R M Jones (Emeritus Professor) on the three Welsh medieval romances – ‘the Lady of the Fountain’, ‘Peredur’ and ‘Geraint’ – a translation and summary of his introduction to his edition

The Introduction to R M Jones’s 1960 edition of the Romances

Texts

The text chosen by Emeritus Professor R M (Bobi) Jones, at the time of his 1960 edition of the three Welsh romances (classed as part of the Mabinogion), is the Red Book of Hergest.  The G Jones & T Jones translation (Everyman, 1949) is based on the White Book of Rhydderch.  (G Goetinck’s edition of Peredur (University of Wales, 1976) is based on the White Book too.)  Translations (fairly free) of passages, below, are keyed to R M Jones’s text and the Jones & Jones translation.

The authority vested in Arthur

“[The distinguished writer] Mr Saunders Lewis (1893 – 1985) had this to say about the three romances: ‘In this trilogy perhaps the highest achievement of the Middle Ages is to be found’; and as the prose of the Middle Ages is the highpoint of all our prose, it can be seen how important these short tales are to the cultured Welshman. Here is international literature that stands side by side with the masterpieces of all times in any country.  All Europe knows about these romances.”

The editor goes on to place them “in their proper place in literary history”.  He quotes from three French scholars who support the importance of Celtic Arthurian literature for the development of European literature, namely, Ernest Renan (1823–1892), Gaston Paris (1839–1903) and Jean Marx (1884–1972).

The editor goes on to refer to the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes and very many others, across the Middle Ages and later centuries – and also painters – too numerous to mention in this summary.

The transmission of the romances

“It is difficult to say anything about the author of the three stories brought together in this volume, Iarlles y Ffynnon/The Lady of the Fountain/Owain, Peredur and Geraint: we do not know his name nor when he lived nor where he came from.  If I was pressed to make a guess, I would say that the Monmouth border area – where the Welsh language lasted for centuries – was the cradle of these romances (and many of the others), and that they were composed about 1100, although the earliest manuscript and its contents were produced some years later, and the language somewhat modernised.

Though there are few geographical references in the stories, the places that are mentioned are located in the wider region, for example, the Forest of Dean, Cardiff, Caerleon, Gloucester, the River Usk, Cornwall and the River Severn.  What the court of Narberth is to Pwyll and Manawydan, the court of Caerleon is to the romances.  The Monmouth Priory was founded by Benedictines from Brittany in the late 11th century, in contrast to similar Norman foundations in Wales.  Moreover, there is a Breton flavour to the French versions of the Welsh romances.  Compare Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History circa 1130-39 and Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae (Lives of the Saints of Britain) circa 1200, which came from the same area.  I believe that we must place the romances side by side with these great works as productions characteristic of the Monmouth area.  This explains some names like Ėrec and Yvain in the French versions, which reflect the Breton Guerec and Ivan, and it accounts for many of the references to the Monmouth area and to Bretons in various other stories.  When the Bretons came to Monmouth, they were struck by local ‘history’, and they saw its relevance to their own nation: it was a shared ‘history’, about heroes whose names at least they vaguely recalled, as part of their past, on the island of Britain.  Their enthusiasm, together with their ability to translate stories from Welsh into French (….), caused the floodgates to open….Soon after they were composed, they were related to the Bretons of Monmouth, and from there they spread like wildfire through the Norman castles of Glamorgan and over to France and the rest of Europe.  This is probably the way they were transmitted….

The Welsh story-tellers adapted the material for contemporary society; they promoted the heroic age, in accordance with the fashion of the times; and the resultant refined compositions show evidence of literary genius.  The names of the heroes are not those of the original protagonists, to be sure: there is no doubt that those were gods of some kind – of fertility, for the most part.  The stories grew from myth into romance, myths based on historical persons. But the incidents that form the skeleton of these stories did not arise from precisely this process: the raw mythological material was taken and turned into a new creation.  Furthermore, by realising that the romances are rooted in myth, our reading of them is enriched: we come to recognise the magic and thrill of the names, the events, the numbers, the colours, the shapes, etc; and they become more meaningful, because of their distant connections of a religious but (generally) pre-Christian nature, and of much greater interest.”

The achievement of the romances

“There is one fundamental difference between Culhwch and Olwen, The Dream of Macsen and the romances on the one hand and the ‘Four Branches’ (Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Math): though the ‘Four Branches’ are realistic in their geographical references, each one is derived from mythology.”  An ideal is created, to inspire the Welsh contemporaries of the composer of the romances.

“The principal elements are:

  1. Historical characters, for the most part from the 5th and 6th centuries – subjects to be praised and celebrated
  2. Mythological stories (traditional stories associated with beliefs about the weather and the seasons, places such as fountains, with their air of mystery)
  3. Features imported from contemporary society (French influences, customs, dress etc).

