Stories I know to be true

Some editions of Marie de France’s lais

The Lais of Marie de France,
introduction by Keith Busby,
translated by Glyn S. Burgess.
Penguin Classics 1999 (1986)

The editor and translator of Marie’s lais, leading scholars in the field of medieval French literature, have in the best tradition of Penguin Classics aimed to make their subject accessible to the general public. Translating a foreign text, especially a poetic text, is always full of difficulties, but luckily Marie’s poems, simple in expression and apparently without artifice, speak as well in translation as in the original.

A comparison with the pseudo-medieval version served up by Eugene Mason in the early 20th century is revealing for not only how tastes have changed but how many liberties were taken then with the text. For example, where Mason has Marie addressing critics with “Now let the japer, and the smiler with his knife, do me what harm they may. Verily they are in their right to speak ill of me,” Burgess offers us “But just because spiteful tittle-tattlers attempt to find fault with me I do not intend to give up. They have a right to make slanderous remarks.”

The original text mentions jongleur, or entertainer, and losengier, a flatterer or liar, and I think Burgess gets closer to what the poet intended with her simpler phraseology, which might now be rendered as “it’s their right to badmouth me!”

Nel vueil mie pur ceo laissier, | se jangleür u losengier | le me vuelent a mal turner; | ceo est lur dreiz de mesparler.

For convenience the 1999 edition prints three of Marie’s shorter lais in their original French, and anybody with even just a smattering of the language can follow the gist of the tales and see how accessible the translator has made them.

Continue reading “Stories I know to be true”

A circuitous tale

Godstow nunnery ruins 1784 (credit: http://thames.me.uk/s01860.htm)

Ariana Franklin: The Death Maze
(published as The Serpent’s Tale in the US)
Bantam Books 2008

With a first name reminiscent of Ariadne it’s hardly surprising that the author penned a novel about a labyrinth, nor that the figure at the centre of intricate paths should sit there like a bloated spider (aranea is Latin for this arthropod). As is appropriate for a medieval whodunit Franklin’s novel ensnares characters and readers in a web of lies and false leads as it draws towards its close and the final trap.

Based on a popular medieval legend, The Death Maze is set in the late 12th century and involves Henry II’s mistress, Rosamund Clifford. She was said to have been housed in a labyrinth at Woodstock, where reputedly she was poisoned on the orders of Queen Eleanor (herself captive in France) and later buried at the nearby nunnery of Godstow.

Franklin takes the bare bones of this story and weaves a circuitous tale of detection and deceit around and through it. But our principal concern is not for Fair Rosamund (not as fair as we might think) but for Adelia Aguilar, a Sicilian anatomist who is drawn against her will into investigating the crime for the King himself.

Continue reading “A circuitous tale”

Step by step

Durer’s Knight

Anne Wilson: The Magical Quest.
The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance
Manchester University Press 1988

This book, though seeming of the mystical camp popular in the 70s and 80s, is rather more academic though nonetheless exciting for all that. It asks the question ‘Why are there so many apparent contradictions in medieval Arthurian romances?’

The answer is that the authors use traditional plots. And the rationale of these plots, like the closely-related fairytales, is that of a different order to that of so-called realistic novels. What, then is this rationale?

Continue reading “Step by step”

A remarkable narrator

gwenllian

Andrew Breeze:
The Origins of the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’
Gracewing Publishing 2009

Four medieval stories in Welsh — Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, Branwen Daughter of Llŷr, Manawydan Son of Llŷr and Math Son of Mathonwy — form a unique cycle of tales drawing in characters, motifs and tale-types from Celtic mythology and folktale, all set in the recognisable medieval landscape of Wales and adjacent parts of England. If they didn’t exist our understanding of Celtic myth and legend would be immeasurably the poorer, but our knowledge of the circumstances of this unique retelling and, very importantly, the author and their motivations for setting it all down are severely hampered by lacunae, scholarly suppositions and sometimes wild speculations.

The premise of this book is easily told.

