contributor.author: Alison Taufer

title.none: de Boron, Merlin and the Grail (Alison Taufer)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.027 02.09.27

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alison Taufer, California State University, Los Angeles, ataufer@exchange.calstatela.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: de Boron, Robert. Bryant, Nigel, trans. Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval: The Trilogy of Prose Romances Attributed to Robert de Boron. Arthurian Studies. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. Pp. 172. $55.00. ISBN: 0-85991-616-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.27

de Boron, Robert. Bryant, Nigel, trans. Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval: The Trilogy of Prose Romances Attributed to Robert de Boron. Arthurian Studies. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. Pp. 172. $55.00. ISBN: 0-85991-616-2.

Reviewed by:

Alison Taufer
California State University, Los Angeles
ataufer@exchange.calstatela.edu

Nigel Bryant's Merlin and the Grail makes available in English for the first time a complete prose redaction of Robert de Boron's Le Roman de l'Estoire dou Grail, the original source of a number of important Arthurian motifs. Number forty-eight in Brewer's Arthurian Studies Series, Bryant's translation is based upon the early thirteenth- century Modena manuscript E.39 of the Biblioteca Estense in Modena. Along with the Paris manuscript (nouv.acqu.no.4166 of the Bibliotheque Nationale), the Modena manuscript is one of only two extant versions of the entire prose cycle of Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, and Perceval, or Didot Perceval, as it is more commonly known.

A crucial text in the development of the Grail legend, Robert's Le Roman de l'Estoire dou Grail established the link between Arthur's court and some of Christianity's most sacred traditions. While Chretien de Troyes' Perceval first introduced the Grail to Arthurian literature, the origin and purpose of the Grail is somewhat vague in his version. Robert de Boron was the first to make the Grail the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, as well as the cup in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the blood from the crucified Jesus' wounds. In Robert's version of the Grail story, the bleeding lance, which also appears in Chretien's Perceval, is the spear with which Jesus' side was pierced at the Crucifixion. The Round Table becomes the successor to the table used at the Last Supper and the Siege Perilous to the seat unworthily and disastrously claimed by one of Joseph's followers, Moyse. By connecting the Grail to the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea, and ultimately the evangelization of Britain, Robert placed the Arthurian legend within the wider context of salvation history.

The Modena manuscript translated in this edition is a prose version of Robert's complete Joseph of Arimathea and of the fragment of his Merlin. Robert borrowed from the canonical Gospels and a number of apocryphal sources, including the Gospel of Nicodemus and the Avenging of the Savior, to create the Joseph of Arimathea. In his narrative, which begins with an account of Jesus' life and crucifixion, Robert describes the origin of the Grail and introduces the Fisher King in the person of Joseph's brother-in-law Bron, who becomes the Grail's caretaker. The tale ends with Bron's descendants migrating west to spread the Gospel. This narrative thread is later taken up in the Perceval, in which Perceval, Bron's grandson, undertakes the quest for the Grail and ultimately becomes the Grail King.

Expanding upon Geoffrey of Monmouth's and Wace's accounts of Merlin's origins and early life, the Merlin adds another biblical element to the Arthurian legend through its presentation of the Round Table as the third in a trinity of tables that includes the one at which Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples and the one at which Joseph's followers experienced a mystical ecstasy in the presence of the Grail. Whether this particular idea is the work of Robert or the prose redactor is unclear, since Robert's verse Merlin breaks off at line 502. In the prose Merlin, the Round Table and Merlin himself become the primary means through which the three distinct narratives of this redaction become a unified cycle. Merlin, who knows the past, present and the future, transmits the history of the Grail to Uther Pendragon, to Arthur and his court, and as the redactor claims in an imaginative flourish at the end of the cycle, to the reader through this very narrative.

