Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
15.10.08, Kibler and Palmer, eds., Medieval Arthurian Epic and Romance

The Medieval Review

15.10.08, Kibler and Palmer, eds., Medieval Arthurian Epic and Romance

Given the continuing popularity of the Arthurian legend and of college courses on Arthur, new editions and translations of Arthurian material aimed at students are welcome. This volume will serve as a useful, if focused, addition to the Arthurian literature syllabus. As the title indicates, editors William Kibler and R. Barton Palmer have collected eight new translations of various Arthurian texts; three of the eight are complete texts while the remaining five are sizeable excerpts. The limited number of texts proves to be both a strength and a weakness in this collection, allowing on the one hand fuller emersion into certain texts than is possible with shorter selections but, on the other, offering a very limited range of medieval Arthurian texts. I am reviewing this text primarily on the basis of its usefulness as a classroom text; the text on the back cover of the book indicates that the publisher, at least, envisions this volume as an anthology for courses on Arthurian literature.

The texts are grouped into two sections, Arthurian epic and Arthurian romance. This basic division is useful for quickly framing different types of Arthurian texts, although there is almost no discussion of the ways in which these two genres collapse into each other in many Arthurian works. In the preface, the editors state that epic and romance "[exemplify] the two larger strands of Arthurian story: an epic tradition in which Arthur is the principal character and whose main subject is the building, and then defense of a considerable empire through constant war against a variety of enemies; and a romance tradition, whose themes are courtly love and spiritual questing, in which Arthur recedes into the background and various knights of the Round Table instead take center stage" (1). I quote this definition in full because it is the only discussion of these two strands in the preface, and the short introductions to each text rarely return to the issue of genre. The introduction to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae does note that courtly themes often associated with romance can be found in this chronicle, but the introduction to the Roman de Brut sidesteps Wace's choice of title and its implication that romance and epic are not clearly delineated categories (6-7, 31). The simplistic division between epic and romance may be an adequate introduction for undergraduates encountering the many strands of Arthurian material for the first time, but more consideration of the overlap between the two genres and of the larger critical discussion that pushes against the easy separation (or progression) between the two would enrich this volume. Such a consideration would also provide a stronger connection between the two sections.

Instead of discussing each translation individually, I will briefly look at each of the two sections. "Part I: Arthurian Epic" contains three selections, excerpted from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (translated by Douglas McFarland), Wace's Roman de Brut, and Lawman's Brut (both translated by Palmer). All three of these selections have short but useful introductions that situate these texts in the particular context of post-Conquest England. The translations are accessible and are especially effective in capturing the stylistic differences between Latin prose chronicle, Anglo-Norman octosyllabic couplets, and early Middle English alliterative verse. The selection from Geoffrey contains the entire Arthurian narrative from his coronation to his death (books IX.i – XI.ii); the translation does drag a bit through the long battle scenes, although the fault most likely lies in Geoffrey himself (or perhaps the reviewer), not the translation. The Wace selection excerpts Arthur's battle with Lucius, and Palmer's translation keeps the verse format (although not the meter or couplets); this translation is particularly vigorous and will spur fruitful classroom discussions about the changes that occur when a Latin (pseudo-)history becomes an Anglo-Norman roman. The translation of Lawman's Brut is similarly engaging and, without slavishly following the syntax and word choice of the Middle English, uses alliteration extensively to match the tone of Lawman's language. The selection from Lawman contains Arthur's birth and the early battles that establish his reign in England. These texts offer an excellent and extensive introduction to the Arthurian tradition founded by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

"Part II: Arthurian Romance" opens with a selection of Welsh Arthurian material, including Culhwch and Owen in full (translated by Craig Davis). The romances continue with all of Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval (translated by William Kibler); selections from Perlesvaus (translated by Kibler) and La Queste del Saint Graal (translated by Palmer); and La Mule sans Frein in full (translated by Kibler). As in the first section, the translations are accessible and the short introductions to each text provide useful context. The inclusion of La Mule sans Frein is particularly welcome both as a counterbalance to the long, serious grail texts and as a romance that is likely unfamiliar to students; it also promises to pair nicely in the classroom with Culhwch and Owen. As with the first section, the excerpts are substantial: the selections from Perlesvaus and the Queste come to about forty pages each. The long selections, whether whole texts or excerpts, will give students a good sense of the recurring themes and narrative rhythms of these romances.

