W. R. J. Barron, editor: The Arthur of the English: The Arthurian Legend and Medieval English Life and Literature

Arthuro of the EnglishOriginally published in 1999, The Arthur of the English is the second volume in a series of scholarly anthologies centered on the Arthurian literature of the Middle Ages. The series as a whole is a cooperative effort of the University of Wales Press and the Vinaver Trust and marks a substantial revision of the Trust’s earlier history, the one-volume Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages edited by R. S. Loomis. As the series editor, W. R. J. Barron, points out in the Preface, the new series takes full advantage of the more expansive scholarship in the field and is thus able to focus on the cultural and historical as well as linguistic aspects of Arthurian literature in Europe.

A mere reading of the table of contents gives the impression of brevity, belied by the substance of the entries: the Introduction, which provides a concise summary of the body of the text as well as a clear sense of the editorial stance, is followed by chapters on the Celtic Arthurian traditions and their relationship to the dynastic chronicles of early England. The earliest Celtic sources are fragmentary, largely Breton and Cornish, and bear little relationship to the Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table of later works. The Welsh manuscripts and fragments become important because, as relatively late as they are, they are also the most complete. The Arthurian tradition begins to take shape with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae of about 1139, in which Geoffrey made Arthur’s reign the pinnacle of his 2,000-year history of Great Britain. Geoffrey’s work was soon followed by versions in French (Wace’s Roman de Brut, 1155) and English (Layamon’s Brut of the early 13th century). These all fit into the “dynastic chronicle” mold, which among other things passed the imperial posture of Arthur to the Norman and Angevin kings of England, as well as confirming their legitimacy as Arthur’s heirs.

A brief “interchapter” on “Arthur in English History” is followed by an important section that tackles the relationship of the original Celtic Arthurian material to, and its interface and incorporation with, the new continental form of the romance. The papers offer a fascinating view of the interplay between English and Continental subjects and forms, as well as the further development of the Arthurian legends into the cycle that became a genre unto itself. “The Romance Tradition” explored by Catherine Batt and Rosalind Field gives us a good sense of just how different medieval England and France were from their contemporary successors. (Remember that Wace was an Anglo-Norman cleric, resident in Normandy, translating the Latin of an English cleric who probably hailed from the Welsh borders and seems to have been resident at Oxford, who in turn had reworked material that originally came from Wales and Brittany, both bordering the Anglo-Norman Empire, as well as sources from Roman Britain.[Editor’s note: whew!]) It is no surprise that the dynastic, historic treatment of the Anglo-Norman writers had little interest for the French; their focus moved to the court and personalities at the center of these histories, which offered vast possibilities for chivalric adventure. The distinction between “dynastic” romances and “chivalric” romances is more than a little blurry: the dynastic, political basis, exemplified by the ultimate conflict between Arthur and Mordred, gradually gave way to the cycle of tales of individual prowess focusing on individual knights, particularly Gawain, in keeping with the growth of the romance tradition in France (originating, interestingly enough, in the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine in Poitiers).

Another interchapter, Juliet Vale’s “Arthur in English Society,” sets the stage for the last section of the book, in which the largely French tradition of the chivalric romance centered around the characters of the Arthurian Cycle comes back to England, working its way down from courtly entertainments to folk tales – the “folk romance” – and then rising again to culminate in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. The concluding chapter by Chis Brook and Inga Bryden, “The Arthurian Legacy,” begins by making one very important point: although the product of conscious literary invention throughout its history, the Arthurian Cycle has become myth, retaining that potency and meaning in the modern world when so few myths still do.

A Postscript by John J. Thompson discusses the increasing importance in histories of literature of “production” and “cultural attitude”: the chapter title, “Authors and Audiences,” gives a succinct rendering of exactly what this means. From a contemporary viewpoint, the importance is obvious; this was not always the case. (This is, in fact, a major concern throughout this volume: several of the authors stress the importance of realizing that the chroniclers and poets who dealt with Arthurian material, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Malory himself, were deliberate creators, editing, revising, and creating as they felt necessary to achieve their particular aims. There is still, apparently even in scholarly circles, a tendency to regard those artists who are responsible for the transmission of many of our earliest literary traditions as mere copyists, which is an assumption that does not bear even the most casual scrutiny.)

I would suggest that those looking for a full telling of the Arthurian cycle stick to Malory and his successors: The Arthur of the English is not about Arthur, it is about the creation of the Arthurian Cycle itself. It is the work of scholars of literature – all with substantial credentials – and, while its relation of cultural and social circumstances is fascinating to a student of the period, its focus is still critical, historical, and linguistic: the text is in some places dense and is focused on textual analysis, evidence of borrowings and influences, and precedents throughout. The notes are extensive and illuminating and the reference bibliography includes bibliographies, texts, and studies. (And be sure you’ve brushed up your Middle English: translations of quotes are few and far between after Wace and Layamon.) That said, it is fascinating, particularly to those who enjoy watching the growth and change of language and its creations, although to be perfectly honest, it has its dry moments.

(University of Wales Press, 2001)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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