03.10.11, Thomas, 'Diu Crone' and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle

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Graeme Dunphy

The Medieval Review baj9928.0310.011


Thomas, Neil. 'Diu Crone' and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle. Series: Arthurian Studies. Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2002. Pp. x, 152. ISBN: 0-859-91636-7.

Reviewed by:
Graeme Dunphy
Univesity of Regensburg

If deconstruction was the mood of the late 20th, there seems to be a fashion emerging for the rehabilitation of debunked authors. At any rate, this is the second Arthurian study I have reviewed in this forum in as many months to attempt to read as programmatic what scholarship has traditionally seen as the lack of a programme. This is always a welcome development, for mediaeval authors never set pen to painfully-expensive parchment without first having a concept of what they were doing and why, and it is far more satisfying to discover their intentions than their failures.

Heinrich von dem Turlein has often been viewed as a thoughtless compiler who threw together chunks of Arthurian romance with little feeling for internal coherence. The element of truth in this is of course that all the German courtly novelists were honest plagiarists, who operated in a culture with a relatively high degree of tolerance for the little inconsistencies, which occur when the joins are not quite seamless. It is easy to highlight what Neil Thomas calls "venial blemishes" (2) in Diu Crone, but it is not particularly enlightening. Far more important is the question of the motivation for the rearrangements of material, which produce such blemishes. But it is precisely here that scholarship has been slow to reach a meaningful consensus.

This would appear to be "the problem" to which this latest volume in the "Arthurian Studies" series addresses itself, though irritatingly the four-page introduction entitled "The Problem" does not give as clear a statement of intent as the reader might wish; it rejects out of hand the idea of composition in two parts (Singer), and implies rather than states that the ensuing investigation will attempt to show a system behind Heinrich's recontextualizing of narrative traditions. Chapter by chapter, Thomas then sets about the task of demonstrating that precisely those aspects of Heinrich's romance which have always been seen as weaknesses are the points at which Diu Crone attempts to fill in the gaps in existing tradition. The method, as the title of the book suggests, is a comparative one, highlighting how Heinrich provides answers to questions, which readers might ask in vain when reading Chretien or Wolfram.

Thus, for example, chapter 2 addresses the problem that Arthur's youth is scantly covered in the sources. Arthur is the model king who always was and will be constant, but even he must have been a squire once. Heinrich has obviously planned intelligently to satisfy this need, giving an excursus on Arthur's kinttage, by which we should understand young manhood rather than childhood in the modern sense. The element of Artuskritik is strong in Diu Crone, and the young Arthur is seen as a frustrated lad, cursing the success of his father, in whose shadow he stands. Thomas is able to show how Heinrich here uses the gaps in the tradition to give Gawain a central role, for it is he who is able to help Camelot emerge from its erstwhile state of decline under an inexperienced king to achieve a new greatness. One very interesting idea, which would bear further exploration, is the suggestion that Arthur's doubts about his inability to live up to his father reflect courtly culture's self-doubts vis-a-vis the older warrior tradition (95). At any rate, a passage which has worried scholars in the past can now be seen as a well-conceived and successfully executed manoeuvre on the part of a poet who knew what he wanted to do.

The same is true of the depiction of Gawein. In Chretien's Conte du Graal, Perceval and Gauvain each seek the Grail, but the narrative breaks off before either of them is successful. The later tradition therefore has to choose which of them ultimately redeems the company of the Grail castle. Thus as the knight of the Grail, Heinrich's Gawein displaces the "eponymous hero" (Thomas' favourite phrase) of Wolfram's Parzival. Thomas is able to show that this is a judicious response to what had already established itself as the German classic. A problem in Wolfram concerns Parzival's sexual failure; although he learns and develops, and makes good many of his early mistakes, questions remain about his suitability for the task. Thomas' third chapter provides convincing evidence of Heinrich's concern that Gawein should be plausibly different. On this and other questions, he defends Diu Crone as a conscientious attempt to resolve difficulties in the received tradition of courtly literature. Much of this is convincingly argued, its principal thrust the contention that Heinrich's programme was entirely compatible with that of Chretien and Wolfram, and that on occasion he was more successful. Thus (in a fundamentally different conclusion to that of Jillings and others, 109) the romance is seen not to undermine but to underpin the classical Arthurian ideal for the mid-13th century.

A weakness of Thomas' presentation, as I have implied in my remarks on his introduction, is that he is not good at helping his readers to find their way around. The style is discursive, the chapter-headings evocative rather than structuring, there are no section headings nor any clearly laid-out plan of the volume, the introduction falls short of a clear statement of what is coming, and there is no convenient summary of findings at the end. In short, the reader must work attentively through the whole volume in order to discover what it achieves. The reality of scholarly life is that we tend only to read books in their entirety when we are reviewing them, or when they are of central importance to immediate needs; authors must allow for the fact that most users wish to dip in here and there, to browse, to refer briefly. Despite the comprehensive index, which greatly increases the usability of the study, accessibility for the casual user is not a strong point.

On the other hand, if Thomas does not make it easy to use his own book, he does provide invaluable assistance to readers unschooled on the primary texts. The volume has two features which greatly ease the access for those who do not have all the details of a vast tradition at their fingertips. The introduction ends with a very clear three-page tabular survey of the contents of Diu Crone itself (4-6), while an appendix gives useful summaries of the ten most frequently cited analogues in German, French and Latin: Der Mantel, the so-called First Continuation, De Ortu Walwanii, the Vulgate Lancelot-Grail cycle, Wigalois, Perlesvaus, Les Merveilles de Rigomer, the Suite du Merlin, the Livre d'Artus and the Didot Perceval. Thus a thumb at either end of the book greatly facilitates reader orientation.

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Graeme Dunphy

Univesity of Regensburg