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Compared to the other monster that Joyce wrote, this one is a breeze.

Normal people can succeed in reading it more than once in their lifetime, and a semester-long course in college on the subject may forever shine as a pleasing addition to one’s intellectual flair amongst cognoscenti.

Yet for all its pyrotechnics, its obese importance, and secure place in the canon, I choose to remember it now for the story of grief it tells, so fundamentally, yet so obliquely that it’s of secondary importance to most critics compared to the main character’s cuckoldry.

Particularly the grief of a child, Rudy, who died eleven years before the novel starts, at the age of eleven days.

* * *

To recap the story of Ulysses: on that day, 06 June 1904, three central characters go about their daily occupations. It’s Stephen Daedalus payday at the elementary school where he works, and he’s going for drinks tonight with his annoying-hipster-medical friend Buck Mulligan. He hopes not to return home. Leopold Bloom is going about on various business and errands during the day, as a canvasser for newspaper ads, but mainly he’s trying to occupy himself to stay out of the house while his wife is having an affair. Molly Bloom, charming singer, is receiving the visit of her impresario-lover for a private rehearsal and a dirty romp (sounds oddly familiar in today’s landscape). Everybody is trying to think of something else than their own dire situation, and would rather be elsewhere. Stephen in Paris; Leopold in a more tolerant Ireland; Molly in Gibraltar.

Language frays at the edge, and instead of describing neatly according to a rigorous character grid of motivations and ambitions, setting and plot (here’s looking at you, Balzac), entropy gets in the way. Style, puns, abrupts shifts of tone: the narration cannot (will not) stick to a fixed pattern, and you get the novelistic equivalent of prog-rock. Digressions and changes of focus abound, which is just nature’s way of telling us that there’s something else on our minds.

What’s occupying our mind is failing to see the world as a whole rather than a kaleidoscopic collection of minutia, however organised and structured behind the scenes it may be (like Joyce’s schemas). What’s occupying our mind is trying to remember yet another fact using mnemotechnics and automatisms rather than feeling, because feeling too much will bring us the glooms (even though these memory losses are just the brain rot of grief). What’s occupying our mind is losing intimacy for the same desire to avoid feelings. What’s occupying our minds is buying, selling, collecting, aggregating, and collaging ideas, lovers, soaps, dirty books, esoteric beliefs, habits, or detours.

* * *

The Odyssey is essentially the story of detours: after having won at Troy, Odysseus is held captive on the way back by the nymph Calypso. When he finally leaves and gets in sight of his home in Ithaca, his boat is blown back by the bag of winds his shipmates opened. By the time we begin reading the story, he’s already halting the main narrative by relating his previous adventures. It is, ambivalently, the desire and the inability (wilful or not) to go back home after war. At the literal level, Odysseus cannot find the way home because magicians and monsters keep getting in his way. At the metaphorical level, he is battling his own demons, and trying to put his scrambled head into order to find the straight road leading home.

So are Bloom, Stephen, and Molly in Ulysses, who are swimming against the current of life’s chaos and minutia. They are looking for home, which includes husband, wife, father, mother, son and daughter, a satisfactory combination of which neither can achieve.

* * *

I remember two things when our son Arthur died at 37.5 weeks en ventre sa mère. The first was the cold. Not only was it dreary February, but my body stopped responding correctly and layers of wool would never suffice, even at room temperature. The second is the scrambling: the inability to utter complete thoughts, the exhaustion caused by filling one of many stupid forms required to bureaucratically normalize  his death, or the one felt by simply trying to slog through the daily regimen of life: washing, eating, sleeping. To a certain extent, four years later, I can still recognize the occasional return of the scrambling: whenever a simple errand starts to feel like an odyssey, or when one of my sentence can’t find its period.

