Friends for a reason, friends for a season

I have just read the Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning (1908-1980), first published in 1987, based on her experiences in Romania and Greece between 1939 and 1941 (i.e. during the Second World War).  It is a story of war, seen from the point of view of numerous civilians caught up in it.

Native Romanians and Greeks feature in the pages; but most of the characters are British – people who have either chosen to live abroad or have been posted there to work for the British Government.

At the very end of the story, Harriet Pringle (principal character) and Guy (her husband) are obliged to flee from Greece as the Germans invade (1941).  Harriet thinks about the scattering of the people they have got to know:

Harriet thought of Charles left behind with the retreating army, of David taken by the enemy, of Sasha become a stranger, of Clarence lost in Salonika, of Alan who would share the fate of the Greeks, and of Yakimov in his grave. Not one of their friends remained except Ben Phipps; the ‘vainest and the emptiest’.

Note that Harriet is a woman in a man’s world; and the above-named are all men.

One conclusion I draw from my reading is that the people named (and others described in the trilogy) are acquaintances and temporary colleagues rather than genuine friends – friends only for a “reason” (e.g. work) and a “season” (the period 1939-41).  Moreover, there are many squabbles among them – they are not united in the face of adversity.

The British exiles go through various emotions as the war continues and the territories of allies and neutrals are lost to the “Axis” – ranging from hope (which turns out to be ill founded) to ironic humour and to worry (even panic).  Finally they get to grips with the practicalities of getting away (or even staying put).  Their predicament is exacerbated by the fact that, while troops can be evacuated from Dunkirk as France falls in 1940, they find themselves on the “wrong” side of Europe – beyond the easy reach of Allied forces that might keep the enemy at bay or rescue them.

The Brits tend to be unrealistic about the true nature of their plight.  (Make some allowance for hindsight, here.)  One can read signs, between the lines, of the gradual but steady decline of the Britain as a world power.

The air of unreality that hangs over the Brits is reinforced by Guy Pringle’s enthusiastic putting on, in Bucharest, Romania, in 1940, of an amateur production of William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, a play set in the context of the legendary Trojan War.   It is performed to raise the morale of the British residents and to impress the Romanians.  The casting is inspired, and the performances are widely regarded as a success.  But what an incongruous choice!  Shakespeare’s language is difficult in places, especially in this play, even for people whose first language is not English.  Indeed, it is seldom performed.

One characteristic of Troilus and Cressida is the squabbles among the Trojans (whether to keep Helen or to hand her over to the Greeks), balanced with the squabbles among the Greeks (as to how best to restore the authority of Agamemnon while persuading Achilles to return to the front line) – quite apart from the actual war itself.  (See too Homer’s Iliad, while noticing the major differences in plot, characterisation and tone.)

A second feature of Troilus and Cressida is the evidence displayed that both Helen and the eponymous Cressida are women in a man’s world: they can be reduced to the status of bargaining counters – in other words, “articles of trade….weak and oppressed” (see Prof R A Foakes’s  Introduction to the 1987 Penguin edition of the play).  At the same time, none of the male characters can be taken seriously as a hero (with the possible exception of Hector), either in matters of war or in those of love – they are proud and self-serving.  The end of the play is neither tragic nor comic (certainly, it’s not funny).

At the end of Troilus, the war is still going on.  But (outside the framework of the play) Troy will eventually fall.  One Part of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy is itself called ‘The Fall of Troy’ – a clear allusion made to the momentous Fall of France in 1940.

It so happens that, earlier this year, I had re-read Troilus and Cressida, before reading the Balkan Trilogy for the first time.  The reference to the former, within the body of the latter, came as a pleasant surprise.

Returning to the Trilogy: Harriet Pringle has a mind of her own, intelligence, perception and sensitivity.  However, by virtue of her married status (Britain, 20th century style), and the roles that both she as an individual accepts and that societies as a whole ascribe to her, she trails behind her husband Guy, in his wake; and she makes a series of concessions to his wishes and needs, in order to keep him happy – swallowing her pride but feeling resentment.

The 21st century reader may see things differently from Harriet intellectually while sympathising with her predicament emotionally.  (Make up your own mind.)

The Balkan Trilogy is an excellent read.  You feel you’re there, in time and place.

Troilus and Cressida is an excellent read too.  (You may never get the chance to see it performed.)

