This is an important book for all Arthurian scholars. The title, which might suggest a straightforward account of the Arthurian legend, does not adequately indicate the focus and scope of the volume: it might better have carried a title referring to the political and social "uses and abuses" of the legend up to A.D. 1250. Martin Aurell describes it succinctly in his introduction, emphasizing the need for analysis as well as synthesis and noting that the volume "appartient à une 'micro-histoire' du fictionnel" and..."s'inscrit dans cette logique d'histoire sociale, politique et mentale de la fiction" (33).
Aurell's method consists of a systematic survey of the legend's elaboration, or rather of those aspects of it that may either have influenced historical or cultural events or, conversely, have been shaped by political developments.
The first section of the volume, titled "Le Héros des Bretons," consists of two chapters, one devoted to Arthur and the insular bards, the other to Latin texts through the eleventh century. Aurell is scrupulous in basing his views solidly on the evidence, often meager, that exists, but of course there is much that must be speculative about this subject, particularly in the earlier centuries.
The strongest part of the book, to my mind, is the second section, which offers three chapters treating, respectively, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Henry II and his sons, and the development of the legend on the continent. In regard to Geoffrey, Aurell points out that when Geoffrey identifies Arthur as king of the Britons or Bretons, he ultimately means guallenses: Welsh (111). But Geoffrey also expresses admiration for the Bretons (as we now use the designation), and his "partisan" views inevitably incited resentment among those, like William of Newburgh, who held strong anti-Welsh sentiments--so strong in fact that Aurell can characterize them as xenophobic (123). Throughout this section and, indeed, throughout the book, Aurell emphasizes the nationalist and regional loyalties that easily led to either the lionization or the condemnation of Arthur. For example, John of Fordun and others disapproved of Arthur because of Geoffrey's depiction of the king as the enemy of the Scots, and some writers contended that Mordred, not Arthur, was the legitimate monarch.
Since it was Henry II who purportedly indicated the location of Arthur's grave at Glastonbury, we might have expected the former to mine the legend to augment his own prestige, but Aurell points out that such was not the case. (He does not venture an explanation for this phenomenon: was Arthur not yet sufficiently popular, especially in some quarters, to have propaganda value? Or did Henry perhaps think that his prestige needed no augmentation?) But if Henry II showed little interest in Arthur, the same cannot be said of his sons Henry and Richard, who rarely missed an opportunity to connect their own names with Arthur's; indeed, Richard appears to have been the first king to be explicitly compared to Arthur. Moreover, Aurell suggests (201) that it was at that time that the transformation of Arthur from king of the Britons to king of England was completed.
Aurell's parts III (four chapters devoted to "Chrétien de Troyes et ses cours: apogée (fin XIIe siècle)" and IV (two chapters on "La Quête du Graal: Maturité [1200-1250]") offer a somewhat more conventional approach to their subjects and will be found less illuminating, at least by literary scholars. They are by no means devoid of important commentary on their historical context, but there appears to be something of a shift of focus, and historical or cultural commentary is sometimes submerged in plot summary and information about textual developments. It might be objected also that Aurell occasionally accepts too uncritically some assumptions concerning, for example, Cligés as an "anti-Tristan" (282) or the idea that, in Erec et Enide, Arthur's insistence on ordering the hunt for the white stag reflects not only his respect for past customs but also his nobility and reasonableness (310). The former notion has long been accepted by the majority of scholars, but recent work has demonstrated that taking Cligés as an anti-Tristan neglects many of the subtleties of the romance. As for Erec, Aurell's presentation of the stag hunt is, I believe, largely untenable because Arthur himself acknowledges the destructive potential of the hunt but stubbornly refuses to change his mind.
Aurell's book, despite some reservations and quibbles on my part, is undeniably important--a substantial, wide-ranging, and learned study that all Arthurian scholars should know. It is extensively documented, offering a hundred pages of notes (over 1800 notes in all), with another sixty pages devoted to the bibliography and index.
Readers should be forewarned however that in the initial printing (though not later ones, I trust) a great many notes are mis-numbered. Whatever the source of the problem, the result, despite the explanation offered by an errata sheet, can be quite confusing, unless we prefer to renumber all the afflicted notes manually. To explain: each of Aurell's four sections begins with a short introduction, but in the documentation, the notes to that introduction and to the following chapter are conflated and numbered consecutively. Thus, for example, when Aurell opens his section on the continental treatment of the legend, his short introduction includes six notes, and the following chapter (on Chretien de Troyes) begins renumbering notes at 1. However, the actual note corresponding to this number is identified as n. 7. The errata sheet thus informs us that in the documentation to that chapter (i.e., beginning on p. 577) the notes numbered 7-233 should actually be numbered 1-227 instead. For the four large divisions of the book, we must subtract 1, 4, 6, and 1, respectively, from the numbers attached to the notes to chapters 1, 3, 6, and 10.
I regret devoting this much space, in such an excellent book, to a problem that is likely an editor's or printer's error, but anyone reading a copy that lacks the errata sheet would find the situation perplexing--perhaps even after the explanation offered here. One hopes that this difficulty has been resolved by a new printing. If so, readers can better appreciate the exhaustive research, as well as the fine commentary on historical and social influences on the Arthurian legend, and on the ways that legend can often shape and illuminate its context.