The Medieval Review 10.04.04

Terry, Patricia and Samuel N. Rosenberg. Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant Isles, or, The Book of Galehaut Retold. Boston: Godine, 2006. Pp. 226. $26.95 ISBN 978-1-56792-324-7. .

Reviewed by:

Michael Wenthe
American University
wenthe@american.edu

This volume represents a collaboration between a translator of diverse medieval texts, Patricia Terry, and a scholar of Old French, Samuel N. Rosenberg, who has himself previously translated that portion of the Lancelot-Grail cycle of prose Arthurian romances that most closely corresponds to the present work. [1] Yet Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant Isles is neither a direct translation of a medieval text nor a scholarly study of medieval literature. As its subtitle suggests, the book is a modern retelling of a medieval narrative, a twenty-first century Arthurian romance, and as such its aims are chiefly literary rather than literary-critical. But among those aims is an important attempt to revive a crucial figure from early Arthurian narrative: Galehaut, son of the Giantess and Lord of the Distant Isles, sometime rival to King Arthur, beloved friend to Lancelot, and go-between who engineered the first kiss between Lancelot and Guenevere.

Indeed, it is in his role as seeming pander that Galehaut may be best known today, as the "Galeotto" referred to in the Paolo and Francesca episode from Inferno V. In their brief introductory survey of medieval Arthuriana, the authors cite both Dante's reference here and Boccaccio's alternate title for the Decameron--Il Principe Galeotto--to register the character's former prominence as both the intermediary of the tragic love affair and an exemplar of generosity (xxii). The authors wish to make him more than a mere reference, however, seeing their tale as "a work of restoration" (xxiii) designed to fill in the story of a figure whose love for Lancelot rivals that of Lancelot for Guenevere--and whom Rosenberg describes in an online synopsis as "the first truly tragic figure in French literature." [2] ln their introduction, the authors declare that, "[w]hatever the cause of Galehaut's fading, it was obvious to us that the character deserved to be rescued from oblivion--or, for some, from the opprobrium attached, wrongly, to his action in bringing Lancelot and Guenevere together" (xxiii).

Not all readers will be so quick to detach Galehaut from opprobrium, not least since the emissary who brings his initial challenge to Arthur threatens to take all Arthur's possessions, "including [his] peerless queen" (31). In a sense, Galehaut indeed does take Guenevere, if only to hand her over to Lancelot. At times the narrative seems to engage in special pleading to excuse their three-way complicity in the adultery and to reduce sympathy for Arthur (whose credulous support of the claims of the false Guenevere, for example, does not stem chiefly from enchantment, as in the Old French versions).

In fairness, however, the charge of special pleading depends on a comparison with received accounts of the legend, and the Terry-Rosenberg version should not be judged solely with reference to its medieval antecedents. Toward the end of their introduction, the authors note that they have "stripped the legend of everything not closely related to the development of Lancelot's affective life and the role of Galehaut in that evolution" (xxvi). This explains the absence of the Grail quest, the omission of innumerable adventures involving other knights, the sketchy treatment of secondary characters (even Lancelot's relatives Lionel and Bors), and the collapsed timeframe of the narrative, in which the exposure of the adultery (loosely adapted from The Death of King Arthur) follows hard upon the demise of Galehaut (which long precedes the Grail quest in the sources). It is hard to fault the authors for their necessary narrative economy, without which they might have produced rather a long work indeed, and the resulting text, virtually free of interlace, makes for an admirably focused and engagingly told story. As they say in concluding their introduction, "it was our intention, not to prepare either a translation or an abridgment of the Old French source, but to retell the central love-drama in such a way as to restore its complexity and emotional depth for the modern reader" (xxvii).

In streamlining the narrative to its core, the authors have successfully fashioned "a spare recounting for our time" (xxiii). The restored complexity of their stripped-down version thus emerges not from a profusion of incident but from the essential demonstration that the "central love-drama" has not three but four main characters, and in many ways the heart of this version lies not in the familiar triangle of Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot but in the story of how "Galehaut...sacrificed his power, his happiness, and ultimately his life for the sake of Lancelot" (xxi). After Galehaut's death in the penultimate tenth chapter, the concluding pages, with their speedy rsum of the downfall of Arthur's kingdom, somehow come off as a bit of an anticlimax; the last page even recapitulates the closing move of chapter ten, repeating verbatim the five-line inscription on the tombstone of Galehaut ("who died for the love of Lancelot") while adding a final six-line epitaph for Lancelot (226).