And in the attempt to combine these three elements, the author succeeded in creating a national epic – this because he was more conscious of his theme than his preferences or his personal feelings.  The author’s intention was not to disclose anything about himself but rather to please his audience and to conjure up a vision of the past.  On the continent the Arthurian tales were exotic, the heroes were remote from the audiences’ experience, and the setting was otherworldly; but to the people of Wales the tales were an expression of national pride.

In the romances we see the creation of ideals; and we see evidence of the same kind of ideal of perfection portrayed by contemporary poets in their odes and poems of praise.”

I have chosen, from among the editor’s examples, only those from the Lady of the Fountain, here:

“And Owein was certain that he had never seen any kind of food of which he did not there see plenty, save that the service of the food he saw there was better than in any place ever.  And he had never seen a place with so many rare dishes of meat and drink as there.  And there was never a vessel from which he was served save vessels of silver or gold.

[the Lady of the Fountain: Jones (ed), p 15; Jones & Jones (translators, from the White Book), p 165]

And the feast that had been three years preparing was consumed in just three months.  And never had they a feast more cheering than that, nor a better.

[the Lady of the Fountain: Jones (ed) p 25; Jones & Jones, p 173]

In the romances, references to ideal feasts are common, as are those to clothes, ladies of the court, the bravery of the knights, and so on.  Certainly, part of this idealisation reflects the wish of the author or arranger to present supernatural wonders: the extraordinary lives the characters lead (foreign to our own humdrum, everyday life), and the surprising things that happen to them – these were the only things that he thought would arouse the interest of his audience.  As well as this consideration, however, there was also the fact that these stories are derived, basically, from supernatural material, and that the heroes in them were originally the ones whose performance of miracles was a ‘natural’ part of their divine constitution.  Hence, magical happenings and unexplained secrets recur throughout the romances, and a particular strangeness permeates them….

In the Lady of the Fountain there is a black man, with one foot, and with one eye in the centre of his forehead; and in Peredur too there is a big one-eyed man.  Now, it is a common practice of many of the world’s peoples to refer to the sun as the ‘eye of heaven’ (cf Shakespeare: ‘Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines’ [Sonnet 18]).  And with the Germanic tribes as with the Greeks, the sun god – controller of storms and lightning too – had only one eye.  In Ireland too there was a sun god with one eye in the centre of his forehead.  When we remember Sol (in Culhwch) ‘who could stand all day on one foot’ (whereby ‘Sol’ means ‘sun’ of course), and when we recall the stormy, turbulent associations of the black, one-eyed men in the Lady of the Fountain and in Peredur, it seems fairly obvious – without reference to other pieces of evidence – that the creatures had been storm-and-sun gods in their distant, more ‘illustrious’ past.

This is an example among many of how we can trace other links here and there – to a ring, to a serpent, to twenty-four women, to a lion, to a miller, to sudden desolation, and scores of other elements – ultimately going back to a definite mythological source.

I conclude then that it is the combination or interweaving of the three themes – idealisation of the heroes of the past, the relation of wonders (in a lively, ‘journalistic’ way), and the use of remnants of mythological stories – that contribute, to an extent, to the feelings of wonder and estrangement aroused in us when we read these tales.  Note too that sometimes only one, or a combination of two, of these themes adorns these pages….

There are many other prominent features that mark the romances, apart from such lively descriptions.  They are noteworthy for their exploration, in greater depth and subtlety, of two themes that had already surfaced in the Four Branches and in Culhwch and Olwen, and which were destined to be dominant themes in the literature of France and other countries, namely: Courtly Love and Knight Errancy.  In each of the romances, one can see the interweaving of love and adventure: the woman often provides the occasion of the adventure; and romantic love begins to be transformed into a social cult, with the woman carefully taking her place on her pedestal.  Every Welshman knows of the traditional respect for women that was expressed in the Laws of Wales: through the medium of these romances, the whole of Europe got to know about this cause of pride.

At this point we should refer too to the consummate orderliness and logical construction of the romances, a feature rather exceptional in the Middle Ages.  It is true that Welsh prose had developed earlier than that of other languages; but there is a far greater unity in these three romances than is to be found in later prose romances from elsewhere.  Not only does one hero hold the narrative thread intact, but also the framework of the episodes is neat and satisfactory for the reader.  By contrast, the Canon of Toledo, in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, complains:

I have never seen a book of chivalry with a whole body for a plot, with all its limbs complete, so that the middle corresponds to the beginning, and the end to the beginning and middle.

