The Medieval Review 13.06.28

Aronstein, Susan. An Introduction to British Arthurian Narrative. New Perspectives on Medieval Literature: Authors and Traditions. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012. Pp. xx, 188. $69.95. ISBN: 978-0-8130-4189-6. . .

Reviewed by:

Anthony Adams
Colby College

That medieval literature concerning the histories and adventures of King Arthur, Queen Guenevere, and the knights of their realm has remained remarkably popular and vibrant sources for imagination and entertainment even in this cynical age is an unexpected wonder and delight for scholars of the Middle Ages. Fiction, film, and television continue to mine the chronicles, romances, and poems of the Arthurian tradition for contemporary pleasures even when other works of the period have seemed unreachably distant in their concerns. Yet students approaching the narratives for the first time in something like their original and unadapted form are still confronted by a welter of unfamiliar names, places, dates, and events, in multiple languages and stretching across nearly a millennium. A handbook to guide them across such an ocean is always welcome. There is no shortage of guidebooks already available, including fine works by Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter, Christopher Snyder, and Alan Lupack; each boasts different strengths, whether from a stronger academic slant, beautiful illustrations, or thorough coverage of contemporary Arthuriana. Into this crowded field comes Susan Aronstein's excellent An Introduction to British Arthurian Narrative. In this short book, Aronstein surveys and comments on Arthurian narrative in Britain roughly from the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth to William Caxton's publication of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur. It is an impressive if inconsistent synthesis of a wide array of materials, and if the final result is perhaps less than perfect, it certainly provides a stimulating and highly-accessible introduction to this material. Compared to the previous volumes, Aronstein's book has as its strength a stronger focus and a more coherent structure and narrative. Students will find it very readable and approachable.

Aronstein offers a very truncated overview of the historical Arthur problem, as her main interest lies in the liveliness of its transmission, whether in medieval or modern times. In an earlier book, Hollywood Knights: Arthurian Cinema and the Politics of Nostalgia (2005), Aronstein traced the myriad ways that Arthurian mythology and its popular forms had continued to insert itself into American cultural life through the media of cinema and politics. In An Introduction to British Arthurian Narrative, she reminds readers regularly that this mythology was capable of being molded and shaped to fit the concerns of the age in which it lived. Arthurian narratives concern themselves with the ideal kingdom and the aristocratic individual within it, the precarious balance of the political and the personal, the life of action and the life of the spirit, and rapidity with which a utopic dream of stability and conquest can turn into a "chaotic nightmare" (3). Each generation, whether led by King Richard or President Kennedy, has co-opted the narratives and their mythology to suit its own ends. Aronstein suggests, with more conviction than warranted, that one can find in the Arthurian texts a society produces evidence for their political anxieties and hopes.

Aronstein has divided her task into three very unequal portions, and although this division makes conceptual sense, it results in a rather unwieldy-looking book. She adopts the familiar division of the material into the chronicle and romance traditions, including the narratives of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Layamon in the first category, along with the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure, and summarizing a wide variety of mostly-anonymous texts in the second. To this architecture she appends an annex for Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur (or, as she puts it, Caxton's Malory, for reasons I will explore later). The sheer numbers of romances cause that chapter to swell to nearly three times the length of the chronicle chapter; although Aronstein makes a concerted effort to subdivide the romances into helpful subgroups, it does make for an odd overall appearance.

Aronstein opens her chapter "Arthurian History" with a rapid overview of British history from the Roman occupation to the Wars of the Roses; her goal, in addition to providing students with a snapshot view of some of the major figures and conflicts of these centuries, is to demonstrate that the one constant throughout the period was political instability. The Arthurian narratives of the chronicle tradition of Geoffrey, Wace, Layamon, concern themselves with the validity of royal succession generally, while also serving, in Aronstein's view, to fortify concerns over Norman/English control of the nation (24). She portrays Geoffrey as the first to manifestly claim that it was through the prism of Arthur's kingship that continuity from the Roman past to the Norman present could be established and even glorified. The emphasis in Geoffrey and on those who follow his tradition is on Arthur as national figure, a synthesizer of English desire for a stable politics. Wace and Layamon each tweak Geoffrey's model to serve their own national agendas. Wace's French version celebrates Anglo-Norman royalty while painting Arthur as military sovereign. Layamon not only translates the narrative into English verse, but further removes the story from a French courtly milieu by making Arthur more Germanic than before, and re-defines his military prowess as one having a specifically insular force. The lengthy poetic versions of this narrative, found in the aforementioned Stanzaic and Alliterative Morte, develop further the tragic aspect of Arthur's fall, and reflect the anxiety of a fourteenth-century England that, while seeming more of a united entity than ever before, worried more than previous generations about its security in a troubled world. One of the constant themes for Aronstein is the tension found in the chronicle tradition, in which questions over sovereignty is asserted in sometimes-brutal ways, and themes of national unity, history, genealogy are foregrounded. The historical focus of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was on the whole of Arthur's life, whereas the poems popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries focus more narrowly on the death of Arthur and the ruin of the kingdom, creating a distinctly English genre, a melancholy tale for a melancholy time.

