- The Quest of the Holy Grail ed. by Judith Shoaf
The Quest of the Holy Grail is arguably the most compelling of the works that compose the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, situating King Arthur within both British and Christian history. In her lucid translation of the Quest, Judith Shoaf provides a new, highly readable edition of the Quest, essential to students and professors of Arthurian literature. In her introduction, Shoaf addresses numerous points so easily overlooked when teaching such a rich text, but necessary to students’ understanding and enjoyment of the work and its context. Clearly worded footnotes, easily accessible on the page, define essential terms with which an undergraduate or even a non-medieval scholar may not be completely familiar. Explanation of terms like Zumthor’s ‘mouvance,’ for example, elucidate issues of chronology and sources unique to the medieval text, helping students grasp its distinctiveness. On that score, Shoaf also highlights the influence of the copyist when explaining variations of detail among extant versions of the Quest. Shoaf’s talent lies in her ability to delineate details without compromising or oversimplifying inconsistencies both internal and external to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. In her introduction she addresses, for instance, allegorical elements and the importance of context to their interpretation, the historical Arthur versus the ‘marvels’ that shape and propel the Arthurian narrative, as well as the sometimes awkward linking of the Arthurian world and the early Church. The author also broaches the problematic definition of the grail itself, pointing out that, although the grail is closely associated with ‘secret words’ (p. 55), as in the works of Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron, the narrative comprises an inherent impasse as a text centered on an object that transcends language. [End Page 85]
In short, this translation of the Quest provides a most useful introduction not only to the universe of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, but also to some of the defining characteristics of medieval narrative in general. Shoaf’s translation offers instructors an alternative to that of Pauline Matarasso (1969), which does not provide the same level of clarity and fluidity as Shoaf ’s version. Instructors will also find Shoaf ’s footnotes helpful to students as they can better orient themselves with the universe of the story. Her notes connect the dots between the Quest and other texts in the Arthurian tradition, provide succinct and straightforward definitions to essential terms, and amplify intriguing cultural elements. Her footnotes also provide useful points from which to launch lectures and class presentations concerning knightly culture generally. Scholars will appreciate her notations concerning specific textual variations between manuscripts and story lines that appear, in part or in whole, in other narratives. Footnotes illuminate nuances that are lost in translation, such as Robert de Boron’s word play among ‘graal,’ ‘à gré,’ and ‘grever,’ helping the reader to grasp the linguistic and narrative complexity of the text even as it remains accessible to a broader audience via translation.
In addition to identifying useful connections to other texts within the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, the appendices also include excerpts of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval ou le Conte du Graal and Yvain ou le Chevalier au Lion, providing the reader direct and immediate access to external references as well. Shoaf also provides context for the apocryphal biblical narratives of the Tree of Life and the Ship of Solomon that occupy a central place in the Quest. This translation, with its valuable supporting material, will facilitate students’ comprehension of and appreciation for medieval romance. [End Page 86]