[Book I, Chapter 47, translated by Cohen]

The method other prose writers used was to keep piling episode upon episode, without restraint.  But the Canon of Toledo would have been satisfied if he had seen the Welsh romances, especially in their original state.   Certainly, the Lady of the Fountain and Geraint are more organic than Peredur; and the former two share a similar plot.  The plot has four branches or parts:

  • An introduction, which begins at Arthur’s court, brings in the hero and leads him to his marriage
  • A crisis that separates man and wife – in body or in spirit
  • A series of adventures of increasing difficulty that eventually lead to reconciliation between the hero and his wife
  • An extension to the story that introduces an episode, complete in itself, which confirms the bravery of the hero.

It appears that the marriage represents a fall from the high status of knighthood; but perhaps this part of the story tries to show that the knight can undertake adventures still, despite having to be reconciled with his wife!

Although Peredur is a somewhat different type, and reminiscent of the pícaro, his tale is developed clearly and with attention to detail.  Indeed, Sir John Rhŷs showed, long ago, that many of the essentials of Peredur are similar to those of the Lady of the Fountain.  For example, Peredur returns, wounded, to Gwenhwyfar to be healed; then he defends the castle of his host and hostesses against their enemies’ attacks; finally, he revokes his vow, ‘never to speak word to a Christian’, once Angharad Golden-hand admits that she loves him.  Owain, having lived among wild animals and become weak, comes to the park of the widowed countess: she promptly comforts him and sends a maiden to heal him with ointment; then Owain, taking account of her husbandless state, defends her castle against an attack.  The ‘Black Oppressor’ of the Lady of the Fountain is similar to the ‘Black Oppressor’ of Peredur; and Sir John Rhŷs made many similar points, demonstrating that various characteristics of one tale corresponds exactly to those of another.

Each of the romances develops swiftly and shows the firm grip of the narrator.  In Geraint in particular, the several changes of scene and the switch of emphasis from one character to another are masterly and unusually skilful, for such an early story.  Note too how the element of expectation is built up, time and again: in Geraint, for example, Geraint encounters Edern fab Nudd rather early on; but there is an air of mystery about him; and he is too important to talk to Gwenhwyfar’s maiden or to Geraint himself.  So Geraint follows Edern into the town, amid the great preparations for the tournament, meets the ‘hoary-headed man’ and his daughter, at the ‘old ruined court’, and finds out all he needs to know.

However neat the plotting is, it is above all their splendid style that puts the stamp of genius on these stories.  Restricting oneself to the beginning of each of the three stories, one can see evidence of the author’s achievement in the way he sets the scene, concisely and vividly, and in the swift and effective way he introduces the main character, bringing together all the background information necessary for getting the story off to a good start.

The descriptions of the character and the incidents are lyrical in their rhythm and lightness of touch: one clause balances another as the exposition proceeds, in all its fine detail.  Here is an example, from the Lady of the Fountain:

And at long last I came upon the fairest vale in the world, and trees of an equal height in it, and there was a river flowing through the vale, and a path alongside the river.  And I travelled along the path till mid-day; and on the other side I travelled till the hour of nones.  And then I came to a great plain, and at the far end of the plain I could see a great shining castle, and a sea close to the castle.  And I came towards the castle.

[Jones, pp 2f; Jones & Jones, p 156]

One could quote from any page to demonstrate the elegant, neat construction of the sentences, effective as they are in moving the story on and conveying the knights’ honourable nature and the beauty of the scenes that the storyteller is imagining.  The author uses pauses in the characters’ dialogue to allow time for development in their thinking; and he varies the speed of the action to suit the demands of the content, slowing things down when conveying the leisurely pace of life at court (as implied, for example, in the depiction of the preparations for Cynon’s story, in the Lady of the Fountain), and speeding things up when describing pieces of action (such as fights)….”

The editor refers to “the effects of the author’s poetic education too in his use of language – the power of the rhetorical devices and the copiousness of the adjectives – especially in Peredur and Geraint.”  He continues: “[The writer] deploys these [devices] without exception when he wishes to slow down a sentence, and to elevate the style, or else to express excitement and even mirth.  Moreover, the author can make a virtue of concision: everyone who has compared the French and Welsh versions in detail has observed how much more economical and concise the Welsh author is (how he exercises self-restraint) – sometimes reaching levels of brevity typical of proverbs and scientific writing…

And the author varies his style, between the flowery (but not too flowery) and the concise, according to the requirements of the narrative; and the way he varies dialogue, and relates incidents and descriptions, reflects the essential variety that the craft of writing demands.  This variety can be seen in the shape of his sentences and the tenses of his verbs – the past tense, the historic present used (for dramatic effect), the verb noun, the pluperfect, the imperfect, auxiliary verbs, and other devices – even though it is a straightforward linear story that is being told.  As a consequence, the progress of the stories is fluent and dramatic, lively and polished, and full of energy and movement.

