ARTHURIAN LEGENDS AND THE INFLUENCE OF FRENCH PROSE ROMANCE
The Grail, Lancelot, Tristan and related manuscripts from the British Library
By Professor Norris J. Lacy, Consultant Editor, French Department, Penn State University
The legend of King Arthur had its beginnings in the sixth century, in a few anecdotes, lists of battles or proper names, and brief narratives. The earliest of these documents do not mention Arthur by name but refer to battles or places that soon come to be associated with him. Over some six hundred years, that legend evolved further not only by the identification of its subject as Arthur (first a warlord, only later a king) but also by the steady accretion of “biographical” information. Many of the elements of the story were sufficiently fanciful that William of Malmesbury, in his 1125 chronicle Gesta regum Anglorum, lamented the contamination of history by patent fictions. In so doing, William confirmed both the dramatic expansion of the legend and the belief, which he shared with a good many other chroniclers, in Arthur’s historical existence.
Around 1138 Geoffrey of Monmouth produced a major chronicle in Latin prose, the Historia regum Britanniae, which offered the first full and “official,” if fictional, biography of Arthur. His is one of the seminal texts in the development of the Arthurian legend, and it proved to be remarkably popular and influential, its prominence demonstrated by the fact that more than two hundred manuscripts and fragments are extant. Geoffrey’s work offers many of the familiar details about Arthur: his conception (when, with Merlin’s assistance, Uther Pendragon assumes the likeness of the husband of the woman he loves), his birth and youth, his succession to the throne, a great many wars and invasions, and eventually a twelve-year period of peace, during which Arthur marries. At that same time he founds an illustrious order of knighthood, though the Round Table does not figure in Geoffrey’s account. The peace is broken by conflict with Rome, and while Arthur and his army are on the Continent, Mordred betrays him; Arthur returns and kills Mordred but is himself grievously injured. He is taken away to the Isle of Avalon to await the healing of his wounds.
Geoffrey’s Historia was adapted into French verse in 1155 by a Norman writer, Wace, and it was thus made accessible to an audience that may have been more comfortable with the vernacular than with Latin. Wace’s text, which introduced the Round Table into the tradition, was undoubtedly known to Chrétien de Troyes, who is generally credited with the invention of the romance form. Chrétien devoted five verse romances, two of which he himself did not complete, to Arthurian subjects. His compositions, brilliant and seminal, concerned Arthur only indirectly: they concentrated instead on the adventures of knights from his court, and they typically dealt with a limited time—from several weeks to several years—rather than present the record of a full life or of the entire Arthurian era.
Chrétien’s final romance, Perceval or The Story of the Grail, introduced the Grail into world literature, and his unfinished story would be completed, at great length, by five verse Continuations. About the same time, Robert de Boron took up the Grail motif and made the crucial connection between the mysterious bowl presented in Perceval and the dish of the Last Supper (which Robert also presented as the vessel in which Christ’s blood was collected at the deposition). Even as this association was being made, the first prose romances were appearing, and the Holy Grail quickly became the province of prose.
The division of romance into prose and verse forms during the thirteenth century and beyond was based on subject matter, on philosophical considerations, and on practical questions about the scope and nature of the narratives. The first and major determinant was the common medieval notion that only prose was capable of conveying truth. That idea derives from the conviction that in verse texts, the demands of rhyme, meter, and word choice tend to privilege form at the expense of content and natural expression of ideas. In turn, this distinction offers us an indication of the status of the texts and cycles that presented the Arthurian story and the Grail material alike: the former was considered to be history; the latter, spiritual truth. Accordingly, with the exception of Perceval, its Continuations, and Robert’s verse texts, prose served as the vehicle for the presentation of Grail history and prehistory and the full narratives of Arthur’s ancestry, life, and accomplishments. Verse was used for non-Grail episodic romances dealing with various Arthurian knights.
Freed from the technical restrictions imposed by verse and driven by a desire to connect Arthurian and Grail stories to their mythical origins, authors of prose romances often composed extended compositions that in many instances were incorporated into cycles. The best-known French cycle was the thirteenth-century Prose Lancelot or Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian romance (c. 1215-35), of which some 160 manuscripts or fragments remain. Interweaving the Grail story with that of Arthur’s ancestry and reign and with an extended account of Lancelot’s and Guenevere’s love, the cycle explores the connections and tensions between profane and pure love, between earthly and spiritual (“celestial”) chivalry.
