18.09.14, Campbell, The Medieval Merlin Tradition in France and Italy

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Leah Tether

The Medieval Review 18.09.14

Campbell Laura Chuhan. The Medieval Merlin Tradition in France and Italy Prophecy, Paradox, and Translatio . Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017. pp. 211. ISBN: 978-1-84384-480-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Leah Tether
University of Bristol

It is a genuine pleasure to see this long-awaited book finally in print, since the work of Laura Chuhan Campbell on the Merlin Tradition has been a popular staple of medieval literary studies and Arthurian conferences for some years now. The result of this sustained work and re-work is a fine book which provides a comprehensive approach to the subject of translation--interpreted in its broadest sense--as adumbrated by the Merlin tradition and its particular transmission in France and Italy. The study is split into four chapters, each of which tackles several Merlin texts across French and Italian witnesses. Based chiefly on the theoretical discourses of Umberto Eco and Charles Saunders Peirce, amongst others, Campbell states that she 'will question the limits of what translation meant in the Middle Ages', and that there will be a crucial appreciation for accumulation as a mode of translation. What she means by this is introduced through the analogy of Merlin's prophecy regarding the fate of the crown of Orbanza, which is fragmented and dispersed, but its constituent parts attract more money than did the object in its original state. In short, Campbell underpins the analysis to come with the notion that objects do not have a fixed value; they undergo transformation and "accumulate different values in different times and places" (26).

Chapter 1 uses the conception of Merlin as an index for exploring, primarily through Peircean theory, how translation works between the Merlin texts by Paulino Pieri and Robert de Boron. Campbell's dexterity with the material here is to be applauded, showing a sophisticated understanding and knowledge not only of the texts, but also of their various incarnations in manuscripts. It is this ability to drawn comparisons across variant versions that makes this such an impressive chapter--it uses theory as a backdrop to the primary source evidence, and the result is a convincing attestation of the accumulation of meaning acquired through the rereading of the Merlin story alongside other manuscript contents (such as the Lancelot) and other versions of the Merlin tale. Campbell rightly foregrounds the importance for translation of the fact that "there are wider discourses with which each texts [sic] engages" (28).

The book's second chapter moves to consider the figure of Merlin as a translator in his own right, and does so by focusing attention on the Dame du Lac's role in the narrative(s). Campbell's thesis is that between the French and Venetian versions of the Merlin tradition there is a transformation of the Dame du Lac's character that is related to 'binary gender discourses of medieval misogynist thought' (67). Once again, Campbell demonstrates mastery of her material and weaves a narrative that is grounded in both text and material text (including both manuscript and incunabulum, the latter in the shape of the 1488 edition of the Lancelot-Grail published by Antoine VĂ©rard). Campbell argues astutely that the paradoxes in Merlin's character are reflected in the Dame du Lac's presentation--the Dame du Lac is, in other words, a translation of Merlin's character, while Merlin is a translator and, in Campbell's view, a fundamentally semiotic character (98). She concludes by arguing that rewriting does not necessarily equate to overwriting previous versions; rather, she writes, there is a continuing interaction with the inherited material.

The third chapter presents a somewhat more difficult to follow analysis than that in the previous two chapters. The chapter foregrounds a deep and complex engagement with theoretical discourse around Eco's notion of encyclopaedia semantics and the varied rewritings of Merlin's prophecies across Campbell's corpus of texts. The premise in itself, that "Merlin's prophecies create a tripartite perspective, consisting of three co-existing viewpoints based on different semiotic models" (137) is sound enough but, for this reviewer at least, the adopted approach feels more like a continual enumeration of theoretical platitudes. At times, these feel rather distant from the texts under consideration, and seem to overshadow them somewhat. I wonder if not putting the cart before the horse, so to speak, would have allowed Campbell to argue for the same thing, but more accessibly: in other words, a methodology that prioritised the primary sources over the theoretical ones might have allowed the enquiry to feel more text-driven, and thus more in line with the other chapters in the book.

Chapter 4 sees Campbell return to the approach where she is at her best, combing the various versions of the Merlin tradition for examples of rewriting, in this case of Merlin's political prophecies in Italy. Here, Campbell's use of Eco is judicious. Indeed, Eco's notion of the Model Reader (a reader who is in possession of the right 'knowledge', cultural and otherwise, to understand the text) is instrumental in allowing Campbell to demonstrate how later circulation means that the readers of texts are not always as well equipped as the original Model Reader to engage with the narrative, thus resulting in new and different interpretations over time. The result is a convincing analysis that speaks to a more general model of how translation, as a concept, might be better understood.

Campbell's study is well supported by useful appendices, which include plot summaries of the various Merlin texts. One minor issue relates to Campbell's appellation of the works of Robert de Boron as the 'Grail Trilogy' throughout, where--of course--there is no evidence that Robert ever wrote a third instalment to follow his Joseph d'Arimathie and Merlin, even if he seems to have hinted at it. The Didot-Perceval, which is presumably the third constituent part to which Campbell is referring, is widely agreed not to have been written by Robert, even though it appears in some manuscripts alongside his other two texts. On a presentational basis, Campbell writes fluidly, a feat given the complexity of her material. However, there are quite a number of proofreading, consistency and typesetting issues, to which the editorial team really should have attended. There are, for instance, a number of typographical infelicities throughout the book, such as that quoted above (28), and whether Geoffrey's Historia regum Britanniae should take an upper case 'r', a practice which differs between the main body text and the blurb on the cover. Finally, there is some quite distracting kerning going on throughout the book's text-flow, as if to cram the text into a given space, with the impression that one paragraph will look nicely set, while the next seems densely packed.

Overall, though, this book is a most welcome study. There has been much attention given to Merlin and the many texts in which he appears, though much less so in the case of the Italian tradition. Given the inextricable connections between the French and Italian Merlins, both in terms of textual and material cultures, it is high time that they were considered alongside each other, showing how one is the product of the other, and vice versa. Campbell's analysis, in that sense, is pioneering, and its great merit is in its broad interpretation of translation. Campbell seeks to bring greater nuance to our knowledge of what translation meant in the Middle Ages--to show that it is more than just transformation from one language to another, more even than that implied by the Classical notions of translatio studii et imperii: it is additionally, she argues, an exercise in semantics--in signs and communication. Even if I have taken some issue in this review with the tendency towards over-theorising, Campbell's chosen test-bed--the Merlin tradition--proves itself to be a perfect vehicle for demonstrating her thesis.

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