Posts Tagged ‘Chretien de Troyes’

Chrétien de Troyes: Perceval

September 9, 2012

The Story of the Grail
Chrétien de Troyes

(Yale, 1999) [c.1190]
Translated from the Old French by Burton Raffel
310 p.

Perceval was the fifth and last of Chrétien’s great Arthurian romances. Like Lancelot it was left unfinished at his death, which is a great pity, for it was undoubtedly his most ambitious work. Even the truncated version we have, which shows no signs of nearing completion, is, at over 9200 lines, about 30% longer than his other poems. It is a work which, despite moments of endearing humour, sustains a more solemn and mysterious tone than was typical in his earlier works.

The incomplete poem is structurally awkward. The story initially follows Perceval but switches, at roughly the half-way mark, to follow the adventures of Gawain. For several thousand lines the story jumps back and forth between the two knights, but the last third of the (truncated) poem is devoted entirely to Gawain, the titular knight having been apparently forgotten. Presumably Chrétien would have brought the two storylines together at some point, providing a more satisfying artistic unity to the work. It is true that there are certain parallels between the adventures of Perceval and Gawain which do something to bridge the gap between the two parts, but I imagine that Chrétien had planned something more obvious to tie things up nicely. Once again, it is a pity that he did not live to see the project through.

The first part of the poem charts Perceval’s course from a naive, rural simpleton to a great knight of Arthur’s circle. His father, who had been killed in combat and whom Perceval never knew, was a renowned knight, and Perceval’s mother, in sorrow over her husband’s death, kept vigilant guard over her son to prevent his knowing anything about knights and combat. Eventually, of course, her efforts failed, and Perceval took to knighthood like a fish to water. Among the most humorous scenes in all of Chrétien’s poems are those in which Perceval, with the simplicity of a child, questions a knight about his fascinating vocation. He learns quickly, and his prowess soon earns him entry to Arthur’s court.

From there, a great number of adventures follow. Central to them is, of course, Perceval’s encounter with the grail, which serves as a kind of axis around which the poem turns. The grail is not the Holy Grail of legend, but rather, here, close to the source of the tradition, it is a kind of serving dish (“a plate wide and somewhat deep,” says a source contemporary with Chretien). Perceval sees it while a dinner guest at a great castle. His host, the Grail King, has suffered for years from mysterious wounds, and has been sustained only by daily consumption of the Host. Seated at dinner with the King, Perceval beholds a strange parade, but bites his tongue for fear of saying something inappropriate. The scene is worth citing in full:

They sat in a hall lit
As brightly as candles can make
An indoor room. And as
They chatted of this and that,
A servant entered the hall,
Carrying — his hand at its center —
A white lance. He came out
Of a room, then walked between
The fire and those seated
On the bed, and everyone saw
The white wood, and the white
Spearhead, and the drop of blood
That rolled slowly down
From the iron point until
It reached the servant’s hand.
The boy saw that wondrous
Sight, the night he arrived there,
But kept himself from asking
What it might mean, for he’d never
Forgotten — as his master at arms
Had warned him, over and over —
He was not to talk too much.
To question his host or his servants
Might well be vulgar or rude,
And so he held his tongue.

And then two other servants
Entered, carrying golden
Candleholders worked
With enamel. They were wonderfully handsome
Boys, and the candleholders
They each clasped in their hands
Bore at least ten
Burning candles. A girl
Entered with them, holding
A grail-dish in both her hands —
A beautiful girl, elegant,
Extremely well dressed. And as
She walked into the hall,
Holding this grail, it glowed
With so great a light that the candles
Suddenly seemed to grow dim,
Like the moon and stars when the sun
Appears in the sky. Then another
Girl followed the first one,
Bearing a silver platter.
The grail that led the procession
Was made of the purest gold,
Studded with jewels of every
Kind, the richest and most costly
Found on land or sea.
No one could doubt that here
Were the loveliest jewels on earth.
Just as they’d done before,
When carrying the lance, the servants
Passed in front of the knight,
Then went to another room.
And the boy watched them, not daring
To ask why or to whom
This grail was meant to be served,
For his heart was always aware
Of his wise old master’s warnings.
But I fear his silence may hurt him,
For I’ve often heard it said
That talking too little can do
As much damage as talking too much.