It is customary to describe the Prose Lancelot as a cycle of five inter-related and interlaced romances, but such a description is a distortion of the manuscript reality. First, there appear to have been two distinct versions (though they shared major textual components). One of them, which retained Perceval as the hero, is known as the non-cyclic Lancelot. The other, featuring Galahad as the predestined Grail knight, constitutes a true cycle. The latter, by anonymous authors, consisted originally of a Lancelot romance, then the Queste del saint Graal [Quest for the Holy Grail], and a concluding Mort Artu [Death of Arthur]. Those three romances were soon fitted with a prehistory of the Grail (L’Estoire del saint Graal [The Story of the Holy Grail]) and a Merlin romance that offers the magician’s story and Arthur’s conception, birth, and early years. These two works were thus composed after the others but stand before them in the fictional chronology of the cycle. Finally, an intervening transition—but not a distinct romance—connects Merlin to Lancelot. The result is an enormous but intricately crafted series of narratives leading from Old Testament history to Galahad’s Grail triumph and on to Arthurian end times. The works are moreover intricately interlaced with one another by numerous and systematic references to preceding or following events.
Literary histories, for simplicity, tend to enumerate these five standard romances and treat the cycle as a single and fixed set of texts, but literary reality is far more complex. Although the elaborate pattern of interlace demonstrates the authors’ intent to constitute a cycle, study of the manuscript tradition reveals a disparity between the cyclic principle and common medieval practice. The latter suggests that our description of a cycle of five interlocked romances is a critical convenience or oversimplification at best and an illusion at worst.
Very few medieval readers could have known the full cycle as it is described above. Fewer than ten of the numerous manuscripts preserve all five of these compositions (though a number of the extant fragments might originally have been part of the entire cycle). The majority of the manuscripts preserve only one of the romances, whereas a good many others contain either the first two or the last three. Other curious combinations occur, such as manuscripts offering the Estoire (History) and Quest for the Holy Grail along with The Death of Arthur (British Library, Royal 14 E iii), or combining Lancelot and The Death of Arthur without the intervening Quest for the Holy Grail. As these permutations suggest, a proper understanding of the medieval literary reality—techniques, audience tastes, and the vagaries of manuscript transmission—can be gained only through a study of codices in their various combinations.
Complicating the situation of the Vulgate was a reworking of it, composed soon afterward and known as the Post-Vulgate Cycle. The two cycles shared the same Merlin romance and probably the Estoire as well, but the Post-Vulgate reconceptualized the remainder so as to de-emphasize the Lancelot and Guenevere story and focus on an expanded Queste followed by a truncated Mort Artu. This cycle is also notable for drawing Tristan, Iseut, and Mark (originally belonging to an independent tradition) into the Arthurian sphere. Mark, however, is presented as Arthur’s enemy, and in addition to attacking the King, he tries to kill Galahad, and eventually, after Arthur’s death, he destroys the Round Table and all remaining vestiges of the Arthurian rule.
Yet another imposing cycle, the Prose Tristan, was constituted about the same time. This work is extant in two versions, from the second and third quarters of the thirteenth century. It continues the integration of Tristanian figures into the Arthurian world: Tristan is a knight of the Round Table, and he shares his reputation as the best of knights with his dear friend Lancelot. This huge work, which recasts a great many traditional themes while introducing new characters and intrigues, appears to be less the result of a detailed plan than had been the Vulgate Cycle, but despite its apparent disunity, it was destined to achieve remarkable popularity during the Middle Ages. Indeed, all of these cycles proved to be both popular and influential, that influence being most obvious in their use as important sources for the work of Sir Thomas Malory.
Arthurian romances in prose continued to be composed throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. A number of authors produced vast compilations of familiar material. As a result of its length, the bipartite romance of Palamedes (thirteenth century, before the second Prose Tristan cycle) was sometimes separated and presented as two distinct works, each named after its protagonist. Certain later works attained such impressive dimensions that even editing them is a daunting task. The most remarkable example is doubtless the fourteenth-century Perceforest (before 1344), which connects the story of Alexander the Great with that of Arthur. This romance has thus far received only a partial modern edition; it has been estimated that the completed edition may run to seven thousand pages.
Meanwhile, romances in verse, reasonably popular through the thirteenth century, appear to have run their course by the end of that century, and the last verse Arthurian romance, Jean Froissart’s Meliador (from the 1360s, revised between 1383 and 1388), was clearly an anachronism when it was written. Prose compositions thoroughly dominated, not only in length and complexity, but in popular success and in influence on authors, adaptors, and translators in most other European languages.
Professor Norris Lacy