I did not become a “better person” from it, nor do I think I turned out a worse one. But reading last year the story of a thirty-seven year old ad canvasser looking for ways to kill time drove home the reality of Ulysses. Yes, it’s a great novel, a playground for nerds of all kinds, a great dramedy, and a triumph of the mind, but it is inhabited by a dull substratum: the green bile of life in Dublin then, the bitter boredom of not realizing one’s dreams, the fraying edges of a life clothed in mourning yet shielded against the feeling of grief, religiously unbelieving.

For all the shining brilliance of James Joyce over the Parisian coteries, I think Victor-Lévy Beaulieu is the one who understood best the dissatisfaction of life that brings out the necessity to strangulate language. When I reread Ulysses last year (of course I’m that guy), I thought of the death that pulls us from within, and the prodigious efforts a single, ordinary day can cost.

Being ordinary is no mean business.

James Joyce. Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler. NY: Random House, 1986. ISBN 9780394743127.


Finnegans Wake


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9002-books-origjpgFrom the perspective of the modern reader, Finnegans Wake is the kind of book that could only happen after an intense century or so of philological activity, so let’s recap briefly what philology is about. In its broadest sense, it concerns itself with the study of languages and cultures. It is a mother-lode discipline from which borrow, more or less knowingly, today’s humanistic disciplines (classics, literary studies, linguistics, cultural studies, history, some branches of anthropology, etc).

But in its narrower, more common sense, it’s the dusty discipline of Tolkien and Bédier, the dreadful drudgery of collating, comparing, emending, and editing lost archetypes out of incoherent manuscript traditions. In other words, it’s the discipline (textual criticism) that tried to harmonize differences between extant sources to fuse them into a unified, reconstituted coherent whole. This kind of knitting is behind the apparent uniformity of our great classics like the Iliad and the Odyssey. It has been with us at least since there were libraries, but in the nineteenth century it progressed in leaps and bounds, and these more recent developments are responsible for our understanding of languages as families, of myths as equivalents between cultures (see the Roman-Greek-Sanskrit-Norse parallel pantheons), and the source of our endless debate about the correct versions of fairy tales.

So what is Joyce making of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries craze to put together critical editions of Tristan and ponder more or less cautiously on the Indo-European heritage? He writes his own version of it: he fuses together languages, stories, and traditions in an idiom that allows him to tell all of this simultaneously, without having to wait for a Jacob Grimm to discover equivalence tables between the sounds of Irish, German, and Sanskrit. What’s more, he does so by mixing the old with the new, the high and low, the trivial with the trivium, the current with the eternal.

Granted, the kind of Modernist mastodon that is the Wake bears as direct a relationship to the medieval canon than Ulysses does to the epic tradition. It’s a premise, a scaffold, but not a mold. Nevertheless—and not just because of the recurring Tristan und Isolde motifs—the Wake has something I dare call medieval about it.

* * *

First, the dream-vision. Whether it’s the Commedia, Piers Plowman, or the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, the medieval and early modern audiences made good use of sleep as the setting for fiction. The Wake then stays in this tradition by being a book that dreams itself. Unlike your typical dream-vision, there is no external framing story, no pilgrim falling asleep. When you begin the Wake, because of the circular structure, you’re already after the end of it. The man-character HCE has fallen asleep in the last third of the book, so there can’t be any escape by waking up from his dream since you both are already in it and will fall into it. Or, if you will, the book on which the Wake is based (a common trope of medieval writers claiming to translate from a lost latin source) is Finnegans Wake itself.

Second, the exhaustiveness. I’ve covered that before: medieval writers tried to give comprehensive accounts of their characters, sometimes day by day and hour by hour. If Lancelot is going on a quest, it appears possible to map exactly where he is and who he meets. If you were to really sit down and do the maths you might find a fair amount of inconsistencies, but the point is not to shy away from precision. Joyce tends to be both exhaustive and digressive. The sheer amount of detail of an aside has the heft of Lancelot’s day from prime to lunch time, or the cosmic totality of Aquinas’s Summa.

