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.

Excursus: The Renaissance Italian Romances


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A typical reaction of the Arthurian fiend after finishing massive tome after massive tome of the interlaced adventures of any famous or obscure Round Table knight is to ask for more. But then, comes a point at which one feels like one has reached the end of the buffet, and can only scrape the bottom of plates. The Middle Ages have ended, and now there is only the Modern stuff left to read.

Enters the Italian tradition. While in 1500s France the poets are trying to sound like resuscitated Virgil or Ovid (with more or less success, depending on the case), in Italy there remains a strong, active, and inventive tradition of chivalric literature. It is not strictly Arthurian, but it honours many of its themes and techniques with a new spirit. In Italy, the literary tradition of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew (known from the Chanson de Roland and innumerable subsequent chansons de gestes and romance, almost as numerous as those of the Round Table) is the carrier of this new spirit.

But the real innovation of the Italians was not to perpetuate the already rich Carolingian literature tradition: it was rather to merge it with the magic and love themes of the Arthurian tradition. The key work is Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorento. Reading it in parallel with the prose Lancelot is a startling discovery. Like the Lancelot, the Innamorento is a strongly interlaced tale: thread after thread of narrative is spun, interrupted, left aside for a moment, then caught up with a few cantos later. However, where the Lancelot gives us a superbly organized tapestry of contrasting motifs, the Innamorento gives us instead the modern thrilling story built on suspended actions and cliffhangers. It’s all in the manner of interlacing. In the Lancelot, the story blocks most often have an inner coherence: each bit of the story is complete for the most part before the narration brings us to another one. For example, if Lancelot is fighting for a damsel, the narration will only switch story after he has defeated the giant holding the lady captive. In the Innamorento, Boiardo is leaving us hanging: when Roland is in the thick of his fight with an ugly monster, and that he’s about to lose the day, is the best time to flip channels and catch up on the latest developments of Charlemagne’s battle with Gradasso!

This is a completely different way of seeing storytelling. In the Lancelot, the story is a bit like a tragedy: it’s already known how it will end, and the narrator often refers the reader to the ending. The narrative tapestry is woven for clarity, contrast, and totalizing perfection: we can see both past, present, and future at once, and the reader is presented with the story as accomplished fact. In contrast, Boiardo introduces a very strong sense of temporality in reading. The narration knows the reader’s expectations, and plays carefully with them. The story is in progress before the reader’s eyes, and it is not known where it will end, since anything can happen. What’s more, each division of the story (canto) functions like a mini-episode, beginning with a recap of the story so far (“previously on Orlando…”), and ends with incomplete flash-forwards (“Next week…”). This is all too familiar to us TV viewers, but you will never find it in medieval cyclical literature.

And boy is the story rollicking! It’s a crazy run, a rollercoaster ride of damsels, dragons, treacheries, villains, valiant barons, evil invaders, elephants, and giraffes! The whole world is now the stage for Orlando’s adventures, not just Britain and environs as was the case for Arthur. This is also where we start feeling a break from the tradition: whereas the later Arthurian stories tend to accumulate echoes from the previous stories, Boiardo’s Innamorento goes straight for plot and action, instead of piling up on top of tradition. Yet he remains rigorously close to the standard set by chivalric literature, and that is the reason why he can extend the pleasure of romances’ fans. It gives it that “New Generation” feeling, both energizing and sacrilegious, more exciting but less “true” to the tradition.

No wonder it was left incomplete and followed by an even more ambitious sequel, L’Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, whose critical fortunes have been better to this day, and to which we must add Luigi Pulci’s Morgante to complete the triumvirate. The influence of this model has been far-reaching, to Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and of course all the way down to Cervantés’s great liquidation of chivalric literature, Don Quixote.


Le Morte Darthur, Sir Thomas Malory


9780393974645_300Sir Thomas Malory. Le Morte Darthur. Ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.

Arthurian literature outside the Welsh tradition is mainly an affair of harmonizing together different traditions. The Historia provides a pseudo-historical framework for the rise and fall of Arthur by placing him within the line of legendary kings of Britain; the Robert de Boron and Vulgate cycles place the fate of the Round Table as part of the greater story of Christianity; even Chrétien de Troyes’s and other romances need two narrative levels—but this time it’s the Arthurian tradition that functions as a backdrop to the story of a particular knight.

What Malory is doing differently from all of the previous Arthurian tales is to give us the “hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table,” that is, he is giving us the story of King Arthur and his knights as an autonomous mythos like the Welsh tales do. King Arthur is the alpha and the omega of the story. There is only a limited number of tales related to individual knights, and they are part of the overall progression of the framing story of Arthur, unlike in the romance tradition where the open canvas of the Arthurian court allows for an infinite number of stories. But Malory differs from the Welsh fragments we have because his Arthur is a rather realistic one compared to the legendary, semi-magical universe of Culhwc and Olwen for example. And he’s not the king of Britain or even of Logres (from the Welsh llogr, denoting England). Arthur is now the king of England and he stands as a model of a righteous, valorous, and just king.

For these reasons, I consider Le Morte Darthur not as the last big medieval Arthurian tale, but rather as the first Modern one. The Arthurian tradition has found its first Reader’s Digest: what readers want is a good tale, with a variety of characters, of situation, and a not too complicated background. Oh, and please cut down on the tapestry of knights errants fighting each other for damsels in distress in order to elucidate the fine points of courtesy, just get on with the plot, please. It’s especially pregnant when you compare similar events in Malory and in the Vulgate cycle: whereas the rise to power of Arthur in Malory is settled when he pulls out the sword from the stone, in the Vulgate cycle he has to fight baron after baron, create complicated alliances, and escape treacheries that will leave deep resentments between kingdoms, operative in the rest of the cycle.

I sometimes imagine Malory as the impatient English gentleman sighing at the laborious Frenchness of all the complicated developments while he’s reading the Vulgate cycle and other books, and just writing bits in shorthands with “etc. etc.” in his notebook. He doesn’t want all of that fastidious refinement, and his book feels sometimes as if he’s a bit of an obtuse reader. But then I think upon the Camelot sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: King Arthur finally comes into sight of “Camelot!” the shining city, but a cut to the musical act sung by the knights of the round table gives him second thoughts, and remembering that “it’s a silly place” just turns back and forgets about it. That’s Malory for you: he’ll have none of that silliness—although that’s what I find deeply funny about Malory himself! What’s more, the cut-and-paste nature of the episodic Monty Python and the Holy Grail is in fact a good reflection of the overall feel of Malory’s book, itself a cut-and-paste from the tradition, with boring bits removed!

In the end, it’s nevertheless a good return to solid ground to read Malory at the tail end of a slew of Continental Arthurian literature. The mode is back to hearing about Arthur because he’s Arthur, and while Malory does not have the mythical horizon that the Welsh tales have, he’s the reason why we still have a living interest in Arthurian literature outside the Middle Ages.