Louise Stephens

title.none: White, ed., King Arthur in Legend and History (Stephens)

identifier.other: baj9928.9903.001 99.03.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Louise Stephens, The University of Ottawa,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: White, Richard, ed. King Arthur in Legend and History. New York: Routledge, 1998. Pp. 570. $27.99. ISBN: 0-415-92063-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.03.01

White, Richard, ed. King Arthur in Legend and History. New York: Routledge, 1998. Pp. 570. $27.99. ISBN: 0-415-92063-9.

Reviewed by:

Louise Stephens
The University of Ottawa

De spite its title, this anthology is not so much about the Arthur of legend and history as it is about the Arthur of literature as illustrated in a collection of excerpts from texts dating from the sixth century to the sixteenth. Arthur may or may not have been a hero of the fifth- and sixth-century British resistance to the Saxon invasions, but it was in the Middle Ages that the figure of Arthur inspired a vast and fascinating literature in many languages. It is this medieval king, ruling a mysterious city of Camelot and surrounded by the knights of the Round Table, who still exercises a hold upon the imagination.

It is the aim of this book to give easy access to excerpts from this literature for an English-speaking public, a worthwhile endeavour and one which would fill a need amongst university students who are interested in Arthurian studies but who do not have the language proficiency to tackle the texts in the original languages. The collection includes a very wide range of extracts in translation, some from already-published translations, others translated by White himself, from Latin, Welsh, French and German, and modernized or translated versions of English texts.

The texts are grouped into sections according to period and language, including sections on early texts, historical texts, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, and romances in various languages. The book is attractively packaged, with useful maps at the beginning and a selection of interesting photographs. It looks like a convenient handbook for both the general reader and for the undergraduate interested in the background of Malory or Tennyson, and it will probably be very popular as a result. This is unfortunate as, despite its good points, this book in its present form is so unreliable that students should be warned to avoid it.

The book's most serious weakness is the poor quality of the editor's own translations, especially those from Latin. Indeed, the first and the last sections, "Early Works" and "Historical Texts", should be stamped "beware" in large, red letters. The translator makes elementary mistakes, such as confusing similar words (for example, "fugo" and "fugio"); ignoring distinctions of tense, mood and voice; leaving out difficult words or phrases, and misreading vocabulary. Although space permits only a few examples, the problem affects almost every selection to some degree.

A misreading of the word "sinistralis" changes the itinerary of Octha, son of Hengist, in the first selection (p. 5) from Nennius' Historia Brittonum, where we read in the translation that "Octa crossed into the kingdom of Kent in the eastern part of Britain"; the Latin actually says, "Octha... transivit de sinistrali parte Britanniae ad regnum Cantorum... " (Octha... proceeded from the northern part of Britain to the kingdom of Kent... ). [[1]] In the life of St. Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan, the saint is described in White's translation as being in Ireland "studying about kings" (p. 20); in fact, he is directing a school, "studium regens". [[2]] Likewise, at the end of the life of St. Padarn (p. 18), where Arthur begs forgiveness from the saint, the translation suggests that the saint refused to become Arthur's patron: "Arthur asked Padarn to become his permanent mentor, but he refused"; the opposite is in fact the case in the Latin, "Paternum sibi sempiternum accepit patronum, ac sic discessit" [[3]] (He received Padarn as his eternal patron, and thus he departed).

In the life of St. Cadoc (p. 16) Arthur demands that the saint, who has offered sanctuary to the murderer of one of his men, produce red-and-white cows as a recompense. When the cows are changed into bundles of fern as they are being driven across a river to Arthur's men, the king is humbled: Quod prodigium Arthurius aspectans, ut sibi dimittetur iniuria quam illi irrogaverat beatum virum humiliter flagitavit... Inito igitur praelibitus rex cum agmine suo consilio, refugium eius per septem annos totidemque menses eidemque numeri dies protelavit. [[4]]Upon seeing this marvel, Arthur humbly beseeched the blessed man that the outrage which he had inflicted upon him be forgiven him... And, therefore, the aforementioned king, once he had entered into a consultation with his followers, prolonged his [i.e. the saint's] right of asylum for seven years and as many months and days. White, however, cannot tell the difference between "flagito" and "flagello": When Arthur saw this spectacle, since that which he had demanded had been snatched away unjustly, he whipped the holy man humiliatingly... Therefore, the aforesaid King Arthur took counsel with his followers, and condemned the saint to exile for seven full years and an equal number of months and days. (p. 16) This confusion makes nonsense of the entire point of this story and other similar stories in which a stern Celtic saint confronts an unruly British king, like Arthur or Rhun or Maelgwn, and defeats him. (It should be noted also that the meaning given in the Latin for the name of the place, "Trefredinauc", is "villa filicis", which means not "the town of sticks", as White translates, but rather "the town of fern".)

