Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Uses of Middle Dutch Arthuriana

Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Uses of Middle Dutch Arthuriana

Article excerpt

Middle Dutch Arthuriana provide a rich perspective on other Arthurian literatures while offering texts that hold great intrinsic interest. This article discusses the Dutch Lancelot Compilation and the romance of Walewein in order to illustrate both their own literary value and their importance in any consideration of adaptation, cyclification, and the establishment of dialogues among and within texts. (NJL)

'There is widespread ignorance of Dutch medieval literature in the J. English-speaking academic community...." This statement, by Saskia Murk-Jansen, is cited by Bart Besamusca, who adds that 'The language barrier is unfortunately insurmountable for the majority of medievalists.' He acknowledges, however, that scholars of Middle Dutch literature have traditionally made only nominal efforts, if that, to present their subject matter to 'their foreign colleagues.'1 The scholarly reflex might well be to suggest that all of us should learn to read Middle Dutch (in addition to several other medieval languages), but that reflex, however natural, is simply unrealistic: despite the considerable interest that Dutch Arthurian romances hold for readers, we are unlikely to see large numbers of scholars and students beavering away with grammars and glossaries.

However, Besamusca adds a positive note (4, n. 23) concerning the expectation that readers of English will soon have access to much of Dutch Arthuriana, through the Arthurian Archives series, in the form of editions and facing translations being prepared by David Johnson and Geert Claassens.2 We should also point out that important scholarship on the subject has appeared in English during the past decade. Notable is the work done by Erik Kooper, Besamusca, Claassens, Johnson, Frank Brandsma, and others.3 Clearly, a good number of scholars are seeking systematically and successfully to rectify the problem of access to Middle Dutch literature.

The title I have attached to this essay is at least partially, and intentionally, facetious. In theory, Middle Dutch Arthurian literature does not need to be any more or less 'useful' than French or German or other Arthuriana-or, for that matter, than literature in general. Any justification that is required is provided by the intrinsic value of a corpus of texts, and a good many of the Dutch Arthurian romances offer value and interest aplenty. However, as a non-Netherlandist invited to compose this essay primarily for other nonNetherlandists, I take it as my project to offer some information about Middle Dutch Arthurian literature and to reflect-without claiming any special expertise-on just why that literature is important, why we should know more about it, and what profit we will find in it.

The questions, in practice, thus become: what can Dutch Arthurian literature teach us about the legend itself? What can we learn about its permutations across cultural and linguistic borders? In what way might it enrich our understanding of our own specializations-in French, English, German, or other literary areas-even as it educates us about an important literary corpus unfamiliar to all too many of us?

It is my contention that the Dutch material offers us a virtual 'laboratory' for the study of a number of Arthurian problems and phenomena, from translation and adaptation of texts to the recrafting of compositions, whether indigenous or imported, to fit them to a new context, and to the challenges of forming diverse narratives into a major cycle. In particular, I wish to call attention to the juxtaposition, within a cycle or compilation, of materials that present divergent conceptions of character and event and that therefore engage one another in a conspicuous if implicit dialogue concerning chivalry, love, or personal worth.

The most remarkable accomplishment of Middle Dutch Arthuriana, one that is matched, in diversity and importance, by few Arthurian creations in any language, is the imposing Lancelot Compilation, dating from around 1325 and preserved in The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, MS. …

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