The Medieval Review 16.03.01

Bryant, Nigel, trans. The Complete Story of the Grail: Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval and its continuations. Arthurian Studies. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2015. pp. lii, 580. $99.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-84384-400-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner
Boston College

This book is a big deal in all senses of the word. A big format: the book measures approximately 7" x 10" and requires two strong hands to hold it. A big undertaking: Chrétien's Perceval and its continuations extend over 70,000 some verses. And a big result: Nigel Bryant's translation is highly reliable, engaging, and as lively as he can make it (his stint as Head of Drama at Marlborough College has served him well). Other substantial translations to his credit, including Robert de Boron's Merlin, the Perlesvaus, and Perceforest, give further evidence of his undaunted enthusiasm for all things Arthurian and/or Grail connected. Bryant's earlier translation of Chrétien's grail romance plus selected excerpts from the continuations (D.S. Brewer, 1982) was alone in the field when I taught a course on unfinished masterpieces back in the 90s and wanted to give students access to the less well-known verse continuations. This new and Complete Story of the Grail offers a fresh translation with complete texts for all four continuations, as well as two prequels, along with more supporting apparatus to guide a twenty-first-century public.

English-speaking readers are more likely to be familiar with the quest for the Holy Grail as represented by Malory's fifteenth-century version, based on the Vulgate Cycle, the very popular thirteenth-century French prose romances (extant in over a hundred manuscripts) which reflect Robert de Boron's transformation of Chrétien's grail (a deep, wide serving dish) into the Holy Grail, the chalice of the Last Supper used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the crucified Christ's blood. The verse continuations have been slower to gain the attention of medievalists and modern readers. William Roach's edition of the First, Second, and Third Continuations (including the Short, Long, and Mixed Redactions of the First) was not completed until 1983. Since then, bibliography, editions, and translations have picked up. Most recently, the first studies to examine the complete cycle of Perceval romances have mushroomed: my book on the dialogue between Chrétien's romance and its four continuations, Chrétien Continued (Oxford, 2009), was followed by Thomas Hinton's The Conte du Graal Cycle (Cambridge, 2012), and Leah Tether's The Continuations of Chrétien's Perceval (Cambridge, 2012), all included in Bryant's bibliography.

Since most of the sixteen extant manuscripts combine Chrétien's Conte du Graal (the title given in his prologue) with one or more continuations, Bryant's new translation offers contemporary readers the context in which medieval readers typically encountered the first grail romance. I should no doubt qualify that statement with a few significant caveats, given the gulf between standardized printed editions and the variability of the handwritten text. Most manuscripts offer a combination of three continuations lined up after Perceval (the title that appears in incipits and explicits). Only two manuscripts include all four (the Fourth inserted by an unknown editor between the Second and Third) and only one of them, BN ms fr 12576 (T), is complete. Another important difference concerns what we know when about the authors involved: these manuscripts, unlike those of the Roman de la Rose, give no indication when the shifts occur between authors and continuations, except retrospectively when the second, third, and fourth continuators give their names. The first remains anonymous; Wauchier de Denain may be the author who names himself through garbled scribal renderings in the Second; Gerbert (probably Gerbert de Montreuil) repeats his name a bit obsessively in an episode of the Fourth (394-395); and Manessier (otherwise unknown) identifies himself in the epilogue to the Third. Bryant's text clearly introduces and lays out Perceval and the four continuations as well as the two prequels added before Chrétien's romance, The Elucidation Prologue (in one manuscript) and Bliocadran (two manuscripts), given in appendices one and two. Appendix three offers the independent conclusion to the Second Continuation found in the Bern manuscript, Burgerbibliothek 113, a quick shortcut to the end for those readers who preferred abbreviatio (though most obviously went in for amplification).