Continue reading “A remarkable narrator”

When legend becomes fact

Crickhowell Castle, 1831

Leonardo Olschki: The Grail Castle and its Mysteries
Translated from the Italian by J A Scott
Edited, with a foreword, by Eugène Vinaver

Manchester University Press 1966

Graal: “scutella lata et aliquantulum profunda in qua preciosae dapes divitibus solent apponi gradatim, unus morsellus post alium in diversis ordinibus” (a wide and deep saucer, in which precious food is ceremoniously presented, one piece at a time in sundry rows)
Helinand de Froidmont (early 13th century)

If you were thinking the mysteries of the grail castle were to do with long-lost holy relics, Last Supper chalices, magical stones, Celtic cauldrons, secret occult societies, witches, extraterrestrial visitors or even the blood of Christ you will need to look elsewhere. (There are whole libraries in Babel to cater for each and every taste in such mysteries.)¹

First published in 1961 as ‘Il castello del Re Pescatore e i suoi misteri nel Conte del Graal di Chrétien de Troyes’ (The Castle of the Fisher King and its mysteries in Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail) this is not a publication aimed at a popular market: with a foreword by a foremost Arthurian scholar, key extracts from the medieval romance in the original French, and furnished with footnotes, endnotes and a select bibliography, this monograph (less than a hundred pages) is very much a closely argued academic paper from someone very familiar with the literature and theology of the period in question. The author also effectively — though very politely — demolishes alternative theories from his fellow scholars as to the nature of those mysteries.

Continue reading “When legend becomes fact”

Skimble-skamble stuff

Wyvern rampant: a red wyvern is attributed to Owain Glyndŵr as the crest to his coat of arms

Today celebrates Owen Glendower, or rather Owain Glyndŵr in Welsh. September 16 marks the anniversary of when, in 1400, he was proclaimed Prince of Wales in Ruthin, in opposition to the English crown’s domination of the principality. After fifteen years of warfare he disappeared to history, the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales.

Paula Bardell-Hedley’s blog Book Jotter was the stimulus for this post with her reminder of Owain Glyndŵr Day here. Just now I want to give a little bit of background, some of which may be, as Shakespeare put it, skimble-skamble stuff.

The device adopted by Owain Glyndŵr for his banner and shield

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Literal rather than literary

chevalier

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.

Continue reading “Literal rather than literary”

Castelophiles only

Part of Cardiff Castle, its facade a mix of medieval, Georgian and Victorian Gothic Revival

Gerald Morgan Castles in Wales: A Handbook
Y Lolfa 2008

It’s often claimed that, per square mile, Wales has the largest number of castles in the world.¹ Whether it’s the Welsh bigging themselves up or one of those memes that’s just accepted, it’s certainly true that the country has over 600 examples. As Wales is over 8000 square miles — nearly 20,800 square kilometres — in area,² this means there is a castle for every 13 sq miles (35 sq km) of land. Nowadays that works out at around one castle for every 5000 head of population, whereas in the Middle Ages, when the inhabitants of Wales may have fluctuated between 150K and 300K, each castle was on average meant to overawe between 250 and 500 Welshmen and -women. That’s some comment on the fears of the mostly Norman and Plantagent overlords who built them and on the rightfully bolshie attitudes of the native peoples.

When we imagine castles it’s odds-on we picture something like Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, partly modelled on the 19th-century castle at Neuschwanstein, or perhaps one of the French chateaux of the Loire. The fact is that castles come in all shapes and sizes and with varying degrees of function. Gerald Morgan makes this point very clearly in his introduction to this Welsh castle handbook: while the simplest definition could be ‘a medieval European fortified stronghold’ (thus excluding prehistoric earthworks, Roman camps and Victorian follies and fancies, for example) it can include everything from ringworks and motte-and-bailey structures to fortified manor houses and walled palaces, as well as the great military showpieces that typify the Welsh castle in the popular mind.

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Easy, engaging and enchanting

dragon

Philip Reeve No Such Thing as Dragons
Marion Lloyd Books 2010

Reeve is best known for his award-winning Mortal Engines series of SF novels, set in a future post-apocalyptic world, and for the standalone title Here Lies Arthur which won the Carnegie Medal for best children’s book of the year, while his illustrations have graced many another title including several in the ever-popular Horrible Histories series for youngsters. All of which makes for a promising fantasy novella set in the High Middle Ages.

