Why We Like Reading an Old Story in an Old Book

Last year, the Project consulted with several specialist academic groups, including Miltonists, Eighteenth-century studies, and the British Branch of the International Arthurian Society (IASBB). A competition was launched with the IASBB to write and submit a blog post on a topic related to reading influences or practices – including favoured locations and ways to read, academically; iconic texts; or the place that a learned society like the IASBB has in their research life. Full details of the competition can be found here. The entries were judged by Professor P.J.C. Field (Bangor) and Sue Hodges, Bangor University’s Director of Libraries and Archives. The winning entry was judged to be that written by Anastasija Ropa, who completed her BA and MA at the University of Latvia, and her PhD at Bangor University. Anastasija has won a week as Visiting Fellow at the new collection of Arthurian books housed in Bangor University Library, consisting of a week’s accommodation at the Management Centre in Bangor, and a £100 contribution from the IASBB towards travel costs to get there. As the winner, Anastasija has also agreed to write a report on her time in Bangor once the Visiting Fellowship is complete.

ias-logo-home-enAn edited version of Anastaija’s winning entry is reproduced in this blog post in full, and the Project would like to extend its congratulations to Anastasija and all the competition entrants for their stimulating, thought-provoking, and honest posts.

 

Some books are boring, some are entertaining and some change your life. Which is going to be the book to change the lives of the next generation of Arthurian scholars? Is it Malory; is it Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; or Chretien de Troyes? Or something completely different? I would say these books have their potential, and are likely to remain significant for generations of students and scholars – especially given the brilliant new critical editions that facilitate their access and study. Yet I have a feeling there is something to be said for the less common candidates in the less glossy modern editions, for a number of reasons. Firstly, new critical editions are expensive and hard to come by, especially outside the UK and US. Students in smaller universities around the world will continue to read the older editions of the romances. When I was a student, my own library had only one edition of Malory – Vinaver’s, and no edition of Chretien’s romances or Sir Gawain.

However, the expensiveness of new editions is not the whole argument. Shall I confess my love of old books, including old scholarly books, to a community of progressive academics versed in the most recent trends in humanities studies? Yes, I shall – knowing that I am not alone. At the heart of it, much as we find the latest editions valuable and indispensible in our daily we work, we look at the old editions with affection, loving them as we love the stories told by our seniors.

I will tell you two stories of how I fell in love with Arthurian studies.

Imagine a cold winter day, a scratched wooden desk and a hard chair in the old building of the Latvian National Library. The building itself has a medieval feeling to it. The windows must date from the nineteenth century, and drafts of freezing air pass in and out freely through cracks as wide as your index finger.

Did it feel like this to be in a monastic scriptorium? I wondered – a second-year English undergraduate, remembering the opening scenes of Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King (1995). Before me, the 2nd corrected edition (1971) of Malory’s works by Eugene Vinaver, which certainly seemed like a substantial volume to read in situ in the current weather conditions. I opened the blue covers, the yellowish leaves rustling under my fingers as if they belonged to a different age and a different world.

I do not remember how far I got with my reading or how much I understood. The only thing I remember is the romantic charm of the cold outside, and the yellowish leaves and the perplexing spelling and layout of the text. I was there, because, one year ago, in my first study year, we had to choose the theme of our first term paper. But this is another story.

An undergraduate student anxious to get everything right knocks on the door of the most respectable professor in the department. The student has to choose the topic for her first term paper, which should, preferably, be in one way or another related to her eventual BA paper. A serious undertaking for the first term, requiring courage, daring, and ingenuity. After scrutinising the list of offered topics, the student decides to suggest her own:

‘I would like to write my first term paper with you, and I would like to suggest my own topic.’

‘Yes, of course. What is your topic?’

‘King Arthur and the Knights of the round Table.’

‘It is a very broad topic. Could you be more specific?’

I do not want to be more specific. But, to show my respect, I decide to compromise.

‘The Grail Quest Legend?’

‘Still too broad. Maybe you could choose one character or one aspect of the Grail quest?’

I really want to avoid limiting myself to one character or one aspect. There is perplexed silence on my part. But, genuinely respecting the professor whom I address, I make one desperate effort:

‘The Grail Quest in Celtic Literature.’

‘It is still too broad, but you can narrow it down while working on your paper.’

This is how my career in Arthurian studies began.

Indeed, the Grail quest in Celtic literature is not only too broad a topic; it is something of a non-topic! There is no Grail in Celtic literature before the French Vulgate romances were translated into Welsh. But, oblivious of the difficulties waylaying my newly selected path of studies, I rushed to the Faculty Library, to the British Council Library and to the National Library in quest of all texts Celtic.

There was a manageable amount of medieval Celtic texts containing cauldrons and cups and other Grail-like objects. Yet the text I remember best was in the Mabinogion translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, and it was the story of Culhwch and Olwen. As you may remember, it is the story of a young lad who tricked and blackmailed King Arthur and his warriors into looking for the lad’s future bride, whom no one had ever seen. Given the number of beautiful and noble ladies at Arthur’s court, Culhwch’s choice to seek Olwen may seem somewhat illogical, but this is how medieval romance works.

The most memorable part of the story is, of course, the list of characters present at Arthur’s court, most of whom we never see again in this or any other Mabinogion story. Names, some with descriptions and short stories attached: boozers, eaters, grotesquely ugly or impossibly heroic people. The list is nearly impossible to get through in one go, but not without its rewards. Somewhere towards the middle one stops trying to understand who all these people are and why they should be mentioned there, and begins to wonder if it is possible to find out more about these people and their achievements.

There was a certain attraction to Lady Guest’s translation: flowing and elegant language, absence of distraction in the form of footnotes. The latter was also its limitation: once you have read the story, and wanted to find out more, the only place was the preface to the edition, which did not tell much about the amazing list of characters. I do not think that more would have been available in an editorial note, but this silence was vexing, and made me want to read more. In fact, every piece of medieval Celtic literature I could lay my hands on in quest of the elusive members of Arthur’s court.

So, what is the bottom line of it all? That all students should read old books in uncomfortable surroundings before becoming real Arthurians? Maybe not. Maybe the real trick is to have a good edition, which either gives you the text as it is or gives you a readable translation of it, free of excessive notes. Ideally, the notes telling you everything about the text and a little more would be handily available, at the end of your volume or in a separate one, to satisfy the curiosity excited by the text itself. This description reminds of Professor Peter Field’s new edition of Malory: an ideal edition of the romance of all time, but, alas, this edition is unlikely to enter any of the local libraries in the near future. So, I turn back to my 1971 edition by Vinaver.

 

The Project would like to extend its special thanks to the Management Centre in Bangor for their generous provision of a week’s accommodation, and to the IASBB for providing up to £100 in travel expenses for the winner. They would also like to thank Professor Raluca Radulescu, who has kindly agreed to meet with the Fellow to discuss research and use of the collection.

Advertisements