And so it was in this case, for Perceval later learns that had he satisfied his curiosity and asked about the lance, the grail, and the silver platter, the King would have been healed of his wounds. Worse, because he did not ask, the King will never be cured. At this, Perceval devotes himself to discovering the meaning of the mysteries he witnessed.

Naturally, this is all hard to understand. A bleeding lance? A connection to the crucifixion suggests itself, but if the grail has not yet been related to Christ, should we expect any such relations here? (Maybe. There is actually more Christian theology in this poem than is typical of Chrétien’s other works, but in this case we have no particular reason to suppose that the lance is the one that pierced Christ’s side. Chrétien never does get around to explaining the mystery, so we are left with our speculations.)

This story of the grail stands, as I said, quite close to the source. Chrétien remarks in the opening section of the poem that the story came from “a book the count gave me”, so, unless we are dealing with a playful authorial modesty, the story was not original with him. Some scholars apparently believe that the origins of the myth lie in Celtic lore.

That said, Chrétien’s version of the story was immensely influential. Four different conclusions to the poem were composed by other hands following his death, ranging in length from about 9000 additional lines to over 19000 additional lines. Shortly after Chrétien died, a Burgundian knight named Robert de Boron wrote a poem in which he identified the grail with the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper, and his grail, the Holy Grail, was incorporated into a vast number of later works.


This completes my undistinguished overview of all five of Chrétien de Troyes’ surviving romances. I believe that the set will come up if one clicks here.

Chrétien de Troyes: Lancelot

May 8, 2012

Or, The Knight of the Cart

Chrétien de Troyes
Translated from the Old French by Burton Raffel
(Yale, 1997) [c.1180]
241 p.

Because my lady of Champagne
Wants me to start a new
Romance, I’ll gladly begin one,
For I’m completely her servant
In whatever she wants me to do…

So began Chrétien de Troyes, dedicating his poem to the Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of King Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who, Chrétien tells us, also proposed the subject of the work: the knight Lancelot’s adulterous love affair with Queen Guinevere. Chrétien may indeed have been glad enough to begin the poem, but for whatever reason he was not glad to finish it; the poem was abandoned midstream, after roughly 6000 lines, and was completed by an otherwise unknown cleric named Godfrey of Lagny, who tells us in his brief epilogue that Chrétien himself granted him permission to complete the last 1000 lines or so.

One can speculate as to why Chrétien did not see the project through to completion. He may have been working simultaneously on Yvain, and lost enthusiasm for the one in favour of the other. He may quite possibly have been discouraged by the dishonourable subject matter of Lancelot: as he says, the theme was not of his choosing, and elsewhere (in Cligès, for instance) he goes out of his way to avoid having his hero commit adultery, much less so disloyal an act as adultery with the wife of his king and lord. Lancelot, in Chrétien’s hands, is an ambiguous figure whose knightly prowess is beyond dispute but whose moral character is rightly suspect.

My own opinion, having completed the poem, leans toward the second view: that Chrétien’s heart just wasn’t in it. The poem has little of the sparkle and wit that so enlivened his earlier works, and it seems to lack even the structural cohesion (admittedly rather loose even under the best of circumstances) of his other poems. The basic elements are all here — brave knights, magical rings, pretty damsels, supernatural dangers — but the spark is missing.

Roughly the first half of the poem is concerned with Lancelot’s efforts to find and rescue Queen Guinevere, who has been abducted from Arthur’s court. In the second half, he struggles to defeat her abductor, the villain Meleagant. The subtitle of the poem refers to Lancelot’s early decision, in pursuit of Guinevere, to ride in a “cart”, a mode of transport reserved for criminals and thoroughly inappropriate (one would think) for a knight of the Round Table. Throughout the poem Lancelot endures the opprobrium of others for having stooped so low. The irony — which, in the nature of the case, does not tip over into humour — is that Lancelot is indeed a criminal, guilty of the most unknightly behaviour with the Queen, albeit privately. Thus there is a kind of justice in the disdain heaped upon him.

