Aspirations and anxieties

Alan Lupack
The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
Oxford University Press 2007

In the late sixties studying the significance of the Arthurian legends become surprisingly mainstream both in academic circles and in popular culture, spawning a library fit for a modern-day Tower of Babel. Alan Lupack’s Guide is the kind of vademecum that many students like me yearned for in those early days.

This massive survey (nearly 500 pages in the 2007 paperback edition) aims to introduce the general reader to a study of the Arthurian legends.
As well as a general bibliography of basic resources for such a study, each of its seven chapters concludes with its own more detailed bibliography. These seven chapters deal with historical approaches to Arthur from early literature through to historical novels, followed by the romance tradition inaugurated by Chrétien de Troyes. Then come specified chapters on Malory, the Holy Grail, Gawain, Merlin and, last but not least, Tristan and Isolt. As well as an indispensable index, the author includes a cross-referencing dictionary of Arthurian people, places and things, ranging from Accolon to Yvain.

Lupack’s approach is typically North American in its thoroughness: wide-ranging research, spot-on synopses and punchy summaries. For all its encyclopaedic coverage I would still have liked a more personal response at times, the sort of response that indicates exactly what drives an academic to root around in all those obscure corners of the Arthurian mythos and which occasionally surfaces, as in his Afterword: “The stories of Arthur and the knights and ladies of his court are so enduring because their themes are universal… In its great variety of tales and characters, the Arthurian legend seems a perfect medium for expressing concerns that are both personal and global, ideals as well as fears, aspirations as well as anxieties.”

Authoritative but also fascinating, and perfect for dipping into as well as for reference, The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend surely is to the Arthurian enthusiast as the Roman Virgil was to the medieval Dante. Whether this leads you to purgatory, hell or paradise is another matter however; for me, this took me into that wonderful limbo that libraries encapsulate, where one reference draws you to another, and another, and so on till you risk losing track of time.

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