Third, the linguistic refinement. If you’re familiar with Alain de Lille’s De planctu naturae or the Ysengrimus, you’re aware that the plainness of speech of medieval romance was not universal, and that there were radically sophisticated wordsmiths among medieval authors. James J. Sheridan, de Lille’s English translator admits that some of the Planctu puns are as hard to translate as Joyce incessant portemanteauing.

* * *

Lastly, it has what I would call the “continuability.” The Wake is a book that entices you to stay inside of it and perpetuate it by writing. It’s a difficult cathedral to enter, but then you feel compelled to remain inside as long as possible.

It can be out of pride—you open the Wake like you intend to climb the Everest: out of sheer hubris and blind determination, which is not something easily let go of.

It can be out of enchantment: once you have managed a working competence in Joyce’s night-language, you fear the cold snap of dull reality, and find excuses not to let the book down. Either way, the best ways to stay in are by writing about the Wake; by writing from within the Wake—like Anthony Burgess did with his Clockwork Orange; or by adapting the Wake to your own artistic medium of choice.

For a book so unreadable, the Wake has a surprising number of afterlives in music, painting, drawing, collage, artist’s book, film, or multimedia.

I haven’t spotted yet true continuations of the Wake, in the manner of the Perceval ones, but the impulse to adapt the Wake is the same impulse to rewrite the Grail story, to write Star Wars novels, to write poems in Tolkien’s Quenya or Sindarin: to never let the day break and have to get on the bus for work.

James Joyce. Finnegans Wake. London: Faber and Faber, 1939 [2002]. ISBN 9780571217359

The Post-Vulgate Cycle


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The Grail Cycle, also known as the Vulgate is a massive, aggregated collection of tales and rewritings of previous texts that weaves together a prolix, extensive history of the Holy Grail from its origins in Christian apocrypha, its apotheosis as the source of all adventures in King Arthur’s kingdom, until its departure from Logres, causing the latter’s downfall. It results from the collision of three massive lines of storytelling: the ground story of Geoffrey de Monmouth rise and fall of King Arthur; Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval, ou le conte du graal; and the story of Lancelot, the greatest knight on Earth. Each of these lines have been gradually amplified and modified by writers, until someone eventually decided it was time to package and polish it all into a box set, and that gave us the manuscripts usually referred to as the Lancelot-Grail or Vulgate cycle.

But to call the whole edifice unwieldy is an understatement. So the hypothesis, spearheaded by scholar Fanni Bogdanow and others, is that some writers decided to pare down the Lancelot-Grail into a more streamlined story. By excising almost all but the necessary bits of Lancelot’s story and adding references to the story of Tristan (who had his own gravity-altering Roman bring every possible little bit of Arthuriana in its vicinity), those writers tightened the Cycle around the story and the role of the Grail.

Because it exists only through a process of reconstruction spanning a textual tradition in multiple languages, the Post-Vulgate Cycle is a debatable object. Scholars differ in their opinion whether there is such a coherent whole. On the French side there seems to be more skepticism than on the English side. Although it is possible to find a modern French translation of the Suite du Merlin, the “Post-Vulgate” label is not affixed to it, since we speak rather of the “suite romanesque” (in contrast to the “suite historique” of the Vulgate).

Moreover, the Queste and the Mort Artu are not available in French translation, which renders this English edition the only game in town for modern readers. Bearing in mind that Bogdanow’s work stitches together parts from medieval Portuguese and Spanish texts, it may be asking a lot to send someone unschooled in these matters read her text. And even here, this English translation was completed before Bogdanow even finished publishing her reconstruction (the translator worked directly from the original sources), so that it may differ on certain points from the “official” version.

These textual quibbles aside, if one wants to read the entire Post-Vulgate cycle, you must start by reading the same Estoire and Merlin as the Vulgate, then you branch off into these two volumes. You may also want to jump in directly into the Merlin Continuation since footnotes hither and thither will alert you to events previously told.