Advertisements

a brief skylight on Portugal

In the course of our married life (forty years plus) my wife Jane and I have had a series of holidays at the western edge of Europe – from the Orkneys in the north, southward through Sky, Mull and Iona (but not Lewis and Harris, and little of Ireland), the Highlands, Galloway, the Lake District, Formby, the Llŷn Peninsula and West Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Galicia – and in 2017, Portugal (continental and Madeira).  Variety but also similarities – the pounding waves and the prevailing south west winds, often bearing rain.

So, Portugal, albeit visited in its own right, fitted into this life story.  It did not disappoint.

One of the striking things about Portugal is the fact (going back several hundred years) is that it is not Spain.  (Small countries endeavour to retain their identity vis-à-vis big neighbours.)  Similarly, Portuguese is not the same as Spanish.  (Jane and I love Spanish.)  A second truism is that one can try to read written Portuguese but to speak it and to understand the spoken language require much knowledge and practice.

We went around an informative museum in Funchal about the history of Madeira.  The exhibits were well labelled – in four languages – Portuguese, English, French and German – but not Spanish.

I learnt some basic phrases, in order to communicate with the people we met, and to show respect, but I was reluctant to use Spanish.

In the Middle Ages, the Portuguese and Galician languages were similar – “o” for masculine “the” and “a” for feminine “the” – and they still retain this feature (contrast Spanish “el” and “la”).  But a superficial look (mine) inclines one (me) to think that they have drifted apart, because of the longstanding political division.

To fortify my appreciation of Portugal, I dipped into its literature – in particular, the epic of Luís de Camões, Os Lusíados, based upon early Portuguese explorations of Africa and India (read in translation), and also the early novel of José Saramago, Claraboia [Skylight], about the residents (ordinary people) of a block of flats in Lisbon in the early 1950s.  (Recommended.)  (We visited the Saramago Foundation in Lisbon.)

Saramago’s characters are distinct and clearly drawn.  They are human, and they suffer the ups and downs (especially downs) of life.  Happy and unhappy couples feature, and poor widows, and hopeful young women; one woman is “kept” as the mistress of a businessman; another is abused by her husband.

One wife (Carmen) is from Galicia in Spain, and she has not fully mastered Portuguese, after many years of residence in Portugal.  She regrets her marriage to her husband and thinks back to a better offer she had back home.  (At the end of the novel, Carmen returns to Galicia to see her family (with her husband’s permission, as required!); and the reader is let into her thoughts about taking advantage of the opportunity not to return to her husband.)

Silvestre, the shoemaker (usually portrayed in a positive light), describes Carmen, unflatteringly, in these terms:

Ela é que é uma víbora.  E galega, aind por cima….Mas bem conhece o ditado: “De Espanha, nem bom vento, nem bom casamento.”

[Chapter XII]

She’s a real viper, though, and Spanish too boot…You know what they say: “From Spain expect only cold winds and cold wives.”

[translated by M J Costa, Vintage, 2015]

Do European countries (and regions) remain both friends and rivals to this day?

 

 

History and Tragedy

                  Here I and my sorrows sit;

Here is my throne, bid kings come to it.

 

(Constance, King John, Act 1, Scene 3)

I have been re-reading some of William Shakespeare’s history plays plus Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.  The “biopics” and “All the President’s Men” of their day!

There are many by Shakespeare.  In chronological order – the order in which the fictionalised events happened – they comprise: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra; Macbeth (it has some relationship with Scottish history); King John, Edward III (perhaps a part), Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II and III (perhaps Shakespeare was a contributor to Part I), Richard III, Thomas More (perhaps Shakespeare contributed a small part), and finally Henry VIII (together with John Fletcher).

So, the history plays form a large part of his output.

The plays are about politics and display examples of good and bad leadership.  Who (if anyone) is best?  Who is the legitimate ruler?  How is legitimacy determined?

If you had happened to live in Ancient Rome (for example), would you have preferred Julius Caesar or Antony or Brutus or Cassius or Octavian (Augustus)?  (Apply this to medieval history and modern history too.)  Some have leadership qualities but all are flawed.  The second lesson is that human nature has not changed at heart, and we all have emotional drives – will, power, lust, love – which can take over our lives and which can ruin those of others.