In her second chapter, "British Arthurian Romances," Aronstein surveys thirteen romances, plus Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sir Gawain gets the most space, as it deserves, but each of the tales under consideration gets extensive treatment and mostly-amble quotation. After a welcome consideration of Welsh Arthurian texts including Culhwch and Olwen, Peredur, Gereint (or Geraint ac Erec), and Owein, in which she argues for certain connections between Welsh political aspirations and the literature produced, she proceeds to discuss the English romances, a "motley lot" of texts written in different dialects, different meters, and which have received a wide variety of critical attention. In her effort to divide this material into more manageable categories for students, Aronstein arranges them into four groups: "War and Conquest" (The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain, King Arthur and King Cornwall, Lancelot of the Laik, The Adventures of Arthur); "Chivalric Adventures" (Ywain and Gawain, Lybeaus Desconus, Sir Perceval, The Jeaste of Sir Gawain); "Chivalric Identities" (The Avowing of Arthur, Sir Corneus); and "Otherworldly Encounters" (Sir Launfal, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle). Among many helpful readings and commentary, Aronstein continues to argue for visible connections between politics and literature, claiming that many of the romances reveal a creeping anxiety over political violence and the justification of force. Whereas some romances are satisfied to reproduce the narrative of royal decree and aggression, others prefer to critique it, however subtly. Arthurian romances are not the only ones to do this--one can see a somewhat similar interrogating, even mocking, of royalty in the Middle English Charlemagne romances as well. Yet the figure of Arthur, with his British trappings, makes for a particularly resonant mirror of society. While instructors will find it necessary to challenge this grand narrative at many points, it does provide students a framework with which to approach the romances from a perspective other than character and myth.

The Malory chapter is the least satisfying, having the longest text to work with and providing the least information. That this is so would seem inevitable: how could anyone satisfactorily survey Malory in twenty-one pages? Nevertheless, given the likelihood that students will face only a portion of the Morte in an upper-level course, Aronstein's summary will at least help them imagine the entirety of the book, not an easy task for modern readers. And the summary is, as such, quite useful, although Felicity Riddy's masterfully brief introduction to the work (Sir Thomas Malory) remains an indispensable guide. Her reference to "Caxton's Malory" in her chapter heading emphasizes the notion that Malory's Morte, in itself a "fantasy of insular union" (149, quoting Patricia Clare Ingham), was made, through Caxton's preface and self-conscious re-arrangement of the text, into "a primer for a newly arrived class on noble manners and mores" (150).

Despite the book's overall excellence, there are some minor issues deserving comment. The date of Culhwch and Olwen is still debated; Aronstein gives it as early twelfth, which is possible but is unusually late. Editors had long argued for this late Old Welsh to be placed in 1050–1100, but recently it has been pushed back to c. 950–1000. It is not as clear to me that the Welsh Arthurian texts can be fitted as neatly as Aronstein suggests to a narrative of ideology and agenda. Changes in the development of Middle Welsh prose likely also played a significant part in determining how different writers adapted narratives. The twelfth/thirteenth-century Arthurian text The Dream of Rhonabwy, which Aronstein does not discuss, is one that Brynley Roberts has suggested might comment satirically on contemporary artistic preferences, similar to Chaucer's Sir Thopas. The Welsh section is very helpful, and mostly accurate, although there seem to be a few omissions; although there was certainly no need to tarry over minor texts such as Kat Godeu in a volume of this sort, the very early Preideu Annwfn ("Spoils of the Otherworld"), in which Arthur travels to the Otherworld to retrieve a magical cauldron, would seem to merit a mention in passing (it admittedly lies outside Aronstein's primary focus). The question of the historical Arthur is tangential to her main purpose, and so the brevity of her account is understandable; nevertheless, a mention of the absence of Arthur in early Welsh genealogies and in the British naming tradition until the sixteenth century, and an outline of the major arguments against seeing Arthur as historical, would have been welcome. The mention of the discovery of the "Arthnou stone: certainly should have made clear that aside from the presence of the familiar name element art(h), Artognu and Arthur are simply not the same name, despite what proponents of a historical Arthur would prefer to believe. Also, COLIAVI FICIT should be printed as two words, not one. The section on Ywain and Gawain undersells, I think, the extent of the abbreviation performed by the English redactor, who excises some 2,800 lines from Chrétien's poem. The book's chronology and glossary are helpful, and the bibliography is brief but sufficient. Given the reliance in the bibliography upon the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series, in particular the online editions, I am reminded of the immense gratitude we as teachers owe to TEAMS for making their texts electronically available as supplements to the printed volumes.

The volume is part of the University Press of Florida's series New Perspectives on Medieval Literature: Authors and Traditions, edited by R. Barton Palmer and Tison Pugh, and which also features volumes on the Gawain-poet, Christine de Pizan, and, most recently, Chaucer. The books have university undergraduates as their target audience, and would well serve as supplemental reading in a course on the relevant author or tradition. It is unfortunate that at this writing only the Gawain-poet and Christine de Pizan volumes are available in affordable paperback format. I have perused three of the other volumes in the series, and all do a fine job of rendering their marvelous subjects manageable, and will benefit undergraduates and general readers for some time to come.