And what of the story? It is indeed much more efficient, reducing the number of characters, and the number of damsels on palfreys asking for help. Gawain is an even worse vilain, and one could argue he is responsible for almost all the downfall of Logres. Palamedes, the Sarracen knight known to readers of the Tristan, has a major role in the Quest. The removal of the Lancelot takes away the need for the story to navigate the tension between Lancelot’s worth and his adultery with Guinevere. Being now a minor figure, he functions mostly as genitor of Galahad, and his worth is dismissed as limited by his sin. The Queste is the central focus : its origins in the Dolorous Blow, the rise of the Beast, Palamedes’s conversion and his defeat of it, until Galahad’s coronation as keeper of the Grail. The downfall of Arthur is a very short episode now, and little time is spent on its political complexities.

Yet in the end… something was missing. That impressive sense of tapestry, which only the massive Vulgate could achieve was lost in the compression. Perhaps the Post-Vulgate is a step closer toward the modern form of the novel we know. Although still very mechanical in its emotional painting and scene description, its matter-of-fact approach to battle descriptions as is typical of medieval romances, one could sense that this is not anymore a vast chronicle, a mine of story and data, but rather that it points towards an individualized oeuvre. The cathedral is slowly turning into the burgher’s house…

Lancelot-Grail: 8. The Post Vulgate Cycle. The Merlin Continuation. Translated by Martha Asher. ISBN 9781843842385

Lancelot-Grail: 9. The Post-Vulgate Cycle. The Quest for the Holy Grail and The Death of Arthur.
Translated by Martha Asher. ISBN 9781843842330

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene


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faeriequeen_set_cover1_1How do you make an allegory not suck? Treat it as a story with characters, textures, ambiance, and plot twists. That may carry you off the beaten track of moralizing, but at least you shall deserve a legacy as literature rather than as a virtuous bore.

And that’s the kind of deal with the Devil Milton is known for, making Satan a much more interesting character than God, but it’s also one that Edmund Spenser did earlier in the Faerie Queene, by making his virtuous knights fight against all sorts of evil temptations.

Weaving together the Arthurian tradition, medieval moral allegory, the poetics of Italian romances, in a language that was, even for its era, archaic-sounding and Latinate, The Faerie Queene is a thicket, albeit a rich and colourful one. French speakers may find themselves surprisingly at home with the language, given its use of Latin syntax (placing for example adjectives after nouns) and French-inspired vocabulary.

The correspondance allegory of the Grail cycle is here enlivened by the evocative descriptions of setting and characters, and the plot has learned the lessons of suspense and tension from the Orlando Furioso or the Gerusalemme. We may not reach the philosophical paradoxes of Shakespeare, but we are meant to be entertained and taught.

Modern readers often turn to the Faerie Queene on the strength of its plot, often by way of C.S. Lewis’s defence of it, but I found its greatest delight in its language. Many good yarns with enchanters, temptresses, magical islands, and mystic overtones can be found, but few have a range of expression as dense as Spenser’s, as if he mustered Petrarch’s lyrical powers for epic purposes.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. In 8 vols. General editor Abraham Stoll. Cambridge, MA: Hackett. 2008. ISBN 978-0-87220-941-1.

Joseph Bédier, Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut



le-roman-de-tristan-et-iseutPhilology is a matter of conjectures: given the best available evidence, reasonable assumptions, what is and isn’t possible, the philologist strives to correct as best and as little as possible the text in front of her to help keep alive the tradition.

Figuring out the right word in a corrupted manuscript may require one to go to extraordinary lengths, and marshal knowledge from other disciplines. But finding the missing parts of a story? Completing a story that has come to us in tatters and multiple versions, sometimes mutually incompatible? That’s when you need to step up from the medieval philologist’s seat and become a medieval writer: the self-effacing, yet strongly opinionated, tradition-dependent inventor.

