Cynthia A Gravlee

title.none: Pearsall, Arthurian Romance (Cynthia A Gravlee)

identifier.other: baj9928.0403.012 04.03.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Cynthia A Gravlee, Montevallo University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Pearsall, Derek. Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction. Series: Blackwell Introductions to Literature, vol. 4. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. Pp. viii, 182. ISBN: $20.00 0-631-23320-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.03.12

Pearsall, Derek. Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction. Series: Blackwell Introductions to Literature, vol. 4. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. Pp. viii, 182. ISBN: $20.00 0-631-23320-2.

Reviewed by:

Cynthia A Gravlee
Montevallo University

Derek Pearsall, Gurney Professor of English, Emeritus at Harvard University, Honorary Research Professor at the University of York, and the author of numerous works on medieval literature, has accomplished the daunting quest of producing an overview of Arthurian Romance that addresses content and theme in major works of this enormous canon. This volume is part of a series in progress, Blackwell Introductions to Literature, that will encompass texts from the Old English period through the twentieth century. Pearsall's text is clearly and conveniently organized with chapter headings and subheadings. It includes end notes, a "Bibliography of Works Cited and Future Reading," and an index. Pearsall's cogent commentary, laced with ironic wit, is both informative and entertaining.

In the "Preface," Pearsall states his plan and purpose. He will provide readings of "the great works" and will discuss the treatment of Arthurian themes, as well as their significance, across time in various media, with attention to their reception by audiences from the medieval era to the present.

Chapter One, "The Early Arthur," begins with a discussion titled "What Is the Historical Evidence of a 'Real' Arthur?" After assessing Arthurian references in early Celtic texts, Pearsall concludes that Arthur "had to be invented (or found) to fill a vacuum in history and to fulfill a need for a national hero" (5-6). In addition, Arthur is used to validate the personal agendas, as well as the illusions, of his admirers.

Pearsall proceeds to Geoffrey of Monmouth, who provided much of the data that inspired subsequent authors, although his "history" is mostly fiction. Elements of Geoffrey's text are discussed, along with future variations on them. Wace's Roman de Brut and Layamon's /Brut are then compared and contrasted with special reference to Wace's courtly style and Layamon's martial orientation. "Throughout Wace is calm, practical, rational with an eye for the realities of war and strategy; Layamon is aggressive, violent, heroic, ceremonial and ritualistic" (17).

Chapter Two addresses "The Romancing of the Arthurian Story: Chretien de Troyes." Pearsall notes that because of the French preoccupation with "love and chivalry" (20), Arthur is no longer celebrated as a warrior king. Instead, the emphasis is on questing knights who are discovering and claiming their identity, while often finding love as well. Aside from reflecting their cultural and historical context, the romances are compelling stories that engage audiences. The following romances are examined under separate headings where they are summarized, compared, and evaluated: Lancelot, ou Le Chevalier de la Charrette; Erec et Enide; Cliges; Yvain, ou Le Chevalier au Lion; Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal, and its Continuations. Lancelot, with its conflicted hero, receives special attention because it "was to have a stronger influence on later Arthurian romance" (29).

Chapter Three, "The European Flourishing of Arthurian Romance: Lancelot, Parzival, Tristan," is divided into "French Arthurian Romance in Verse and Prose"; "The Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian Romance"; "Arthurian Romance in Europe"; and "Arthurian Romance in Germany." A short commentary is presented on the respective works. Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan is treated separately from the other German romances and is given the fullest development (nine pages) of any work up to this point. Pearsall believes that "Tristan is one of the great poems of the Middle Ages" and is crafted with irony, insight, and "panache" (58).

In Chapter Four, "Arthur, Lancelot, and Gawain in Ricardian England," Pearsall identifies "two Arthurian traditions." In one, Arthur is central as "a national hero" whose rise to power and subsequent fall are chronicled (60). In the other, influenced by French literature, the knights and their martial and amorous adventures are foregrounded.

In The Alliterative Morte Arthure, which is more in the tradition of epic than romance, Pearsall acknowledges that the Wheel of Fortune motif is dominant, but he does not perceive Arthur as a pawn or victim of fate; instead, he is a "tragic figure"' who takes charge of his situation. "It is again as if he sees a role for the king not just as one who lives and fights for his people but as one who dies for them too, dies that they may live" (70). Reviewing The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, Pearsall observes that " the impact of tragedy is softened into pathos, and deflected into piety" (71). This is probably because its source was the Vulgate Mort Artu in which the Arthurian survivors seek the religious life after the failure of secular ideals.

The Sir Gawain and the Green Knight section summarizes the plot and investigates Gawain's character, particularly in regard to his reaction to shame, which "he shows a capacity for bearing...and turning into the story of his life..." (80). Pearsall judges that SGGK is "a great poem" (81) that is developed with humor, psychological depth, drama, and vivid verse.

