contributor.author: Deborah Margaret Sabadash, University of Toronto

title.none: Guerin, The Fall of Kings and Princes

identifier.other: baj9928.9612.016 96.12.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Deborah Margaret Sabadash, University of Toronto, dsabadas@norman.carswell.com

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Guerin, M. Victoria. The Fall of Kings and Princes: Structure and Destruction in Arthurian Tragedy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995. Pp. xvi, 336. $39.5042695. ISBN: ISBN 0-8047-2290-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.12.16

Guerin, M. Victoria. The Fall of Kings and Princes: Structure and Destruction in Arthurian Tragedy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995. Pp. xvi, 336. $39.5042695. ISBN: ISBN 0-8047-2290-0.

Reviewed by:

Deborah Margaret Sabadash, University of Toronto
dsabadas@norman.carswell.com

The corpus of Arthurian literature is a large, varied, and often unwieldy one. Working in a long and meandering tradition, writers of Arthurian romance have struggled to give new voices to old stories. Guerin's study focuses on four Arthurian romances: the anonymous Prose Vulgate Cycle, Chretien de Troye's Chevalier de la Charette and Le Conte du Graal, and the anonymous Middle English Gawain and the Green Knight. Throughout Guerin addresses the issues of intertexuality and interconnectedness, of the ways in which these stories interweave and speak to each other, and the ways in which an audience intimately familiar with the tradition perceives the texture of the whole.

As Guerin points out, the Arthurian tradition presents an ideal vehicle for tragedy. Extending beyond the rather straightforward Boethian paradigm (which charts the rise and fall of a great man), Arthurian tragedy embraces Aristotelian elements. The Fall occurs not as a result of the whims of Fortune or the destinies determined by Divine Providence, but as a direct result of human failings and moral weaknesses. In the end, Arthur is betrayed by his own blood, and the glories of his chivalric rule come to an end by way of human greed, sexual transgression, and internal strife. Already in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia, the failure to respect blood ties and marital bonds leads to civil war. The destruction of Arthur's perfect realm is thus seen as a punishment for offense against both natural and divine law. Guerin explores these themes over several key stories in the Arthurian corpus. Guerin is particularly interested in the underlying themes of incest, sexual licence, and adultery, and finds as the pivot point of all these stories the figure of the king betrayed by the fruit of his own incest.

Chapter 1 addresses this incest theme in the Prose Vulgate Cycle. It is sexual transgression which results in the sterility of the terre gaste, the wasteland of the Fisher King. Guerin traces the role of fole amour and the cycle of reckless love which leads eventually to the destruction of the Arthurian world. Lancelot's sinful love of Guenevere -- a violation of his bond of honour and duty to Arthur -- and the downfall of the Arthurian world represents in microcosm the dissolution of ties, both official and personal, which link men in a feudal society. This theme, however, is one already heavily discussed in scholarly literature, as is the juxtaposition of the earthly and heavenly chivalry, and the contrast of sinful and chaste love; Guerin does not seem to have much to add here other than making the argument for the intertextual links. Also not much is made of the vast difference in authorial intent (if we dare even mention such a taboo term); if the Vulgate Cycle is indeed an artifact of monastic (Cistercian) rather than secular production, then its treatment of the Arthurian material should out of necessity follow a rather different agenda from that outlined in secular romance.

Chapter 2 deals with Chretien's Chevalier de la Charette. Lancelot's idolatrous worship of the queen and his disregard for the bonds of duty to his liege lord are what ultimately tear apart Arthur's kingdom. Lancelot sacrifices public honour in order to win favour in the private sphere of love. The famous cart thus represents simultaneously public shame and private glory, and it is this tension between love and honour in the private and public worlds which propels the romance.

Chretien's Conte du Graal is the subject of Chapter 3. Guerin rightly points out that the two tales, the Chevalier de la Charette and the Conte du Graal are meant to be read together as companion pieces offering commentary on the Arthurian tradition: the first presents the sin of Arthur's world, while the other illustrates its consequences. The motif of sexual mutilation resurfaces here and provides for Guerin the link with the Mordred tradition. Guerin identifies the Fisher King with Arthur, whose realm is destroyed as the result of sexual transgression and incest, and interprets the Fisher King's sexual wound as a symbolic representation of Mordred's usurpation of the throne.

Chapter 4 explores the incest theme in the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here Guerin views the structural doubling of Morgan le Fay (Gawain's aunt) and Bertilak s Lady as two images of the same figure. This uncovers for Guerin the true intent of the temptation plot -- the incest theme once again.

Guerin's most valuable insight is that the tales in the Arthurian corpus are not isolated texts but function as part of a larger textual body. As a result, the individual stories are influenced and shaped by those that precede it, and the audience is one whose expectations are conditioned by prior knowledge of the tradition. Still, individual authors have managed to use this matiere for a variety of different purposes without violating the integrity of the whole. The author(s) of the Prose Vulgate, for example, shifted the focus from earthly concerns to spiritual ones, and in the process turned the tradition on its head, creating an anti-romance which questions the chivalric values of its secular counter-part. While the incest theme does indeed weave its way through many of the texts, I found Guerin's treatment a bit heavy-handed and forced in many places. By Chapter 4 I found it becoming rather predictable and tedious. It's one thing to argue for continuity and intertextuality, but we should also allow these texts to stand on their own. These stories explore different facets of the Arthurian world in all their complexity and richness which should not be reduced to a single dominant theme. Guerin's study is provocative, though, and raises some interesting questions and alternative readings of these romances.