Joseph Bédier, French philologist extraordinaire stepped into this role in the early twentieth century to put together a Tristan et Iseut, which has become de facto for many of us the Tristan et Iseut, simply because it brought together in a simple package the short length of Béroul, the emotional impact of Thomas, the completeness of Gottfried von Straßburg, and none of the never-ending entrelacement of the Roman de Tristan. Thomas’s Tristan is the one for me which is the most moving, but it is heavily amputated—what’s left of it is tantalizing. Béroul is sprightly, less courtly and closer to the tone of what we know of Welsh Arthurian stories.

Bédier accomplishes the rare feat of being not just a crib for a compact and complete life of Tristan, but also of being believable as a pre-Modern text. Bédier’s command of historical French allows him to craft a language that is devoid of modernism, yet stays shy of archaism or pseudo-archaism (a national sport of the 19th century writers). For all practical purposes, it allows him to sound medieval without anachronism, without the difficulty that actual medieval prose poses to the modern reader: formulaic diction, obscure lexicon, monotony of emotion.

Comparable to Bédier’s work on French, I would cite J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumous effort The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, which repurposes the poetic style and diction of the Elder Edda in English to tell the whole story of the hero Sigurd (Siegfried), his encounter with the gods, the Niblungs, and the continuation of this story through the life of Gudrún with Attila the Hun. Here also we have a tattered textual tradition that was re-created using a limited, historically specific palette, in the hope of filing its gaps for posterity.

Bédier, Joseph. Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut. Genève: Droz. ISBN 9782600015486.

Torquato Tasso, La Gerusalemme liberata


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product_9782070409761_195x320Towering. Dense. Masterly. Repudiated by its author.

Among the incontestable masterpieces of the Italian Romance tradition, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme stands head-to-head with Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso in terms of style, technique, motifs, similar scenes, ambition, cultural influence, and beauty. But one is centripetal, the other centrifugal.

Having read both in French, by the same translator (Michel Orcel) who did a masterful job of coining useful neologism and repurposing historical word forms, I am convinced that Tasso has beat Ariosto, but only because he came last. Tasso builds on a lot of motifs from previous writers, and some of his scenes are lifted almost integrally from the Furioso, such as Rinaldo’s ensnaring by the magician Armide, which reproduces Ruggiero’s by Alcina. Both poems deserve to be read in parallel, but contra Galileo who preferred the infinite, digressive, and ever-expanding Furioso, I have been compelled more by the tightness and density of Tasso’s Gerusalemme.

The subject matter is lofty: Crusaders, led by Godefroy de Bouillon, are reclaiming the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem from the hands of the Sarrasins holding it. Yet, one is compelled to cite Voltaire’s damning words on the historical Crusaders:

Quand ils arrivèrent au Saint-Sépulcre, ces monstres, ornés de croix blanches encore toutes dégouttantes du sang des femmes qu’ils venaient de massacrer après les avoir violées, fondirent tendrement en larmes, baisèrent la terre, et se frappèrent la poitrine. (Essai sur la poésie épique)

Those barbarians raping and pillaging all in the name of Christ get a heroic makeover. Drawing on the mythical origins of Godefroy de Bouillon as a descendant of the Swan Knight (an Arthurian element) in the Crusade Cycle, Tasso casts him as a knight chosen by the angel Gabriel to fight for Christendom. Alternating battles, love stories, conspirations, betrayals, magic snares, and religious conversion, Tasso packs with the density of Greek epic the interlaced stories and amorous intrigues of the Romance. He also moves breathlessly between techniques of representation, and edits the multiple strands of story down to the barest necessary details to ensure both concision and resolution.

I think it’s for this rich, complex concision (not in its adulation of the Crusaders!) that the Gerusalemme deserves to be read, because it becomes recognizable for us, modern readers, as a proto-blockbuster of action and romance against a vast historical backdrop. If the Furioso deserves an adaptation as an ambitious HBO-style TV series (and one that could be endlessly renewed season-by-season), the Gerusalemme deserves the three-hour big screen treatment. There can be neither sequel nor prequel: everything happens once, and only once.