It is interesting (at least to me) to compare recorded history (told by chroniclers) with dramatisations (eg those by Shakespeare and his contemporaries).  Good critical studies and well written academic editions of the works give the reader an insight into the variations.  (Retain some scepticism, as (surely?) there is no such thing as absolute historical truth.)  But at least we can say (can’t we?) that an effective drama has psychological and sociological truth – which takes us back to political battles and human desires.

For some readers, doubtless, and viewers of dramas, it is preferable to enjoy a play without engaging, actively or passively, in literary criticism.  The latter forms another world, a different world.  I like it.

This year already I have worked my way through a version of Richard III based on the First Quarto (1597), with minimal editing and notes.  (John Drakakis, ‘Shakespeare Originals’, 1996.)  (I note that, in history, Edward IV is deemed to be responsible for the death of George Duke of Clarence, but in the play the blame is shared between Edward and Richard.)

This year too I got hold of the new ‘Arden 3’ (Lander & Tobin, Bloomsbury, 2018) edition of King John, as I admire this play.  I looked for new insights.  However, I was somewhat disappointed by the depth of the editors’ background writing.  On looking again into the 1974 Penguin, edited by R L Smallwood, I find that he is strong on all the essentials:

  • the historical background
  • Shakespeare’s use of sources (see in particular the anonymous Troublesome Reign of King John)
  • his selection and telescoping of historical events
  • textual issues, too.

I went back to my own copy of The Troublesome Reign, edited by Charles R Forker (‘Revels Plays’, Manchester, 2011).  (The Reign is anonymous, but Forker attributes it to George Peele.)  This edition succeeds in throwing light on the historical background of both the Reign and Shakespeare’s John, and the influence of the former on the latter; so it fills a gap arguably left by the Arden 3 book.

I was tempted to seek out versions of other plays, edited by Forker, and bought both his Edward II (Revels, 1994) and his (Richard II) (Arden 3, 2002).  I found them illuminating – for example, about the influence of Marlowe’s play on Richard II. 

Kings die in these plays (some of them after being deposed) – that is their tragedy.  But, if their country does not unite behind the successor, all are affected and many suffer.

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings.

 

[Richard himself, Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2]

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on Homer

My re-reading of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad have prompted some reflections on my part.  They are tremendous epics, full of variety of incident but also pathos.  They have influenced numerous subsequent works by great poets, eg Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare, directly and indirectly; but incidents and characters are changed.  There are many translations: I have mainly relied upon the old Penguin ones by E V Rieu (but see below for an even older take).

1 The fighting at Troy is savage and brutal.  It is characterised by hand-to-hand combat with spears and swords, backed up by charioteers and bowmen.  Prisoners are not taken – no mercy is shown to the defeated.  Mercy is replaced by revenge.  Men of flesh and blood are reduced to inanimate objects – in great numbers. The warriors can be accused of what we call the sins of wrath and pride.  Achilles abuses the corpse of Hector.  Similarly, Odysseus wreaks merciless revenge upon all the suitors of his faithful wife, Penelope, at the end of the Odyssey.

2 Who is the real hero of the Iliad?  Achilles or Hector?  Or is there little to choose between them?

3 The first book is in itself a great story – psychologically acute, worth reading even on its own.  Agamemnon, as commander-in-chief of a disparate army, has to try to keep them together.  Achilles (who quarrels with him) has a right to his point of view.  This strain – between the need for unity to accomplish a task and (on the other hand) the rights of individuals and minorities to express a dissenting view – applies to movements and political parties, to this day.

4 The warriors are subject to their destiny and cannot avoid it – or at least, unless a god intervenes to save them.  (There are some examples of this in the Iliad; and Odysseus, too, is rescued on numerous occasions in the Odyssey.)  But Zeus (chief of the gods) is himself subject to destiny at times: he is unable to rescue his son Sarpedon from Patroclus (Book XVI), nor Hector from Achilles (Book XXII).  Their deaths are pre-ordained.

5 So many great men are killed in the episode of the Trojan War covered by the Iliad that it would be tedious to name them all.  But, notably: the Trojan Hector kills Patroclus (the close friend of Achilles), while the latter is “sulking in his tent”; Achilles kills Hector in his rage.  Even this bald summary points to the cycle of revenge that reduces a series of men to inanimate objects.

