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The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature.

This collection is the first of a series of volumes intended to replace R. S. Loomis's Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages (1957), 21 work indispensable in its day but inevitably overtaken by more recent scholarly work nowhere more than in the fields of research represented by the thirteen chapters here reviewed. The first, second and fifth (|The Arthur of history.' by Thomas Charles-Edwards, |The early Welsh Arthurian poems' by Patrick Sims-Williams and |The Merlin legend and the Welsh tradition of prophecy' by A. O. H. Jarman) correspond in their subject-matter to the first three of the earlier collection, though each draws on a wealth of modern scholarship; Culhwach ac Olwen is now treated with the plainly native Arthurian material in the Triads and (a new departure) the saints' lives by Brynley Roberts, who also extends the scope of the chapter on Geoffrey with a consideration of the Welsh Bruts, and Breuddwyd Rhonabwy with the Welsh Grail translations and other later texts, previously given only a passing mention, by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan. Each of the three so-called romances has now a chapter to itself: Geraint by Roger Middleton, Owain by R. L. Thomson and Peredur by Ian Lovecy; the rather brief references to the Welsh Tristan material in Loomis are,expanded into a full chapter by Rachel Bromwich, who also provides the concluding chapter, 'First transmission to England and France'. Entirely new is Oliver Padel's chapter 'Some south-western sites with Arthurian associations', and almost equally new, though it covers some of the same ground as Loomis's own chapter |The oral diffusion', is |Brittany and the Arthurian Legend' by J. E. Caerwyn Williams.

The general tendency is to deepen our understanding of the texts, in particular in the light of the revival of interest in the Latin material, rather than to provide explanations of what was previously unexplained; indeed, the better we appreciate the complexities of the evidence, the less likely any straightforward explanation of it appears to be. Charles-Edwards's suggestion that the concept of Arthur as dux bellorum may owe something to contemporary English ideas of hegemony, as exemplified by Edwin and the title of Bretwalda, brings us some way nearer to understanding how an obscure historical Arthur may have become a legendary figure in pre-Norman Wales. The shadowy image of a multilingual society in south-eastern Wales in the early twelfth century, by which all manner of cultural exchanges might be elucidated, flits in and out of these pages, and yet, even if with Brynley Roberts we tend to believe in Geoffrey's liber vetustissimus, we are no nearer to knowing how much of the |British' material in the Historia Regum Britanniae is Breton and how much Welsh, still less whether the lost French sources currently. supposed to underlie both Chretien's romances and their Welsh counterparts were in origin Anglo-Norman, Anglo-Breton or simply Breton. Too much evidence remains irrecoverable.

The development of the Welsh Arthurian tradition may be compared to a complex geological process: we find faults and intrusions, metamorphoses and secondary deposits, and, in the later period, unconformities underlying a superficially uncomplicated surface. One of the disadvantages of treating the Welsh material in a separate volume is that it tends to privilege the idea of a simple sequence over an acknowledgement of the actual complexity of its constituent processes; another is that it reinforces the discredited pedagogical practice of treating literatures in isolation. But the breadth of learning demonstrated by the contributors, and their scrupulous scepticism regarding conclusions, constitute a formidable defence against any such simplistic reading of the material. The volume deserves an enthusiastic welcome, and the promised revisions of Loomis's sections on the French, English and German Arthurian traditions will be eagerly awaited.

One possibility which might have been raised, but is not, is that the Historia Regum represents an attempt, perhaps in the context of the reconquest of Normandy, to provide the Anglo-Norman monarchy with a lineal ancestry comparable to that afforded to the kings of France by the nascent Charlemagne cycle. On Llongborth (p. 47), the Irish usage of longhort |stronghold' without the etymological suggestion of |ship' may allow a widening of the topographical possibilities. In defence of Alladhan as derivative from allaidh |wild' (p. 129), one might note cu allaidh |wolf' and refer to Merlin's wolf-companion in the Vita Merlini. Singular mirabilium (p. 91) should be corrected in reprint.
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Author:Jacobs, Nicolas
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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