The poem has been influential in Arthurian lore. The story of Lancelot and Guinevere was quite possibly original with Chrétien, and became a mainstay of later Arthurian tales, and Lancelot himself was, of course, destined to become one of the central Arthurian figures. Evidently some reader have liked the poem more than I, on balance, did.

Chrétien de Troyes: Yvain

March 5, 2012

The Knight of the Lion
Chrétien de Troyes
Translated from the Old French by Burton Raffel
(Yale, 1987) [c.1177]
241 p.

But today love is almost
Deserted, its followers fallen
Away, its worshippers gone.
For those who practiced Love
Could truly call themselves courtiers —
Noble, generous, honorable.
Love has turned into silly
Stories, told by liars
Who feel nothing, know nothing, all talk
And empty boasts, dishonesty
And vanity and windy noise. (ll.18-28)

But Chrétien’s poem is far from being windy noise. He gives us a tale as antidote, a tale that is noble, generous, and honorable, about those who lived when Love was properly worshiped. He turns, once again, to Arthur’s celebrated court, and to the knight Yvain.

The story of Yvain has many twists and turns, but the basic shape is simple: Yvain kills a knight in combat, and then falls in love with the man’s widow. Needless to say, she has a motive to hate rather than love him, yet his devotion to her is irrevocable. He must therefore win her love, against her own heart. I give little away by noting that he eventually does so, though by trickery (not his own) so cunning and gentle that it seems a happy, not a monstrous, conclusion. It is easy to see how it might have fell out otherwise, for there is something truly ugly about a man seeking to wed the woman whose husband he has slain — think of David and Bathsheba, or Richard III and Lady Anne. But Chrétien wittily turns the tables on this ugliness, putting the lady into the position of power and making Yvain the conquered one:

And yet a new love had hunted in his heart
And completely conquered its prey.
His enemy had captured his heart,
He loved the creature who hated
Him most. Not suspecting a thing,
The lady had avenged her lord’s death.
She’d managed a greater vengeance
Than anything she could have accomplished
By herself, without Love’s assistance,
Who came to him so gently
That it struck his heart through his eyes. (ll.1356-1368)

A principle of Arthurian romance is that Love is imperious; when she summons, a true knight obeys, for devotion to her is one of the knight’s chief glories:

Not to accept Love’s wish
When Love comes, and Love asks, is more
Than wicked, it is treachery. And I say,
And whoever worships Love
Let him listen, that a deserter from Love
Deserves no happiness. I may lose,
But I’ll always love my enemy.
How could I hate her,
If I wish to be loyal to Love?
What Love wants, I want. (ll.1443-1453)

This whole-hearted, child-like exuberance is, for me, part of the appeal of reading Chrétien. Unless I am badly misreading the tone, and even making allowances for an element of good-natured exaggeration, Chrétien finds, and expects his listeners to find, joy in commitment, dedication, devotion, and sincerity. We seem to be a long way from anything resembling irony or cynicism, and that is refreshing.

This reminds me of something C.S. Lewis wrote in The Discarded Image about the generally happy demeanor of medieval authors and — by inference — of medieval man. Lewis believed this disposition was rooted, in part, in their view of history and the cosmos, though both were also, not incidentally, entangled with their religion. Comparing medievals to the nineteenth-century devotees of progress, he wrote:

Medieval and nineteenth century man agreed that their present was no very admirable age; not to be compared (said one) with the glory that was, not to be compared (said the other) with the glory that is still to come. The odd thing is that the first view seems to have bred on the whole a more cheerful temper. Historically as well as cosmically, medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight. The backward, like the upward, glance exhilarated him with a majestic spectacle, and humility was rewarded with the pleasures of admiration…There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need be neither proud nor lonely.