Let us stop to observe how the author brings leading characters to life: Gwalchmai is a gentleman, patient, full of sympathy, humble, and a model of self-restraint; Cai is impudent and reckless, often discourteous and unfeeling; Peredur, the naïve and unsophisticated country boy, grows up to be a complete, sophisticated knight; and other heroes, and many small characters, are made interesting.

The author can depict a person with a few vivid brush-strokes…..[And] the author displays a fair amount of psychological insight, as can be recalled from Peredur: an unknown knight comes to Arthur’s court, insults Gwenhwyfar, and issues a challenge; all the knights hang their heads, in fear and shame; then Peredur, the awkward countryman, rides in, on his “wan, piebald, bony nag”; and the knights are pleased by the distraction, as it takes their minds off the unknown knight’s challenge….

[The writer’s] economy of words is characteristic not only of Peredur but also of the other stories.  This is what happens, for example, in the Lady of the Fountain, after the countess has been angered by Luned:

And thereupon Luned went off, and the countess arose and went to the chamber door after Luned, and coughed loudly, and Luned looked back.  And the countess gave Luned a nod, and Luned came back to the countess.

[Jones, pp 18f; Jones & Jones, p 168]

The author of these romances is a master of literature – if not the greatest in the history of Welsh literature, then one of the greatest, for sure.  It is him we can thank for one of Wales’s two great contributions to world literature.”

References to editors and translators:

Cohen, J M (translator) (1950), The Adventures of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

Jones, G and Jones, T (1949) (translators), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent & Sons (Everyman)

Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

 

POSTSCRIPT

Professor R M (Bobi) Jones died on 22 November 2017.  His passing was noted by scholars and commentators.

 

 

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Quests and questions in medieval epics: Peredur, Perceval, Parzival; Gwalchmai, Gauvain, Gawan

1 Below is a rough-and-ready table, which shows parallels and differences between the Welsh medieval tale, Peredur, the late 11th century epic by Chrétien de Troyes in French, and the German epic by Wolfram von Eschenbach (circa 1200).  Much is left out, eg regarding the respective styles of the writers.  (Fuller summaries can be found elsewhere.)

Peredur Perceval Parzival (with book nos)
The story of P’s father.  1 & 2
P, from mother to court. P, from mother to court. P, from mother to court.  3
P meets tent maiden*. P meets tent maiden. P meets Jeschute.  3
Gwenhwyfar* insulted. Guinièvre insulted. Ginover splashed by kt.
P with uncle 1. P with Gornemant. P with Gurnemanz.  3
P + Condwiramurs.  4
With Uncle 2 Grail Castle Grail Castle  5
Bloody spear and head* King and Grail etc Anfortas and Grail etc  5
P asks no questions. P asks no questions. P asks no questions.  5
Meets foster-sister. Meets cousin. Meets Sigune  5
P in love. P loves Blanchefleur.
P defeats jealous knight. P defeats jealous knight. P defeats Orilus.  5
P  with Witches.
P lost in thought of maiden. P lost in thought about B. P lost in thought of C.  6
Angharad and P.
The Empress* and P.
———— ———— ———–
Ugly maiden reproves P.** Ugly maiden reproves P. Cundrie denounces P.  6
Gwalchmai’s adventure. Gauvain’s adventures. Gawan’s adventures – 7, 8
P with hermit. P with hermit uncle. P with Trevrizent.  9
P kills Witches***.
Gauvain’s adventures. Gawan’s exploits  10-13
Gawan et al wed.  14
P and half-brother.   15
P back with Cond.  15
P poses the Question.  16
Anfortas healed.  16
P > King , Cond > Queen.  16

*symbols of sovereignty?

**Should the challenge be about neglecting his wife, or neglecting revenge, or indeed both?

***Peredur achieves revenge for the harm done to his family.

2 The anonymous Peredur is written in prose and is very short, compared with the others.  Perceval has over 9,000 lines of verse.  Parzival is much longer, with over 24,000 lines.  It can be safely said that Parzival elaborates upon (and completes) Perceval, Wolfram’s only, or chief, source.  It can be proposed that Perceval expands upon Peredur or upon a common source, but that the French version may have influenced the Welsh manuscripts that have come down to us, especially in the latter part (cf the Question Test).

3 Perceval is unfinished.  There are medieval French language continuations, not discussed here.  Peredur displays up to three endings!  In other words, while the story is easy to follow at the outset, it is confused and confusing later on.  The ending given by the destruction of the Witches of Caer Loyw provides a fitting ending, if one assumes that the tale is fundamentally about revenge and the gaining of sovereignty over the tribe or clan.  Reconciliation with the hero’s wife (which one?) would parallel what happens in the similar and contemporary Geraint and Owain (Iarlles y Ffynnon).

4 About half of Peredur is devoted to the adventures of Gauvain.  The proportions are not so tilted in Parzival, but six books are allocated to Gawan, out of the sixteen.

