The Medieval Review 11.06.07

Bryant, Nigel. Perceforest: The Prehistory of King Arthur's Britain. Arthurian Studies. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. 791. $99 9781843842620. .

Reviewed by:

Dorsey Armstrong
Purdue University
darmstrong@purdue.edu

Although it has started to receive greater critical notice of late, the 14th-century text known as the Perceforest has received an amount of scholarly attention that seems inversely related to its significance. In other words, for a text that is so important on so many different levels--narrative progression, social commentary, synthesis and adaption of sources, expressions of social and courtly ideals, religion, depiction of the magical and fantastic--the text has not been examined with nearly the critical scrutiny it deserves, nor has it become a part of the pedagogical "canon" of medieval romance texts in the way its contents would suggest is appropriate. The reason for this is clear: it is a massive work, filled with a series of narrative adventures that are both thrilling (here, we have for instance, the first known written account of the "Sleeping Beauty" fairy tale) and overwhelming in their sheer number and repetition of key themes and ideas. A critical edition in the original French is currently being completed by Gilles Roussineau; this work began in 1987 and, so far, only four of the six sections have been completed--a fact that speaks to the astonishing length and difficulty of this text. The manuscript has rightly been referred to by at least one scholar as "a veritable encyclopaedia of 14th-century chivalry" [1] and it is truly encyclopedic in both its content and its sheer bulk. While its comprehensive nature is one of the most fascinating things about the Perceforest, it is also precisely this fact that has kept the text out of the mainstream of academic investigation or from being a subject for study in courses on medieval literature.

Thus, scholars and students owe Nigel Bryant a debt of gratitude, for his new English translation (part of the Arthurian Studies series from D.S. Brewer, of which Norris Lacy serves as general editor) makes the Perceforest truly accessible for the first time to those wishing to engage with its marvelous episodes. To be sure, the size and weight of this edition is still a matter of some difficulty when it comes to portability (the tome is a sturdy hardback, clocking in at just over 800 pages) but Bryant has managed to squeeze into those many pages all that is significant and important about the Perceforest, its narrative threads, and its characters. To do this, however, he has had to compress and abridge in some places; as he himself says in the introduction to the volume: "In an ideal world, this would be a complete translation, line by line, of the extraordinary prehistory of Arthurian Britain that is Perceforest...Realistically, a complete translation is not a publishable proposition, or at least not a purchasable one" (1). Bryant notes that he considered but then discarded the idea of simply translating and publishing those episodes that have been deemed "key" by those scholars working on the text, but points out (rightly) that to do so would obscure and flatten much of what makes this text so engaging: the narrative threads that cross and re-cross, the appearance of fascinating characters who may only appear briefly, the development of themes and ideas over a very long narrative progression. So Bryant has opted for a more satisfactory if still less-than-ideal solution: he gives us the whole text without omitting a single character or episode, but some of these are compressed or summarized. In order to distinguish between moments that are abbreviated from the source text, Bryant explains that he has opted to use single quotation marks "to indicate phrases and passages which are translated verbatim" (31 n.1). This strategy is a clever way to make sure that the reader is always clear as to which portions are summaries and which attempt to render faithfully the source text.

The translation itself is accurate and lively, making it easy to become absorbed in the narrative whether or not one has a background in Old French or even medieval romance. Indeed, it is a work that invites both casual perusal--an episode here, an adventure there--and a careful sequential reading in order to yield all its treasures. As Jane H.M. Taylor has observed of the Perceforest: "It is a measure of the writer's remarkable success that the reader's sympathies engage with the heroes and heroines, and that we arrive at the end of the sixth book breathless perhaps, but neither lost nor bored." [2]

The text is made easy to navigate by a comprehensive table of contents that breaks the work down by books and chapters with detailed descriptive titles conveying the main action of the narrative episodes. Even more useful is Bryant's Introduction, the general style of which is chatty and draws parallels between the events depicted in the Perceforest and the kind of story-telling that seems appealing to a 21st-century audience. Besides its very accessible tone, the Introduction also demonstrates the translator's deep understanding of the text: Bryant discusses such thematic elements of the text as "Action and Entertainment"; "Chivalry"; "Women"; "Fragility, Fortune and the Creator"; "Love"; "The 'New Law,' Morality, Secularism and Magic"; and "Blood and Conflict." Each of these sections of the Introduction functions as a kind of "mini-essay"-- complete with footnotes and analysis of key passages--thus providing a vue d'ensemble of the text as a whole from a variety of positions or interests. The result is that before even beginning to tackle the text proper, the reader has a clear sense of what the major themes and ideals are, where in time the text begins and how it moves forward. One even has a sense of the style and interests of the medieval author, as much as that can be conveyed in a translation and short discussion. What the Introduction does best is to provide the reader with a series of "orientation points" as (s)he begins the journey through the narrative--Bryant does an admirable job helping to keep us from getting lost in the Perceforest's "forests of adventure" by offering a series of "hooks" that can help one focus and avoid becoming overwhelmed by the sheer number of narrative threads, characters, and themes. Bryant offers us a place to start, and readers then have a helpful foundation from which to begin their own investigations of the Perceforest. The critical apparatus is rounded out with a short list of important scholarly works on the text and it identifies the medieval manuscripts in which it is to be found.

Nigel Bryant's translation of the Perceforest is engaging for the student, helpful for the scholar, and promises to make this very important work accessible to a much larger population than has heretofore been the case. This can only be to the good, as with more interest in and appreciation of this very important text, our understanding of the fourteenth century and matters of class, culture, literary genre, and social ideals is greatly enhanced and deepened. One can also imagine the possibility of using this text--or large sections of it--in the classroom, something previously difficult or impossible. Nigel Bryant deserves our thanks, appreciation, and admiration.

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Notes:

1. Jacques Barchilon, "L'histoire de la Belle au bois dormant dans lePerceforest," Fabula 31.1-2 (1990): 17-23.

2. Jane H.M. Taylor, "Perceforest," in The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, ed. Norris J. Lacy (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1996), 355-356.