6 The Trojan War episode that Homer recounts in the Iliad does not extend to the death of Achilles (still young), nor to the eventual fall of Troy.  (Virgil picks up Troy’s fall in his Aeneid.)  But Achilles’ death is frequently foretold – even by Achilles himself, and by Thetis, his mother.

7 Odysseus meets the ghost of Achilles, in Book XI of the Odyssey.  The dead hero has nothing good to say about the glory (if any) that survives death in battle.

Odysseus says:

But sure the eye of Time beholds no name
So bless’d as thine in all the rolls of fame;
Alive we hail’d thee with our guardian gods,
And dead thou rulest a king in these abodes.

Achilles replies, bluntly:

Talk not of ruling in this dolorous gloom,
Nor think vain words (he cried) can ease my doom.
Rather I’d choose laboriously to bear
A weight of woes, and breathe the vital air,
A slave to some poor hind that toils for bread,
Than reign the sceptred monarch of the dead.

[Translated by Alexander Pope]

8 Finally, I should add that women are marginalised in these epics, as it is a patriarchal and martial society that is portrayed.  But I’ll name a few (other than goddesses) that stand out:

  • Briseis (Iliad): she is the slave who Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel over in Book I. (She has no say in the argument.)  However, when she is returned to Achilles (in Book XIX) she expresses pleasure at the outcome
  • Helen (Marlowe’s “face that launched a thousand ships”): her abduction by Paris to Troy is the proximate cause of the Trojan War; she expresses self-reproach and regret about her role in the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans.* Once she is back with her first husband, Menelaus, in Sparta, she appears to be content with the outcome (see Book IV of the Odyssey)
  • Andromache, wife and widow of Hector, in the Iliad
  • Hecabe, mother of Hector, in the Iliad
  • Nausicaa, daughter of King Alcinous, who aids Odysseus when he is cast upon the shore of Phaeacia, after his ship has been wrecked (in the Odyssey, Book VI)
  • Penelope, who outwits her suitors and remains faithful to her missing husband, while living with the hope that he will one day return (in the Odyssey).

The lamentations of Andromache, Hecabe and Helen over the corpse of hector, in the final book of the Iliad, movingly convey pathos.

Finally, a strong case can be made out for the view that Homer is not praising war or the wreaking of vengeance, nor the pride, anger and irrationality that lead up to it.  Read and learn.

 

*Appendix re Helen

Here is part of Helen’s speech to her now brother-in-law Hector (in Book VI):

Oh, generous brother! (if the guilty dame
That caused these woes deserve a sister’s name!)
Would heaven, ere all these dreadful deeds were done,
The day that show’d me to the golden sun
Had seen my death! why did not whirlwinds bear
The fatal infant to the fowls of air?
Why sunk I not beneath the whelming tide,
And midst the roarings of the waters died?
Heaven fill’d up all my ills, and I accursed
Bore all, and Paris of those ills the worst.
Helen at least a braver spouse might claim,
Warm’d with some virtue, some regard of fame!

[Alexander Pope’s version]

 

Patriarchy and feminism in Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ – the case of Marcela

In the introduction to his translation of Don Quixote (Spanish: Don Quijote), first published by Penguin in 1950, Mr J M Cohen comments on the patriarchy of the Spain of 1600, as reflected in the work.  After condemning the “pastoral convention” of “too eloquent” shepherds and goatherds, which Cervantes appears to accept, the translator goes on to say:

Another feature of our book which takes the contemporary reader aback is what we may call its sexual morality.  This is based on a crude scale of values by which honour is preserved so long as any seduction, is covered up by marriage.

Mr Cohen refers (appropriately) to Don Fernando’s seduction of Dorotea, and his abandonment of her, followed by his abduction of Luscinda, in love with Cardenio.  (This story takes up several chapters of Book One.)

But there is more variation and depth in the work that Mr Cohen allows.  Take the case of Marcela (also in Book One).

On his travels, Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza hear the tale of the death of the shepherd Grisóstomo: allegedly, he has died of a broken heart, because the beautiful Marcela has rejected his suit.

Grisóstomo’s friends (and the man himself, in the long poem he leaves behind) go so far as to accuse Marcela of cruelty.