5 Significant wounds in the Parzival story relate to intimate areas.  There is a strong hint that Anfortas has been wounded in the genitals, because of his illicit love affair, outside the Grail Order.  Clinschor the enchanter has been castrated, because of his adultery.  (I was expecting him to appear in person in the story, but he doesn’t.)

6 It is a characteristic of Parzival that all the participants are related – either by blood or (in the course of the narrative) by marriage.  Wolfram marries off all the principal unmarried characters.  (See, for example, Book 14.)  This is not a feature of the other versions.

7 Wolfram is very forgiving of characters that have done wrong.  He has good words to say about Keie, Orilus and Clamidê (oppressor of Condwirmarus).

8 On reading Peredur, one has no sense of an audience – with Perceval and Parzival one does.  Chrétien and Wolfram address their listeners (the latter, frequently), in asides.  Wolfram includes many references to his contemporaries, to places and to current events.

9 At one end of a spectrum, Peredur reflects old Celtic mythology, with its magic and shape-shifters.  At the other end, Wolfram creates his own mythology, loosely based upon the Templars: the Grail Order represents and serves the dual values and principles of Christianity and chivalry.  Clinschor’s powers of enchantment are portrayed in Parzival, but (to my mind) they are not well worked out.  There is no confrontation between Gawan and Clinschor, only the former’s survival of the assaults associated with the perilous bed (Book 11).  (Compare Perceval, lines 7676-7884.)

10 I haven’t mentioned the Grail!  The concept is adumbrated in Perceval and expanded upon, on a grand scale, by Wolfram.  It does not appear in Peredur, as is plainly evident.

11 Parzival can be regarded as a “bildungsroman” – the story of the education and development of the hero to full maturity and his taking on of adult responsibilities.

12 Finally, a personal opinion: I do not think it is fair that any of the main protagonists should be blamed for not asking the great question concerning the Grail (or its Welsh equivalent, the bloody severed head).  The advantage of this (non-)event is that it ensures the continuation of the story and provides the hero with obstacles to overcome and chances to prove himself.

All three versions are a “good read” – in translation.  The original medieval texts require notes and glossaries to be understood.

Principal books consulted

Goetinck, G (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales

Goetinck, G W (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawg, Cardiff: University of Wales

Hatto, A T (1980), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Harmondsworth (Middlesex): Penguin

Hertz, W and Hofstaetter, W (1969), Parzival: eine Auswahl, Stuttgart: Reclam

Jones, G and Jones, T (1949), The Mabinogion, London: Dent (Everyman)

Jones, R M (Bobi) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant: Iarlles y Ffynnon, Peredur, Geraint, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

Mustard, H M and Passage, C E (1961), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, New York NY: Random House (Vintage)

Owen, D D R (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: Dent (Everyman)

Wright, J and Walsh, M O’C (1954), Middle High German Primer, London: Oxford University Press

Racism and sexism in three parallel medieval romances – ‘Peredur’, ‘Perceval’ and ‘Parzival’

Introduction

The Welsh Peredur (written down in the 14th century but of earlier composition), the French Perceval (11th century, by Chrétien de Troyes), and the German Parzival (circa 1200, by Wolfram von Eschenbach) – each can be called a “bildungsroman”, insofar as it traces the education, development and maturing of a young protagonist.

(Peredur starts very well, but the ending as we have it is confused; Perceval is unfinished; Parzival is very sophisticated.)

I wish to discuss two episodes about the hero, before he has gone out into the wider world, from the rural, isolated spot where his widowed mother is keeping him.

The lad and the knights

Early on, then, the young man suddenly comes across a posse of Arthurian knights.  The knights ask the hero for directions, and he asks them about their equipment. So their priorities are different.

(1) In the anonymous Welsh Peredur, when the eponymous hero meets three Arthurian knights, his questions are answered readily:

‘Say, friend,’ said Owein, has thou seen a knight go hereby today or yesterday?’  ‘I know not,’ he replied, ‘what a knight is.’  ‘Such a thing as I am,’ said Owein.  ‘Wert thou to tell me that which I would ask of thee, I in turn would tell thee that which thou dost ask.’  ‘I will, gladly,’ said Owein.’

[Peredur, tr G Jones & T Jones, p 184; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 118f]

(2) In the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, however, some of the five knights (passing by) treat the hero differently, when he asks questions, and they complain that he is holding them up.  They comment on Perceval unfavourably:

“So help me God,” says their chief, “he’s a real ignoramus….” – “You may be perfectly certain, my lord, that the Welsh are by nature more stupid than grazing beasts; and this is one is just like a beast.”

[Perceval, tr D D R Owen, page 377]

Has the writer picked up discriminatory attitudes from the Norman French who were interacting with the Welsh in Britain at the time?