Aids for readers include a detailed table of contents: Bryant has devised chapter titles that will reappear in the text to help break up the narrative flow into recognizable episodes, especially beneficial where eye-filling prose on each large page has replaced the octosyllables in rhymed couplets used in the Old French narratives. A short summary of key events follows each chapter title, equipped with line numbers from the editions translated to guide readers from the translation to the original texts. If chapter titles sometimes give away the surprise twist of a plot move, so too does the narrator building the reader's fearful anticipation (see Gerbert 518-519). The publisher also kindly supplies running heads on top of the pages to help readers locate, remember, and refind as needed, specific points in the narrative development. Within the texts, Bryant supplies a good number of footnotes, not too many to interrupt the reading process but enough to cover a wealth of topics: information on manuscripts and illuminations (e.g., 478 n1 and 3), other versions (e.g., 478 n2), key words like "a grail" (29, n13), aventure (33 n18), Perceval's name (467 n80). Many notes identify connections with previous episodes both forward and back (e.g., 121 n40, 413 n50, 480 n4). By offering reminders (e.g., 105 n24) and corrections to point out possible scribal errors (e.g., 107 n26, 449 n73), these notes help the modern reader understand the process of rewriting and continuation (e.g., 527 n33). Bryant might have also explained the difference between the two titles associated with Chrétien's romance or the use of the name Carados/Caradoc in the First Continuation's long digression on a new hero (Bryant uses Caradoc for the king and Carados for the son to distinguish them, but the two names are merely different case forms of the same name).

After a short discussion of dates, ranging from the latter part of the twelfth century to the first third of the thirteenth, Bryant briefly surveys the manuscript tradition. Here he explains why the translation of Chrétien is based on Roach's edition, rather than the more recent critical edition by Keith Busby (both listed in the following section on modern editions). The choice accords with the translator's project to include all four continuations, as does Roach's base manuscript (T). A number of notes explain certain changes made by the scribe to integrate Gerbert's continuation (526 n31, 527 n33, 529 n38). For maximal coverage, Bryant prefers to translate the Long Redaction of the First Continuation rather than T's mixed version and follows Roach in generally basing the translation of the Second and Third Continuations on the National Library of Scotland's MS 19.1.5. Gerbert and Manessier probably wrote without knowledge of each other; both continue Wauchier's last scene at the Grail Castle, left suspended. Bryant doesn't mention the most recent edition of Gerbert: La Continuation de Perceval: Quatrième continuation, édition critique par Frédérique Le Nan, Textes Littéraires Français, Geneva: Droz, 2014. A final section on further reading includes nineteen items, a short list but well-chosen to cover some general topics like chivalry as well as specialized studies of Chrétien and the continuations. A useful glossary and index complete the volume.

The bulk of the introduction (xviii-xlvi) proposes an overview of plot material summarized to highlight what Bryant understands as the general thrust of each work translated. The notion of "Chrétien's intention" may appear problematic to modern critical approaches but it recalls how Chrétien himself presents his work as romancer. Consider, for example, how he shapes his matter, according to the Lancelot prologue, by deploying his sans and antancion--that is, direction, guiding thought, attention, and intention. In Bryant's view the first author poses a question: what is it to be a knight or more generally a human being? This strikes me as convincing, although Perceval as "emblematic Everyman" is less obvious: Perceval seems to me to be more sui generis than Bryant's reading of him as "Everyyouth" and "Everyknight" (xviii). When Bryant remarks on Perceval's failure to ask the expected questions about the grail and the bleeding lance, "He, like so many, is quite content not to enquire into wonders" (xix), he misrepresents Perceval's silence at the Fisher King's, occasioned not because he doesn't want to ask (he plans to do so the next morning) but rather because of his mentor Gorneman's advice not to speak too much, counsel taken too literally and applied in the wrong circumstance. But I agree with Bryant's general overview: "At every turn the actions and attitudes of accomplished knights lead to trouble and pointless strife. At every turn it's possible to see or to sense doubt and irony in Chrétien's view of the courtly knight and of knightly endeavours" (xxi). The continuators, however, will for the most part follow their own purposes (xxii).

The First Continuation picks up Gawain's story with no misgivings about conventional chivalry and demonstrates the Unimportance of the Holy Grail. A broken sword gives new mystery and impetus to the story since the answers to the grail questions have already been revealed. In the Second Continuation, Wauchier sometimes seems faithful to Chrétien's work and essential theme: Everyman wanders aimlessly through the routines of knightly pursuit in an Everylife, but more frequently the continuator and his hero Perceval are distracted from any systematic progression. Here I raise another quibble: Bryant describes Perceval as a grave-conquering Christ in the adventure with the knight in the tomb, but this is no Harrowing of Hell. Unable to make a getaway on a mule that will not move to his command, after tricking Perceval to take his place, the knight frees the hero and climbs back into the tomb (xxx-xxxi).