Marcela herself suddenly appears, and she states her case both to the dead man’s friends and to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  Marcela accepts that Heaven has made her beautiful; but she argues, forcefully and eloquently, that she is in no way to blame for the shepherd’s death:

Yo conozco, con el natural entendimiento que Dios me ha dado, que todo lo hermoso es amable; mas no alcanzo que, por razón de ser amado, esté obligado lo que es amado por hermoso a amar a quien le ama….Y, según de yo he oído decir, el verdader amor…ha de ser voluntario, y no forzoso.  Siendo así, como yo creo que lo es, ¿por qué queréis que rinda mi voluntad por fuerza, obligada no más de que decís que me queries bien?  Si no, decidme: si como el cielo me hizo hermosa me hiciera fea, ¿fuera justo que me quejara de vosotros porque no me amábades?  Cuanto más, que habéis de considerer que yo no escogí la hermosura….

[Book 1, Chapter 14, Academies’ edition, 2004]

With the natural understanding that God has given me, I recognize that what is beautiful is worthy of love.  But what I don’t understand is that just because a woman is loved because of her beauty, she’s obliged to reciprocate this love….And according to what I’ve heard, true love…must be voluntary and not forced.  If that’s true, and I believe it is, why do you want to force me yield my free will simply because you say love me?  Tell me – what if Heaven, which made me beautiful, had made me ugly instead?  Would it be right for me to complain because you didn’t love me?  What’s more, consider this: I didn’t choose to be beautiful….

[translated by T Lathrop, Alam Classics (Richmond, Surrey), 2014]

And Marcela goes on to remind her listeners that beauty is only skin deep – it is inner purity that matters.  She finishes by saying that she values her own freedom above all.

Good for her!

Marcela’s arguments are persuasive; and Don Quixote himself is persuaded.  He sticks up for Marcela, and he says:

Ninguna persona, de cualquier estado y condición que sea, se atreva a seguir a la Hermosa Marcela, so pena de caer en la furiosa indignación mía.  Ella ha mostrado con claras y suficientes razones la poca o ninguna culpa que ha tenido en la muerte de Grisóstomo y cuán ajena vive de condescender con los deseos de ninguno de sus amantes; a cuya causa es juso que, en lugar de ser seguida y perseguida, sea honrada y estimada de todos los buenos del mundo, pues muestra que en él ella es sola la que con tan honesta intención vive.

Let no one [of] whatsoever [estate or condition] dare to pursue the beautiful Marcela, under the penalty of incurring my furious wrath.  She’s shown with clear words and solid reasons that she has had little or no blame in the death of Grisóstomo, and how distant she is from yielding to the desires of any of her suitors.  Far from being pursued, she should be honoured and revered by all good people in the world, since she shows that she’s the only one who lives by such virtuous intentions.

[tr T Lathrop, modified by DRH]

Good for him!

And, after the burial has been completed, the parties go their separate ways.

 

Finding your tongue – anthologies of Welsh literature

When, at the 2006 National Eisteddfod, I picked up a copy of Welsh Women’s Poetry 1461-2001 (edited by Katie Granich and Catherine Brennan and first published by Honno Press of Aberystwyth in 2003), I found I could not put it down.  My copy suffered from the rain as I read it on my way to the public transport that would take me home.

There is a wealth of material.  There is poetry in both English and Welsh, and the Welsh pieces are accompanied by translations, so it can be appreciated very widely.

Until the 21st century (arguably), literature has been dominated by men and women have largely been invisible (with a few exceptions, eg some great English female novelists).

My 2017 treat to myself is a new compendium of Welsh language poetry and prose, from the first millennium to the present day: The Old Red Tongue – An Anthology of Welsh Literature, edited by Gwyn Griffiths and Meic Stephens and published by Francis Boutle (London) – nearly a thousand pages, for £30.

Unlike the Honno anthology, very nearly all the originals are in Welsh, but like the Honno one, they are accompanied by English translations.  This is excellent, as medieval Welsh is in places difficult to follow for the inexpert.  (So too sometimes is dialect.)

Many of the translations have been made by the renowned Anthony Conran and Joseph P Clancy.  Some pieces have been translated for the first time.

There is are useful introductions both to historical periods and also to individual writers.

I’ll take the liberty of quoting from the publisher’s blurb, which describes the volume as an “anthology of over 300 texts – poems, plays, memoirs, essays, extracts from novels and short stories, hymns, eulogies, elegies, medieval prose, political and theological commentaries – from nearly 200 writers”.

The book does what it says on the cover – the net is cast wide.

