John Steinbeck, a Knight of the Round Table, and Contentment

“Contentment requires so little and so much.”

These words are spoken by Sir Marhalt, in Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights (176). Marhalt is a knight of King Arthur’s “Round Table,” travelling with a “lady” adventuring companion. He makes the pronouncement after catching some trout and sitting down to relax in their forest camp. The scene is set in the following passage.

In a little glade beside a spring of cold bubbling water he built a cunning little house of boughs hacked off with a sword, and bedded it deep with dried sweet-smelling ferns. Nearby he fitted stones in a structure to hold the little pot, and gathered a heap of dry wood cloven from the underside of a fallen tree, and he tethered his horse in nearby grass. His armor hung on the oak beside the bower and his shield and lance beside it. The damsel was not still. When he had robed himself she washed his underthings and hung them on a gooseberry bush to dry. She filled her little pot with gooseberries and watching and listening followed the flight of bees and brought wild honey from a hollow tree for sweetening. And in the bower she busied herself spreading wild thyme to perfume the couch, rolling sweet grasses in her tight-woven cloth to make a rich soft pillow, arranging her little store of needments in domestic order, and with her small strong knife she cut and notched saplings from which to hang her clothing. Her knight begged the golden pin that held her hair, and he pulled tail hair from his horse and braided a line, and he went toward the sound of water falling in a pool and gathered mayflies as he went. And shortly he returned with four fine speckled trout, straightened her hairpin, and gave it to her. And then he wrapped the trout in a blanket of green fern and laid them by to place in hot ashes in the evening. (175).

The passage brings to mind the description of Schionatulander, another figure associated with King Arthur, fly fishing in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century Titurel. Steinbeck’s Marhalt does not use the “feathered hook” that Schionatulander does, but he is clearly willing to make use of the trout’s attraction to flies. Steinbeck, himself, was an avid fisher. As indicated in his description of Marhalt’s fishing method, however, he was not strictly devoted to one type of fishing or another. Steinbeck scholar (and f;y fisher) Robert DeMott explains that Steinbeck simply enjoyed catching or even trying to catch fish. He was not a “meat” fisherman, and he clearly held a deep, if somewhat romantic, appreciation of the fish themselves. This is seen in a moving quote provided by DeMott, in his recent Steinbeck Review article, “Of Fish and Men.” DeMott writes, “A decade later, according to his eldest son, Thom, Steinbeck placed a large piece of broken mirror in a mountain stream near Los Gatos so that the streams single resident—a small trout—on seeing its  own image would not feel lonely” (114). Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur was published posthumously, in  1976, by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. The stories were inspired by those recorded by Sir Thomas Mallory in Le Morte d’Arthur. Mallory’s text was published by William Caxton in 1485. Steinbeck, however, worked from the earlier “Winchester Manuscript” and “other sources.”

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“The Fight with Sir Marhaus” (stained glass), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1862. Copyright: Bradford Art Galleries and Museum, West Yorkshire, UK.

Sir Marhalt is “Sir Marhaus” in Mallory’s La Morte d’Arthur. A long-standing character in Arthurian and related narratives, his name is rendered many other ways by other or unknown authors. He is generally associated with the Irish princess Iseult or Isolde and meets his death at the hands of Iseult’s lover, Tristan (as spelled by Steinbeck) or Tristram. Steinbeck portrays Sir Marhalt as a wise man. Most of us, whether we are fishers or not, can likely relate to Marhalt’s statement about contentment—that it is both easy and hard to achieve. On the one hand, life often seems so simple and enjoyable. Yet, nearly as soon as we see it so, we are faced with new complexities that make contentment challenging to maintain. No doubt, this is why so many of us return to the stream, again and again, to cast our flies. Like Sir Marhalt, we can find contentment there. Sometimes that contentment slips away, off of the water. But we always know where to find it once more. Also like Marhalt, however, we should look for it in companionship, and in many other places as well. Sources: DeMott, Robert. “Of Fish and Men.” Steinbeck Review 11: 2 (2014), 113-137. Steinbeck, John. The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights. Chase Horton, ed. New York: Penguin, 2008.

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