Le Roman De Brut: The French Book of Brutus

By Cormier, Raymond | Arthuriana, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Le Roman De Brut: The French Book of Brutus


Cormier, Raymond, Arthuriana


WACE, Le Roman de Brut: The French Book of Brutus. Translated by Arthur Wayne Glowka. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 279. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005. Pp. xxx, 434. ISBN: 978-0-86698-322-8. $48.

With the appearance of this fine volume, Arthurian scholars no longer have to put up with the out-of-date Eugene Mason version (RP Medieval Academy 1996). Scholars have a choice now when it comes to reading or assigning a book of early French chronicles that portray the (imaginary and legendary) history of Britain. Glowka's work (henceforth G.) has been much anticipated, especially for anyone who might have been put off by Judith Weiss's rather cool prose translation (but nevertheless a landmark bilingual edition; U. Exeter Press, 1999; 2004 (henceforth W. and W2) reviewed by R. Cormier in these pages (arthuriana 10 [2000]: 124-28). Regarding G.'s 'unrhymed English iambic tetrameter' (intro. xxviii) that claims to preserve Wace's verse-by-verse structure and Old French cadences, it would be well to recall here James J. Wilhelm's 1986 words: '[t]he 14,8000-odd octosyllabic lines in rhymed couplets are not readily translatable into modern English poetry' (The Romance of Arthur II, ed. Wilhelm, published by Garland). But G. has proceeded nonetheless, and the result is, I think, less than satisfying for anyone who might prefer, for translations of medieval texts, the 'combat boots' of prose to the 'ballerina slippers' of verse.

Drawing on a much-limited bibliography, G.'s introduction covers the usual (and meager) biographical background information on Wace-the reference to service in Normandy with royal patronage from 'three Henrys;" the 'clerkly' work in Caen and Bayeux; what might be called production notes for his Roman de Rou and Roman de Brut; his minor works; and the huge success and influence of the palpable and compelling Brut romance. As the publisher's blurb puts it, 'a wonderful introduction to the medieval world-a world of kings and feudal loyalty, of castles and siege machines, of battles and invasions, of moral and immoral love, of sin and salvation, and of famines and storms.' It is Wace who, by adapting Geoffrey of Monmouth's learned Latin History of the Kings of Britain into the vernacular, brings to his audience of patrons and their peers, ageless and compelling stories that celebrate the eponymous hero, the Trojan Brutus, and highlight the virtues and vices of his kingly progeny: Lear, Belin and Brennes, Vortigern, Uther Pendragon, Arthur, among others. The loss of Britain and the fall of Briton supremacy provide a climactic finale to the narrative.

Similar to W.'s episode markers, G. has taken it upon himself to break the whole sequence into fourteen chapters of about 1000-1200 lines each: I. 'Brutus;' II. 'Lesser Men, Lesser Kings;' III. 'Belin and Brennës;' IV. 'Belin's Heirs;' V. 'The Coming of the Romans;' VI. 'Life Under Roman Influence;' VII. 'The House of Constantine: Vortigern and the Saxons;' VIII. 'The House of Constantine: Aurelius Ambrosius;' IX. 'The House of Constantine: Uther Pendragon;' X. 'The Rise of Arthur;' XI. 'Arthur at the Height of Power;' XII. 'Arthur's Roman Campaign;' XIII. 'The Great Destruction;' XIV. 'The Britons Lose Britain.'

One way, I think, of sharing with ARTHURIANA readers a sense of this new translation is to cite a passage from W.'s straightforward prose and contrast it with G.'s four-beat lines. Early on and while we are still back in Troy with Brutus (vv. 307 ss.; here 321-328), the indomitable hero meets a Greek king who is besieging the castle where the Trojans are supposed to be (but Brutus has devised a defensive stratagem). …

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