Arthurian Medieval Literature: Malory, Gawain, and More

Extollager

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Over a century ago, Rhys and Dent founded the Everyman's Library series. These books were the Penguin Classics and Oxford World's Classics of their day. Recently I compiled a list of their Arthurian offerings (medieval and Renaissance -- so I'm not including Tennyson). It was impressive!

Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (2 vols, EL 45 & 46)

Mabinogion (EL 97)*

Giraldus Cambrensis (EL 272; my sense is that Gerald of Wales is important just for some incidental mentions of Arthurian traditions; I include him here for completeness)

Spenser's Faerie Queene (2 vols, EL 443, 444)

High History of the Holy Graal (EL 445; this is the Perlesvaus)

Lays of Marie de France and Others (EL 557)

Geoffrey of Monmouth's Histories of the Kings of Britain (EL 577)

Wace and Layamon , Arthurian Chronicles (EL 578)

Morte Arthur: Two Early English Romances (EL 634)

Chrétien de Troyes’ Eric and Enid (also known as Arthurian Romances, EL 698)

What a generous array! These books cost just a shilling apiece.

The Everyman's Library Arthurian offerings seemed to have lacked only Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival and Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, and the English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to have a selection more than sufficient for all but the most scholarly inquirer into the Matter of Britain. I suppose that scholars will want to read also the works of Robert de Boron, those attributed to Walter Map,* and others.

Penguin Classics offered, perhaps still offers, most of the works I have listed as Everyman's offerings, plus Wolfram, Gottfried, and Sir Gawain.

I haven't read most of the books listed here. I love Malory, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Brian Stone's translation, and Spenser's Faerie Queene. I expect to return to the first four stories in the Mabinogion (i.e. the Four Branches, of Pwyll, Branwen, Math, and Manawyddan) and to its "Culhwch and Olwen" at least. For present purposes, be it noted that the final three Mabinogion stories are the Arthurian ones. (They didn't greatly please me, fwiw.)

The Everyman's Library and Penguin Classics editions of Malory would be Caxton's edition -- which was Malory for centuries. In the 20th century the Winchester manuscript of Malory came to light and was published, edited by Vinaver. The paperback buyer may choose between Caxton's version (2 vols. Penguin Classics) and a somewhat abridged one-volume edition of the Winchester Manuscript (Oxford World's Classics). I've read Caxton in Penguin, and found Arthur's war with Rome and the Tristram material tedious. I believe that most readers may content themselves with what I assigned when I taught Malory. From the World's Classics edition: 3-80; first paragraph on 95, 118-119, middle of 167 (Gareth and Lancelot); 281-527 (351-372 may be skimmed). This gives you the begetting of Arthur, and the strange figure of Merlin; the unhappy Balin; Nenive and Morgan le Fay; Lancelot and Guinevere, and his madness; the Grail Quest, with Bors, Perceval, and Galahad; Mordred and the destruction of the Round Table fellowship, and Arthur's death or withdrawal into Avalon. I think that's pretty much what really counts, at least for most of us, but omits a great deal of battle-accounts.

The other medieval work that everyone should read is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and, again, I recommend Brian Stone's translation.

I love Spenser's Faerie Queene, which, if we are going to refer to historical periods, belongs to the Renaissance. Spenser was, of course, a contemporary of Shakespeare. In what Spenser completed, we do not have all that much of Arthur himself. I agree with the scholar who said that the Faerie Queene is a great poem, but not a great Arthurian poem. Spenser should have a separate thread. Here I will just say that, when I taught Spenser, I had the students use the Canon Press edition of the first book (of six completed by Spenser), Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves. It was well-received. The editor goes out of his way to make a reader-friendly presentation of the original poem with modernized spelling. I've used the Penguin Classics one-volume edition for the whole work. In future readings, I might pick up the paperback set from Hackett.

