Craig R. Davis

title.none: Lacy, ed., Fortunes of King Arthur (Craig R. Davis)

identifier.other: baj9928.0707.014 07.07.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Craig R. Davis, Smith College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Lacy, Norris J. The Fortunes of King Arthur. Arthurian Studies, vol. 64. Woddbridge, U.K.: D.S. Brewer, 2005. Pp. xvi, 231. $90.00 (hb) 1-84384-061-8 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.07.14

Lacy, Norris J. The Fortunes of King Arthur. Arthurian Studies, vol. 64. Woddbridge, U.K.: D.S. Brewer, 2005. Pp. xvi, 231. $90.00 (hb) 1-84384-061-8 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Craig R. Davis
Smith College

"The title of this volume is intentionally ambiguous," writes the editor Norris J. Lacy in his Introduction: it refers, on the one hand, to "the vicissitudes of the [Arthurian] legend itself, as it develops, flowers--more accurately, explodes--during the High Middle Ages, then wanes and nearly dies during the early-modern period before its dramatic revival beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing unabated to the present"; and on the other, it includes the cyclical career of the king himself as recounted in the many versions of his story from his obscure youth, miraculous election, and magnificent court, to his tragic demise, mystic translation, and promised return (xii). The thirteen essays that comprise this collection explore both these themes, the result (with some additions) of a conference held under the same title at the Pennsylvania State University. They are accompanied by 35 medieval and modern illustrations of various episodes in the evolving legend of Arthur, plus one color plate of a page from the Winchester MS of Malory's Morte Darthur. The volume contains brief biographies of its contributors, foot-of-page notes to their individual essays, a selective index, but no bibliography or list of works cited. The range of coverage is very broad and admittedly spotty, from Arthur's first textual appearance in ninth-century Wales to late-twentieth-century American novels, though most of the modern phase of the Arthurian trajectory is treated in a single final piece. The quality of these articles is high, however, and their scholarly reference deep, so that the volume makes a far greater contribution to parsing the complexities of Arthurian tradition in the Middle Ages than its particular selection of topics and texts would seem to indicate.

The first set of five essays (I) treats of "History, Chronicle, and the Invention of Arthur," beginning with a chapter by Christopher A. Snyder on "Arthur and Kingship in the Historia Brittonum," which challenges two orthodoxies of Arthurian scholarship that have emerged during the last few decades: (1) that the supposed authorship of this work by a British monk named Nennius is a fabrication, and (2) that it reveals that the earliest figure of Arthur was not that of a sixth-century king, but of a mere warrior or general in the service of other kings in their fight against the Saxons. Snyder effectively shows, following Field (1996), that the authorship of this work in 829-30 by Nennius is a very good possibility, and on the basis of his own gathered evidence, that the kingship of Arthur as a leader among other kings of the Britons is more likely than the status of field marshal or non-royal commander of allied armies. On the evidence of Gildas, in particular, we can conclude that dynastic rule among competing territorial kings had reemerged in Britain after the withdrawal of the Romans in the earlier fifth century, often under the hegemony of a single primum inter pares. This pattern was to continue into the ninth century and beyond, so that Nennius would have felt no need to specify that a British dux bellorum "leader of battles" named Arthur was the preeminent king himself. However, the Historia Brittonum still cannot be considered a reliable witness to the historicity of Arthur, Snyder concludes: all it can confirm is that by the ninth century British writers confidently believed Arthur to have been an important historical figure three centuries earlier.

In "'For Mortals are Moved by these Conditions': Fate, Fortune and Providence in Geoffrey of Monmouth," Sian Echard attempts to sort out the peculiar "confusions" in Geoffrey's understanding of the forces that motivate events in human history: Arthur's "fall is one of the most spectacular, and the least deserved, of any king in the whole of the Historia [Regum Britanniae (1138)]. It is explicable, in the sense that Mordred's greed and betrayal are nothing new in British history, but the shock of Arthur's end, after the time lavished on his heroic reign, seems to have brought even Geoffrey up short" (14, author's emphasis). Echard believes that Geoffrey recruits views as various as his sources to explain the workings of history, from the cruel whims of the classical Fates, to the spinning of Dame Fortune's wheel, to God's chastisement of his sinful elect in which Britons are disinherited from their patrimony, but promised an eventual return to rule over it. Geoffrey himself concludes with a demystified explanation of the demise of the Britons: their own self-defeating discord in the face of Anglo-Saxon solidarity. According to Echard, Geoffrey wants very much to believe in a biblical explanation of the cycles of history, that they are based upon a just but ultimately beneficent divine plan. But the more that author contemplates what happens to even good kings like Arthur, the more he is led to a starker conclusion, that the doom of men and nations is both self-inflicted and random. Fortune is simply fickle, as Lady Philosophy tells Boethius, neither just nor kind nor even deliberately cruel.