Ultimately, Tasso discredited the Gerusalemme (which was never published in a definitive, author-approved form), and went on to pare it down even further into another poem, the Gerusalemme Conquistata. Almost universally reviled by criticism, it has unfortunately   never been translated, depriving non-Italian readers the possibility to form an independent judgment, or at least to understand the amplitude of the fiasco.

Le Tasse, Jérusalem libérée, trad. Michel Orcel, Paris: Gallimard (Folio classique). ISBN  978-2070409761




Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes


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6d0dad0b7b3675244ecd6fffac630f00-d Cervantes did his best to bury the chivalric novel, but it sprung back at him like Antaeus wrestled to the ground. What do we remember first of Don Quixote, his chivalry or his madness?

At the heart of Don Quixote is a major conundrum of literary fiction: if it is wrong, for the sake of art, to condemn “dangerous” books because they could have a bad effect on their readers, then how can fiction be of any worth if it is ineffective? If you argue that fiction cannot “corrupt” you, then you lose the possibility that it can also transform lives for the better; if you allow that fiction can transform you for the better, then you must also allow that it could transform you for the worse, and you must therefore bear the burden that certain books must be banned.

For my part, I will admit that some books may transform you for better or for worse, but I will nevertheless resist the need to ban them, since I would rather live in an apparently dangerous world than in a gelded world. I am a little like Don Quixote, then, who would like to face monsters and dragon, though they be imaginary.

The corrupting influence in question here is the chivalric novel itself. Having read too many of them (like your humble host here), they made his brains go soft, and thus he bethought himself a knight and hilarity ensues from his mistakes on reality. That would be a nice slapstick routine, would it stop there. The genius of the Quixote is for me not so much in its deconstruction of the chivalric novel using realism (something Orlando Furioso does with better grace and a less ambivalent attitude towards its source). Rather, it is the creation of a book that wrote itself.

Let’s recall the layers of meta-fictionality: Don Quixote believes he is a knight like those in the romances he read, and his story has been written down by an Arab whom Miguel de Cervantes is translating (common fare of romances: or dit le conte…). In this story he eventually encounters (in Part II) a book being written about himself, which recounts his famous deeds, but whose authenticity and correct authorship is of course disputed, this being a mirror of an actual event in the publication life of Cervantes’s Quixote (a.k.a Part I), which attracted continuators and imitators. Part I and II are thus preceded by incredible prefatory material, including sonnets to Quixote by Orlando himself and other famous fictional knights, as well as a an author’s preface that sets up everything here as an elaborate joke on the ignorant readership (which must include the actual reader reading it).

In other words, it’s a bottomless pit of paradoxes. But what of its take on chivalry?

Somehow, I think Cervantes is prey to the same mistake he attributes to Don Quixote: mistaking fact for fiction. Time and again, there are memorable, vicious barbs at the the topoi of chivalric novel: Quixote’s madness, his obsession with famous helmets, his cure-all potion, Sancho’s bagging, and so forth. It’s as if we’re treated to a correction of Orlando Furioso with the unflattering light of realism, making us realize: this whole genre is built on lies, impossibilities, and madness that would never hold a second in the real world. But how much did audiences of, say, Lancelot, really read these adventures as literally as Quixote (or Cervantes) does?

I sense a straw man because Cervantes shows through and through a genuine, albeit dissatisfied love for the chivalric novel. The book-burning episode is the most obvious witness to his fondness for them (OrlandoAmadís, and Tirant lo blanco), but there are hints elsewhere, especially in the painstaking way Cervantes addresses all the codes of the romance. Unlike Ariosto who delights in those codes, even when he subverts them, Cervantes feels more like a jilted ex-lover who wishes to convince himself he has moved on from his old love (chivalry), and that he really, really loves the new one (realism).