So here is a Chrons place for discussion of the Matter of Britain, or, as I like to think of it, drawing on a distinction from C. S. Lewis's rich novel That Hideous Strength, the Matter of Logres.

*Penguin Classics offered the "Map" books as The Quest of the Holy Grail and The Death of King Arthur.
 
The books specified above probably have sufficient editorial helps for most readers. Here I will mention a few additional things. Remember, this thread is dedicated to medieval Arthuriana only.

If one wants a browsable guide to the whole world of Arthurian literature and even cinema, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia will be attractive. I have the 1996 paperback edition. Editor is Norris J. Lacy. There's much here on medieval works, but also on post-medieval things that would not be appropriate for discussion on this thread.

C. S. Lewis reviewed Vinaver's edition of the Winchester Manuscript for the Times Literary Supplement 7 June 1947. It is reprinted in Lewis's Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. A good place to start with if you are curious about the relationship between Caxton's edition and the Winchester Manuscript -- and wonder "which is better?" (Short answer: You're safe with either.)

Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature

I like also Lewis's sensible remarks on Loomis's Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, reprinted in CSL's Image and Imagination. For most purposes, Lewis points out, the consideration of Arthurian materials by reference to supposed ancient rituals etc. is not recommended. The anthropological approach "was an attempt to explain the knowable [the poem, which we have] by the unknowable [a "prehistoric rite which, if it existed, no man alive has experienced from within"]."

Lewis's friend Charles Williams wrote a notable 20th-century cycle of Arthurian poems (Taliessin Through Logres and The Regionof the Summer Stars). Williams began an historical and thematic study of the Arthurian legends, The Figure of Arthur, but died before finishing his draft. It may be found as Arthurian Torso in various sources.
 
King Arthur has Returned — and The Inklings are Tweeting about it!

Have you come across this Extollager? If so is it worth the purchase?

I live in the area of the Cork/Waterford border where Spenser, according to legend, composed the Faerie Queen. He is known to have resided in Lismore and Doneraile at this time in his life. The area has numerous castles and tower houses. On one 20k walk along a stretch of the wooded Blackwater Valley I counted 6 sizeable castles and plenty of smaller tower houses. The landscape here has a mythic quality that would have learnt some inspiration to Spenser. The movie Excalibur was filmed at Cahir Castle, not 30kms from where I live and a short hop to Lismore Castle where Spenser resided for a time as a guest of Sir Walter Raleigh, I believe.

1200px-Lismore_Castle_2.jpg
 
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Hello, Svalbard!

The book you asked about, The Inklings and King Arthur, has the agenda, as I understand, of writing about Arthurian topics in C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield, using the now standard academic approaches of gender studies, postcolonial theory, etc. I've bought the book (and it was a bit expensive) but hardly looked at it yet, and, frankly, I'm not very optimistic, since I think practitioners of these approaches are apt to indulge in verbiage and to find, in the works on which they comment, about what you would expect them to (patriarchy yadda yadda, homoeroticism yadda yadda, etc.). However, it might turn out better than I expect, but, even if that proves to be the case, I don't suppose it will be valuable from the point of view of this thread's focus, on medieval Arthuriana. Most people -- certainly I'd include myself -- most need first just to read the medieval works.

My sense is that you may be exceptional in actually having read a lot of medieval Arthurian literature.

If so, perhaps you'd like to tell us about your favorites, especially beyond Sir Thomas Malory and the Gawain poet. Also, are there secondary works that you'd like to recommend (or condemn)?
 
Allow me to gather my thoughts on the literary value of the works. I have always approached them from a historians view. For example GOM’s History was always a propaganda work to legitimize the Norman rule of England. As such his writing is sparse on detail, but the story extraordinary. Hence figures like Wace and Cretian de Troyes took elements of the tale and gave Aurthiania a backstory that Malory ultimately turned into his epic.

They stories were all of their time and Arthur and his knights were fixed to mores of the era.
 

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