Steinbeck is better known for his works of realistic Americana, such as “The Grapes of Wrath.” In introductory notes to the work, the author indicates that he had always loved the works of Thomas Malory, and with the discovery of the Winchester Manuscripts that expanded upon the Arthurian canon, decided to make use of this new resource to update Malory for modern times. The work was not finished in Steinbeck’s lifetime and was only published as an unfinished work. Steinbeck declared his intention was not to re-write T.H. White or “Camelot,” although, ironically in the later portions of the work he does mimic White in that he introduces very modern ideas and sensibilities, although he avoids the satirical elements that mark “The Once and Future King.” The collection of letters dating during the writing process that are appended hint that he may have become more expansive in reaction to negative comments on the first sections, which follow Malory most closely.
The intriguing thing about the work is wondering what it might have been like had it been finished. The book ends just as the Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur triangle is on the horizon, and before any mention of the Holy Grail. It would have been very interesting to see how Steinbeck approached these important Arthurian subjects.
Reactions to the book were, as usual, mixed. Some of us preferred the more elaborated chapters (as I did), while others preferred the clean purity of the early chapters.