00.02.16, Bruce, The Arthurian Name Dictionary

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Anne Berthelot

The Medieval Review baj9928.0002.016


Bruce, Christopher. The Arthurian Name Dictionary. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, Vol 2063.. New York: Garland Publishing, 1999. Pp. iv, 504. ISBN: 0-815-32865-6.

Reviewed by:
Anne Berthelot
University of Connecticut

Everybody interested in Arthurian literature or Arthurian legends will agree with Norris Lacy, whose enthusiastic Foreword salutes the publication of Christopher Bruce's Arthurian Name Dictionary. This important volume contains a wealth of information, and undoubtedly supersedes older books, the purpose of which was in any case less ambitious, like West's two Indexes. Not only does a myriad of lesser characters make an appearance in these pages, but there are a number of more developed entries: Arthur, Gawain, Percival, and a lot of others are given the full notice they deserve. Remarkably, these articles take into account recent critical discoveries as well as little-known information about rare texts, so that one may only admire Bruce's depth of knowledge and competence, in achieving such an impressive work. Nevertheless, this remarkable book presents a few flaws, the more regrettable since they diminish somewhat its overall considerable value. German romances, and to a lesser extent English ones, especially Malory, tend to name all characters, even those who do not have names in their French counterparts. Alexandre Micha once complained of having to create a name Index for the Lancelot where a lot of entries were at best imprecise: "this damsel may be the same as the preceding one; or she may not." Since Bruce has decidedly eliminated most of these figures (in his account there are only a pitiful two "damsels", the Damsel of the White Heath, from the Lancelot, and the Damsel Savage - Yvain - instead of 101 in the Index volume of the Lancelot) the dictionary gets overwhelmingly German, with a touch of late English. More problematic: some entries amalgamate the German name with the French character, without signaling the difference.

This has to do with the main difficulty of this book: admitting that titles or meaningful names are given in English translation--which does create some confusion, since the reader does not always know where to look for characters he is used knowing under a different appellation--and that the sometimes very much at variance variants do indeed refer to the same character, it is unconscionable to insist on establishing a continuity, even a real identity, between, for instance, Anna, Morgues, and Belisant. All three of them are sisters of Arthur's, in one text or another, in one language or another, at one time or another. But, even if the three of them are Gawain's mother in their specific romances, it does not follow that they are the same character. Even the use of the word "counterpart", that Bruce employs all too often, opens the door to dangerous speculations. If one may more or less safely assume that Perlesvaus and Perceval are one, it is far from certain that Peredur is Perceval's "counterpart", or that he predates Chretien's hero. On the other hand, Bruce sometimes hesitates to employ his usual system. For instance, in the entry "Arnive", [1] one can read "Most authors assign this role to Igerne"; why not use "counterpart" in this case, since Arnive is rather nearer the Igerne prototype than Belisant resembles Morgause?

By the same token, it is a somewhat disquieting tendency to build a "complete" and linear biography for characters, as if various romances conspired to produce a coherent story from a figure's birth (or dubbing) until his/her death. Sometimes, the author assumes that a relationship is the same in all "retellings" of the same story, as if indeed literature was a somewhat clumsy and instable way of presenting over and over some unchanging legends. Since this assumption is very much dubious, it leads to downright mistakes: for instance, the damsel whom Perceval meets after leaving his mother's manor in Chretien de Troyes' Conte du Graal is definitely not the wife of the Orgellus de la Lande; she is his "amie", and this discrepancy underlines in fact the vast difference between both writers. Wolfram has an imagination inclined to matrimony, and multiplicates matches between characters barely mentioned by Chretien, while Chretien, mindful of the diktat of courtly aesthetics, avoids marrying his characters whenever possible.

Some entries are very confusing: let us take, for instance, "Breus the Pitiless". It is a nice gesture to translate his name, although it is less necessary here than it would be for some German names attributed to minor characters. [2] One wonders while the form without an "h" (Breus") is so much privileged, while it is not so in most texts. One wonders still more when reading the list of variants: "Breus, Bereuse, Brehu, Brun sans Pitie": the last one may not be the same character; he rather belongs to the "lignage" of the "Bruns", like Segurant or Brunor, who enjoy a much better reputation than Brehus. Besides, the works where Brehus appears include pele-mele the Atre perilleux, a verse romance rather atypical, and the Prose Tristan, without any suggestion that two characters by the same name may be featured in different texts.

Another example illustrates the same kind of amalgam: Bruce attributes an entry to a character named Amable, who supposedly appears in the Lancelot. As the "Damsel of the Fountain", she does, indeed; but she is not named in the whole episode, and his brother, named Carmadan by Bruce, is not either. Admittedly, it is a little annoying to think of this character as "Damsel 74", her number in Micha's Index for the Lancelot. Of course, some manuscripts do systematically name their characters, but a bit of caution would be welcome here: French readers may know perfectly well the Cyclic Lancelot without ever meeting an Amable or a Carmadan. [3] Besides, the summary of this damsel's "aventure" is not quite satisfactory either.. Bruce writes: "She healed Lancelot after he drank water from a poisoned well [...] Lancelot, though he could not become her lover, agreed to become her champion." It does not happen so, at least in the versions of the Lancelot I know: more subtly, Lancelot agrees to become the damsel's "ami", as far as "damsels" are concerned, Guenevere's earlier and stronger claims as "lady" not withstanding. This is a masterpiece of rhetorical cunning, and it would deserve some attention!

