BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Legendary ...

OK, so this one came to me via's “Early Reviewer” program. I've had a good run of getting books assigned to me from that, but I must admit that some are more “on target” than others, and the way these are “won” is via a matching algorithm that takes the publisher's info on the book and looks for the most compatible library among those site members who have requested copies. Obviously, I found this “interesting enough” to put in the request, but I'm pretty sure that it's the old dark corners of my collection from my college English major that put Flint F. Johnson's Origins of Arthurian Romances: Early Sources for the Legends of Tristan, the Grail and the Abduction of the Queen into my hands.

To tell you the truth, this was not the most enjoyable read I've had of late … the focus is very much on digging into theses tales to prise out suggestive threads from non-surviving previous material. While the “classic” Arthurian stories come down to us from the 12th century, and the Angevan kingdom which comprised the British Isles and western France, it is based on much earlier material, and from a cultural setting far different than the continental Christian courts. The evolution of British society has always been somewhat chaotic … from the Roman conquest in the first century CE shifting away from the native tribes, to Celtic influence, and Viking inroads, and eventually Norman control. This shifting of influence no doubt muddied the waters about whose myths and legends were preserved, but it also did much to change the language:
First, around AD 550 the British language shifted so significantly that the vocabulary that antedated this watershed would have become archaic and, very quickly, incomprehensible to contemporary speakers. Any bardic verse composed around AD 450 wold not have been understood by around AD 600. Because of this, any literature written in AD 450 or before would not have been understood well enough to be recopied as soon as AD 600. The history remaining in that state would have been lost. In fact, it is possible that literature written only a generation before about AD 600 would have met with a similar fate. It is, after all, with the poetry of the late sixth-century bards Taliesin and Aneirin that British rhyme first emerges.
Since the Arthurian romances date from far later, the traces of these early (and Pagan) sources were confusing to the eventual authors such as Chrétien de Troyes. Also over-laying the source materials was the fact that the surviving tales were written to please patrons, Marie de Champagne, Phillip of Flanders (whose own biography appears to have been the template for the story arc of significant portions of the Arthurian material), Eleanor of Aquitaine, etc. The book is divided into three sections, each dealing with a different story (“The Abduction of the Queen”, “The Holy Object” and “Tristan”), but each structured similarly, with an introduction, various related topics for the particular material, a look at literary tools, and then concluding with the three chapters: “Motifs and Details: Clues of Celtic Origins”, “The Sixth Century in {...}”, and “Conclusion”. Obviously Johnson is in the camp that tracks back the key elements here to a Celtic base, and explains much of the “odd” story parts to later writers not understanding the Pagan cultural substrate of that earlier time.
The politico-religious situation inside Celtic Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries was ... an unstable mixture of Christianity and Celtic paganism. However, throughout the period Christianity can clearly be seen to take the ascendancy. After 600, there are no records of pagans among the Britons or Picts. On the other hand, the worship of Celtic gods, in one form or another, persisted throughout the Middle Ages. …
Christianity was a passive force behind the military suppression of the remaining pagan sects …
Conversion was made one other manner: political force. In the 480s and 490s, Clovis claimed Christianity as his religion and allied himself with the Roman church. For that, the bishop gave him the authority to conquer any non-Christian or Arian kingdom that he chose to attack. … According to legend, only two figures commanded equal power in early Britain – Arthur and Gwrtheyrn. … One man, (presumably Arthur) gained a period of ascendancy and used his power to demolish Celtic temples and expand his territories much as Clovis had … If the activities were more vigilante in nature, they might have taken place at any time between the turn of the fifth century and about the year 600. After that the practitioners of the Celtic cults were forced to conduct their rituals in secret, which is why no archaeological evidence of them exists at this time.
Much of the book deals with detail of linguistic shifts, both from the earlier British forms and how names were adapted in later tellings on the continent in French and Germanic permutations. In the Tristan material there are fascinating survivals of Pictish cultural elements (such as a particular system of royal succession, where kings were selected from the female line of the royal family, from the maternal nephews of kings) which explain otherwise odd plot elements, while others are connected to Celtic myth structures. Character and place names are tracked according to various scholarly citations, pointing to assortedly plausible theories of origins. There are even suggestions of Jewish sources of the Grail rituals, brought in through Islamic troubadour influences as the stories spread. Fortunately, most of the academic detail is constrained to the end notes, as I think this is likely only interesting to hard-core language geeks.

Origins of Arthurian Romances is hardly a “general interest” book, as it is a detailed look at possible sources of the tales, and not a telling of them, and unless one has an interest in either the survival of early cultural elements in the literature, the linguistic development of myths and legends, or are a hard-core Arthurian collector, this would be a bit much for most readers. On the subject of “a bit much”, this is also very pricey, with a $35 cover price for a volume that's under 200 pages before notes, bibliography and index. I am, as with a previous review of a McFarland title, assuming that this is intended as a text book, and so carrying the inflated pricing typical of that market. However, if you want to pick this up (in anything other than the e-book edition), you're going to have to pay in that ballpark, as even the used channel is at that level or more. Again, if this is “your thing”, it's a fascinating study of the underlying literary, linguistic, historical, cultural, etc. granularity of the legends, and it might be worth it, but for most folks, it's a one that you can safely take a pass on.

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