Arthur (was Re: Help wanted: arthurian novels)

minnow at belfry.org.uk minnow at belfry.org.uk
Sun Oct 5 08:50:12 EDT 2003


Robyn asked ages ago (and I have since had the opportunity to refresh my
memory of the work of Chretien de Troyes):

>So, what was your point about Arthurian orality? Dante picked a famous
>book, and that was a story about Lancelot.

I think that in a discussion of sources for Arthurian matter Dante is a red
herring, as is Malory; they are both too late (Malory is three hundred
years too late) to be reliable witnesses about the pre-1170 existence or
otherwise of an oral tradition in a language neither of them spoke, even
had either specifically said "There are no old songs about this" -- which
neither of them does so far as I know.  That Dante mentions (in a book) the
existence of a book written a hundred years or so before he was born
doesn't exactly prove that the book he mentions was the only source for the
story, or at least would not prove it to my satisfaction.

My point was and is and seems likely to continue to be that I find it
difficult to credit that there was no pre-existing tradition of any part of
what has come to be known as the Matter of Britain, particularly since some
parts of it turn up elsewhere with different names for the characters (for
example Bedivere playing the part Chretien assigns to Lancelot).  That it
would be oral is likely simply because most of the population was not
literate for much of the period during which such an oral tradition would
have been being transmitted.  Nor was paper available in Europe before
1100, and parchment and vellum were expensive.

That Arthurian books and poems from the thriteenth century onwards refer to
other books and do not refer to songs or folk-tales as sources for the
story *may* mean that no such songs or folk-tales existed, or it may
suggest that none but written sources happened to be known to the writers,
or it may merely indicate that it was more acceptable (or scholarly) to
say, as Malory did later, "I got this out of a book so it must be right" --
even if what one had done was make it up out of the whole cloth, or make up
a patchwork out of bits of songs one had heard as a child, or write down
something told to one by the person who paid one's wages.

As you say:
>No, the thing I find noteworthy is that the poems are consciously
>bookish.  There are lots of examples of poems which refer back to folktale
>or oral origins, rather than other written retellings. They seem to be
>deliberately rejecting an oral history (if there is one, and regardless of
>whether it influenced their sources).

I'll go with "they are rejecting it"; but this is not entirely true in the
case of Chretien de Troyes, who though he mentions books as his sources
specifically, in *Cliges* and in the *Conte du Graal*, also refers to oral
material.  As for example, in *Erec et Enid* Chretien says in his opening
that this is a story those who earn their living *by telling stories*
frequently get wrong or mutilate; *Yvain*, which starts with the telling of
stories by the knights of Arthur's court, continues as a report of a spoken
narrative; in the panegyric opening of *Lancelot* Chretien says that the
material and treatment of it are given to him by his patron, the Countess
of Champagne (Eleanor of Aquitaine's daughter Marie), but does not specify
that she has given him a *book* to get it from.

Subsequent "bookishness" (about which in general I agree with you) may be
more to do with the desire to appear scholarly than with the lack of an
oral tradition, after all.  Folk were dead proud of having and reading
books, which was a rare and special thing to do (look how pleased Chaucer
was at owning a library whose numbers were in *two figurse*!) whereas any
fool could hear a spoken story, without the special training and
scholarship that being able to read a book would imply.

Minnow


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