It’s no wonder then that the aftertaste of Don Quixote is our culture is a nostalgia for  “the knights of old” rather than a bold assertion of modernism. In a way, it is a chivalric novel for the modern age, rather than the modern age’s final repudiation of the chivalric romance.

Read in Edith Grossman’s excellent translation (which, incidentally led me to discover the inclassable, magnificent Luis de Góngora’s Soledades that she also translated).

Don Quixote, trans. Edith Grossman, Harper Perennial, 2003. ISBN 978-0060934347.


Orlando Furioso, Ludovico Ariosto


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Roland Furieux, Trad. Michel Orcel. Paris: Le Seuil. 2v. ISBN 9782020221375.

I have to admit it, I prefer Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato.

Although poets, painters, musicians, and other artists have infinitely mined Ariosto’s poem for centuries, leaving Boiardo in near-complete obscurity against the shining success that is Orlando Furioso, there is something about the sparkling, petulant action of Orlando Innamorato, which Ariosto’s well-educated, erudite, and ironic poem cannot match. Where Boiardo proves a matchless master of suspense and plot, Ariosto  remains an intellectual, and somewhat of a courtier.

That said, one should not pass the opportunity to read Orlando Furioso. Born as a continuation of Boiardo’s poem, the Furioso operates on the same expansive principle: multiple plot lines interlaced at judicious moments which spin into multiple sub-threads. It is a monument to inspire passion and devotion to the infinite possibilities of fiction, and the dream of a never-ending story.

If the Innamorato brought together the magical element of Arthurian literature with the warfare stories of the Carolingian cycle, the Furioso also incorporates a vast Classical culture, which turns it into one of the greatest literary nexus of Western Europe (it is matched only by Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, which incorporates in addition to all these the Biblical tradition). It also employs a variety of registers, and can reach heights of lyrical beauty as well as sweeping epic vistas. You may want to use this chart I made to make sense of characters and genealogy.

What is it about? Well, roughly put, Charlemagne is under siege by the Sarrasins, and since they all have their own amorous or horse-related troubles to deal with, their final confrontation is indefinitely delayed.

The Furioso is a novel without a beginning or an end (even if we count the Cinque Canti). It’s a middle, a giant ball of plot, and sub-plot, which allows the author to operate on a perpendicular plane: irony, and commentary. A sub-story about the mad king who possessed an arquebuse is an opportunity to condemn warfare in its mechanized incarnation; an episode taking its inspirations from the legend of Lemnos women (see the Argonautika) is an opportunity to affirm the equality between men and women; and so forth.

Structurally, one can think of the Decameron or the Canterbury Tales because of the many inset tales, told in their entirety by characters encountered au hasard. The overarching story is eventually only a pretext, and there is no pressing need to further it since it allows instead to create all of those vignettes. The stories are thus nested, instead of being interlaced as in Boiardo.

This has for effect of focusing the Furioso on a resultant sense of harmony and balance, not of constant movement. This harmony can be beautifully disrupted by extravagant episodes (such as Astolfo’s visit to the moon), and there are many, but the voice of the author is ever-present at the beginning and end of cantos, which bookends with a urbane, suave voice the rollicking adventures of knights and damsels.

In fact, I think one of the major interests of the Furioso for the modern reader is not necessarily as a good yarn, or action tale, but rather as a a laboratory for both the modern novel and the modern short story. Although Don Quixote is explicitly engaged in liquidating the medieval epic of chivalry by deconstructing it, the Furioso does so in a more subtle manner. The Quixote employs ribald comedy, slapstick, and wears on its sleeves its intent; the Furioso adheres more closely to the conventions of the genre, and accepts the marvellous rather than casting it as a delusion. The Quixote has a definite realist vein, which works at its best to bring down all the aristocratic pretence of the chivalry novel, but I think it misses its target by casting in the shape of delusion the relationship between fiction and reality. As my favourite literary theorists would put it, something fictional needs not be something false; fiction is just a way of telling, and in which both truth and falsehood can exist. By maintaining the fictional contract, the Furioso is less dissonant than the Quixote; less hilarious, of course, but more beautiful.


