Christopher Snyder

title.none: Lacy, Ashe and Mancoff, eds, The Arthurian Handbook (Snyder)

identifier.other: baj9928.9809.012 98.09.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Christopher Snyder, Marymount University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Lacy, Norris J., Geoffrey Ashe, and Debra N. Mancoff, eds. The Arthurian Handbook. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, vol. 1920. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997. Pp. xliii, 409. $60.00 (hb) ISBN: 0-815-32082-5. ISBN: $22.95 (pb) ISBN: 0-815-32081-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.09.12

Lacy, Norris J., Geoffrey Ashe, and Debra N. Mancoff, eds. The Arthurian Handbook. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, vol. 1920. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997. Pp. xliii, 409. $60.00 (hb) ISBN: 0-815-32082-5. ISBN: $22.95 (pb) ISBN: 0-815-32081-7.

Reviewed by:

Christopher Snyder
Marymount University

Th e proliferation, in the last two decades or so, of college courses on King Arthur has created a demand for good Arthurian texts and sourcebooks. Garland Publishing has consistently met this demand with literature, monographs, collections of essays (medieval conferences are deluged these days with Arthurian papers), and various reference books. Two standouts from the latter category are The Arthurian Encyclopedia (1986), edited by Norris J. Lacy, and The Arthurian Handbook (1988), by Lacy and Geoffrey Ashe. Both of these works are now out in new revised editions to keep up with the almost exponential growth of literature and films celebrating the Once and Future King.

The collaboration on the second edition of The Arthurian Handbook brings an even greater scholarly diversity to the project. Lacy, a professor of Old French Literature and past president of the International Arthurian Society (North America), has most recently guided to publication the only complete English translation of the entire Prose Lancelot or "Vulgate Cycle." Ashe is perhaps the world's most famous proponent of an historical Arthur, various theories of which he has presented in dozens of books, articles, and documentaries. Mancoff, a professor of Art History who has published several books on Arthurian art, was brought in to expand the discussion of Arthur in the nonliterary arts. The overall result is a concise, affordable (it's widely available in paperback), and eminently usable manual, described by the authors as "a critical survey of the Arthurian legend in all periods and languages" (xi).

The Handbook begins with a section called "Origins." This, Ashe's main contribution, is a lengthy discussion of the "historical" origins of the Arthurian legends. Of course "historical" is properly in quotes because the scholarly world, unlike the medieval, is divided over the historicity of Arthur. After a small flood of "positivist" Arthurian histories released in the early 1970s, David Dumville published an article criticizing these scholars' use of late and unreliable material, accusing them of bad methodology and good marketing. In recent publications Ashe, one of these positivists, has decided to restate the question, not "Did Arthur exist?" but rather "What facts is the legend rooted in, how did it originate?" (4). This is a very rational approach to a difficult literary and historical enigma, and on the surface this chapter appears to be a simple survey of the early material -- in Latin and Welsh, and none of it strictly historical -- that contributed to the Arthurian legends.

From beginning to end Ashe presents the material primarily as it relates to his own "Arthur-Riothamus hypothesis." First presented in a Speculum article nearly twenty years ago, Ashe's equation of Arthur with Riothamus (a British king who is known to have fought the Goths in Gaul c.468) dominates this section of the book, with all of the other historical Arthur theories of the last fifty years summarized in less than a page (30). This leads Ashe to skew or overlook much historical information, and to ignore several good scholarly works on the "Arthurian period" (the fifth and sixth centuries AD) which don't deal directly with Arthur. There has been a lot of recent work on Gildas, for example, and it is misleading for Ashe to describe him (9) as "a sixth-century monk from the north" (he was not a monk, he may have lived mostly in the fifth century, and he probably wrote in the Romanized south). One of the most recent -- and radical -- Arthur theories is the so-called "Sarmatian connection" (which sees the Arthurian corpus as deriving from Iranian folktales told by the descendants of Sarmatian cavalry stationed in Britain under the command of one Lucius Artorius Castus), and it is interesting here (35) to see Ashe co-opt some of the elements of this theory into his Riothamus model. The "Origins" chapter concludes with two very brief discussions of Merlin and "Arthurian Places," that is recent archaeological discoveries related to Arthur.

The next section consists of two chapters discussing Arthurian literature, medieval and modern. Here Lacy presents a more straightforward and even survey of the texts, with only a slight bias toward the French romances. The "Celtic" material, especially the important Breton contributions, receives perhaps too slight a treatment, but otherwise Lacy does a commendable job assembling the disparate medieval poems, chronicles, and romances into appropriate categories accompanied by succinct discussion. Both the medieval and modern literature are divided into linguistic groupings, which are in turn subdivided into genres. If your interest is in medieval Dutch romances or Arthurian women in the twentieth century, you will not be disappointed. Lacy apologizes in the preface for the selectivity of this Handbook, yet there is an impressive coverage of Arthurian literature here. Only in discussing twentieth century Arthurian novels is this selectivity noticeable, but given the overwhelming number of these that have appeared in recent years -- according to Lacy, more than eighty English titles in 1990-95 alone (xii) -- this is understandable.

Chapter 4, "Arthur in the Arts," is Mancoff's revised and expanded discussion of Arthurian art, music, drama, etc. For many Arthurian enthusiasts this may prove to be the most popular section of the Handbook, for it takes seriously many categories of both haute couture and popular culture seldom mentioned in academic discussions of Arthur. There are many delightful surprises here, from Arthurian textiles to comics and postage stamps. A very interesting section on Arthurian photography (did you know that Tennyson commissioned some of the earliest Arthurian photos from his neighbor, the portrait photographer Julia Cameron, whose husband posed as Merlin?) suffers only from brevity. Mancoff's section on Arthurian film brings this second edition up-to-date on the latest Hollywood treatments of the legends, including Terry Gilliam's acclaimed Fisher King (1991) and the disastrous First Knight (1995). Since, for better or worse, film not literature is destined to be the first introduction to Arthur for many future Arthurians, Arthurian surveys like the Handbook will need to devote more attention and scholarly criticism to this medium.

As one might expect, the second edition of The Arthurian Handbook includes a larger number and variety of photographs. Many of the black and white photographs are now larger, and overall the book's aesthetic appearance has improved. In addition to the timeline and glossary from the first edition, revised for the second, are several other useful items: a map of Arthurian Britain, genealogies for several Arthurian literary figures, a section on Arthurian heraldry, and boxes and sidebars offering additional insights on subjects like "Excalibur" and "Round Tables." The Bibliography is extensive, yet the "notes" at the ends of the chapters aren't really notes at all and serve only as confusing references to the bibliographic information.

Overall, this is a very attractive book which, though not exhaustive, will be a welcomed addition to both library and classroom. As a companion to the more ambitious New Arthurian Encyclopedia, the Handbook will prove useful to both beginning Arthurian scholars, in search of a novel research path, and to literature and history teachers trying to construct interdisciplinary Arthurian courses. It has, as they say, a little something for everyone.