This portrait of the medieval temper does not suit our caricatures of the period, but it is worth reflecting on. There is actually quite a lot to support it. Consider the earthy good humour of Chaucer, the glory of Dante, Aquinas’ clear-eyed clarity, the playful grandeur of Ockeghem and Dufay, the magnificence of the Gothic, and so on. They could express sorrow, of course, but it is noteworthy that medieval Europe never produced anything like Kafka or Beckett. Themes of despair, alienation, anxiety, meaninglessness, angst, and nihilism, which have informed a good part of our greatest contemporary literature, were far from them. In saying this, I intend no criticism of our literature: times are such that we have need to explore those themes, and would be at fault if we did not do so. But that medieval men seem not to have needed to do so, certainly not in a major way, says something good about their spiritual and emotional health. Perhaps it really was a good time to be alive (as has been argued).

Which is not to say that they were perfect. Consider Yvain, for instance: in the early part of the poem he falls well short of the knightly ideal. A principal concern of the poem is to chart his moral progress as he faces and conquers various temptations and challenges. It is here that the subtitle of the poem becomes relevant, for in the course of his adventures Yvain earns the loyalty of a fearsome lion, and this lion serves him not only as a companion, but also as a kind of moral catalyst. St. Paul says of the Holy Spirit that “He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear”, and in a similar way the lion offers aid when it is needed, never allowing Yvain to go down in defeat, but gradually allowing Yvain’s own confidence and strength (his virtus) to increase.

The poem offers many charms to the reader. On the one hand, we have fantastic elements familiar from legends and fairy tales: magical rings, terrifying giants, elaborate traps and contraptions, cunning disguises. On another hand we have Chrétien’s authorial persona, who interrupts the story here and there to offer commentary. Sometimes he dispenses pithy sayings (“Better to be silent than speak badly.” (l.2164); “There’s nothing difficult about fooling a fool.” (ll.2464-5)). Occasionally he wanders off the narrative trail to pursue a fleeting thought deep into the underbrush; consider this amusing example, in which a reference to Yvain both loving and hating someone causes everything to grind to a halt:

How can two things
So utterly unlike find
Themselves at home together?
Impossible, it seems to me:
They could share the same roof,
And if they tried living
Together, they’d surely be quarreling
And commotion, as soon as each
Knew the other was there.
And yet the house could have many
Rooms, bedrooms, and galleries,
And it might well be like that:
I suppose Love could hide
In some out-of-the-way room, and Hate
Go up on balconies hung
Over highways and streets, choosing
To exhibit herself in public. (ll.6024-40)

And on a third hand (but who’s counting?) there is quite a lot of broad comedy on offer. At one point Yvain pulls up on his trusty steed before a castle called — wait for it — the Castle of Infinite Misfortune. And what does he do? He asks for a place to sleep. When a friend counsels him against entering, he replies:

I suspect there is honor
And sense in your words, if only
I were able to do as you say.
But I’ve no idea where else
I might find lodging for tonight. (ll.5163-7)

Oh, poor Yvain. He has a tough time, I can tell you, getting out of that mess. Later, as the poem nears its completion, there is a climactic battle between Yvain and Gawain, both in disguise and neither aware of the other’s identity. They fight for hours, neither able to gain the advantage. Eventually, during a lull to catch their breath, they discover who they are. Throwing down their weapons, they embrace and, before King Arthur’s throne, each proceeds to lay claim to having been defeated by the other, the better to honour his friend. For Arthurian knights, victory in battle is everything. This is funny stuff.

Anyway, I enjoyed the poem. As with the earlier romances, Burton Raffel has translated it into a metre of three stresses per line. There are about 6800 lines in all.

Chrétien de Troyes: Erec and Enide

January 10, 2012

Erec and Enide
Chrétien de Troyes
(Yale, 1997) [c.1170]
Translated from Old French by Burton Raffel.
246 p.

Coming in, I knew that Erec and Enide was the first romance written by Chrétien de Troyes, but I did not know that it was actually the first Arthurian romance written by anyone. It is not that Chrétien invented the Arthurian tradition, of course, but he was the first to pluck a strand of it and weave a high-brow poetic masterpiece. It is a lively and hugely enjoyable tale, full to the brim with the winsome qualities we associate with medieval literature: brave knights, beautiful maidens, chivalry and honour, mystery and enchantment, quests, feasts and tournaments, and good humour.