(3) Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (based here upon Perceval) reproduces this scenario, with variations.  Here, the hero delays four passer-by knights with his questions: three become impatient (while their leader is more sympathetic):

The foremost lost his temper at the sight of the boy in mid-path.  ‘This stupid Waleis [Welshman] is slowing us down.’  (The Waleis, I must tell you, share the same distinction as the Bavarians, but are even denser than Bavarian folk…)

[Parzival, tr A T Hatto, Book 3, p 72]

The lad and the maiden in the tent

The hero’s first encounter with a stranger, on his way to Arthur’s court, happens to be with a lady.  (Note that the hero recalls his mother’s advice and applies it, or misapplies it, here.)  The main thread of the three parallel stories is this: the hero enters a tent (or pavilion) and finds there a beautiful lady; he helps himself to food and drink, takes a ring from her finger, and kisses her.  But the details vary a lot.  I need to quote from the descriptions at some length.

(4) Note that, when Peredur reaches the pavilion, he has not eaten for “two days and two nights”.  I proceed:

The maiden made him welcome and greeted him….’ My mother,’ said Peredur, ‘bade me wherever I saw meat and drink, to take it.’  ‘Go then, chieftain,’ said she, ‘to the table.  And God’s welcome to thee.’ [Peredur takes half, only.] ‘My mother,’ said he, ‘bade me take a fair jewel wherever I might see it.’  ‘Take it then, friend,’ said she.  ‘’Tis not I will begrudge thee.’  Peredur took the ring, and went down on his knee and gave the maiden a kiss [on her hand?], and took his steed and departed thence.

[Peredur, tr Jones & Jones, pp 185f; emphasis added; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 120f]

Note how polite both parties are and how generous the lady is.  She is a good hostess and he is a good guest.

Given the mythological and magical elements underlying the story, it is possible that the lady has insight into Peredur’s destiny; and she may indeed be an Otherworld character (and herself an educator).

In her study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, G Goetinck states:

The meeting of Peredur with the Tent Maiden is one of the first episodes in which the hero is helped and guided by the power of the Otherworld whilst he is being trained.  It is also a version of the meeting between the hero and Sovereignty….

[Goetinck, p 140]

(5) In Perceval, there are no indications of a mythological aspect to the lady, and the situation is quite different:

On the bed [in the tent], all alone, lay a young girl fast asleep….She woke with a start….The girl trembles with fear on account of the youth, who to her seems crazy….”Be on your way, lad!” she says.  “Be off, before my lover sees you.” – “By my head, I’ll kiss you first, whoever it may upset,” says the youth, “because my mother told me to!” – “I’ll certainly never kiss you if I can help it,” says the maiden. “Be off…!

Perceval is much stronger than the lady: he kisses her seven times [presumably on her mouth]; and he pulls her ring (“set with a brilliant emerald”) from her finger, and puts it on his own.  She bursts into tears.  He adds insult to injury:

“Bless you, maiden.  Now I’ll be off well rewarded – and it’s much nicer kissing you than any chambermaid in all my mother’s house, for there’s nothing bitter about your mouth!”

[Perceval, tr Owen, pp 383f]

Perceval takes food and drink, without asking permission, and departs, leaving the young woman still weeping.

Perceval, then, is cruel and unfeeling and not at all chivalric.  He does not treat the young lady as his equal.  He totally misapplies his mother’s advice about how to treat women.  His immaturity does not excuse his behaviour.  He gets off to a bad start in his career as a knight.

Perhaps the status of this lady reflects the low status of women in France, at the time, compared to the rights accorded to them in the Wales of the early Middle Ages (cf the laws attributed to Hywel Dda).  From the remarks made by the lady in Perceval, it is clear that she relies on her male friend to defend her; and for her it is unfortunate that he is temporarily absent.

(6) Parzival is like Perceval, at this point in the story.  (The lady is named Jeschute and she is a duchess.)  The account is long and circumstantial. It reflects badly upon the hero.  I quote a salient passage:

The lady wailed loudly.  He paid no attention to what she said but forced her mouth to his.  Wasting no time, he crushed her breast to his, duchess or no, and also took a ring.  On her shift he saw a brooch and roughly tore it off.  The lady was armed as women are: but to her his strength was an army’s.  Nevertheless there was quite a tussle of it.

[Parzival, tr Hatto, Book 3, p 77]

Conclusion

The fundamental theme of the three romances is the education of the hero concerning love, chivalry and government.  Evidently, Perceval and Parzival have a very long way to go before they can be regarded as educated!  Peredur, however, has already mastered basic courtesy.  The nature of his encounter with the lady is appropriate to the development of the overall story.  Perceval and Parzival’s behaviour, by contrast, is characterised by the use of brute force, so that they come across as villains rather than heroes, at least for the interim.