This is a charming, single-strand narrative about a mute boy, Ansel, his master (a knight called Brock) and the search for a dragon which may or may not exist on a mountain in Germany. If there was a dragon, what would it look like? Would it exist in the traditional medieval image familiar from the stonework and woodwork in churches and cathedrals and in illuminated manuscripts? Or would it be more akin to our modern concept of a living prehistoric fossil, an archeopteryx, perhaps, or pteranodon? Continue reading “Easy, engaging and enchanting”

Curious interpretations

arthurtomb

Anne Berthelot
King Arthur: Chivalry and Legend
Arthur et la Table ronde: La force d’une legende  translated by Ruth Sharman
Thames and Hudson 1997 (1996)

First published by Gallimard in 1996, this English version is part of Thames and Hudson’s New Horizons series and follows a similar format: a well-illustrated chronological survey of the chosen subject, followed by extracts from select documents, bibliography, credits and index. The author was Professor of Medieval French Literature — and now of French & Medieval Studies — at the University of Connecticut (does that make her a Connecticut Frank at the court of King Arthur, perhaps?) and so her discussion of developments in Arthurian literature, from Wace and Layamon up to 20th-century cinema, is authoritative and thought-provoking. For instance, she clearly charts how the Matter of Britain moved from chronicle format to poetry(eg Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace’s Brut) and then back to chronicle style, and how this reflected shifts in taste from pseudohistory to the flowering of chivalry and courtly love and then returning to the burgeoning nationalistic stance in England, as evidenced by Malory.

It is when she deals with the historical context of the legend, however, that we get some curious interpretations. Continue reading “Curious interpretations”

Two societies, two cultures, two lives

caldicot

Kevin Crossley-Holland Arthur: the Seeing Stone Orion Publishing 2001 (2000)

If you haven’t read this then you may be in for a treat. Following its publication in hardback it deservedly won the Smarties Prize bronze medal and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 2001. Everything that the reviewers quoted at the front of the paperback say is spot on. So why the accolades?

This Arthur is living in the Welsh Marches as the 12th century turns into the thirteenth. His life is paralleled by the young Arthur of legend, Continue reading “Two societies, two cultures, two lives”

Ripping yarn, religious myth

Frampton_The-Passage-of-the-Holy-Grail-to-Sarras
Edward Reginald Frampton The Passage of the Holy Grail to Sarras http://www.wikigallery.org

Nigel Bryant compiler and translator
The Legend of the Grail
D S Brewer 2004 Arthurian Studies LVIII

While many readers assume that Thomas Malory’s famous epic is the epitome of Arthurian romance, fewer realise that what this author did was to extract the meat from several earlier French stories and serve them up not only in English but in a strong narrative arc that we know under the title Caxton gave it, Le Morte d’Arthur. In The Legend of the Grail Nigel Bryant imagines what a monkish redactor or scribe in, say, the 1240s would have done when confronted with the many different French versions of the Perceval romance. Would he not have done something similar to what Malory achieved more than two centuries later and prune, conflate and effect consistency?

This, then, is what Bryant himself undertakes to do. He takes “eight great French romances” composed during a period spanning half a century — Robert de Boron’s prose Joseph of Arimathea, Chrétien’s unfinished poem Perceval, the four mostly independent continuations of Perceval (two anonymous and one each by Gerbert and Manessier), the Glastonbury-linked Perlesvaus and the prose tale Quest of the Holy Grail (the last two also anonymous). He then re-forges them into a continuous narrative, as if they were the pieces of a broken sword, and presents them as the medieval legend of this mysterious object. The Whole Book of the Holy Grail, as it might be if Malory had attempted the project.

Does it work? Continue reading “Ripping yarn, religious myth”

The intimate stranger

Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer
Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen Of Giants:
Sex, monsters, and the Middle Ages
Medieval Cultures Volume 17
University of Minnesota Press 1999

Consider these monsters — the Titans, Goliath, Grendel, Gogmagog, Ysbaddaden, Ymir, the Giant of Mont-Saint-Michel, Harpin de la Montagne, the Green Knight, the Carl of Carlisle, Gargantua, the Brobdingnagians, the giants in Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer, King Kong, Roald Dahl’s BFG, the jolly Green Giant — which speak to us variously of terror, comedy, cannibalism, rape, sadism, dismemberment, stupidity, folk humour, folk wisdom, advertising and, usually, maleness. And, of course, size matters… What is there about these figures that simultaneously repels and attracts us?

Continue reading “The intimate stranger”