The story concerns Erec, a knight of Arthur’s circle, and his love for Enide, a noble but (at poem’s beginning) poor young woman. Erec meets her while on a quest to avenge a slight to Queen Guinevere’s honour, and they are soon married in Arthur’s court. Blissful in his beloved’s arms, Erec forsakes those activities — adventuring, jousting, and hunting — proper to a knight, preferring to lounge about in bed, and folks’ tongues begin wagging. Spurred by this gossip, Erec undertakes a quest, taking Enide with him, not so much for companionship (she is instructed not to speak) as simply to witness his feats of valour. The culminating adventure, which apparently draws on Welsh source material, has Erec entering a mysterious garden, there to rescue a knight of surpassing strength and strict honesty trapped by his own promise not to leave until he is defeated in combat. Doing him this favour, Erec and Enide return in triumph to Arthur. The poem closes with a long and lavish description of a celebratory feast.

The overarching drama of the poem seems to be the gradual process by which Erec and Enide come to trust and honour one another. Though they have a rocky beginning, with their marriage apparently setting Erec at odds with his knightly vocation and bringing dishonour thereby on Enide, through a series of trials their love finds security in a firm and trustworthy friendship. Friendships are forged, too, with other noble figures (including a dwarf knight who, say this volume’s brief accompanying notes, may be an import from Welsh faerie), and by poem’s end Erec and Enide are a well-established and well-respected couple, praised by all and enjoying the finest company.

There are strong similarities between Chrétien’s Erec and Enide and the Welsh tale Geraint ac Enid, which is among the Arthurian stories in the Mabinogion. Actually, several of Chrétien’s romances have Mabinogion counterparts, though apparently it is not clear to scholars which direction the influence ran. As to its literary influence, Chrétien’s poem was widely read and imitated. It established certain conventions which he, and other writers, would observe in later romances: an Arthurian setting, a story that opens on a major Christian festival, consists of a series of adventures, and closes with a feast.

The poem, which is nearly 7000 lines long, was written in Old French, in rhyming pairs of octosyllabic lines. The translator, Burton Raffel, decided not to adhere to this specific scheme in his English rendering, but did adhere to an alternate scheme of his own invention: blank trimeter (if that is a real name for a metrical scheme). This works well: the blank verse relieves him of the obligation to shoehorn everything into rhymes, and the trimeter provides a structure that nonetheless trips along nimbly. Although the poem affords pleasures that might justly be described as simple, having many elements we now associate with fairy tales, the simple pleasures hardly exhaust its richness. I am told by someone who has studied Chrétien in the original that the poetry itself is anything but simple, but thrives, linguistically and thematically, on intricate structure and subtle resonances. I caught the simple pleasures, and gladly, but only detected hints of the more refined enjoyments, no doubt on account of my lack of familiarity with this sort of literature. There is a remedy for that: I’ll keep reading.

Chrétien de Troyes: Cligès

December 1, 2011

Chrétien de Troyes
(Yale, 1997) [c.1170]
Translated from the Old French by Burton Raffel
243 p.

Cligès is believed to be the second of five romances written by Chrétien de Troyes, following after Erec and Enide. In the finest medieval tradition, it is a rousing tale of knightly valour, passionate but forbidden love, courtly etiquette, intricate subterfuge, and unnatural wonders. It is written with warmth and good humour.

Our hero is heir to the Byzantine Empire, but, following the advice of his father, he leaves his native land while still a young man in order to test his mettle against the world’s finest knights — none other than Arthur and his circle, of course, in far off Britain. Being a hero he, needless to say, proves himself equal to the mightiest among them (only Gawain is his match). Summoned home, however, by reports that his unscrupulous uncle intends to usurp the throne, Cligès returns to Constantinople, only to himself fall in love with his uncle’s betrothed, Fenice. Though he is unable to prevent the marriage, Cligès and Fenice nonetheless carry on a covert love affair. (This is not quite so improper as it seems, for, owing to a potion prepared especially for Cligès’ uncle, the putative marriage is not actual, if you catch my meaning.) Cligès and Fenice plan to run away together, making use of a ruse of pretended death in order to escape without suspicion. The plot being discovered, however, and their deception revealed, Fenice’s husband conveniently dies of shock, leaving the two lovers free to marry, and granting the reader a happy ending.