The Welsh story is shorter and more concise than the continental ones.  On the surface it is unsophisticated, in comparison with its continental analogues.  But it has beauties and subtleties of its of its own; and in some respects it deserves to be seen as more appealing than the other two.

References

Jones, G and Jones, T (translators) (1949), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

Goetinck, G (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Goetinck, G W (editor) (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawc, Cardiff: University of Wales

Hatto, A T (1980), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

Owen, D D R (translator) (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

See also:

Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liberalism v authoritarianism – comparing 17th century England & Wales with the UK in the 21st century

On 3 May 2017 UK Prime Minister Theresa May made a verbal attack on unspecified critics associated with the work of the European Union.  But is she blaming them for her own problems?  Is attack seen as the best form of defence?

The UK governments of recent years – Conservative-Liberal Democratic, 2010-15, and Conservative, 2015 till now – have been characterised by massive cuts to social expenditure and the demonisation of certain minorities, especially benefits claimants, migrants and asylum seekers.  There have been claims to be liberal but the practice shows features of authoritarianism.  Theresa May was an illiberal Home Secretary (2010-15).  She has advocated the repeal of the Human Rights Act and UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Politicians as a bunch can display, and act upon, both liberal and authoritarian tendencies, at different times.  These have been noted in Labour, Conservative and Coalition governments in recent years.  Insofar as Mrs May keeps championing “strong and stable leadership” (in other words, her own leadership), she can be regarded as authoritarian.  We should learn from history the dangers of “strong” leadership.  There are enough tyrannical leaders around in the 21st century wider world – as there were in the 20th century.

Liberalism is messy – but it offers a better bet to voters than authoritarianism.  Authoritarian leaders find it hard to change course and to learn from criticism; or they change their mind and alter course, opportunistically, and claim they were consistent all the time.  (Remember George Orwell’s 1984.)  Mrs May herself was supposedly in favour of a ‘EU Remain’ vote in the 2016 UK referendum.  But now she is stridently hostile to the EU.  Her position is weak – one against 27!

17th century England and Wales suffered authoritarian rule under Charles I, the Commonwealth (led by Oliver Cromwell) and Charles II – the details varied. The poet John Milton who supported the Commonwealth (not uncritically); and he suffered for this after the Restoration of Charles II.  He went on to write his great verse epic, Paradise Lost.

Interpretations of PL are diverse; and there is controversy among scholars, not so much about the value, but about the arguments.  Is it religious and theological?  Yes.  Is it allegorical?  Maybe, to an extent.  Does it directly reflect the breakdown of the command of the Commonwealth over ordinary people?  Perhaps not.  Is Milton’s God authoritarian?  Milton does not think so – quite the opposite.  Is Satan authoritarian?  Yes he is, while pretending to be democratic.

One idea about PL is that Milton demonstrates in it a circular rather than a linear view of human history.  Consistent with a linear view is the belief (or hope) that humans as a whole are engaged in progress.*  Do not people of a liberal disposition embrace this idea?  The circular model fits in with the idea of repeated falls and rises in history.  Given Milton’s Christian beliefs, human history commenced with the Fall of the rebellious angels from heaven, followed by the Fall of Adam and Eve.

We should recall that Milton believed in mankind’s free will.  So all citizens have to take some responsibility for the politics of their country.

So perhaps the UK is now in a period of decline and fall long and drawn out.  Separation from the EU will probably hasten this.

 

*See: Weston, P (1987), John Milton: Paradise Lost, London: Penguin – pages 25-6.

 

Edmund Spenser (c1552-1599): ‘The Faery Queene’

In October 2015, in a BBC television programme in the series, ‘The Secret Life of Books’, Dr Janina Ramírez praised Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.  This has led me to re-read it and make up my own mind about its merits.

FQ is a very long verse epic (nine-line stanzas, in a form invented by Spenser himself), dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I.  Books I-III were published in 1590, Books IV-VI in 1596, and a fragment (the Mutabilitie cantos), in 1609, after Spenser’s death.  Spenser envisaged many more books but did not complete his work.

FQ shows the influence of the literary heritage, notably: the Bible, Homer, Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid, Ariosto, Tasso, Chaucer, and histories of Britain.

The letter to Sir Walter Raleigh   

Usefully, Spenser provides a preface to FQ (Books I-III), in the form of an explanatory letter to Raleigh.  Here, he “expounds [his] whole intention.”  He describes the work as: “a continued allegory, or dark conceit”.  “The general end of all the book,” he writes, “is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.” [The spelling is modernised.]

However, it is best to read FQ in an edition that provides explanatory notes.  (I have used: J P Roche Jr (ed) (1978), London: Penguin.)

Mythology

FQ draws upon mythology, especially that created by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Arthurian legend (Arthur and Merlin appear).

