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.

 

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Le Morte Darthur, Sir Thomas Malory

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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.

 

Le Livre du Graal (Vulgate Cycle)

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Le Livre du Graal. 3t.  Edited by Daniel Poirion and Philippe Walter. Coll. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard, 2001–2009. ISBN 9782070113422, 9782070113439, 9782070113446

Having completed reading these three substantive tomes, I feel as if a milestone in my reading life had been achieved. It took me the better part of six months, still rather quick for a 4000+ page novel, if I take into account the fact that I occasionally changed my mind by reading the Iliad, the Odyssey, as well as other Arthurian novels on the side.

The edition I have read uses the moniker Livre du Graal, but the term known to scholars is Lancelot-Graal. It is the massive space-time continuum altering hypermass resulting from the collision of the Lancelot tradition with the expanded tradition of the Holy Grail stories, all of which architectonically held by the glue of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s historical canvas of the rise and fall of Arthur and his kingdom.

Here is a brief outline of the story: the Lord Jesus Christ died on the Cross for us, and the most holy relic of the Grail, a cup that He used at the Last Supper and which carried His blood during His Passion has found its way to Great Britain in great secrecy. It is hidden, but must be found so that the enchantments that populate the land may end. Only the greatest knight will find a way to the Grail, while all others will perish trying. Merlin establishes the foundation of the Arthurian kingdom, and sets it on the path of greatness before being whisked away by an enchantress he fostered. Arthur is the king who builds the greatest realm in the world, renowned for the valour of its men, and their generosity towards the meek and the humble. He leads the Round Table that Merlin established, and to which the best knights in the world are attracted. Lancelot is one such fine example. An expatriate from Gaul whose realm was stolen from him, a changeling who will learn who he really is only late, he is the best knight of his time, and accomplishes many deeds of valour, until he fatally falls in love with Guenevere, Arthur’s queen. This adulterous relationship will be the downfall of Lancelot, but also of Arthur and his whole realm. After spending folio after folio of Lancelot’s brave accomplishments under duress for the love of his lady, the LG mainly liquidates his prowess by barring him the way to the divine bliss that is the Holy Grail. The great meeting between the Best Knight in the World and the Most Holy Thing was bound to fail. However, just before the end, Lancelot will unwillingly father Galahad—the best knight in the world who will never sin and conquer the Grail—before amending his ways and making a belated penance. After Galahad has accomplished the adventures of the Grail, helped by Percival and Bors, who fall just short of perfection, he is whisked away to Heavens by angels, and the kingdom of Logres now has to deal with intestine strife that will prove fatal to all. Mordret, Arthur’s illegitimate and incestuous son, will wage a devastating war upon Arthur, and cause everyone’s downfall. None of the Knights of the Round Table will escape, including Lancelot, and Arthur is taken away, perhaps forever, to the isle of Avalon to be healed.

But let’s settle the main question: is it good? Yes, but not for the same reasons that Malory or Geoffrey are memorable. The English tradition, especially after the middle ages, has tended to favour the Arthurian stories for their action-movie characteristics: valour, honour, and kick-ass fights. On the other hand, the French tradition (from which the LG issues) is more concerned with the question of love and the conflict between courtly and Christian ideals. It’s long, long, long; it proceeds in an exceedingly methodical and exhaustive manner, but it is never prolix or convoluted. It took me a while to find my metaphor (near the first third of the last tome!) but I now see it as a mosaic rather than a tale. Using a limited number of plot elements (knights jousting, damsels in distress, warring realms, predestined children, and magical objects), the LG weaves together an enormous thing, but it’s when you understand that its rigour and repetition (with subtle variations) are the art of it that you stop sighing in despair at yet another lance breaking and shields crashing for a lady.