Edward Donald Kennedy compares "Visions of History: Robert de Boron and English Arthurian Chroniclers" (29-46). Robert's two verse romances, Joseph d'Arimathie and Merlin, were followed by prose adaptations, as well as a prose Perceval which some scholars believe to be derived from a poem by Robert as well. He was the first author to transform "the Grail from Chretien's mysterious platter containing a wafer that may or may not have been a Christian symbol to...a vessel from the Last Supper...used to collect the blood of Christ after his body had been removed from the cross" (29). Robert also included the sword in the stone to signify Arthur's divine election and represented the "Round Table as a figure of Christ's table at the Last Supper," making "the miraculous appearance of the Grail," rather than "the conquest of Europe," the culminating event of Arthur's career (30). The spiritual significance of the Grail quest was developed further in the thirteenth-century French prose Vulgate cycle, yet most English Arthurian chroniclers simply ignored this new tradition, preferring to follow Geoffrey of Monmouth's more triumphalist account of Arthur's political achievement. Only in Malory's Morte Darthur (1469-70) did the spiritual preoccupations of the Grail quest receive a thoughtful medieval retelling in English, although John Hardying in the same century had also reprised some of the Grail legend, but in the Galfridian mode of celebrating Arthurian secular achievements like other English chroniclers.

In "Bruttene Deorling: An Arthur for Every Age," W. R. J. Barron explores the character and influence of Layamon's Brut (early thirteenth century), the "earliest English version of Geoffrey's dynastic Arthur," which weighs in at over 16,000 lines as "the second longest poem" in the English language (49). According to Barron, Layamon appropriates the medieval designation of the Anglo- Saxon king Alfred as "England's darling" to promote King Arthur as "Britain's darling." He does so in such a way, however, that the island people of which Arthur is now called greatest king is distinctly seen through an Anglo-Saxon lens. With a "sleight-of-mind" (56), Layamon massages Merlin's ambiguous prophecy in Wace's Roman de Brut (c. 1155)--his main source--into an explicit promise that the king will one day return to deliver the people of "England" (line 14,297). The English poet thus ironically transforms "a Celtic folk- hero into an iconic personification of [that figure's] bitterest enemies" (49).

Dennis Green, in "King Arthur: From History to Fiction," notes a clear distinction among medieval vernacular writers between historia, a true account of the past, and fabula, a story for which no such claim is made. This distinction was honored in the breach, literally, because it was precisely in the gaps of the supposed historical record that romance took root and flourished. Green observes that Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia mentions a certain period of peace in the midst of Arthur's various wars and conquests. Many of these were a product of his own fertile imagination, of course--William of Newburgh (12th c.) dryly remarks that Geoffrey has made Arthur conquer more countries than there are in the world--but they were offered and received as authoritative history by many succeeding writers. Poets exploited this period of political peace in Geoffrey's narrative: Wace lingers over it to develop an image of Arthur's elegant court, including the first description of the Table Round. Romancers like Chretien de Troyes, Hartmann von Aue and Gottfried von Strassburg found in this hiatus an opportunity to imagine the individual adventures of Arthur's knights.

The next section (II) contains four essays on "Fortune and the King," starting with Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan's description of "Welsh Tradition in Calais: Elis Gruffydd and his Biography of King Arthur." Gruffydd's Chronicle, as yet to appear in a published edition, is useful for revealing which Arthurian texts were available in English and French circles in the sixteenth century and for recounting a number of oral traditions current at the time in Wales that "are unattested elsewhere and which would otherwise have been lost" (91). Norris J. Lacy considers "The Ambiguous Fortunes of Arthur: The Lancelot-Grail and Beyond," noting that the figure of the king beginning in the early thirteenth century is both magnified and marginalized in the very narratives that bear his name. Even when Arthur remains the center of a writer's attention, "his thoughts, his motives, and especially his passions" are left very imperfectly defined and morally problematic, so that the character of its titular protagonist remains perhaps the most open and ambiguous of the entire Arthurian legend (103). In "Changing the Equation: The Impact of Tristan-Love on Arthur's Court in the Prose Tristan and La Tavola Ritonda," Joan Tasker Grimbert shows how the relationship of Lancelot and Guinevere is foiled against that of Tristan and Yseut in these two romances, the first in French from the mid-thirteenth century, the second in Italian from the early fourteenth. And Alison Stones, in "Illustration and the Fortunes of Arthur," shows a complexity of responses by illuminators and their patrons to Arthurian narratives: "No two copies transmit the same pictorial emphasis, even when we know they were produced by the same or closely related craftsmen," often "following highly divergent paths as to which episodes and sequences they preferred" (135). She supplies an Appendix with nine tables comparing illuminations of key scenes (or their absence) in various Old French MSS: Arthur drawing Excalibur in texts of Merlin; Galahad drawing the sword in those of La Queste del Saint Graal; images of narrating and writing in the Estoire, Merlin, Suite Vulgate, Lancelot, and Mort Artu, etc. 32 of the volume's black-and-white illustrations accompany these charts.