Most of Bruce's "mistakes" in this respect are of small importance; however, taken all together, they weaken the global reliability of the book. In some cases, the difficulty goes deeper. For instance, on a few occasions Bruce gives the meaning of the German names that have been borrowed to the French language. He does not, however, do it on a regular basis, although that would be possible, and maybe even necessary: Condwiramurs or Repanse de Schoye [4] are highly significant names, the choice of which is not innocent. And sometimes he omits it, when such an exercise in translation would allow him to avoid a mistake of more consequence: for instance, the magician Gansguoter's name [5] may be interpreted as "Wholly-good"; under such circumstances, to depict him as the equivalent of Klinschor in Wolfram's Parzival may be too hasty, to say the least.

There are other inconstencies, sometimes trifling, sometimes more disturbing: if characters like Lear or Cordelia get an entry in this dictionary although they are resolutely not Arthurian, just because they figure in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae, why should not, for instance, Kyot and Flegetanis, two very interesting and ambiguous images of the writer in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, enjoy the same privileges? While Bruce mentions--in a faulty manner, by the way [6]--in his "Sources" the Prophesies de Merlin I had the misfortune to edit some years ago, he does not quote any of the specific names in this work. I vainly looked for the Damsel Englantine, or the various scribes of Merlin after Blaise's demise: Antoine, Tholomer, the "Sage Clerc de Gales", and in another manuscript a "Robert" who reminds us of Robert de Boron...

The Prophesies de Merlin is not the most important Arthurian romance ever written; it only happens that I know it rather well, and since it is among the texts Bruce has considered for his work, I was disappointed and troubled by these absences. In his Preface, Bruce mentions "Sir Petipace of Winchelsea", whom he looked for in several "Index of Proper Names" or "Arthurian Dictionaries"; "Petipace, Bruce writes, was the acid test. I never found him." Nobody is perfect, I suppose, but I am missing a rather high number of "Sir Petipace", or, if they are here, I was unable to recognize them, although I have looked very thoroughly.

In fact, Bruce's main problem seems to have to do with his sources: there are some texts he knows very well: the Perlesvaus, for instance, which receives in these pages the attention it deserves and does not often get. (Although even in this case, there are some small inconsistencies: an episode is not completely summarized, or the alternate name for a minor character is not correctly given...) However, more often than not, Bruce has obviously only a second-hand knowledge of the texts he mentions. It is indeed perfectly understandable, since no human being could hope to master the whole corpus of Arthurian texts; what is more questionable is the choice of reference books. I am willing to admit that the most exhaustive presentation of historical Chronicles appears in Fletcher, (Robert H., The Arthurian Material in the Chronicles, Especially Those of Great Britain and France, Boston, Ginn 1906). Nevertheless, this book is 94 years old now. By the same token, Gardner's, J. D. Bruce's and Loomis' works [7] were landmarks in Arthurian studies, and their value remains enormous; is there however no more recent account of the texts they mention? I also rate very highly P. Goodrich's Anthology on Merlin; however, it does not strike me as very serious to refer to him for the Middle English Prose Merlin, of which Goodrich quotes only a few (very few) pages, while there exists a perfectly valid and reasonably available edition of the complete romance. And, since I perfectly admit that reading the complete Grand Palamede or even the Prose Tristan may be difficult, or downright impossible, why not at least use Loseth's or Lathuilliere's "summaries" of these works? [8]

It would be unfair to go on, as I undoubtedly could: a book of this scope and range cannot but be open to a certain amount of criticism. My remarks do not detract the global value of this very important book; they just express a small regret, that such a great undertaking be impaired by details which could easily have been remedied. (I would say the same thing about Garland's printing job: while on the whole the presentation is worthy of such a reference book, a few misprints would have been easy to eliminate, and it would also have helped to number the 26 pages of "Sources" at the end of the volume.)


[1] Mother of Arthur. In Diu Krone, she marries Gansguoter after Uther's death.

[2] Amurfina, Sgoidamur, Feirefiz, to give only three examples from Wolfram's Parzival.

[3] Another such detail occurs with Laudine. Bruce writes: Laudine is "first mentioned in Ch√ątien's Yvain." He should rather say that she is mentioned there once, in only one manuscript, and it has been argued that it was in fact a mistake of the scribe, confusing the Lady and her father's fief (Laudunet).

[4] Condwiramurs means more or less "Leading Love", and "Repanse de Schoye" has to do with "Memory of Joy". And would it be too much to ask Bruce not to call "Repanse de Schoye" simply "Repanse" in most entries, with a complete lack of formality which sounds more American than medieval?

[5] Gansguoter of Micholde, stepfather of Arthur after Uter's death in Diu Crone.

[6] Les Prophesies de Merlin has been published by the Bodmer Foundation, in Cologny-Geneve, not in Cologne!

[7] Edmund G. Gardner, The Arthurian Legend in Italian Literature (London: Dent, 1940); James Douglas Bruce, The Evolution of Arthurian Romances from the beginnings down to the year 1300 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1928); Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, ed. R. S. Loomis (Oxford: Clarendon, 1959).

[8] E. Loseth, Le Roman en prose de Tristan (Geneve: Slatkine-Reprints, 1974); R. Lathuilliere, Guiron le Courtois, etude de la tradition manuscrite et analyse critique (Droz, Geneve, 1966).

Article Details

Author Biography

Anne Berthelot

University of Connecticut