Chapter Five is devoted to Malory's Morte D'Arthur. After Caxton is briefly addressed, Pearsall gives a concise overview of each book of the Morte according to the Winchester divisions, with the corresponding Caxton books noted. Then Pearsall identifies historical connections between Malory's era and the Morte. He sees as "the dominant impression of the work...the creation of a world which will act by its very remoteness as a criticism of the modern world" (97). Pearsall believes that Lancelot, who is "an exemplar of chivalric idealism" (104), is central to the Morte and discusses this under the subheading "The Tragedy of Lancelot." He claims that the last two books are not merely elegiac; instead, they are directed toward understanding the reasons for the passing of Arthur's realm as a result of "human weaknesses" (103).

In Chapter Six, "The Arthurian Sleep and the Romantic Revival: Tennyson's Idylls of the King, Pearsall briefly addresses Edmund Spenser and his The Fairie Queene, then refers to seventeenth century works such Dryden and Purcell's opera, King Arthur and Sir Richard Blackmore's epics, Prince Arthur (1695) and King Arthur (1697), written to support King William's displacement of James II. In the eighteenth century, Henry Fielding's story about a midget at King Arthur's court was published (1730): The Tragedy of Tragedies, or, the Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great.

Nineteenth century medievalism inspired a tournament in Eglinton, England in 1839. Initially, it was "rained out," disappointing a crowd of 100,000. However, it was rescheduled successfully for the following week. The sport was not revived, but literature and art that evoked the Middle Ages flourished. Sir Walter Scott wrote several works set in the medieval era, including his only Arthurian poem, The Bridal of Triermain. Matthew Arnold's /Tristram and Yseult; Algernon Charles Swinburne's Tristram of Lyonesse; the art of the Pre-Raphaelites; and the founding of youth organizations that advocated Arthurian ideals were part of the medieval revival.

The major Arthurian work of the nineteenth century was Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King, which was published in stages as Tennyson became more preoccupied with Arthurian legend. In the Idylls, Arthur is depicted as noble, whereas women's sexuality is seen as destructive. Pearsall argues that the Idylls "give evidence of the continuing conflict in Tennyson between the private world of sexual transgression and an imagined world of idealized public honour and perfected virtue" (120). Despite favorable public reception, critics felt that Tennyson's work was not socially or historically relevant. However, Tennyson believed that he was advocating spirituality and morality, which were threatened by the materialism of his day. Pearsall considers that Tennyson's "great power lay in the dramatic and human realization of love and love's decay..." (136).

Chapter Seven, "Mark Twain, T.H. White, John Steinbeck and the Modern Arthur," covers a lot of ground succinctly. In regard to Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Pearsall asserts that "Twain's determination to provide a comic spoof of Arthurianism is gradually eroded by his own recognition that the ridiculous world of chivalry had an idealism and humanity that the modern world of commerce and profit has destroyed" (139). Pearsall then examines key incidents in the work that illustrate Twain's satirical view of human nature.

Pearsall is ambivalent about T.H. White's The Once and Future King, particularly in regard to White's style. "The Once and Future King is a boy's book, or a young person's book, but the author often addresses an adult audience over their heads (in an insufferably knowing way)" (150). Moreover, White has an "oppressively avuncular and patronizing tone" (153). Although Pearsall finds strong passages in The Ill-Made Knight, he is uncomfortable with White's "embarrassing reflections on the nature of love..." (151). In reference to White's anachronisms and his rewriting of history, Pearsall declares: "Anyone who got their history here would need to have their brains unscrambled" (153). White's political and social concerns are evident in the book in which "the enemy of the Round Table is an ineradicable strain of violence in men, particularly in the Scots brothers" (156).

Under the subheading, "John Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights," Pearsall describes the evolution of Steinbeck's work and his angst over how he should go about it. Initially planned as a translation of all of Malory, the text ends with Lancelot and Guinevere's first kiss. Quoting from Steinbeck, "Their bodies locked together as though a steel trap had been sprung. Their mouths met and devoured each other" (p. 293), Pearsall comments that this is "an episode which leaves one relieved that he got no further" (157). He thinks Steinbeck is too simplistic in over-explaining Malory instead of letting the text speak for itself. He also critiques Steinbeck's "glib moralizations," such as Merlin's pronouncements: "Misfortune is not fair, fate is not just, but they exist all the same" (p. 68), which Pearsall dismisses as 'large, empty, resoundingly hollow platitudes" (158). However, he credits Steinbeck with "a gift for story-telling" (158) and with skill at rendering the tournament scenes.

Pearsall's section on "The Modern Arthur: Novels and Films" only briefly addresses the abundant twentieth-century material on Arthur, but that is probably the subject for another book. Although he finds little to applaud in most of the films, Pearsall commends Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), which he deems "an inspired take-off of a remarkable number of Arthurian themes with moments of parodic brilliance that provide some of the best arguments for reading Arthurian romance and by that means getting to know more fully what is being sent up..." (163).

The ending of this chapter, and the book's final sentence, is rather abrupt: "There are and will be many other Arthurian films, and already too many television adaptations" (163). A brief epilogue commenting on the whole and tying it to the plan and purposes set up at the start could be effective here.

Overall, Derek Pearsall has done a remarkable job of condensing and organizing a wealth of material into a format that is accessible to students as well as to non-academic readers who are interested in Arthuriana. Moreover, teachers will value this discerning and lively survey that brings new insights to well-known works. I have ordered it for my University's library and will recommend it as a supplemental text for Arthurian courses.