In the last hundred years or so, fortunately, women’s voices have come to be heard, whereas in earlier times men dominated.  The female writers are: Gwerful Mechain, Ann Griffiths, Eluned Morgan, Kate Roberts, Marion Eames, Jane Edwards, Eigra Lewis Roberts, Nesta Wyn Jones, Manon Rhys, Menna Elfyn, Christine James, Angharad Tomos, Gwyneth Lewis, Sonia Edwards, Elin ap Hywel, Mererid Hopwood and Meleri Wyn James.  (Still a small minority, but growing.)

There is an extensive bibliography at the end, useful for further reading.

I should add that The Old Red Tongue is one of a “lesser used languages of Europe” series, which includes anthologies of literature in Breton, Manx, Galician, Channel Islands Norman French, Esperanto, Maltese and Occitan.  A worthy enterprise.

(One English language anthology is: Poetry 1900 – 2000 – one hundred poets from Wales, edited by Meic Stephens, first published by Parthian, Cardigan, in 2007.)

Here are feasts for those who love literature and for those who love Wales.

The Grey side of John Ruskin

The Grey side of John Ruskin

When I attended Newport (Mon) High School for Boys (established 1896), from 1958 to 1965, there were six “houses”, modelled, like much of the ethos of the school, on English “public” (actually, private) schools.  I fail to remember all the names of the houses.  I do recall that they were named after men – then, all famous.  I belonged to (Isaac) Newton, as my Uncle Ronald (killed in action in 1941) had belonged to it.  Another was named after (John) Ruskin (1819-1900) – eminent polymath, artist and art critic, social, commentator on social and economic and political matters, etc, etc.

Ruskin’s influence in his day is reported to have been enormous, on individuals and on movements.  (Among others, he influenced Marcel Proust, as can be seen, for example, in the chapter, ‘Séjour â Venise’ (‘Staying in Venice’), in À la recherché du temps perdu.)

I have read Proust but never Ruskin.

It appears to me that Ruskin’s many contributions to serious thought have been absorbed by others and hence have come down to us in the ideas of others.

What an extraordinary legacy, then!

What is Ruskin chiefly remembered for nowadays?  Probably, and sadly, his failed marriage (1848-1854) to Euphemia (“Effie”) Gray (1828-1897).  In 1855 she went on to marry the painter John Everett Millais (1829-1896); and she had eight children.

Much has been written and produced about this “triangle” over the years, to the exclusion, to a large extent, of Ruskin’s own merits.

I have just seen, on BBC television, the 2014 film, Effie Gray, which devotes itself exclusively to the matter of the failed marriage and the developing relationship between Effie and Millais.  Much of the content is based on guess-work.

Nothing indecorous is shown.  The acting and scene-setting convey all we (as viewers) need to know.

Ruskin himself is portrayed as unfeeling and patronising towards Effie, and at the same time largely under the control of his own parents.

As a viewer, I longed for Effie to escape from the stifling atmosphere created by the Ruskin family and to escape – to the arms of her admirer, Millais, as that is what she wanted.  A happy ending for her, then, and for Everett, but not for John.

The film makes much of this happy-sad story; but the material for the plot is rather slim.

There remains a larger story to tell about this Victorian sage.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lion, the Lady and the Lackadaisical Lover

Introduction

I am working my way through the five romances attributed to the French poet, Chrétien de Troyes (late 12th century) – albeit in translation, as medieval French is quite different from the present-day language, and difficult.

Arguably, Chrétien’s Yvain, le chevalier au lion, is his best or one of his best.  It has twists and turns, conflicts that are resolved, psychological interest, ethical dilemmas, and a happy ending.  (Perceval [which I’ll read last] is important, partly because of the first mention, there, of the Grail; but it is unfinished.)

For its part, Wales has inherited its own tale (or romance) – Iarlles y Ffynnon = the Lady (or Countess) of the Fountain. The hero is Owain.  Germany has Iwein, by Hartmann von Aue.  Hartmann’s version of the tale is based on Chrétien’s and (like his) is in verse.

The anonymous Welsh tale is similar to the others as regards the main plot, but it differs in details.

The Fountain of the title may be regarded as symbolising eternity and fertility and (here) sovereignty.  To defend the Fountain against all-comers is to defend the domain of the ruler.