The four essays which comprise the final section (III) address the "Rise and Fall of Arthur," both as legend and king, during the last half-millennium or more, beginning with the "The Fortunes of Arthur in Later German Romances" by Neil Thomas. The author describes the "classical" Arthur of the earlier German tradition that Hartmann and Wolfram had developed from Chretien, in which the king is depicted as a "symbolic figurehead whose legend, detached from its insular origins, is borne along by moral concerns unrelated to his putative historical identity as an embattled British chieftain...When his name is invoked it is normally in a proverbial, metonymic sense referring not only to the person but also to the whole, chivalric culture of "Camelot" (understood as the apotheosis of the feudal-courtly ideal)" (166). "Post-classical" German romance writers like Salzburg's Der Pleier in Tandareis und Flordibel (c. 1260-80) and Konrad von Stoffeln in Gauriel von Muntabel (c. 1280) explore particular foibles in the earlier Arthur's depiction. More significantly, we find in Diu Crone by Heinrich von dem Turlin (c. 1225-30) and Wigalois by Wirnt von Gravenberg (c. 1210-17) a more conscientious effort to imagine in specific instances royal ideals that were left vague or ambiguous in prior authors, an attempt to discipline secular chivalric values with depictions of a more pious and spiritual kind of kingship.

Jane H. M. Taylor, in "Pursuing the Parrot: Writing the Quest in Late Arthurian Romances" (which appears under a somewhat different title at the head of her essays), studies the "short, quirky" (181) anonymous Chevalier du Papegau from the turn of the fifteenth century to illustrate what she believes is a reconception of the purpose of the chivalric quest at the end of the Middle Ages. She defines this change as follows: "where once the quest was, typically, a Bildungsreise ["educational journey"] in the course of which a knight established his reputation by deeds of valour in pursuit of a moral obligation--in which, in other words, the focus was on the quester and the quest--now, in late-medieval romances, it serves, like the proliferating "journey-tales" of the period, as a frame for episodes and images which celebrate the exotic, the Other, rather than subduing it as a means of demonstrating chivalric maturity" (182).

Caroline D. Eckhardt chooses another deliberately ambiguous title in "Reconsidering Malory," where she discusses not only how Caxton and later commentators understood the nature of that author's achievement in his Morte Darthur, but also Malory's own reconsideration of the Arthurian value system in which he finally chooses to stress a conservative set of social values: autonomy of volition, personal responsibility and loyalty to comrades in a highly aristocratic scheme. In a third section, Eckhardt considers herself what later authors and illustrators chose to preserve, change, or omit in their representations of Malory's narrative. She selects a set of images and texts that includes Aubrey Beardsley's distorted, raven-like Guenevere at Amesbury (1893-94); Frances Brundage's vulnerable, victimized Guenevere at the stake (1929); Andrew Wyeth's strong but "tormented" Lancelot (1943); and Sidney Lanier's elision of reference to adultery and much of the violence in Malory's blow-by-blow battle-scenes (1950).

In "'The Old Order Changeth': King Arthur in the Modern World," Alan Lupack adapts this quotation from Alfred, Lord Tennyson to suggest that the Arthurian legend has continued to inspire new retellings because it offers to the imagination the paradox of an ideal "that lasts as it passes" (223), one that constantly reappears in another incarnation because it has remained alive and compelling in cultural memory. He considers specifically Thomas Hughes's revenge tragedy The Misfortunes of King Arthur (1587); John Dryden's opera King Arthur with score by Henry Purcell (1691); Richard Blackmore's Arthurian epics of 1695-97; Henry Fielding's Tragedy of Tragedies (1731); Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765); Richard Hole's Arthur or the Northern Enchantment (1789); Tennyson's Idylls of the King, which were completed in 1888; Howard Pyle's The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903); John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat (1935), in which Arthurian characters are imagined in a modern American guise; T. H. White's The Once and Future King (1958); and Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex (1978), which shows how good people acting on the highest principles bring about their own and others' ruin. Conspicuously absent from this brisk survey of the post-medieval Arthurian legend are Mark Twain's multi-edged satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) and the feminist classic, Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (1979).