Sometimes there is no resemblance between the Latin and the translation, as is the case in a passage in which Gervase of Tilbury describes an incident in which a groom of the bishop of Catania discovers Arthur's court in a remote Sicilian valley. Arthur returns a lost horse to the groom and, as the text continues, "ut ab indigenis accepi, exenia sua ad antistitem illum destinavit, quae a multis visa et a pluribus fabulosa novitate admirata fuerunt" (as I have discovered from the locals, he sent his own gifts to that bishop which were seen by many people and marvelled at by more people on account of the extraordinary report of them). [[5]] The gifts ("exenia") vanish in the translation and "antistes" (bishop) is confused with "superstes" (survivor): "as I have heard from local accounts which provide evidence that he is still alive, there are many records of sightings and fabulous stories reported" (p. 524).

Proper nouns, too, prove a source of difficulty. Some of them have been left as they were in the original Latin, a legitimate decision but one which makes notes necessary as most of the names will be unfamiliar, such as "Troynt" (in Nennius) for the boar "Twrch Trwyth" or "Beornica" for the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernicia. A few of the translated names raise questions. The City of the Legion, the site of Arthur's ninth battle in the Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius, is glossed as "Caerleon" (p. 5), implying "Caerleon-upon-Usk", although it is more usually treated as the other Urbs Legionis, Chester, where a battle was fought in 616. [[6]] Especially puzzling is the translation of the name "Allequinus" as "Alcuin", adviser to Charlemagne, in the selection from Etienne de Bourbon (p. 525); "Allequinus" is Hellequin, ancestor of the figure Harlequin, a minor medieval demon and leader of a band of spirits in an infernal hunt (la Maisnie). There seems, too, to be no good reason to translate "Danavexeria" (Devonshire) as "Dumnonium" (p. 515) in the anecdote from Hermann of Tournai.

Similar problems occur in the French translations. In the Didot-Perceval, there is a tournament between two opposing sides, "i josterent cil de la Table Reonde a caus qui de fors estoient venu... " (those of the Round Table jousted against those who came from elsewhere... ); [[7]] in the translation the tournament is strictly one-sided, "all the members of the Round Table took part in the jousting... " (p. 190). Guinevere in the Lai du Cor, declares in order to prove her innocence of adultery, "Or face un fu d'espine,/ Mi sires enbracer, / Einz me face geter" (Now let my lord kindle a pyre of hawthorn and have me thrown on it). [[8]] White has her declare instead, "... now I might make a fire of hawthorn to embrace my lord and throw myself on it" (p. 215). In this same tale, an enchanted horn spills wine over any man who tries to drink from it if his wife has been unfaithful even in thought; when King Lot takes the horn the text says of him, "Qui mout se tint pur sot" [[9]] (Who considered himself very foolish), i.e. as a result of taking the horn. The translation states the opposite: "King Lot, who considered himself very wise" (p. 216).

A non-existent character is conjured up by a mistranslation of the inscription on the horn, which says, "Ceo vous maunde Mangounz / De Moraine li blounz" [[10]] (Mangoun the Blond from Moraine sends you this); White's translation, "This Mangoun sends you, from Moraire the blond" (p. 214) and the accompanying note gives the erroneous impression that there is a character, Moraire the blond, who should possibly be identified with Morgan le Fay. Moraine, according to Erickson, whose remarks White misreads, is the name for Moray, traditionally the kingdom of King Urien, husband of Morgan le Fay; moreover, 'li blounz' is masculine and cannot possibly apply to a female character. [[11]] Similarly, in the translation of The Bridleless Mule, the surprising exclamation "may the mother of God confound me" (p. 211) contains a misinterpretation of the first element of the name "Damedeus", "Lord God", (from Domine Deus).

Apart from the errors in the translation, there are minor errors in the background information provided in the introduction. Wace was not, for example, the first French translator of Geoffrey of Monmouth (p. xvii); it was Geoffrey Gaimar. The poet of the fourteenth-century alliterative Morte Arture does not introduce Arthur's "Dream of the Wheel of Fortune" (p. xxiv); it is found as early as the early thirteenth-century Mort Artu. In the outline of the growth of Arthurian literature Robert de Boron, whose Joseph and Merlin (which is extant only in a prose version) are key texts, is omitted, as are the Estoire del saint Graal (part of the vulgate cycle) and the Prose Tristan, one of Malory's chief sources.

White's claim that early French romancers treated Arthur in a derogatory fashion because they regarded him as an English king is questionable (p. xviii); he is in a subordinate position because the romances are about his knights, just as, with certain exceptions such as Gawain in early romances, Lancelot or Tristan in later ones, the other knights of his court are subordinate to the hero of the romance. (This is analogous to the position of kings in the lives of the Celtic saints referred to above; the secular power is firmly subordinated.) Unlike Geoffrey of Monmouth, the French romancers are not much interested in British nationalism; in many ways Arthur, although he is a "Breton", is portrayed according to contemporary French ideals of a monarch, and his court, which is populated by knights of different nationalities, is characterized by French refinement and concepts of chivalry. After all, the English kings of the time were largely Norman French in culture and descent, including such vivid figures as Henry II and Richard Coeur-de-Lion.

