- An Introduction to British Arthurian Literature by Susan Aronstein
Susan Aronstein’s volume is the third in University Press of Florida’s series on New Perspectives on Medieval Literature, intended as a broad yet compact overview of important works of medieval literature aimed at acquainting undergraduate and graduate students and general readers with the most up-to-date thought on their subject. It is interesting to note that of the four volumes published so far, the other three are on single authors—Christine de Pizan, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the “Gawain” Poet—and the spectrum of themes those authors explored. This volume is limited, on the one hand, to the single theme of Arthur, but widely spread, on the other, across multiple authors writing in a variety of languages (Latin, Middle Welsh, English, and Scots); it includes sidelong glances at the continental romances of France and Germany and examines texts written over a span of time from Gildas’s De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae of the early sixth century to Malory’s Le Morte Darthur of the late fifteenth.
Aronstein brings some cohesion to this unwieldy mass of texts by focusing on the cultural—primarily political/historical—contexts out of which the stories emerged. A general Introduction surveys the importance of Arthur to world literature and popular culture, and then she hones in on the “historical” references—or lack thereof—to the renowned king in the early medieval works of Gildas, “Nennius,” and Welsh heroic poetry such as Y Gododdin. A quick spin through the history of the middle Middle Ages of the British Isles, locating the interests of Anglo-Saxons, Welsh, and Normans, sets the scene for a discussion of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his History of the Kings of Britain, the earliest extant text to present a thorough narrative of Arthur’s conception, birth, rise to power, and reign. Although it is generally accepted that Geoffrey’s Arthurian story is fiction, whether it was made up by Geoffrey himself or he nabbed it from some now-lost written or oral source(s), Aronstein makes the point that the History was presented as fact and that to understand it, we have to read it as a commentary on the time and political situation in which it was composed. The History’s focus on both Arthur’s origins and his campaigns in Europe against the Romans reflects the turmoil of the civil war between Stephen and [End Page 229] Matilda occurring at the same time. Arthur may have been “Welsh” but his earliest fully narrative appearances, in the twelfth-century History and thirteenth-century Bruts of Wace and Layamon, present him as the “English” ruler of a consolidated realm suspiciously similar to that of the Angevins: “the Arthur of the chronicles provides ‘historians’ with a narrative that validates both Norman/English control over the ‘whole island of Britain’ and its Continental ambitions at the same time that it addresses anxieties about orderly succession, royal power, and civil war” (p. 24), all the while assuring its readers of Britain’s (once and future) greatness. The later chronicles, the Alliterative and Stanzaic Morte Arthurs, turn to the more peculiarly British obsession with Arthur’s decline and fall against the backdrop of the fourteenth century’s run of plague, famine, war, and king-murder.
Turning from chronicle to “romance,” or from putative history to acknowledged fiction, Aronstein’s second chapter constitutes the bulk of the book. She breaks the texts discussed into thematic groups: the Welsh Arthurian tradition (Culhwch ac Olwen, Peredur, Owein, and Geraint); the British “popular” tradition of war and conquest that addresses the violence inherent in the (native Arthurian) system (The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain, King Arthur and King Cornwall, Lancelot of the Laik, and The Adventures of Arthur); the chivalric adventures that address the violence inherent in the (Continental aristocratic) system (Ywain and Gawain, Lybeaus Desconus, Sir Perceval, and The Jeaste of Sir Gawain); tales of chivalric identity that question the nobleness of the traditional Arthurian court (The...