Arthurian Writers: A Biographical Encyclopedia
Ed. Laura Cooner Lambdin and Robert Thomas Lambdin. Arthurian Writers: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Westport, Connecticut and London: The Greenwood Press, 2008. xxiii + 402 pp. $95.00. ISBN 978-0-313-34682-8.
Reviewed by Alexei Kondratiev
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 27.1/2 (#103/104) (2008): 165–67.]
Given how ubiquitous and familiar the themes of the Arthurian mythos — the Sword in the Stone, the Round Table, the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere, the magic of Merlin, the treachery of Mordred — have become in both our literary and our popular culture, it comes as a bit of a shock to realize that this familiarity only goes back to about a century and a half ago, when Tennyson caught the attention of the reading public with The Idylls of the King, his poetic reworking of material he had found in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory’s great masterpiece of synthesis of mediaeval Arthurian tradition, however, had been followed by several centuries of neglect of Arthurian themes (at least in English-language literature), when an interest in such things was seen as marginal and antiquarian. The re-articulation of these stories in the Victorian period endowed them with a new vitality and power which have not abated since, as writers today continue to find inspiration in various aspects of the mythos.
The present collection offers detailed introductions to the lives and works of individual writers who have made important contributions to the tradition through the centuries (though over half of those dealt with here were born after 1800). After an opening chapter (by the editors) giving a very concise overview of the origins and development of Arthurian literature, twenty-five contributors (including the Lambdins) have provided articles on thirty-four writers, each entry averaging ten pages in length. Arranged chronologically, they begin with Gildas, the sixth-century British monk who may or may not have known the historical Arthur; and end with Margaret Atwood, included here because of her early poem cycle “Avalon Revisited” (there is also a concluding chapter — by the Lambdins — on “Arthurian Art,” a bit of a misnomer since it only deals with post-Victorian developments and ignores the rich heritage of Arthurian art from the illustrated manuscripts of the Middle Ages). Each entry begins with an account of the writer’s life (or what little is known of it, in the case of some of the earlier writers), then gives a chronological presentation of the writer’s works, a closer focus on those works that have Arthurian themes, and finally a survey of the critical response to the works up to the present day. Each entry is followed by a comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources. The unvarying format gives a welcome feeling of consistency to the entire collection, smoothing over the differences between the individual contributors’ styles and concerns. Even so, there is still some variation as to whether the emphasis is put on the “writer” or the “Arthurian” aspect of the subject. For example, Jena Trammell’s entry on John Dryden (whose credentials as an “Arthurian writer” are rather skimpy, being based entirely on his libretto for Purcell’s opera King Arthur) goes into more detail about his general work than seems relevant to a study of Arthuriana. By contrast, Edward Donald Kennedy’s entry on Mark Twain, while it gives an excellent summary of Twain’s career, limits its discussion to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Most interesting is Thomas Winn Dabbs’s treatment of Walker Percy, which brings out the influence of Arthurian themes on all of Percy’s work and shows them to be an integral part of his imaginative and moral world, even though they are alluded to explicitly only in Lancelot.
In general, the selection of the writers to be discussed has been comprehensive and judicious. The earlier (pre-Malory) writers are drawn from many linguistic traditions: Latin (Gildas, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth), French (Wace, Chretien de Troyes, Jehan Froissart), English (Layamon, the Gawain-poet, Geoffrey Chaucer), German (Hartmann von Aue, Wolfram von Eschenbach), and Italian (Giovanni Boccaccio). However, the choice to focus on individual writers means that many of the seminal texts in the tradition (in particular those of the French “Vulgate” cycle of the thirteenth century) — which are the source of some of its most important themes-are alluded to only in passing, since they are anonymous. Also, for the entire period after Malory only English-language writers are discussed. One could indeed argue that the richest body of modern writing on Arthurian themes has been in English, but even so one should not completely ignore the continuing influence such themes (especially that of the Grail) have had on the literatures of France, Germany, and Spain. (In addition to those already mentioned, the post-Malory authors included here are: Edmund Spenser; Thomas Heywood; Matthew Arnold; William Morris; Algernon Charles Swinburne; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Edwin Arlington Robinson; T.S. Eliot; C.S. Lewis; John Steinbeck; T.H. White; Mary Stewart; Rosemary Sutcliff; Thomas Berger; Marion Zimmer Bradley; and Persia Woolley.)
The most notable absence is that of Charles Williams. Not only is there no entry devoted to him, but his name does not even appear in the index. Actually, he is not left completely unmentioned, as Fiona Tolhurst’s entry on C.S. Lewis (which gives a decent introduction to Lewis’s life and work, and discusses not only the Arthurian elements in That Hideous Strength but the early poem “Launcelot” and the facetious legal correspondence “Mark vs. Tristram” that Lewis wrote in collaboration with Owen Barfield) mentions his friendship with Williams and indicates that his essay in Arthurian Torso is a commentary on Williams’s cycle of Arthurian poems. Raymond M. Vince’s entry on William Morris also mentions that Morris’s The Well at the World’s End is a “forerunner of the stories of Charles Williams, Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis,” indicating that some of the contributors at least have an understanding of the importance of Williams in the development of modern fantasy (Arthurian or otherwise). The editors may well have decided that Williams has become too obscure and marginal a figure for twenty-first century readers, and therefore chose to leave him out. Nevertheless, the wide scope, imaginative power and innovative character of Williams’s Arthurian work-as well as its continuing influence on writers and scholars, however limited-should have led them to revise that decision, if only to draw attention to the originality of Williams’s contribution to the tradition. One hopes that, if the volume ever goes through a second edition, Williams’s importance will be recognized by giving him a full entry of his own.
The book would also have benefited from better proofreading. In nearly every entry, misspelled or omitted words and garbled sentences abound — e.g. (from the introduction alone), “Briton” for “Britain” (several times), “Arimethea” for “Arimathea,” “Porcell” for “Purcell,” and so on. When we are told that William Morris used “tempura” for his murals, we are surely not to assume that he threw Japanese food at the walls! This is unfortunate, as it gives a slapdash air to what is in fact a remarkable collaborative achievement of research and interpretation. All in all, in spite of the deficiencies noted above, the Lambdins’s collection brings together a great deal of solid information. It will be especially useful as a source of basic orientation for beginning students of Arthuriana, who will then be guided to deeper levels of study by the book’s excellent bibliographies.