Spenser creates a fairy world, mysteriously adjacent to, and interpenetrating, Britain.  It is peopled by: elfin knights (male and female, Christian and pagan), damsels in distress, wizards, witches, giants and dragons (etc), which symbolise various vices and virtues.

History and politics

FQ has characters that represent historical persons, notably Queen Elizabeth herself.  The queen is represented by three figures:

  • Gloriana, the Queen of Fairy Land (mentioned rather than appearing)
  • Belphoebe, a Diana-like huntress
  • Mercilla, a queen who dispenses mercy.

There is a political dimension to consider.  In his writings, Spenser defended the 16th century Protestant constitution of England and the English hegemony over Ireland.

Much of the history of England and its neighbours, in Spenser’s lifetime, is portrayed (allegorically) in Cantos 9-12 of Book V: the trial of Mary Queen of Scots (Canto 9), the Spanish domination of the Low Countries (Canto 10-11), and the conversion of Henry IV of France to Catholicism (Canto 12).

The stories

Conflicts between characters (generally, good versus evil) are fought out as medieval battles: knights use swords and lances; rougher characters use cruder weapons.  Each time, virtue is triumphant, sooner or later.  As well as battles, there are also love relationships between knights and damsels, as well as the love of Britomart (a female knight) and Arthur.

The books

Each component book (each composed of twelve cantos) is designed to celebrate a particular virtue:

  1. holiness (approximately, piety combined with chivalry)
  2. temperance
  3. chastity
  4. friendship
  5. justice
  6. courtesy.

These are followed by a fragment, which features a lively debate, featuring the claim of Mutability, before the Olympian gods and Nature, that she is the one who rules the world, as everything (from the planets down to life on earth) is subject to constant change.

Morality and virtue

An example of Spenser’s underlying moral purpose is provided by Book III, Canto 11, stanzas 25-6, where Scudamour and Britomart are contrasted.  Britomart is portrayed as better equipped (through virtue) to overcome a manifestation of evil (in the form of a wall of flame), in order to enter Busirane’s castle:

Therewith resolved to prove her utmost might

Her ample shield she threw before her face,

And her sword’s point directing forward right,

Assailed the flame, the which eftsoons gave place,

And did itself divide with equal space,

That through she passed; as a thunderbolt

Pierceth the yielding air, and doth displace

The soaring clouds into sad showers ymolt [melted];

So to her yold [yielded] the flames, and did their force revolt.

 

Whom whenas Scudamour saw past the fire,

Safe and untouched, he likewise gan assay,

With greedy will, and envious desire,

And bad the stubborn flames to yield him way:

But cruel Mulciber would not obey

His threatful pride, but did the more augment

His mighty rage, and with imperious sway

Him forced (maugre) his fierceness to relent,

And back retire, all scorched and pitifully brent [burnt].

 

[Spelling modernised]

 

Further observations

 

1 Spenser chose old-fashioned language, which acts as a barrier to the reader.  It is quite different from that of contemporary poets.  He imitates Chaucer; but what is natural with Chaucer looks forced in Spenser.

2 Spenser is skilled at painting tableaux vivants:

  • the Seven Deadly Sins (Book I, Canto 4)
  • the Bower of Bliss (II, 12)
  • the Garden of Adonis (III, 6)
  • Busirane’s castle and the Masque of Cupid (III, 11-12)
  • the dance of the Graces (VI, 10)
  • the pageant of the seasons and months (Mutabilitie, Canto 7).

3 FQ is laden with allegorical figures.  It is difficult to sustain an allegorical narrative.  Purely allegorical figures tend to be abstract and unreal: they are either good or bad, and they cannot change.  As for the knights who largely personify one or more virtues but are less fully allegorical – they can be led astray by temptation or deception – but they are restored to moral health eventually.

4 FQ remains somewhat episodic, as there is no one unifying plot and resolution; and there are loose ends which (given time) Spenser may have tied up.  Recommended connected stories are:

  • Spenser’s continuation and conclusion of Chaucer’s unfinished Squire’s Tale (Book IV, Cantos 2-3)
  • The quest of Sir Calidore in Book VI (Cantos 1-3 and 9-12)
  • The Mutabilitie Cantos

5 For a present-day reader, other works by Spenser may be more attractive, especially his long poems that celebrate marriage, namely, the Epithalamion and the Prothalamion.  Long poems by other poets active in the 1590s may also appeal, especially:

  • Marlowe’s Hero and Leander
  • Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece.

6 In his Don Quixote (1605 and 1615), Cervantes satirised both the chivalric epic and the deployment of magic in plots.  Once Don Quixote had been widely published and translated, the epic of chivalry, as a genre, died out.

7 The Faerie Queene has literary merit and is very vivid, even exciting, in places.  At the same time, it appears old-fashioned – backward rather than forward-looking – especially when compared with the works of Spenser’s contemporaries.

 

David Harries

December 2015