Curiously, Cligès himself does not appear until line 2367, the preceding section of the poem, amounting to over one-third of the total length, being devoted to a back-story about his father, whose knightly exploits among Arthur and his companions are a parallel to Cligès’ own. We learn also that Cligès’ mother was none other than Arthur’s own niece, so that he unites in his person the nobility of both East and West.

There are numerous parallels between this story and that of Tristan and Ysault, which was already a well-loved tale at the time Chrétien was writing: in both tales a younger man falls in love with his uncle’s fiancee, and in both a magic potion is used (though for quite different purposes). There are some grounds, apparently, for supposing that Cligès was written as a particularly deft parody of Tristan, and of romantic love stories generally.

The amount of humour in the poem surprised me. We expect, for instance, the poet to praise the surpassing and inarticulable beauty of his heroine, for what language could be as lovely as the heroine of a medieval romance? Chrétien, however, lays it on rather thickly, as in this passage describing Fenice:

Fenice was the loveliest of ladies,
Her beauty unmatched, so wondrous
A miracle that, having achieved it,
Clearly Nature could never
Hope to achieve it again.
Knowing I can’t describe her
In words, I won’t attempt
To tell you of her arms, her body,
Her head, her hands: stretch
My life to a thousand years,
And double my talent each day,
And still I would always fail.
Why should I try, well
Aware that no matter how hard
I worked, and what skill I employed,
All my effort would be wasted.
So: the girl hurried
To the palace…

He is here claiming that his talent is unequal to Fenice’s beauty by a factor of roughly 10^100000, which does seem a bit much. The drubbing on the same theme, exaggerating the claim each time — this strikes me as comedic.

In another place, he introduces an extended metaphor into the description of a battle, but the metaphor is based on just about the least valorous and splendid topic one could imagine: accounting. He writes:

For every leaping swordstroke
Threw off showers of sparks
Like a blacksmith in his forge hammering
Red-hot iron on an anvil.
They offered each other stunning
strokes, both of them generous,
Both determined to pay back
Blows without delay,
Both spending their combat capital
Freely, not counting pennies,
Not stopping to appraise each other’s
Security or calculate interest.

That gradual descent into cool technical jargon after the vivid image of the glowing forge, pivoting around an equivocation on “pay back”, once again sounds like parody to me. (In saying this I assume, of course, that the same or a similar pun is present in the original.)

As a final example, consider this amusing section in which the poet, having alluded to his lovers “giving their hearts to one another”, stumbles over himself to warn his readers not to take the phrase literally.

Their hearts followed their eyes
In a silent exchange of vows.
Vows? They gave themselves!
Gave? No, no, that’s a lie,
For no one can give his heart.
I need to say this differently.
I don’t agree with those
Who say two hearts become one —
That’s false and impossible; a single
Body can’t have two hearts;
Even if two were joined
Together, it wouldn’t be real.
But if you’ll listen for a moment
I think I can tell you exactly
How two hearts can be one,
Without physically joining.
They’re one and the same because
What each one wants is sensed
And felt by the other: that’s all.
They want the same thing and want it
So much that we say — or some of us
Do — that instead of one heart
Each possesses two,
Though a single heart can’t be
In two bodies. And yet two hearts
Can share a single desire,
Much as many different
Voices can sing the very
Same song: the comparison proves
A single body can’t have
Two hearts. Consider that settled.
No matter that one heart knows
What the other wants, and wants it,
Too, they’re still separate,
Just as voices singing
Together are joined, in a sense,
But aren’t a single voice;
No body can have two hearts.

Try to imagine the poet reciting that section before an audience: he keeps circling around, belabouring an obvious point, summing up, then slipping into the mire again, and again. Funny.

This poem has been my introduction to Chrétien de Troyes, and I must say that I enjoyed it thoroughly. It is written with lively intelligence, and the story moves along briskly. Not all medieval literature is readily accessible to modern readers, but this is. I look forward to reading other of Chrétien’s poems in the near future.