Starting reading Arthurian literature


Before you start diving in nearly five hundred years of literature, you may want to revisit your own Arthurian tradition. Can you find the book that introduced you to King Arthur when you were a child (I can: ISBN 9782010029707)? Have you recently seen a movie or TV series with King Arthur? What did you like best about it? Take a few notes concerning the major characters in it (Arthur, Gawain, Guinevere, Merlin, Lancelot, etc.), as well as your impressions. When you emerge back from an extended stay in the middle ages, you will see these works in a completely different light, and you should get thereby a better understanding both of them and of your contemporary world.

If being a fan of medieval High Fantasy (J.R.R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, etc.) drove you to Arthurian literature, you’re in for an interesting shock: fantasy medieval is nothing like real medieval literature. But you’ll also better appreciate the innumerable borrowings.

Once you’ve completed this little self-assessment, it’s time to decide if you want to read in a roughly chronological order (to see the process of appropriation and rewriting) or in an anti-chronological order (to appreciate a growing historical distance as you reach far back into the roots of more recent works).

We’re used to literature surveys being chronological because we understand historical things in terms of birth, growth, and decline, but if you’re reading things backwards, you may better appreciate how these texts came all the way down to us. The 19th and early 20th century adaptations will be of crucial importance here, since it’s often through these keyholes that further explorations of the past have proceeded.

Another good reason to read backwards is when a late medieval author like Sir Thomas Malory is your starting point: Malory is one of the most often taught Arthurian authors in English departments, but he in fact boiled down together centuries of Arthurian tradition. The demands of scholarship in the sources of Malory have justified the unearthing and translation of a myriad of secondary works, and you may better appreciate them after you’ve read Malory.

My own survey was initially anti-chronological, since my point of reference was Malory, but I drifted very quickly towards Welsh works such as the Mabinogion by way of reading Tolkien, so I ended up reading things in a roughly chronological manner.

Arthurian literature as a field

The sprawling amount of Arthurian literature produced during the middle ages can be daunting to the modern reader. Accustomed to copyrighted works written by identifiable authors produced in one version alone, the modern reader can easily feel lost in the confusing mass of medieval literature: similar stories, rewritings, varying manuscript editions, partial translations, transpositions, etc.

The medieval text was a much more fluid entity than the one we are used to, in part because of the manuscript culture: each recopying was a potential occasion for expansion, deletions, or additions. But another important reason is the nature of the stories themselves: instead of being owned by a large corporate entity jealously guarding its copyright, Arthur, Gawain, Lancelot, and the others were characters about whom everyone could tell a story. Constituting a canvas for stories, a tradition (or matière), the Arthurian characters belong to no one in particular.

Nevertheless, most scholars agree that their traceable origins come from Celtic peoples’ oral tradition—that of the Welsh is foundational in this respect. Its transmission however, has no common measure with the extent of the Welsh material now available. After the success of 12th century works synthesizing traditional and then contemporary materials, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannia and Chrétien de Troyes’s romances, Arthurian literature literally exploded all over Europe for the next four centuries. Its fortunes were variable over the following centuries, but the continuing influence of Spanish and Italian romances (Amadís, Orlando furioso, etc.) perpetuated the broader corpus of chivalric literature. The 19th century saw the more systematic and widespread application of philological methods to the study of manuscript cultures. Along with the larger revival of interest in matters medieval, this has fostered the production of critical editions, translations, and adaptations of Arthurian literature.

In the 21st century, we are at the good end of two centuries of rediscovery, philological work, and translation into modern languages. Due to both the demands of scholarship and the public’s continuing interest, we now have available a very broad array of works edited according to rigorous scholarly standards, both in the original and in translation. Hitherto neglected works have benefited from the light cast by persistent scholarly inquiry, and there has never been so many works of Arthurian literature available in print at the same time.