The Arthur of the French: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval French and Occitan Literature

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glyn s. burgess and karen pratt, eds., The Arthur of the French: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval French and Occitan Literature. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages IV. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006. Pp. xii, 637. ISBN: 0-7083-1964-5. £65.

This book is the fourth volume in the series Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages (Series Editor, Ad Putter). Like the three previous volumes that examined the Arthurian tradition of the Welsh (1991), the English (1999), and the Germans (2000), the focus of this volume remains cultural rather than adopting a national point of view, dictated by geographical boundaries. The fourteen chapters mainly examine Arthurian works composed in French verse and prose, on the continent or in England, from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, but chapters also treat the Arthurian manuscript tradition, the Arthurian tradition in Occitan literature, and Arthur in modern French fiction and film. The importance of the French contribution to the development of the Arthurian legend cannot be stressed enough and certainly merits its own volume in any series devoted to Arthurian studies. As Karen Pratt points out in her introduction, although King Arthur is most directly associated with British history, 'it was texts in the French language that confirmed his status as a pan-European literary hero,' since 'all the major European literatures originally received their Arthurian rootstock from the Francophone world' (1-2). She reminds the reader that medieval French Arthurian literature gave us the first mention of the Round Table, through Wace, as well as the first account of the quest for the grail and of the adulterous relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere, thanks to Chrétien de Troyes, 'the father of Arthurian romance' (1). In fact, several chapters in this volume demonstrate the debt owed to Chrétien by later writers, both French and non-French.

The volume opens with a chapter by Roger Middleton in which he discusses the approximately 500 extant manuscripts of medieval French Arthurian texts copied from the late twelfth century through the first quarter of the sixteenth century, after which time printed editions took precedence. The two principle sections of the chapter, one that deals with verse, the other with prose, each contain subdivisions that explain various details of the manuscripts: format, dates and places of production, and history and ownership. In Chapter 2 Françoise Le Saux and Peter Damian-Grint analyze the pseudo-historical Arthurian tradition through the chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace and show that the Historia Regum Britanniae in particular was seen as scholarly in France, while a political Arthur was a 'British phenomenon' (108). Tony Hunt and Geoffrey Bromiley in Chapter 3 take up the Tristan tradition through the texts of Beroul and Thomas of England, as well as through the episodic Tristan texts: the Folies Tristan, Chevrefoil, Tristan Rossignol, and Tristan Menestrel. Although King Arthur holds a minor position in these verse texts, Arthurian matter plays a much more prominent role in the lengthy prose Tristan that developed in the thirteenth century, the first significant Arthurian prose romance composed after the Vulgate Cycle, as Emmanuèle Baumgartner (trans. Sarah Singer) demonstrates in Chapter 8. Arthurian prose romances are also the subject of two other chapters. In Chapter 8 Elspeth Kennedy, Michelle Szkilnik, Rupert T. Pickens, Karen Pratt, and Andrea M. L Williams analyze the massive and complex Vulgate Cycle. The authors discuss the date of the work and its general structure, then offer sections devoted to each of the five parts of the cycle. In Chapter 9 Fanni Bogdanow and Richard Trachsler study the Post-Vulgate Roman du Graal (formerly known as the pseudo-Robert de Boron Cycle), a rewriting of the Vulgate Cycle that incorporates themes from the First Version of the prose Tristan. It hardly seems possible in a single chapter to discuss sufficiently the impact of Chrétien de Troyes on the Arthurian tradition, yet Douglas Kelly accomplishes in fifty pages the kind of synthesis for which many critics require an entire book. …