Nigel Bryant's translation of Jehan Wauquelin's The Medieval Romance of Alexander, which is subtitled The Deeds and Conquests of Alexander the Great, is, without a doubt, a very important book. This text fills a gap because it supplies the first English translation of what is inarguably the most important French text of the Alexander romance.
The book is divided into a scholarly introduction, the translation of the two books of the French Alexander text, and three appendices ("How Nectanebus fathered Alexander" from the thirteenth-century Prose Alexander; "Artistotle's advice to Alexander", which is an interpolation into Wauquelin's text; and "Jacques de Longuyon's excursus on the Nine Worthies" from Les Vouex du Pavon, c. 1310). The introduction also contains a list of the editions of Wauquelin and his sources and a collection of the central studies on the medieval French Alexander romance. In addition, the text includes erudite and thorough documentation and information in the footnotes. Unfortunately for this reviewer, Bryant does not identify the text he uses for his translation of Wauquelin's work, which makes it difficult to compare the translation with the original text. However, this book continues Bryant's excellent scholarship as evidenced in his The High Book of the Grail: A Translation of the Thirteenth Century Romance of Perlesvaus, Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval: The Story of the Grail, and the Chronicles of Jean le Bel--just to name a few of his works.
Bryant uses and translates Wauquelin in a deft and clear style and makes a good case for the literary value of the French romance. Bryant writes that although the French text had used the verse Roman d'Alexandre, the Prose Alexander romance, and La Venjance Alixandre, it is not necessary to view Wauquelin merely as a borrower and compiler of these sources. Indeed, Bryant disputes George Cary's argument that views Wauquelin as someone whose work would not have received sufficient financial backing due to its poor literary quality.  This is especially the case since the texts that Wauquelin himself was working with were "for the most part composites, derivatives, and reworked translations: the whole development of the Alexandrian tradition was one of accretion, incorporation and reshaping" (3). Bryant points out that Wauquelin was a superb editor who knew when to cut, change, or elaborate on the texts at hand. He cites the raid of Gaza as a typical example: in the original section of the verse Roman d'Alexandre, Li Fuerre de Gadres, where the decision is made among Alexander's companions as to who should go and alert Alexander, the original text runs many hundreds of lines, but in Wauquelin the passage is immensely shorter and much more readable and enjoyable. Bryant points to where Wauquelin "expands and embellishes with great economy but to great effect" in the second of the battles between the Greeks and the Persians, having found the sources for Wauquelin "disappointingly curt and colorless" (4). Bryant suggests that Wauquelin feels perfectly free to add or subtract details and "to contribute color to images of places, dreams, feasting, artefacts, horses, weaponry" (5). It is Wauquelin's imagination that serves as the arbiter of crafting and designing the text. Indeed, he does his editing with several goals in mind: in order to supply the motivation of characters and the rationale for actions taken; to offer a possible "psychological reality" (7) behind the deeds performed. This editorial interference (for lack of a better word) is of special importance for the advice couched in the narrative for Wauquelin's financial backers: "indeed, Wauquelin's voice comes to the fore most notably in relation to the behavior of kings" (8). Alexander serves as the model ruler, as the well-behaved king. After all, how could he not be the exemplar, having had Aristotle as his tutor?
Although the historical Alexander may not be the best model or example of a wise or good ruler, in Wauquelin we find an Alexander that acts "not only with military genius but with such all-round wisdom" (9). This editorial manipulation of Alexander's character is quite noticeable, according to Bryant, when Wauquelin omits a passage from Li Fuerre de Gadres where Alexander is not the best of rulers; in the original source one finds a frustrated Alexander full of rage. Wauquelin, of course, had to be careful and moderate in any advice that may have been intended for his wealthy backers. Any offence could have resulted in rather serious consequences. Instead of advising his benefactor, Bryant rightly suggests that the advice may be better understood as "praise for a Burgundian duke who was already similarly endowed; for, if the generosity and all the other virtues were in Alexander's genes, might they not now be reincarnated in one who was, in Burgundian eyes, inheritor of the great conqueror's domains in the West?" (11). This connection between Alexander's conquests and the Burgundian right of dominion over Picardy, Artois, Hainault, Flanders, Brabant, and Liège is found in Book Two; Bryant calls this section of the romance and the interconnection the watershed section of Wauquelin's narrative.
Bryant's translation of the romance makes pleasant reading. Although it was not possible to check every translated passage against the original text since it was not possible to verify which text Bryant was using as his source, the translation seems accurate, literal, and includes some modifications and adaptations for the modern reader. I venture to guess that Bryant's source is Sandrine Heriche's 2000 edition.  For example, in Book 1.84, Bryant translates:
"'That's well said, sir,' Floridas replied. 'So I pledge
and vow to the peacock and everyone present that, if
you do as you say, before you've carried the sword
thirty yards from the king I'll have you at Death's
door and take you back to him a captive--or cut in
half, even if you're made of steel! If I don't, I pray the
king will have me hanged before I ever return to my
noble city of Defur! So have a think about that: you
might like to ask someone for advice!' Then Baudrian
laughed and answered: 'Truly, sir knight, you've given
me as good as I gave! Bless the man who sired you!
Your king's wise to have you as a friend: you're
worth your weight in gold to him. Forgive me your
resentment now: let's both do the best we can." (98, italics mine)
Bryant helps the reader by footnoting that "Death's door" is literally "confessed and given absolution"; the literal translation of "you're worth your weight in gold to him" is "he couldn't provide himself with a better treasure."
As mentioned at the start of this review, there is no doubt that this is a significant book that presents a solid translation of a text that has been often neglected or rejected as having no intrinsic literary or creative value. Bryant offers us a translation that should appeal to a wide range of individuals: medievalists, students of myth, classicists (particularly those interested in Alexander's Nachleben and the ancient prose romance or novel), and scholars and the general reading public. If any fault must be pointed out, it is that a larger reading list of secondary research would be most welcome. I also found somewhat perplexing the digression on the figure of Alexander as conqueror and world-dominator and how he would not be appealing in our age: "A history of Alexander written now might well present him with ambivalence and even as something as a monster--as he is indeed seen in many Middle Eastern cultures" (12). Bryant cites Michael Wood's In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great for this view; Wood's text is not without problems.  Bryant precedes this observation with what I think is a strange but brief comparison of Alexander with Bonaparte and Hitler. Additionally, it would have been most helpful if Bryant had told the reader which editions of Wauquelin he was using or how he translated them. However, it cannot be emphasized enough that this book greatly contributes to the compendium of knowledge about Alexander and the vast literary tradition that has grown around him.
1. George Cary, The Medieval Alexander (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956).
2. Jean Wauquelin, Les Faicts Et Les Conquestes D'Alexandre Le Grand, ed. Sandrine Hériché-Pradeau (Geneva: Droz, 2000).
3. Michael Wood, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great (London: BBC Books, 1997), 105-108, 122.