Gerbert's Continuation presents Perceval as a true knight because he is "the knight with the proper function": the crusading knight as "the type of Christ Himself"--not Christ but "like Him" a model for "all good knights...willing to crusade and confront the infidel" (xxxvii, emphasis in the text). Gerbert offers "the most considered and purposeful adoption and adaptation of Chrétien's main themes" (xxxii), though arguably his greater focus on sin goes beyond Chrétien's single hint in that direction (through Perceval's hermit uncle) and demonstrates the power exercised by the prose Queste del Saint Graal, composed sometime between the first two and last two continuations. The Third Continuation finds new narrative potential in the broken sword and a story of revenge required to heal the Fisher King. Indeed, the theme of revenge is generalized in Manessier's "boisterous action" (xl), though Perceval's renunciation of chivalry and religious vocation after serving as grail king gives a suitably pious ending to his chivalric career. The Elucidation Prologue mystifies rather than clarifies but Bliocadran "raises in striking fashion the crucial questions: what is the true purpose of this [the knight's] daunting calling?" (xlvi).

In the discussion of "Reading Aloud," Bryant elaborates an earlier comment on how medieval readers were mostly listeners as the story was read out loud, episode by episode, over time and perhaps with a glass of wine in hand--that is to say, in a social setting rather than our usual experience of silent and solitary reading (xviii). The continuations offer a fascinating case study for the way stories develop and change yet continue to claim they are part of the same story--cf. today's soap operas on TV or fanfiction on the web. They offer a lesson not to be too particular about the disagreement of certain details (e.g., 363 n17) and even significant shifts in plot, themes, and characters. Bryant's choice of language, as in the originals, is appropriately direct, everyday speech (e.g., esforcie is translated as raped, 34). Occasionally, it seems a bit off for my ear attuned to the Old French (the multivalent amie as love or sweetheart, 51) or perhaps a little too contemporary. Certain words have a different impact in modern English ("you bitch" for garce, "pacifist" for cil a la pais juree, 44). I often had the feeling of encountering the narrative for the first time, despite many years spent reading and writing about these works: the switch to English brings in unfamiliar but welcome connections. Bryant's call to read out loud to avoid a certain flatness implicitly signals important issues in the move from one language and culture to another. Consider the loss of rhythm and rime in the change from verse to prose, the loss of a certain built-in momentum that smoothes over repetitions and parataxis and keeps the verbal texture alive in descriptions and dialogue as well as reported action and narratorial interventions. We risk missing the verbal fun, especially in the dialogues, unless we imagine a good performer acting out the words with emotional expression and gesture.

Bryant's advice to read every line as "scripts" for performance (xlix) also rings true for the translator, so it's too bad there's no explicit discussion of his approach to translating. He, like Perceval and Chrétien, is certainly attentive to the play of language: Love retains her feminine gender as in Old French (43). But there are inevitable losses in the play of repetition, generally avoided in modern writing (consider 126-127: the return of novelles in estranges novelles disappears in translation). More puzzling are the many instances where the translation in the text gives rise to a footnote supplying the literal translation, which often strikes me as perfectly clear (e.g., 113 n29, 30). Why not simply go with the literal translation and an occasional explanation where its import might be unclear to modern readers? Is there some greater issue regarding the letter and spirit, a chestnut of translation theory, that might have been addressed?

These are small complaints. On the whole, reading Bryant's translation reminded me again how Chrétien's genius gave rise to varied levels of romance invention: the first continuator better than he is credited to be by early medievalists; Wauchier and Manessier less exciting, more workman-like but Gerbert a clever reader of Chrétien, capable of worthy reinventions (as demonstrated in Perceval's return to Gorneman's castle by a new grail-like object, the two buckets of life-giving balm). May more readers encounter these works and form their own opinions, thanks to Bryant's Complete Story of the Grail!

Copyright (c) 2016 Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner

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