Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant IslesBuy this book

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288 pages
David R. Godine,

Review in Arthuriana

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This enchanting retelling of tales from the Lancelot en prose follows the tradition of Joseph Bédier's famous and widely popular The Romance of Tristan. Like Bédier, Terry and Rosenberg reshape a medieval text to make it more accessible to a contemporary audience. The problem faced in each case is, however, intriguingly different. Bédier was faced with a number of versions of the Tristan, none of which was entirely complete, and few of which agreed with each other. Although Gottfried von Strasbourg and Thomas conveniently fit together with Thomas supplying the conclusion lacking in Gottfried, the Béroul version is considerably different and other anomalous versions record unique variants. Bédier hoped to reconstruct the Archetype from these sometimes disparate materials. Whether one agrees that he has indeed recovered the archetypal version of the Tristan (and I doubt that anyone now does believe it), his narrative has an artistic grace of its own and has delighted and continues to delight readers whether or not they are Tristan scholars.

Terry and Rosenberg had quite the opposite problem. Their 'archetype' already exists in its entirety, even if not all manuscripts agree, but their project, as the subtitle makes clear, is to reconstruct a somewhat different text by rigorously pruning the original material. Thus, while Bédier was working with a process of accretion, Terry and Rosenberg approach their project by a series of eliminations. In both cases, the aim is to create a coherent, readable text. And in this, both achieve remarkable success.

In addition to providing readable redactions, Bédier and Terry-Rosenberg have a clear motivation behind their recensions. For Bédier, the new version is meant to prove his theories of the Archetype; for Terry and Rosenberg, the motive is to extract from the Lancelot the embedded narrative of Galehaut and his tragic love for Lancelot. If Bédier's task is to take his materials in order to create a structure, Terry-Rosenberg chip away at the unwieldy material to reveal a new shape hidden in the mass. If Bédier's work is something like a collage, Terry-Rosenberg's is more like a sculpture with the new contours revealed by the chipping away of the surrounding impediments.

The narrative they reveal is entirely authorized by the Lancelot, but the new shape and concision bring into relief the story of Lancelot and Galehaut. No reader of the original can be unaware of the centrality of the Lancelot-Galehaut narrative, but this text reveals it in all its poignancy and tragedy. Some readers will, of course, lament the loss of some episodes, especially some of the exquisite discourses like the Lady of the Lake's homily on chivalry or the famous moment of the Lady of Malehaut's cough, which so touched Dante. On the other hand, readers should be grateful that the peculiar, but fascinating, episode of the False Guinevere is retained. While some may quibble slightly with the authors' choices, this presentation of The Romance of Galehaut is highly readable and deeply moving. It is, I think, a volume destined to adorn the shelves of medievalists as well as lovers of narrative in general. It may also earn a significant place in the history of homoerotic literature, or at least return readers to the original thirteenth-century text, where they will find the elements of this powerful narrative of masculine friendship and love with the tragic ending of a love requited, but not quite enough. This volume serves as a gloss on the medieval text, while also serving as a genuine addition to contemporary Arthurian literature.

Finally, like Bédier's text, Terry-Rosenberg's is richly illustrated. While Judith Jaidinger does not quite live up to Jean Cocteau, Bédier's collaborator, her lively woodcuts enliven the text and delight the eye.

— Donald Hoffman, Arthuriana 17.3 (Fall 2007): 115-116. Reprinted with Permission