Literal rather than literary


Three Arthurian Romances:
poems from Medieval France

Translated with an introduction and notes by Ross G Arthur
Everyman 1996

The three poems offered in translation here are Caradoc, followed by The Knight with the Sword and The Perilous Graveyard. Dating from around the first half of the thirteenth century, the language of the original poems doesn’t come across well in this English prose translation, as evidenced by clunky passages such as this one, chosen at random from Caradoc [line 10090 ff]:

This is the vow which the King made. He rose quickly and set out on his voyage at once. I tell you that he crossed the sea with a sorrowful heart, so anxious about Caradoc that his body and soul grew weak.

At least with this version, literal rather than literary, the lack of fluency may be a mark of honesty: no attempt to impose a mock High Medieval language as a Victorian or Edwardian rendering might have been tempted to offer.

The first poem, Caradoc, is extracted from the first anonymous continuation of Perceval, or the Story of the Grail. Left unfinished by Chrétien de Troyes, this has already been available in a translation from Everyman since 1987, and in other editions. Part of the story of Caradoc deals with the Beheading Game familiar from the later English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but here the ritual involves not Gawain but Caradoc and takes place not at midwinter but at Whitsun. It’s extraordinary not only to find an analogue to the more famous English poem but also to discover such a long independent tale inserted into a narrative principally concerning Perceval.

Almost as if to compensate for Gawain being sidelined in the first tale, the second and third romances deal with Gawain respectively as a ladies man and then as foremost knight of the Round Table, the latter role more associated in the modern mind with Lancelot. The Knight with the Sword and, more particularly,  The Perilous Graveyard are convoluted plots, the supernatural terrors of the latter the kind of thrills that attracted 18th- and 19th-century writers of Gothick romance (the vogue begun by Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and famously sent up by Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey). Themes such as blaming women for the hero’s sleeping around or a father pimping his daughter don’t make for comfortable reading, but the plots do at least keep you guessing, and a sly wink at the end of The Perilous Graveyard after all its shenanigans ensures the reader or listener doesn’t take it all too seriously:

… Gawain is safe at court after his travels, and so our romance has come to its end. May God grant us a hundred years of life, in great delight and honour, and may He grant us joy and happiness!

These three extracts are supported by introduction, notes and bibliography for those with critical interests, but they can also be read with pleasure by those who enjoy medieval literature, tall tales, Gothick goings-on or even fairytales. Arthur does appear occasionally, but more usually the court that the Round Table knights repair to, whether at Carlisle or Caerleon, is presided over by an anonymous King and Queen, so readers expecting a more specific time frame or geography will be disappointed.

Incidentally, can Ross Arthur help his professional interest in Arthurian matters any more than academic Ken Dark be a Dark Age specialist? Nominative determinism can sometimes result in a kind of poetic justice as far as scholars are concerned.

Review from 1996 here slightly revised and expanded and posted online July 11th, 2014; reposted for ‘Dreams of Arthur’, a themed series of posts hosted by Lory at Emerald City Book Review for the annual Witch Week fest

6 thoughts on “Literal rather than literary

    1. I’ve often wondered if, amongst all the goody-goodiness of SGGK, the poem wasn’t at one level an elaborate drawn-out joke when all the literate/literary world knew that Gawain was the ladies’ man par excellence.

      After all, the poem is relatively late — a good century or more after the heyday of this medieval Don Juan’s popularity — and the final playful antics of Bercilac after the menace of the first half point to it being some kind of early Christmas game of charades. Does Gawain go home a sadder and a wiser man? I’m not sure!

      Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.