The Perceval, which scholars sometime divide into a separate Perceval and Mort Artu, is unique to the Modena and Paris manuscripts, and does not appear in Robert's verse original or any of the other extant prose redactions of his work. It shares a number of common narrative elements with Chretien's Perceval and especially with the Second Continuation of Chretien's tale. This final section of the cycle continues the Grail history first introduced in the Joseph of Arimathea through Perceval, the son of Alain li Gros and grandson of Bron, the Fisher King. Perceval seeks the Fisher King in order to ask the question that will heal his ailing grandfather and destroy the enchantments of Britain. After one failed attempt, Perceval achieves his quest and becomes the Grail's guardian. This particular prose redaction concludes the Perceval with an abbreviated Mort Artu, based upon Geoffrey and Wace's account of the Round Table's fall. By including this final narrative, the redactor created a complete, if brief Arthurian cycle .

Boron's verse narrative and its redactions have generally been dismissed as stylistically unsophisticated, but in his introduction, Bryant does a fine job of defending the Modena manuscript's prose. As William Roach has noted, the Modena manuscript's Joseph of Arimathea and Merlin are the most drastically condensed of the existing redactions, but despite, or perhaps because of the Modena manuscript's brevity, it is clear, straightforward, and surprisingly unified.[1] The text may lack descriptive detail, but its emphasis on direct discourse subtly underscores its essentially oral nature, which as Bryant argues, is demonstrated in its repeated emphasis on "hearing" rather than "reading" the Grail story.

Bryant's translation itself is a graceful and accessible rendering of the Modena manuscript. Lively and fast-paced, it is a delight to read, and would make an excellent student text, if D.S. Brewer could be convinced to issue it as a paperback. As a hardcover edition, it is a bit expensive for classroom use. Because of its brevity, the text is also an ideal resource for introducing students to the concept of a complete Arthurian cycle.

Bryant includes an informative introduction and selected bibliography that should prove useful for a general or student audience, but which are a bit too brief to provide much information as a scholarly resource. The introduction includes a discussion of the Modena manuscript, including its authorship, sources, construction, and style. The footnotes are very useful, but could be more extensive. Bryant notes literal translations, wordplay, and textual clarifications of problematic words or passages. His note concerning the notoriously problematic "esplumoir" into which Merlin departs at the end of the Perceval is particularly well done and indicative of Bryant's sensitivity to the text. Of Merlin's departing words to his master Blaise and to Perceval -- "But then I shall live in eternal joy. Meanwhile I shall make my dwelling place outside your house, where I shall live and prophesy as Our Lord shall instruct me. And all who see my dwelling-place will call it Merlin's "esplumoir" -- Bryant notes, "The untranslatable -- and probably invented -- word has wonderful resonances. Its root is 'the shedding of feathers,' implying moulting, transformation, renewal" (172). Footnotes also indicate where some miniatures were cut from the original Modena manuscript, thus deleting sections of the text, and where Bryant replaced the missing lines with corresponding passages from the Paris manuscript. The inclusion of headnotes to indicate the content of each page is very helpful.

A minor concern is the choice of title for this translation. Although Merlin and the Grail may succinctly summarize the content of the Modena manuscript, it is not a title that has ever been applied to the text and therefore does not clearly indicate which Arthurian narrative Bryant translates in this edition. An English version of the title on the Modena manuscript's cover, De Gail Historia Joseph ab Arimathia or even of Robert's Le Roman de l'Estoire dou Grail might provide a clearer indication of the translation's source text. The attribution of the complete Modena manuscript to Robert de Boron is also somewhat problematic. The relationship between this prose cycle and Robert's verse narrative is difficult to ascertain. There is a single extant manuscript of Robert's text, which contains only the Joseph of Arimathea and the first 502 lines of the Merlin. Furthermore, there is no evidence to confirm that Robert ever completed the Merlin or wrote a Perceval. Consequently, the authorship and origin of the conclusion of the Merlin and of the Perceval remain unknown. Even Bryant's introduction, on page two, notes that a passage in the Merlin suggests that Robert was not the author of this Perceval. This lack of clarity, and the possible resulting confusion, may prevent Bryant's translation from reaching the audience it so richly deserves.

Notes: [1] Roach, William, ed. The "Didot Perceval" according to the Manuscripts of Modena and Paris (Philadelphia, 1941). pp. 4-9.