Building a medieval library

March 4, 2011

Despite my long-standing interest in medieval art and culture, medieval literature has been mostly a closed book – if you’ll pardon the expression – to me. A few months ago, however, I made an overly ambitious resolution to acquaint myself with the greatest of medieval literary masterpieces. My recent perusal of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde was the first fruit of that resolution, but there remain a great number of works that I am eager to read.

For the most part these books were not originally written in English, and, considering that my Spanish, Old French, Anglo-Norman, and Old Norse are all a little rusty, I am obliged to read in translation. I have been hunting through the catalogue to find the available translations, and to try to choose which ones I will read. The notes below are essentially my notes to myself as I was hunting.

If you have read any of these books and would like to comment on the translation you used, I would welcome your remarks. I would also be interested in recommendations of other works, not listed here, that are worthy of attention. (No need to recommend top tier works like the Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, and so on; we already have those. But, if in doubt, recommend; it never hurts to be reminded how good something is.)

The Song of Roland. This chanson de geste celebrates the bravery of Charlemagne’s knight Roland as he contends against the Saracens of Spain. There seem to be three verse translations available. The one by Dorothy Sayers (Penguin) attempts to rhyme, which is great, but I worry that doing so will force the language into some awkward contortions. Un-rhymed verse translations from Glyn Burgess (Penguin, also) and Robert Harrison (Signet) read easily, but the poetry sounds a little flat-footed, at least on first perusal.

The Lais of Marie de France. This twelfth-century collection of narrative poems on themes of knighthood and courtly love has interested me for a long time, but I’ve yet to lay hands on it. Only two translations are available, I believe. The first, in prose, is by Glyn Burgess (Penguin), and the second, in verse, is a joint venture between Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante (Baker Academic), both from Columbia University. In this literature verse is going to trump prose nearly every time, and I am tending toward the latter.

El Cid. This is another military poem rooted in the conflict between Christians and Muslims in Spain. Several translations are available, but I can find only one, by Burton Raffel (Penguin) that is in verse. Raffel is a distinguished translator, so this is probably the edition to choose.

Icelandic Sagas. Not all of them, of course, but a few. Some years ago I picked up a hefty volume from Penguin Classics, The Sagas of Icelanders, which contains nine sagas and an assortment of tales, fleshed out with maps, family trees, illustrations, and the like. I’m pretty sure it’s a terrific book, but, not having read any of it yet, I can’t be certain. I do know that it does not include two of the most famous works in the tradition: Njal’s Saga and the Prose Edda. Both are available from Penguin in separate volumes, and I will probably go with those.

Le Roman de la Rose. It is with some trepidation that I put this poem on this list. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece of the courtly love tradition, but it has a reputation for extravagant interminability – all gracious ritual and extensive floral allegory – that strikes fear into the heart of a modern reader. At over 20 000 lines it is no small undertaking. I actually have Chaucer’s translation of the poem (The Romaunt of the Rose), but I am reluctant to add the challenges of Middle English to the native challenges of the poem itself. There is a 1962 translation by Harry W. Robbins, now apparently out of print, which leaves Frances Horgan’s translation from Oxford World’s Classics as the sole viable contender.

Piers Plowman. I have heard William Langland’s great work described as a sort of proto-Marxist tract on account of its fierce assault on political and economic oppression. Such a description is not calculated to endear the poem to me, but I would like to read it on its own terms. It is written in English, albeit a difficult dialect, so I am looking for an edition with helpful annotations rather than a modernization. On that count the Penguin Classics edition is out (it is also in prose, which is an automatic disqualification). I can find three annotated editions: one from Norton Critical Editions (with modern English on the facing pages), one from Everyman (with line-end annotations), and the last from Exeter University Press (also with line-end annotations). The first two editions have the so-called B-text, and the last has the C-text. I don’t know which text I should prefer.

Arthurian Romances — specifically, those of Chrétien de Troyes. There are five romances to consider: Erec and Enide, Lancelot, Yvain, Cliges, and Percevel. We do have some of these tales in our library already, but in prose translations, and I would like verse. Surprisingly, I can find only one complete verse translation in print, by the estimable Burton Raffel. His versions are published by Yale University Press in five separate volumes, so that would get a bit pricey. However, I see no alternative.


Again, any comments or recommendations would be most welcome.