You could say something similar of Dante’s Commedia (he was very familiar with the prose Lancelot and the Commedia evidences it many times): using a very rigorous method, strict poetics, and linear progression, Dante achieves celestial glory. But the theology of the LG is much more earthy and practical than Dante’s: fight for Jesus because he will save you from dire straits; also, he will give you food. Anybody who isn’t a Christian can be easily disposed off with weapons. There are many moments when some familiarity with Christian doctrine will make you wonder whether the authors of the LG ever cared about “turning the other cheek” and all the meekness we associate with Christianity…

So why would the modern reader check it out? Well, because it’s probably the only chance you have of figuring out if you really feel for the medieval way of writing. Unlike a modern novel, which aims at that roller-coaster effect of feelings, surprise, and variety of prose textures, the LG is an exceedingly homogeneous bit. There are moments of grandeur, and some (by modern standards) very fine moments, but to digest it all you must let go of your modern expectations. The tone varies a little between the main sections (they have not all been composed at the same time, nor in the order they are meant to be read), but it is on the whole very even. If you can’t stomach that evenness, you won’t make it through the first (and in my opinion more tedious) part, Joseph d’Arimathie. But if you do, then you have just bought yourself an almost never-ending vacation in the world of authentic medieval fantasy.

Alliterative Morte Arthure

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kingauthorsdeathf“Alliterative Morte Arthure.” King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English
 Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure. Edited by Larry D. Benson and Edward E. Foster. Kalamazoo : TEAMS Middle English Texts, 1994.

Full online text.

Modern English translation in ISBN 978-0140444452

I am not sure why I have more fun reading Middle English than Old or Middle French. Even though French is my mother tongue, the medieval inflexions of French have perhaps less mystery, or a less complicated history than the big melting pot that eventually became English. But in the present case, reading the original is worth it for the sonority of the alliterative style. Characterization is better developed than in Geoffrey or the Bruts, and although this is mainly a story of battles and conquest, it is a brisker reading than the HRB.

Laȝamon’s Brut

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41333_originalW.R.J Barron and S.C. Weinberg, Layamon’s Arthur: The Arthurian Section of Layamon’s Brut. University of Exeter Press – Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies. Liverpool : Liverpool University Press; 2nd edition. ISBN 978-0859896856

Like Wace, Laȝamon adapted Wace’s Brut into his own vernacular. But unlike Wace, he does not have the same zest and vivacity of style. On the other hand, what make it interesting are the slight alterations he makes to the Arthurian story (especially concerning the foundation of the Round Table, a Wace invention). What made it even more interesting for me is its idiom. Laȝamon’s Brut is a rare example of the early Middle English language. Not only is it contemporary with the gradual change from Old to Middle English, but it is also written, according to the experts, in an intentionally archaic language. The result is an Arthur sounding like Beowulf, a paradox in terms of both the Arthurian story (Arthur fights the Saxons and kicks them out of Britain!) and Laȝamon’s own historical context. Only Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur, which employs the Beowulf metre in modern English, achieves such a level of cultural paradox.

The Brut is very formulaic, highly structured and repetitive poetry, that initially helps deciphering, but which eventually gets tiring. I started reading it in the original in this facing page translation edition, since I have some helpful rudiments of Old and Middle English, but once I got through half of it, I switched back to the translation for quicker reading. Worth reading for the original text.

Le roman de Brut, Wace

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Ivor D. O. Arnold and Margaret Pelan, La partie arthurienne du roman de Brut (Extrait du manuscrit B.N. fr. 794). Paris : Klincksieck, 1962.

New edition, reflecting latest research : Arthur dans le Roman de Brut, 978-2252034019

Wace, an Anglo-Norman clerk, adapted in what is now considered Old French the HRB, and thereby created one of the earliest known works of fiction in French. However, it is yet impossible for Wace’s descendants (of which I am, in a sense!) to read it in their own vernacular since no integral French translation is available (an English one is: ISBN 978-0859897341). So instead of ploughing through the entire octosyllabic text, I decided to read only the Arthurian portion. It was a surprisingly easy (with qualifications…) endeavour, and a most rewarding one as well. Unlike Old English, Old French is still close enough to its modern equivalent that anyone with a good grasp on languages in general and some prior knowledge of the story will find its way. Knowledge of English is an asset too: a large amount of the English lexicon comes in fact from the French that was spoken by the Normans around the 1066 conquest, and they have not evolved the same way they later did on the continent, so that even today, many English words preserve the Old French forms. Wace is worth reading if you qualify for the challenge, but I recommend reading it only after a good acquaintance with the HRB.

Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth

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9781551116396

Edited by: Michael A. Faletra
ISBN: 9781551116396 / 1551116391
Broadview Press

To call the whole HRB tedious to the modern reader is an understatement. As a chronicle of Britain, its real currency was the glorification of the 12th century Norman patrons who could inscribe themselves in an illustrious line of rulers. Yet it remains a “required reading” to familiarize oneself with the arc of the story of King Arthur, to go beyond seeing it as an eternal court for the most glorious knights in the world. The Arthurian episode stands out by it self-containment (its closest related passage is the section devoted to Merlin’s mostly incomprehensible prophecies), the character of Merlin, and the twists and turns of the story. In fact, it feels almost impossible to read it “for the first time” since one has always heard in one form or another elements from the story of Arthur (sword in the stone, intercession of Merlin, adultery of Guinevere, etc.), so that reading the HRB is more like re-reading clearly a familiar story only known through hearsay.

I have read it in Michael Faletra’s translation for Broadview Press, which has the advantage of coming with a very nice set of companion texts, in particular Pseudo-Nennius, The History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum), and Geoffrey’s own The Life of Merlin (Vita Merlini), rendered in prose, which are reproduced integrally. Excerpts from the Welsh Triads, the Gododdin, poems such as What Man is the Gatekeeper? (Pa gur yw y porthor?), and others nicely complement the HRB.

A Penguin edition, translated by Lewis Thorpe (ISBN 978-0140441703), is also available, but without companion texts. Boydell & Brewer offer a facing-page edition of a newly edited Latin text by Michael Reeves and translated by Neil Wright, (ISBN 978-1843834410) in paperback. They also offer a scholarly edition using a different manuscript by Neil Wright, with Latin text only (ISBN 9780859912112), which is the first in a series of volumes that offer extended critical studies, as well as little-known related texts. Finally, a French translation is available from Les Belles Lettres (ISBN 978-2-251-33917-7).

Major divisions

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Arthurian literature is a generally coherent mythos, like the Greco-Roman one, but it can be appreciated as an evolving, rather than fixed, tradition, so changes and contradictions also abound. Stories have a tendency to aggregate together and answer to each other more or less tightly.

We can therefore distinguish the following areas around which to concentrate texts:

  • The Welsh tradition: in tatters compared to the other groups of text, these shreds of legend, poetry, elegies, stories, and chronicles are nevertheless vigorous, evocative pieces that focus mostly on warrior deeds, glory, and mourning.
    • The Mabinogion
    • Y Gododdin
  • The “historical” tradition: centered on the model of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, those works tend to tell in a brisk manner the birth, rise, and fall of Arthur and his kingdom. Most Round Table knights are here but supporting characters, and the fate of Britain as a whole is the central concern.
    • Historia Brittonum, Pseudo-Nennius
    • Historia Regum Britanniae
    • Roman de Brut, Wace
    • Laȝamon’s Brut
    • Alliterative Morte Arthure
  • The Tristan tradition: although initially peripheral to Arthurian stories, the story of Tristan and Iseult has had a long life of intertextual dialogue with the Arthurian canon until they were folded together in the Prose Tristan and the Post-Vulgate Cycle. It is generally credited as a major source for the courteous preoccupation of Arthurian romances, and the Lancelot tradition is heavily indebted to it.
    • Early verse versions of the Tristan stories, all incomplete except for Eilhart von Oberge’s
    • Tristan en prose
    • The Post-Vulgate Cycle
    • Ysaÿe le triste
  • The Merlin texts: an original synthesis by Geoffrey of Monmouth of the Welsh bard Myrddin and the wiseman/wizard Ambrosius.
    • Merlin’s prophecies in Historia Regum Britannia
    • Vita Merlini, Geoffrey of Monmouth
    • Robert de Boron’s Merlin
    • The Vulgate version of Merlin and the Suite du Merlin
    • The Post-Vulgate version of the Suite du Merlin
  • The Graal romances: starting with Chrétien’s Perceval, a host of continuations and expansions have developed, making alternatively Perceval, Gawain, or Galaad the winner of the Holy Grail.
    • Perceval, ou le conte du graal, Chrétien de Troyes
    • Continuations of the Perceval (4)
    • Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach
    • Diu Crône (The Crown)
    • Le Haut Livre du Graal a.k.a Perlesvaus
    • Iberic Demandas (quests for the Grail)
  • The Cyclical Romances: while the Continuations of Chrétien’s Perceval tried to close together all the threads of the story left hanging, the Cyclical romances take a different approach. By filing in Chrétien’s romance with a backstory mainly inspired from apocryphal Christian sources, the cycle attributed to Robert de Boron is an integrated suite of stories that combine both prequel and sequel material to Perceval. This is an approach also evidenced by the Parzival, but the difference is that the Cyclical Romances inscribe the Graal story as the keystone of the fate of the whole Arthurian realm.
    • The Perceval continuations
    • The Robert de Boron cycle
    • The Vulgate cycle
    • Tristan en prose
    • The Post-Vulgate cycle
  • Lancelot: although it is not definitive whether he is a Chrétien invention, or simply a reworking of an older source, Lancelot is the paragon of courage and total devotion to his lady. Chrétien’s great contribution was his adulterous relationship with queen Guinevere, which would be reinterpreted in the Vulgate cycle as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the Graal Quest, and thence as a cause of the downfall of Arthur’s kingdom, unmade by the outcome of the Quest.
    • Lanzelet, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven
    • Lancelot ou le chevalier à la charrette, Chrétien de Troyes
    • Lancelot du lac (a.k.a the non-cyclic version)
    • Lancelot, from the Vulgate cycle
  • The Gawain romances: unlike Lancelot, Gawain is the paragon of loyalty to Arthur, and while a central character in most traditions, he is seldom the main character. He has however inspired a host of lesser-known romances, especially in England. The Middle English tradition is rich with them, and has given us what is perhaps the shining star of poetic art in all the Arthurian tradition, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
    • Hunbaut
    • L’âtre périlleux
    • Le Bel Inconnu, Renaud de Beaujeu
    • Wigalois
    • Le chevalier à l’épée
    • Le chevalier aux deux épées
    • La vengeance Radiguel
    • La demoiselle à la mule
    • Diu Crône
    • First Continuation of Perceval
    • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
    • The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle
    • Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle
    • The Avowyng of Arthur
    • The Awntyrs off Arthur
    • The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain
    • The Greene Knight
    • The Turke and Sir Gawain
    • The Marriage of Sir Gawain
    • The Carle of Carlisle
    • The Jeaste of Sir Gawain
    • King Arthur and King Cornwall
    • Le Romanz du reis Yder, to a certain extent
  • The late “prequels”: by the 14th and 15th centuries, two extremely long and ambitious novels have tried to tell the pre-history of the Arthurian tradition by telling the stories of the ancestors, and fathers of the most important characters:
    • Perceforest
    • Guiron le courtois
  • The “post-Arthurian” romances: in a manner similar to the stories of the fathers, these are the stories of knights who come after the time of glory of the main characters. Think Star Trek: The Next Generation
    • Claris et Laris
    • Ysaÿe le triste

Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur

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The swan song of medieval Arthurian literature. For centuries, this was the most accessible collection of Arthurian stories, since it was diffused through the recent introduction of printing in Europe shortly after its composition. A Reader’s Digest of the entire Arthurian tradition (its original title was The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table), it is the canonical text for post-medieval adaptations in English (Excalibur, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King).

 

The prose Lancelot

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One of the longest novels ever written, it exists in a few versions, some of which integrate the quest for the Holy Grail. At its heart, it is a massive prose expansion of Chrétien’s Lancelot and related tradition (Lanzelet is a useful sidekick here) that tells the whole story of Lancelot since his birth, and one of the finest examples of long-form storytelling: multiple interlaced plots, psychological depth, betrayals, moral conflicts, realistic settings, etc.

The Lancelot is usually distributed alongside with the rest of the expanded Grail cycle, preceded namely by the Estoire du Saint Graal, the Merlin, the Suite du Merlin, and followed by the Quête du Graal and Mort Artu.