More troubling, perhaps, is the likelihood that unwary readers will come away with the idea that Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is a genuine history of Arthur's reign, especially given the dismal state of knowledge of history amongst undergraduate students. Geoffrey's account of Arthur's reign is largely fictional, a mixture of tradition and history padded out by his own vivid imagination and composed partly for nationalistic reasons. It is excellent literature and it proved so compelling that it hoodwinked most of Geoffrey's contemporaries and even successors, influencing the writing of British history for centuries, but as history in the modern sense it has been long since been proved to be without foundation. White, however, not only does not state this clearly; he actually defends it against the criticisms of one of the rare sceptics, William of Newburgh, according to whom it is a collection of fictions dressed up as history through the use of Latin. William, admittedly motivated by his own nationalistic bias, questions the historicity of Arthur on the grounds that the English historian Bede does not mention him; White counters this argument by claiming that Bede's sources for this period "would probably have been exclusively Anglo-Saxon, and so unlikely to mention a successful British leader" (p. 40). This is despite that fact that Bede's major source for this period is the sixth-century British historian and polemicist, Gildas, who, although he was a near contemporary of these events and relentlessly hostile to Anglo-Saxons, does not mention Arthur, either.

There remains the question of the selections themselves: how well do they represent Arthur? The book contains, as mentioned above, a very wide range of selections covering many centuries and it must have been a monumental task to assemble them. There is little material from Welsh-language texts and only one selection from German, but White has brought together a wealth of interesting material from Latin, French, English and Scottish sources. This variety is one of the strengths of the book. Nonetheless, as far as the French material is concerned, even with the large number of excepts one gets only a limited idea of the depth and complexity of the character of Arthur in the medieval romances, of his rise and tragic betrayal, especially as many of the selections add little to the portrait since they concern Arthur only peripherally or show him in a limited role.

It is an impossible task, of course, to assemble an anthology that will not be subject to second-guessing; in a sense there are as many different Arthurs as there are texts and this problem is compounded by the fact that in the larger romances a character can be built up gradually over hundreds of pages. One solution to this problem might be a more thematic treatment of aspects of Arthur's character through the stages of his life, including more from certain key texts such as the post-vulgate Huth-Merlin (dated much too early here), in which there are the stories of Arthur's pursuit of the yapping beast, his unwitting incest with the Queen of Orkney, his attempt to murder Mordred by setting all the infants born at the same time adrift in a boat, and a long version of the treachery of Morgain and Accolon. Robert de Boron's Merlin has an account of his fostering and childhood, culminating in his withdrawal of the Sword in the Stone and coronation. The Mort Artu offers, apart from the two excellent selections included, the poisoned apple incident, the betrayal of the lovers to Arthur by Agravain and Arthur's reaction, the feud with Lancelot and Arthur's grief over the loss of Gauvain. Finally, there is the haunting scene at the end of the First Continuation where Arthur, unable to sleep, looks out of the castle windows over the sea and sees a mysterious boat drawn by swans and carrying a dead knight with a broken lance in his breast.

In conclusion, then, this book is a good idea but the execution leaves much to be desired. Indeed, because of the vastness of this undertaking, which crosses many different specialities, it would probably have been better to have produced an anthology of this sort as a collaborative effort. In its present form this anthology is suitable only for providing a taste of Arthurian literature for the casual reader and entertainment for winter evenings. The danger is, however, that because it is such a convenient collection of translated texts, the errors and mistranslations will slip into the work not only of students, but also, whether acknowledged or not, of the increasing number of researchers uncomfortable with Latin or Old French, and sow minor confusions in Arthurian studies for years to come.


[[1]] Sir E.K. Chambers, Arthur of Britain (London, 1927), p. 238.

[[2]] Chambers, p. 262.

[[3]] Chambers, p. 249.

[[4]] Chambers, p. 245.

[[5]] Chambers, p. 277.

[[6]] In the list of the twenty-eight cities of Britain in the same source Chester is given as Cair Legion while Caerleon is given as Cair Legeion Guar Usic. ( Historia Brittonum cum additamentis Nennii, ed. T. Mommsen, Chronica Minora Saeculorum iv-vii, Monumenta Germaniae Historica III, Auctores Antiquissimi, (Berlin, 1888, repr. Munich, 1981), col. 210.

[[7]] The Didot-Perceval, ed. William Roach (Philadelphia, 1941), p. 144.

[[8]] The Anglo-Norman Text of Le Lai du Cor, ed. C.T. Erickson (Oxford, >1973), ll. 324-6.

[[9]] Cor, l. 426.

[[10]] Cor, l. 227-28.

[[11]] Curiously, this same name, spelled "Morraire", seems to be treated as a place name on the previous page (213).