Principals

The male hero – Owain/Ivain/Iwein – marries the noble widow (the Lady of the Fountain, called Laudine by Chrétien), after he has killed her husband in one-to-one combat.  (By marrying her he takes on the responsibility of defending her territory.)  He leaves her, by returning to Arthur’s court and failing to come back to her at the agreed time.  This is a dereliction of duty.

Note the custom that dictates (apparently) that a woman rules the Fountain country, and that she chooses a husband as a helpmate.  Does this reflect a matriarchal tradition?

Apart from Laudine/the Countess herself, there is another important and active lady, namely, Luned/Lunete.  She gives counsel to her mistress, who relies on her, as she is very practical and sensible. It is she who advises the Lady to accept the necessity of having a strong husband and hence to marry the hero, as he has already proved himself in combat.  It is she too that brings the couple together.  (With Chrétien, she is the female messenger who challenges Yvain, at Arthur’s court, over his desertion.)  She is blamed, however, by the Lady’s retinue, when the couple become estranged, and she is threatened with death by them.

Luned/Lunete is vividly portrayed, and she is perhaps the most colourful character in the tale.

The male protagonist has numerous adventures, while he is separated from his wife.  He rescues a lion that is being attacked by a serpent (or dragon), and thereafter is accompanied by him on his adventures, and helped in his fights.  Hence, in the French version, Yvain is known as the ‘knight with the lion’.

What exactly does the lion mean, here?  Lions commonly symbolise authority, strength, confidence and courage.  This lion also represents gratitude, friendship and loyalty.  Perhaps he offers an example to the hero of correct behaviour.

Another colourful character is the forester who directs questing knights to the Fountain of the story.  In The Lady of the Fountain, he is a black (black-haired) giant, with one eye and one foot: he carries an iron club, with which he exercises power over the many animals that graze around him.  He appears to be an Otherworld creature – a sun god, come down from pre-Christian mythology.  (The one eye represents the sun.)  It is possible that he is a storm god too, if he is responsible for the ensuing storm at the Fountain.

The continental versions retain the giant’s function but differ considerably in the nature and scope of their description of this figure, and his mythological aspects are diminished.  This “churl” (“vilain”) is said to be misshapen but also to have “a head larger than that of a pack-horse or any other beast” and “great mossy ears like an elephant’s, heavy eyebrows and a flat face with owl’s eyes and a nose like a cat’s, a mouth split like a wolf’s, [and] the sharp yellow teeth of a wild boar”.   [Yvain, tr Owen, pp 284f]  And Hartmann’s description is similar and includes comparisons with animals.

(In this respect, compare the ugly female messenger who challenges the hero of Peredur, Chrétien’s Perceval and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, respectively.  In Peredur, the maiden is described as misshapen, but there are no references to animals, whereas in the continental analogues there are several comparisons to them, as there are in Yvain.)

Stylistic features

Chrétien includes a subplot: Yvain and his friend Gawain fight on opposite sides as champions for two sisters.  Chrétien says, in a long passage, that the two knights love each other, but when they are fighting on opposite sides, they hate each other.  Love and Hatred become allegorical characters.  The Welsh version has none of this.

There are shared magical elements, notably, a ring that confers invisibility and a panacea-like ointment, and the raising of a mighty storm by the pouring of water on to the slab at the Fountain.

There are polarities and mirror images in the basic story.  The hero is rescued by Luned/Lunete from certain death; and in turn he rescues her from execution, later on.  The Lady’s hatred for the hero, as the killer of her husband, turns to acceptance of him (love for him, in Yvain), then to hatred of him (in Yvain, at least), and finally to reconciliation.

Conclusion

I am inclined to believe that the French version represents an enlargement upon the Welsh, rather than that the Welsh version is a summary of the French.  The Welsh account is concise and always to-the-point.  The French version is much longer and far more elaborate and much more rhetorical than the Welsh.  Chrétien addresses his audience directly, from time to time; he includes long dialogues between characters.

Both versions of the story are attractive and have literary merit.  The simpler, more direct, concentrated Welsh version stands up well, against Chrétien’s, in my view.

Principal sources

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

Wright, J and Walshe, M O’C (1954), Middle High German Primer, 5th edition, Oxford: OUP

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

Lagarde, A and Michard, L (1964), Collections Textes et Littérature, I, Moyen Age, Paris: Bardas

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

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