of that fight were left so many
That every runnel ran with red blood in the forest.
By then life-blood lay in pools on the lovely grassland;
Swords were smashed in two, dying knights
Giddily lurched guardless on galloping steeds.
Gashes grieved the bodies of gallant men;
Their faces disfigured under the foaming waters,
Were smashed by the stamping of steeds in armour.
It was the fairest field of fight ever to be described;
There fell over a furlong’s length fully a thousand.

Simon Armitage, The Death of King Arthur (London: Faber and Faber, 2012)

“My name is Sir Priamus, my father is a prince,
praised in his province by proven kings;
in Rome where he reigns he is spoken of as royalty.
But to Rome he was a rebel, and wrestled for its lands,
waging war for many a long winter
by wisdom and wit and warrior-like force
and by worthy means he made himself mighty.
He is of Alexander’s kin, overlord of kings,
and Hector of Troy was grandfather to his uncle.
Such are the clans and the kin that I come from:
from Judas and Joshua, both gentle knights.
I am his heir apparent, his eldest offspring;
of Alexandria and Africa and all those outer empires
I own them all and hold power over each;
from all the principal cities and peoples in those parts
both territory and treasure shall be mine to take,
plus taxes and tributes while my time lasts.
But while I lodged at home, so haughty was my heart
that none below heaven came higher than my hip,
so I was sent on this sortie with seven score knights,
with my father’s assent, to experience this insurgence,
and my pride is punctured, for I am shamefully overpowered,
and by effort of arms I am harmed for ever.
So now I have informed you of my family and forbears,
will you, out of knighthood, let me know your name?”


“My name is Sir Priamus; a prince is my father
Who is lauded in his lands by well-acclaimed kings;
In Rome where he rules he is rated as royal,
But he rebelled against Rome and rode over its territory,
Waging war for winters on end
With wit and wisdom and his warrior’s strength,
And by honourable action achieved independence.
He is of Alexander’s blood, overlord of kings;
His ancestor was Hector of Troy, his uncle’s grandfather,
And in the kindred that I come from I count also
Judas Maccabaeus and Joshua, noble knights.
I am his heir apparent, eldest of his kin.
I possess and wield plenary power
Over Alexandria and Africa and other foreign lands.
To me shall truly come the treasure and territories
Of all the princely cities the port possesses,
And the tribute and taxes during my time of life.
While at home so haughty of heart I lived,
That as high as my hip I accounted none under heaven;
And so I was sent here with seven score knights
To try my fortune in this fight with my father’s permission;
And I for my arrogance am ingloriously captured,
By hazard of arms everlastingly damaged!
Now that I have recounted the kindred I come of,
Let me know your name, for your knighthood’s sake!”


Then in time, Arthur turned his attention to Tuscany,
trampled and took those turreted towns,
walloped down walls and wounded knights,
toppling towers and tormenting the locals.
He made worthy widows wail with sorrow,
weeping and howling they wrung their hands.
And everywhere in his wake he wasted through war
their wealth and their houses, and awoke their woe.
They spurred on, spread out, spared very little,
plied violence without pity, despoiled the vines,
spent without censure what was saved or stored,
then sped to Spoleto with their countless spears.
Reports of him sprang from Spain to Prussia,
and they spoke in bitter terms of his exorbitant excesses.
Then to Viterbo the valiant man veered on his mount,
and advisedly in that vale allowed his men victuals
of Vernage and other vintages, and baked venison,
with a view to loitering in the viscount’s land.
And soon the vanguard were unsaddling their steeds
and resting in Vertennon’s vale of many vines.
There the Sovereign was ensconced, consoled in his heart,
waiting to see if any senators sent word,
revelling and carousing with rich wine,
this true royal with his Round Table,
among mirth and melody and many kinds of pleasures;
nowhere on earth was humankind as happy.


Arthur turned into Tuscany when the time seemed ripe,
And tumultuously took its high-towered towns,
Welting down walls, wounding knights,
Overturning towers and tormenting the people.
Worshipful widows he made wail in woe,
Cursing and crying and clasping their hands.
Wherever he went he laid waste with war
Their wealth and their dwellings, working misery.
They spread their surging assault, sparing few,
Pitilessly plundering and despoiling their vines,
Consuming without stint what had been saved with care,
Then sped on to Spoleto with spears in plenty.
From Spain to Prussia word spread about him,
With talk of his extravagance; and terrible was the bitterness.
Towards Viterbo then he turned his horse,
And in that vale victualled his valiant men prudently
With various vintages and baked venison,
Intending to stay in the territory of the Viscount:
Very soon the vanguard let free their horses
In that virtuous vale among the vines.
There sojourned the Soverein in solace of heart
To see if the senators would send any message,
Carousing with rich wine and reveling joyously,
This royal king with regal members of his Round Table,
With mirth and melody and many amusements.
Men were never made merrier on this earth.


“Do call me a confessor with Christ in his hands;
I must have the Host quickly, whatever else chance.
My kinsman Constantine shall wear the crown,
In keeping with his kinship, if Christ will allow it.
Sir, if you prize my blessing, bury those lords
Who in that struggle with swords were sundered from life;
And then sternly mark that Mordred’s children
Be secretly slain and slung into the seas:
Let no wicked weed in this world take root and thrive–
I warn you, by your worth, work as I bid.
I forgive all offenses, for Christ’s love in Heaven:
If Guinevere has fared well, fair fortune be with her.”
With all his strength, “Into Thy hands…,” he said with his last breath,
And gave up his spirit and spoke nevermore.

The royal blood of Britain then, bishops and all,
Proceed toward Glastonbury, with hearts full of grief,
To bury the brave king and bring him back to the earth,
With all the honor and majesty that any man could have.
Loudly bells they ring and requiem sing,
Intone masses and matins with mournful notes;
Monastics arrayed in their richest robes,
Pontiffs and prelates in precious attire,
Dukes and peers all dressed in mourning,
Countesses kneeling and clasping their hands,
Ladies forlorn and mournful to look at,
One and all were draped in black, damsels and all,
Who appeared at that sepulcher with streaming tears;
A more sorrowful sight was never seen in their time.(4314-41)


“Call me a confessor with Christ in his hands,
For I must speedily receive the sacrament, come what may.
My cousin Constantine shall wear the crown,
As becomes a kinsman, if Christ permit.
Bear my blessing, men, in burying these lords
Who were slaughtered by sword in struggle today.
Then be stern and see that the offspring of Mordred
Are secretly slain and slung into the sea:
Let no wicked weed wax twisting on this earth!
I urge you, for your honour’s sake, do all as I bid.
All offences I forgive, for heavenly Christ’s love;
And if Guinevere has done well, well may she prosper!”
He strongly said “In manus” as he lay stretched out,
And so passed his spirit: he spoke no more.
Then the baronage of Britain, bishops and others,
Shaped with shuddering hearts to go to Glastonbury
To bury their brave sovereign, bearing him to earth
With all the honour and high ceremony any man could have.
They had the bells rung and chanted the Requiem,
And sang masses and matins in mournful tones.
Religious men arrayed in their rich capes,
Pontiffs and prelates in precious robes,
All the dukes and dignitaries dressed in mourning,
Countesses kneeling and clasping their hands,
Ladies languishing and looking forlorn,
And girls too, all garbed in garments of black,
Surrounded the sepulcher with their tears streaming down;
So sorrowful a sight was never seen in their time.