Arthur (was Re: Help wanted: arthurian novels)

minnow at minnow at
Sun Sep 28 16:19:53 EDT 2003

Robyn wrote

>I think there IS a lot of evidence for an oral poetic tradition - it just
>isn't in Arthurian works, which tend to be emphatic in their references to
>books and literature. Minnow gave the example of Beowulf, which is full of
>references to oral performances, and there are others. I'm not a reception
>theorist, but I know lots of people who have done research to show that a
>number of works bear the remnants of having originated as spoken or sung
>works. My point about the Arthur poems is that they often run strongly
>counter to this tradition. Dante talks about the lovers who fell into
>adultery over the pages of the *book* of Lancelot; Malory talks about the
>book he got his information from. That's why it's notable.

I'm afraid I don't quite follow the logic of your argument here: you seem
to be saying that if a book mentions a previous book, this precludes any
other source for the story in the original book to which the second refers,
and that seems to me to be a non-sequiter.  Surely it would be a great deal
more remarkable if someone writing three hundred years after Chretien de
Troyes' work, and who made a point as Malory did of begging his jailors to
allow him every book they could find about anything connected to Arthur so
that he could gather the whole lot together and make a coherent story out
of it, did *not* mention that his story had good precedent in earlier
written works?  Similarly, Dante was being moral about the bad influence of
written work that didn't condemn adultery: obviously he would give an
example of a written work!  That is not to say that there was no oral
tradition previous to Chretien de Troyes, but if the oral tradition were in
Welsh or Anglo-Saxon, a poem written in French or even in more modern
English four or five hundred years later would be unlikely to show the
signs of origination as spoken or sung even if it *were* a variation of the
same story (which I would accept willingly that CdT's "Lancelot" is not);
just as Dryden's version of the Cock and the Fox may not have much in
common as regards the use of words with either Henryson's fifteenth century
Scots poem of the same name, or Chaucer's *Nun's Priest's Tale*, of which
Dryden's work is a "translation" (much extended and amended from the
original and very likely aimed at his monarch...).  Where did the story
come from?  Good question... now let's worry about whether Aesop was an
individual or a committee, same as Homer!

>>Actually, having read some of the modern retellings, I doubt the authors
>>have read Malory either, even in a modern translation with all the jousting
>>cut out because it is somewhat dull, like old copies of Wisden or the
>>begets in the Bible.  :-)  Based on his work at third or fourth remove,
>Wisden is a scarily apt comparison, especially given the way people have
>made tables of how good the various knights are, and their tournament
>stats. Some people find it equally fascinating.

I think I was almost certainly quoting T.H.White, or possibly someone else
of a similarly right-minded persuasion, when I struck on that image.  I'm
afraid I can't remember whom, but I don't want to claim credit for it as
original to me, 'cause it almost certainly wasn't.  It feels familiar but
not home-grown.


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