No Zeroes here

Willem P Gerritsen, Anthony G van Melle editors
Tanis Guest translator
A Dictionary of Medieval Heroes
Boydell Press 2000

Anglophone Arthurians should from time to time contemplate a different European perspective on the Matter of Britain and its contemporary analogues, and this Dictionary of Medieval Heroes (with the snappy subtitle Characters in Medieval Narrative Traditions and their Afterlife in Literature, Theatre and the Visual Arts) by two Dutch academics gives just such an opportunity. Here we are introduced to such figures as Aiol, Berte aux Grands Pieds, Heimbrecht, Parthonopeus of Blois and Ruodlieb, heroes and heroines certainly previously unfamiliar to this reader but popular with a significant proportion of medieval European readership, featuring in tales that certainly stand comparison with accounts of Arthur, Galahad, Gawain, Merlin or Perceval.

This is a very user-friendly edition for English-speakers: each entry typically starts with a short introduction to place the character in a literary or historic context, followed by a synopsis of the principal events in his or her most familiar saga. There is then a critical discussion which also details any subsequent development of the narrative into more recent times, concluded by brief references to principal modern editions, translations and studies. The Lancelot section for example, one of the longest in this book, includes three illustrations from the 13th to the 19th century and discussion of artistic, poetic and novelistic responses to his adventures down to the 1980s, ending with the comment “there seems to be little danger of Lancelot soon losing his prominent position in Arthurian narrative”. The entry for Arthur himself, by Frank Brandsma, is authoritative and very detailed, with developments up to the end of the 20th century in novels, theatre, music and other media extremely well documented.

Around a quarter of the characters listed are directly or indirectly linked with the Arthurian legends (eg Fergus and Yder among the former, Aeneas and Brut among the latter), and several have particularly English connections (eg Bevis of Hampton, Hengest and Horsa, Beowulf) with Cu Chulainn representing the Irish dimension. The Netherlands, on the crossroads of literary peregrinations between Romance and Northern lands, figures largely as the origin of many of the quoted texts, correcting the rather Anglocentric view that tends to dominate populist literature on this subject here and emphasising that there was a cultural European Union of sorts long before the modern political set-up.

This A-Z of some ninety figures, originally published in 1993 as Van Aiol tot de Zwaanridder, first appeared in translation in hardback in 1998 with some changes to the original text, not least the addition of the entry on Robin Hood by Richard Barber. This is an extraordinarily stimulating book, whether your interest lies in plot summaries or folktale motifs, cross-cultural influences or native idiosyncrasies, or why some tales flourish in a great diversity of retellings while others disappear into a narrative cul-de-sac. Certainly this a volume that doesn’t remain on my shelves for long periods at a time; heroes are here aplenty, and no zeroes.

2001 review published online September 2012, and here slightly revised

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