Today, talking with Isabel about the Nobel Prize, I remembered the book about king Arthur that John Steinbeck wrote.
Mr. Steinbeck published his work The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights in a very noble year (1976, the year I was born, sorry for the joke) but the adventure with King Arthur legends began twenty years before and the Arthur’s cycle was in fact nearly an obsession for him. If we read again his most famous novel, The East of Eden, we can find easily the tracks of this obsession about old Anglo-Saxon culture, the roots of Shakespeare and the secure tradition that joins America with Europe.
Steinbeck doesn’t try to update Arthur’s legend, he tries to bring people the possibility to get the legends now. Like Mark Twain did before, Steinbeck updates the language joining his Irish and German roots to give a present to his beloved America, the present of the past. For this work, Steinbeck took Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur) and takes the other way to The East of Eden, giving us the travel gift from past to present, giving us his last silent secret, the past and the present joined at last.
One of my favorite books of Steinbeck is Mice and Men, one story about two brothers. One of them must carry with the other, a handicapped man. The story evolves and ends (I won’t tell you the end, of course, it’s a great novel) but give us the same sensation of classic tragedy… like we were the brother who cannot manage the situation, like a Hamlet who cannot manage his father’s shadow, like Arthur facing his last destiny symbolized into a sword. King Arthur’s legend is present at every corner in Steinbeck’s books; Merlin is present in that North America devastated by the 29’s crisis in The Grapes of Wrath; Carl Trash trying to find the way to escape from this destiny, this time dressed like a prostitute.
When we begin one book from Steinbeck we all know the end. It’s not a secret that Cal Trash is damned and it’s not a secret King Arthur’s end but this point doesn’t matter for Steinbeck. The real secrets are the hidden motivations of the characters to find the true that they suspect. Then, Steinbeck shows us that the real tragedy is not now in the end either in the course of the story. Yes, Mice and Men end is a tragedy we can feel it all over the book and we cannot escape from it as Hamlet cannot escape from his fate. In The East of Eden we know from the beginning of the book the fate like in classic Greek Literature.
Does it matter? We can feel this silent Greek chorus in every book and in every moment, in every grape we eat, of wrath, of dejection, of hope, of tradition, of culture… in every Grape of Life we’ve eaten in every century, now and ever.