The long selections provide distinct advantages for students, allowing for a deeper exploration of themes and topics in the texts. However, the small number of romances is a serious limitation of this anthology; moreover, little editorial justification is offered for the choice of texts. In the brief preface, the editors note that the romance section begins with Welsh romances that "trace the beginnings of Arthurian story" before turning to Perceval, one of the "most enigmatic and important characters" of the Arthurian material; the concluding romance, La Mule sans Frein, provides a "contrasting note" (2). All of these statements are true, as far as they go, but they do not provide a coherent rationale for grouping these texts. The three grail texts are, obviously, connected and the introductions to each discuss how the grail story developed from its origins in Chrétien's Perceval; yet the selected texts by themselves offer a limited picture of how Chrétien's tale developed since all three are in French and date to the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The inclusion of Welsh material and La Mule sans Frein does expand the focus of the romance section away from grail romances; however, without editorial comment, the question arises of why these five texts in particular offer a good introduction to Arthurian romance. Additionally, few connections are made between the "epic" and romance sections, further fragmenting this anthology. Kibler and Palmer's focus on a limited time period (twelfth and thirteenth centuries) and on a limited geographical area (England, Wales and France) deserves at least acknowledgment, and ideally a fuller discussion, so that instructors and students alike can understand how these texts typify or relate to the larger body of medieval Arthurian literature. Within its narrow selection of texts, this anthology effectively introduces early Arthurian narratives, and particularly narratives unfamiliar to the non-specialist; it does not, however, provide a broad introduction to medieval Arthurian literature.

Kibler and Palmer follow an editorial policy of minimal explanatory notes, which are placed as endnotes. Overall, the lack of notes provides an immersive, uninterrupted reading experience and also speaks to the clarity of the translations, as only a few lines struck me as in need of explanatory notes. For example, the excerpts from the Queste include references to "Britain Major" and "white monks;" students may find brief explanations of these terms useful, although even here notes are not necessary (242, 267). The introduction to the Queste does, however, need at least a note on terminology. Palmer discusses the Vulgate cycle without any mention that, in most recent scholarship, it is called the Lancelot-Grail cycle.

While the volume is sturdily bound and well-edited overall, the text (particularly of the verse translations) is often crowded on the pages; in the prose translations, changes in speakers are marked by punctuation but seldom by line breaks. These layout choices keep the book to a reasonable size but occasionally impede readability. There is also a persistent problem with missing closing quotation marks that I hope can be corrected in subsequent printings.

When considering Medieval Arthurian Epic and Romance as a classroom anthology, the inevitable competition will be the recently published third edition of The Romance of Arthur, edited by Norris J. Lacy and James J. Wilhelm (Routledge, 2013). The advantage of Kibler and Palmer's anthology lies in the lengthy selections; in particular, the selections from Geoffrey, Wace and Lawman outshine those in The Romance of Arthur. The longer selections and the choice to retain Wace's verse in Medieval Arthurian Epic and Romance offer a better view of the development of Geoffrey's material in different genres and languages. In the romance section, however, the limitations of the anthology under review are more clear. As discussed above, three of the five selections come from French grail romances and follow Perceval specifically. Even for a course that focuses on the grail in Arthurian legend, the absence of German romances in particular limits the usefulness of this volume. The strength of the romance section lies in the preference for less-familiar Arthurian characters and for romances with an abundance of supernatural, and often distinctly religious, adventures. Students expecting Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere may be productively surprised by the selections in this volume. However, the narrow focus leaves students without a sense of either the spread of Arthurian romances across Europe or the development of the Arthurian story after the thirteenth century, particularly in English. The Romance of Arthur provides a better sense of the expansion of Arthurian literature across Europe both geographically and temporally with excerpts from German, Old Norse, Latin and Middle English romances of the twelfth through fifteenth centuries in addition to works in French and Welsh. With its deeper but more narrow focus, Medieval Arthurian Epic and Romance could be a useful core anthology that covers the earliest Arthurian narratives written in England, Wales and France, but would almost certainly need to be accompanied by additional texts representing a broader range of Arthurian material.