Though the authors' decision to pare down the narrative brings distinct advantages in terms of clarity, pacing, and characterization, it also comes with a price. Absent the wider social and political context provided by the stories of dozens (if not hundreds) more knights and ladies, the Terry-Rosenberg narrative must find some new ways to motivate the suspicions and shifting affections that entrap the main characters, perhaps most notably in preventing Lancelot from ever retaking his homeland of Benoic from the usurper Claudas (a victory eventually won, in the cyclic Prose Lancelot, with Arthur's aid) and in casting the Lady of the Lake as almost a foe of Arthur in her own jealous love for Lancelot (at the end of the work, she visits Lancelot on his deathbed and arranges for Excalibur to be buried with him). While the narrative plays out against a backdrop of battles between rival kings and their allies, the large movements of armies and peoples rarely come into sharp focus. As a result, Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant Isles feels more like a chamber piece for a few players than a symphony for full orchestra. If this means that some timbres are missing and the dynamic range is not as great as it might be, it also allows for a clearer statement of the main melodic line of Galehaut's love for Lancelot and its counterpoint in Lancelot's love for Guenevere.

Some measure of this work's advantages and achievements may be seen by comparing it with Corin Curley's abridged translation of the non-cyclic romance of Lancelot of the Lake for the Oxford World's Classics series. [3] The main line of the Terry-Rosenberg narrative matches that of Curley's version rather closely, but since the non-cyclic version concludes with the death of Galehaut, the story as told in Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant Isles offers a more complete biography of Lancelot. Most essential for their purposes is the space afforded for scenes depicting Lancelot's grief over his friend's death and his arrangements for Galehaut's burial at Lancelot's castle of Joyous Garde. In Curley's version, Lancelot's reaction goes untold, and even the death of Galehaut, surely a main figure of the romance, is dispatched in a bloodless summary passage, not even a complete translation of the Old French original. That the Old French original is itself almost dismissively laconic in its account of Galehaut's death suggests that Terry and Rosenberg have done both the character and their readers a real service in treating his passing with the emotional resonance that his role in the narrative deserves.

The authors tell their tale in a style that forgoes the rich description typical of many modern novels in favor of a spare, direct, even stately prose, which occasionally indulges in such medievalizing touches as the use of emergent discourse (often to good effect, though at times with awkward results). Their understated narration well suits the formal, almost ritualized behavior of the protagonists--with two arguable exceptions. First, in describing scenes of battle, the authors often seem too understated, even uninterested. Despite their avowal to have "preserved...characteristic modes of [chivalric] behavior" that show knights' "truest way of being" in combat (xxiv), they rarely describe a fight in detail. While this may reflect their desire to emphasize the love theme in the story, it underplays the raison d'ĂȘtre of the knights as such. Fittingly, one of the fullest descriptions of Lancelot in battle (closely following the Old French) occurs when Galehaut first sees him; but that scene simply demonstrates the closer attention that combat deserves, since "Galehaut, watching in wonder, thought that no kingdom he might ever conquer could be worth the life of such a knight" (51). The second exception involves scenes where the storytelling is perhaps overstated, usually when characters reflect on the meaning of events in their own lives. Here again, Galehaut's later comments on his first sight of Lancelot (not paralleled in the Old French) are typical: "My life changed at that moment. I saw what a man could be. Nothing I had cared about in the past was important to me any more. Now I only want what will make him happy" (85). Still, these apparent exceptions to the work's usual narration suit the modern sensibilities of this retelling for a modern audience, and overall the narration is both sure-footed and elegant.

The elegance of this volume extends to its appearance. Beautifully designed for attractiveness and legibility, printed on thick cream paper, and illustrated with eleven full-page wood engravings by Judith Jaidinger, Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant Isles makes a fair bid to be treasured as a gift for readers interested in Arthurian narrative and curious to learn more about an unfairly neglected figure from the story of Lancelot. [4] While its differences from the medieval sources may make the work a doubtful fit in courses on medieval literature, it stands on its own merits as a worthwhile revisionary romance and a valuable contribution to modern Arthuriana.

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Notes:

1. In Norris J. Lacy, gen. ed., Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, vol. 2, New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1993.

2. "Synopsis," http://lancelotandgalehaut.com/about.html (accessed 31 January 2010).

3. Corin Curley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989 [2000].

4. A website dedicated to the book offers sample illustrations and textual excerpts along with brief essays on the authors' approach, their sources, and the main characters: http://lancelotandgalehaut.com.