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These tales are "collected and retold" by Matthews. As compiler, Matthews is also presumably the translator of this extensive collection of tales about Arthur, his knights and the world these medieval novelists envision for them.
He also provides good historical and literary background, giving some insight into the era and cultural factors involved in the original situation(s). Matthews also discusses possible historical or legendary sources that have been merged or otherwise contributed to the various myths or romances of Arthur.
The translator has rendered these stories into easy, natural modern English. The literature has a natural feel to it. Even so, the medieval character shines through brightly in the exchanges in the dialogue, the settings, the events, and the characters in the stories. They are vibrant, lively tales, for the most part, readable as modern literature, but opening a window into a past world.
Be ready for an adventurous time travel. The main sources of the Arthur memories and legends seem to be aspects of Roman, ancient Celtic, post-Roman Celtic and medieval feudal romance. These stories are not short little ditties. Many are quite long, well-developed stories, some with multiple plots. You should allow a setting and time to concentrate on the stories. There is a lot of reading here.
Fantasy, Magic and Silliness
As you might expect, these stories are full of fancy, unlikely situations and, of course, magic of all kinds. I found some of the situations and attitudes tedious. The knights are often quite childish, challenging battle to the death at the slightest excuse, on the pretext of "honour."
Or they will make some kind of whimsical vow, just to make a vow, then challenge all in their company to make a similar one, and each tries to top the other with the ridiculous, purposeless deed they vow to accomplish. Fascinating! It is like they did not have anything real to do.
The stories are very like the classic Western movies, though, with the good guys and the bad guys. They just don't wear white or black hats. The bad guys are amazingly skillful and usually defeat great champions of evil, who have never yet been defeated by any other knight. Then the hero of that particular tale comes along, gallantly and foolishly challenges the knight for his evil misdeeds, or valiantly calls his bluff, then of course, usually, bests the great evil champion.
Often what is presented as gallantry seems to be just stupidity. What is considered honour seems like childishness. It was a different time! These knights go out of their way to risk getting killed. It is supposed to be part of their charm! There are giants, ogres, witches, and of course, every story has the most beautiful damsel in the world. You wonder how every girl they see can be the most beautiful one they have ever seen.
Clash with the Modern Mind
And, another thing irritating to the modern and postmodern minds -- the women are won and lost, promised, given, stolen, etc., just like any chattle property. It wasnt't a nice time. The women did not have a lot of options, if these tales present any bit of reality. The knight is always completely overwhelmed by the lady's beauty and often this appearance of beauty and the spell of love turns out to literally be a spell -- magic causing the knight to lose all touch with reality and become totally obsessed with winning the lady's love.
The Arthur Figure
Oh, this is supposed to be about King Arthur. And he is in some of the stories. He is often not the main figure. Arthur is a background figure in many. Arthur is largely a military father-figure, whose court is renowned all over the world, like India and "the East." The tales are organized by topic or theme; for instance there is a section of tales about Gawain.
The Celtic Tales lead off the collection as the first thematic set. Arthur and his "court" are presented more historically and realistically, it seems, in the Celtic tales. I like these better than the high-flying fantasy of the French period.
The more European, and later, tales are more stylized, reflecting the late medieval high feudalism familiar in Thomas Mallory's Morte d'Arthur. Arthur is modeled after a European monarch, rather than a Celtic tribal leader of a ducal figure in late Roman Britain. Likewise, the Celtic tales have a more human figure of Merlin. Actually Merlin is missing from many of the stories. They focus more on the individual knights.
Distances and times of travel are confusing, when you have a modern map in mind, or even the known medieval world. In some tales his knights travel to the East and Arthur's glory is known there and provides passage into otherwise forbidden areas. The geography pesented in some of these talks is appalling by our current standards.
Some stories take place in fantasy land. But some of the stories attempt to represent real known countries, but relations, distances and locations are strange. Oh, and here is a good one. In some tales, Arthur's nights are involved in the Crusades! You can see that history as we know it is not the point of these stories. These are cultural expressions of fun and fantasy.
The characterizations of some of the knights are different from the earlier pictures in previous sets of Arthur tales known to us. There is a nonchalance about the value of life, even their own. They are reckless, spoiling for a fight, ready to clash at the drop of a hat, er, helmet. They often provoke opponents, risking their own lives over some minor imagined offense. This is supposed to be feature of their great valiant knighthood and good character. Beyond these comments, I'll let you check this out on your own. The editor-translator's notes are excellent to get a basic perspective before launching into the tales.
The morals of the knights in most of these stories are appalling, compared to expected standards of decency, even in today's liberal promiscuous times. People who complain that the world has gotten worse, and that sexual morality has gone down in the last century have never read history or the literary library of the "romantic" age!
These wonderful knights of the Round Table are morally dissolute, falling into bed at the least excuse. And these were the representatives of good, right, honour and justice? These were the flower of chivalry?
These stories differ from the courtly model of chivalrous, chaste love, which emphasized admiration from a distance. A lady's champion was not expected to be sexually involved with her. The idealism of love as a virtue is present in a few of these tales, but most of these show no inhibitions against sheer physical pleasure with whomever of the moment, with no repercussions. The merry nights of sexual pleasure are rife in these stories. A true fantasy!
The More Things Change
So it gives us a clue that people are people. And in fact, they have always been people! The morals of each age may vary in expectation, but its seems the evils of personal irresponsibility belong to both the good and the bad -- in every generation and age. (At least in the imagination of common writers, singers of epics and balladeers.)
So these medieval stories, and the common "romantic" troubadour songs are very like our modern jazz or rock hits, and now rap songs, and the great art from of the era, the movies, all celebrating varieties of sexual profligacy and irresponsible personal indulgence in revenge, violence and destruction. The more things change the more things stay the same! So it is with the often ridiculous, totally outrageous, sometimes delightful, stories of the Middle Ages.
Lively and Frustrating Illogic
I found them sometimes frustrating, non-sensical, or even irritating in the illogic of some of the events and dialogues. But lively and engaging they were! These are not coherent versions of the same stories. They are often totally unrelated popular tales. If the good knights really married all the great ladies they won in every story, they would have all had a huge harem. Probably shocking even to the dissolute Middle Ages.
In some tales these knights are good Christians, except in matters of personal relationships and personal sexual morals. They'll be with some rich woman who has beguiled them one evening, the next morning go to mass, then be off to their next conquest. It actually gets kind of boring. But it makes a nice mindless distraction, which I guess they needed plenty of in the hard life of the Middle Ages.
The Medieval Western
It's just like so many of our novels and adventure tales or spaghetti westerns still circulating today or the similar lines of updated adventure in the space westerns now rife in the market. The feudal Middle Ages was an interesting age.
The Clearance Collection
I am glad I found this book on the clearance table at Barnes and Noble! Which is where I hang out. No telling what goodies and novelties you will find them clearing out! As a King Arthur fan, this one caught my eye, and I am glad this historical collection is in my library.
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First written 12 January 2007
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 15 January 2007
Reviewed on Amazon 2 March 2009
Last revised here 9 January 2010
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.