Arthurian Tradition and the Middle Dutch Torec

By Kerth, Thomas | Arthuriana, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Arthurian Tradition and the Middle Dutch Torec


Kerth, Thomas, Arthuriana


This essay compares the stock situations in Torec with those found in earlier romances of Chrétien de Troyes and German romanciers in order to demonstrate that the author(s) of Torec was familiar with the topoi of the 'classical' Arthurian romances and exploited them. (TK)

Even the reader unfamiliar with Dutch literary tradition soon finds himself on familiar ground in Torec, one of the five Middle Dutch Arthurian romances that survive as interpolations between the Queeste vanden Grale [The quest for the Grail] and Arturs doet [The death of Arthur] in the Lancelot Compilation.1 This cycle, preserved in The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS 129 A 10, was compiled in Brabant between 1320 and 1325, and is the surviving second volume of a verse rendition of the French Lancelot-Grail prose cycle (1215-1235).2 J.D. Janssens speaks for many others when he summarizes, 'Middle Dutch Arthurian romance is strongly influenced by the work of Chrétien de Troyes and his immediate imitators,'3 for in addition to the 'new' knights and damsels, whose deeds form the plots of these episodic romances, one meets again the familiar characters associated with King Arthur's court in the earlier French and German romances: Artur himself, Genevre, Walewein (=Gawain), Ywain, Lanceloet, Percheval, Keye.4 There are, however, differences, innovations in these Dutch romances. Walewein, for example, is not the womanizer and object of female desire, as he is often portrayed in the other literary traditions,5 but instead, the epitome of chivalry, der aventuren vader [father of adventures]. Keye, if anything, is even more curmudgeonly and more treacherous than elsewhere, and Artur is a king who can be unjust and arbitrary, but is nevertheless admired and respected as a powerful warrior who can defeat all the knights of the Round Table in single combat.

While it goes without saying that the medieval poet was not obsessed with the concept of originality, all epigonal poets writing in the Arthurian tradition were (and are) faced with a dilemma: how to add new knights to the Arthurian pantheon or to tell new adventures about established knights without either being too imitative of the established tradition by simply recombining their elements or too innovative, thereby violating the conventions of the genre altogether. Bart Besamusca has written that Torec is 'highly exceptional in Arthurian literature,'6 and David F. Johnson and Geert Claassens caution that 'a reader expecting a traditional Arthurian romance will be disappointed...The story is not linked to the world of Arthurian romance in a conventional fashion.'7 The present study, however, intends to demonstrate that Torec is, at least in one respect, very much a conventional Arthurian romance, in that many traditional elements also found in the earlier Old French and Middle High German romances have been incorporated into the adventures of this decidedly Middle Dutch hero.

It must be noted, however, that in this regard the textual history of this romance presents several difficulties. The Torec of the Compilation is assumed to be an adaptation of an earlier Middle Dutch text, Toerecke, listed among the works of the famous Flemish poet and translator, Jacob van Maerlant (ca. 1235-90), in his Istory van Troyen [History of Troy (ca. 1264)],8 which, in turn, is presumed to be the translation of a French romance, now lost. That such a romance existed seems confirmed by a fourteenth-century catalogue of the books of Isabelle of Bavaria, wife of King Charles VI of France, which refers to a Torrez chevalier au cercle dor [Torrez, knight of the golden circlet]. This would place the source of the text eventually found in the Lancelot Compilation much closer in time to Chrétien and his 'immediate imitators' (Janssens) than the text one finds in the Compilation itself. Several scholars have attempted to analyze what belonged to the 'original' French romance, what van Maerlant may have added to it in his translation, and what the later compiler may have added or deleted. …

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