contributor.author: Alan Baragona

title.none: Lupack, Guide to Arthurian Literature (Alan Baragona)

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.008 08.04.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alan Baragona, Virginia Military Institute, baragonaa@vmi.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Lupack, Alan. The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend. Oxford Paperback Reference. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 496. ISBN: $17.95 (pb) 978-0-19-921509-6 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.08

Lupack, Alan. The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend. Oxford Paperback Reference. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 496. ISBN: $17.95 (pb) 978-0-19-921509-6 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Alan Baragona
Virginia Military Institute
baragonaa@vmi.edu

Authors and readers both must come to any new book about Arthurian Legend, especially an ambitious overview of the tradition, with the same question: is this book on Arthur really necessary? Certainly Alan Lupack shows that he is aware of this question as he presents The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend for our consideration. He knows he must establish a niche for such a project, in company with, for example, Norris Lacy's The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, or the indispensible Arthurian Handbook by Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, and Debra Mancoff, or such general surveys as Derek Pearsall's excellent 2003 Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction. Lupack's Guide necessarily covers much of the same ground as these books, and no doubt it can and will be used much the same way as a handbook or a survey, but he makes clear that his guidebook is something different. While he makes the disclaimer that the "purpose of this guide is not to attempt to treat every Arthurian work that exists" (4), he also says his aim is that "the book as a whole may serve as a critical history of the Arthurian legend" (6). To achieve this end, he combines the comprehensiveness of the Encyclopedia, the convenience of the Handbook, and the discursiveness of Pearsall's Introduction in order to cover the entire breadth of Arthurian Legend from the earliest days to the late 20th century.

Lupack, of course, has made his name by concentrating on modern Arthuriana, and the chief difference between his book and all its predecessors is the attention paid to works from the Renaissance to the present. Most of the modern works he discusses have brief individual entries in the Encyclopedia, and the Handbook has a separate chapter on modern literature and a section on film in its chapter "Arthur in the Arts." But because Lupack decided to end every chapter with an extensive treatment of modern Arthurian works appropriate to that section's subject matter, he is able not only to devote more space to the works but to put them in perspective with the more familiar medieval tradition. Since he does not separate them, he can show the connections and continuities, as well as the differences, far better than the disparate entries in an encyclopedia or handbook can.

This choice, however, presents the author with enormous organizational challenges. Lupack rightly points out that "the material is intensely intertextual" (5), and a simple chronological narrative could mask those very connections between the old and the new (or sometimes between the old and the older) that Lupack wants to highlight. On the other hand, if you do not rely on a straightforward timeline to organize all the strands of Arthurian tradition, you have to find some other organizing principle to make sense of it all. Either way, any book of this sort is going to have to employ numerous cross-references and repetitions that can become dizzying. Considering the ways Lupack has met these challenges will illuminate both the problems and the very substantial success of his Guide.

There are seven chapters that "follow certain threads throughout the centuries" (6): 1. Early Accounts of Arthur, Chronicles, and Historical Literature; 2. The Romance Tradition; 3. Malory, His Influence, and the Continuing Romance Tradition; 4. The Holy Grail; 5. Gawain; 6. Merlin; and 7. Tristan and Isolt. Each chapter has its own bibliography, and they are followed by an Afterward and a glossary of "Arthurian People, Places, and Things." The glossary is limited to fictional characters, locations, and objects (with a few oversights there is no entry for Culhwch, for example), but it has no entries for authors or literary titles. Thus, you can find Parzival cross- referenced with Perceval, but not the poem Parzival. But those who want to use the Guide as a reference book to look up authors and works need not despair. Lupack has provided not only the usual index but an unusually detailed table of contents. Each chapter is broken down into sub-sections (e.g., "Early References to Arthur," "Arthur in Welsh Literature," "Saints' Lives," etc.), and most sections are further subdivided according to authors, titles, and subjects (e.g., "Gaimar and Wace"; "Layamon"; "Perceforest"; and "Romances Focusing on Arthur"). Consequently, it is very easy to navigate to specific items of interest, as in an encyclopedia or handbook, or to pick a broader topic and read for full coverage.

Within each chapter, Lupack gives a solid overview of the topic, in terms of both the details of the facts and his awareness of the major issues, though his choices will not always please everyone. On the inevitable question of the existence of an historical Arthur, he is generally diplomatic, but some might be disappointed that he relegates theories about the historical original mainly to the glossary. Some will object to his use of the term "courtly love," but he acknowledges that it is "a problematic term" (83) and explains why he continues to use it. This should not trouble his target audience, which would appear to be mainly students and Arthurian novices.

Lupack is not always consistent when he takes aim at this target. For the most part, he assumes his readers have no special knowledge and explains things clearly and succinctly, but in as much detail as space allows. However, occasionally he slips and takes for granted that his student audience will recognize something that most of them probably won't. For example, he says that "Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrtien de Troyes shaped the Matter of Britain" (16) without explaining what the Matter of Britain is. Later he refers to The Alliterative Morte Arthure as "Boethian tragedy" (33) without defining the term. The only serious failing in this regard is that, in the first two chapters on chronicle and romance respectively, he never addresses the problem of defining and distinguishing those two genres. Thus, without at least a loose definition of "chronicle" and "romance," a non-expert might understandably be confused when he says that Wace and Layamon "produce works that can be called romances rather than chronicles, even though they are clearly in the chronicle tradition" (25) and refers to The Alliterative Morte as a "romance in the chronicle tradition" (33), but in the chapter on chronicle. To some extent, this is a problem of organizing the treatment of a hypertextual tradition. How can you talk about the romance elements of the chronicles if you don't discuss romance until the next chapter? Whether the casual student will be greatly troubled by this, however, is open to question.

Such readers might be frustrated, however, by the number of times Lupack has to refer them forward (or fails to do so when he should). He will say that Gwenhwyfar and Melwas are "known from The Life of St. Gildas" (21) three pages before he discusses that work. The first mention of Galahad is his appearance in John Hardyng's Chronicle on page 38, but Lupack does not explain until page 107 that Galahad was invented for The Lancelot-Grail Cycle. When, two pages earlier, he says that the early thirteenth-century Lancelot do Lac "'does not seem to anticipate Galaad'" (105), will a novice reader know what he is talking about? Will the reader assume at first that Hardyng invented Galahad? The whole subject of the Grail, in fact, is enough to give the writer of a book like this organizational fits. Lupack rightly devotes an entire section in roughly the middle of the book to "The Holy Grail," but meanwhile he must at least briefly discuss Chrtien's Perceval early in the book, introduce The Lancelot-Grail Cycle in the chapter on "The Romance Tradition," and give an entire chapter to Malory between them both, including an extensive account of Malory's story of the Grail. Pity the poor author trying to outline all this on a spreadsheet. A flow chart would look like a pretzel.

Whether or not the average reader will be frustrated by having to be told, sometimes more than once on a page, that a particular topic will be discussed more fully in a subsequent chapter, this solution to the problem of the web of Arthurian traditions, however unwieldy, goes with the territory. I cannot imagine any organization in which Lupack would not have had to do the same thing to one degree or another. More importantly, this minor annoyance is a trade-off for a much greater reward, a fundamentally coherent picture of the complex tapestry of Arthurian legend and literature. Whether he is reviewing the familiar medieval material or showing connections with modern works, Lupack shows an enviable breadth of knowledge and sound judgment on the literary value and importance of any given work, which keeps his multiple, interwoven narratives of literary history from becoming a tedious catalogue. One of the inevitable themes of any course in Arthurian Legend must always be how authors in different times and diverse cultures found something in the tradition that was attractive, familiar, contemporary, and adapted the characters and stories to their own purposes. Lupack chose to make his Guide comprehensive in scope and discursive in method precisely because that is the best way to demonstrate this vital quality in the legends and the literature. It is why we continue to study it, and it is why the Oxford Guide will be so useful on the shelf among all the most often thumbed reference books on King Arthur.