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Origins of Arthurian Romances: Early Sources for the Legends of Tristan,… (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Flint F. Johnson

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2413443,774 (2.23)3
Member:Shuffy2
Title:Origins of Arthurian Romances: Early Sources for the Legends of Tristan, the Grail and the Abduction of the Queen
Authors:Flint F. Johnson
Info:McFarland (2012), Paperback, 234 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
Tags:Early Reviewers, King Arthur, Tristan and Isolde

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Origins of Arthurian Romances: Early Sources for the Legends of Tristan, the Grail and the Abduction of the Queen by Flint F. Johnson (2012)

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Take one cup of Chretien de Troyes' poetry, add one cup of assorted European historical snippets selected randomly over one thousand years, moisten with another cup of damp underdeveloped arguments and hypotheses, and season with a handful of incorrect assertions about pre-Christian pagan religions and a sprinkling of often-uninformative footnotes. Place in an academic blender and whirl briefly, then pour into an ungreased thesis-shaped baking tin and heat in a publisher's oven. Remove underdone and serve dry to the unwary lover of Arthurian romances under a misleading title. Result: one curate's egg of a book. ( )
3 vote gwernin | Nov 29, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I have a huge interest in medieval texts and recently took a class where the professor was obsessed with the Arthurian Romances, and so I thought this might be a helpful resource. Unfortunately the other reviewers have picked up on most of the issues. Not sure I'd recommend this. ( )
  Kegsoccer | May 22, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I've had to give up on this one at last.

Origins of Arthurian Romances is an odd choice for an Early Reviewers giveaway, I think, and I've tried not to knock it for that. It's clearly intended for very narrow audience of individuals with postgraduate-level knowledge of Arthurian and medieval literature and history across several languages and about 800 years. As well-read as I fancy myself to be in Arthuriana, I'm not that person. Because I'm unfamiliar with many of the works Johnson discusses, many of his references to other scholars' studies of them are more confusing than illustrative or illuminating, and because he spends little time summarizing in any coherent fashion his various source texts, I'm often not able to see the connections or disconnections he makes between these works.

All this is to say that I'm unqualified to comment on the book's strengths as a scholarly work. However, from a form (as opposed to substance) perspective, the book is a bit of a nightmare. It's badly written and rather poorly argued, I think, and the loose structure is not helped by the author's somewhat frenetic, digressive style.

There are a range of problems which include typographical errors, grammatical errors (particularly fragments, comma splices, and sentences which simply make no logical sense), unhelpful and confusing footnotes, and the author's bizarre insistence on referring to himself as "the author" while also referring to the unknown or anonymous authors of the various texts he's discussing as "the author," and what appears to be a tendency to tolerate contradictory evidence when discussing his own theories while excoriating such tolerance in other scholars.

The problems, though, are deeper than this, and it's hard to know where to start. Johnson's points seem to be incompletely argued, and seem to be based often on assumptions about what "must have" been true in certain places at certain times - what traditions of other cultures an author would have known or not known about, what influence a wealthy patron would have had. Many points are assumed, apparently as common knowledge, with no reference or support. Evidence for a particular viewpoint isn't laid out clearly, and so often Johnson's statements that he's proved or demonstrated a point read like fiats (or delusions). This pattern, repeated over and over, makes it difficult sustain the will required to make it through to the end.

Of course, Johnson's task is an ambitious one. He's attempting to reconstruct the earliest versions of tales that have been told over and over for centuries in different languages. There's so much that's been lost to history and can't ever be known, and even the existing written sources are and probably always will be inexactly dated, which makes this type of reconstruction exceptionally difficult. But Johnson's examination is far from methodical, and the result is a confused mess of conflicting theories and evidence where Johnson seems often to undercut his own points with equivocal word choices, rhetorical questions, occasionally incomprehensible sentences, and belatedly-raised contradictory details. Many of his points are interesting, even fascinating, but they don't give a sense of having contributed to an overall goal, and, in particular the stated goal of having reconstructed an ur-text of any of the studied stories.

Perhaps if I had the vast knowledge that Johnson seems to, not only of the texts in question, but the history and archaeology of the period and the critical scholarship amassed in recent centuries, I might feel that Johnson had come closer to the mark set by the assertion on the back cover that he's proven a single common source for all versions of the three stories he studies, and that he's created a "new and more thorough methodology for studying the period," whatever that might mean. Without that, however, the effort required to see this book through to the end is more than I'm willing to expend at this point.

As I say, I can't speak to how this book holds up for a serious scholar of the genre, but it is decidedly not for the Arthurian generalist. ( )
2 vote upstairsgirl | Feb 14, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Good lord, I'm glad I'm done with this book. The concept was fascinating--the idea that romances developed from common originals. I was very excited to have won it as an Early Reviewer book.

The author used Margaret Murray as a source. First red flag. Margaret Murray had been discredited for decades when was I was an undergrad (I graduated back in 1989). She is one of the people responsible for many neo-Pagans stridently claiming that pagan cults existed in an unbroken line through the Middle Ages, an idea which is completely ridiculous. (Mind you, I have absolutely no problem with neo-Pagans whatsoever; in fact, I am one. I also believe claims need evidence.) There were indeed some groups that had overtones of paganism, as Carlo Ginzburg has shown, but they believed themselves thoroughly Christian. Also, calling a group that worships the god Belatacrudos a cult of a mother goddess shows how little he knows about ancient Celtic religions. A cult of a mother goddess (and the ancient Celts didn't use that term, nor did they gather in "covens") would have worshipped a goddess. You don't worship a god if you're a cult of a goddess. Kind of basic logic there. Another basic fault in logic is "After that [600 CE] the practitioners of the Celtic cults were forced to conduct their rituals in secret, which is why no archaeological evidence of them exists after this time." Really? We have no evidence so that proves it happened? I can't. If the rituals happened, even if they were secret, there would eventually be some evidence found. That's how it works.

There author grasps at straws, leaping from place to place, that it's hard to follow what he's trying to say in many cases. The grammar is sloppy throughout the book. Just one example: "...might well have been added to the Tristan story some time after his transmission to Wales." Poor subject/pronoun agreement right there. The subject is story--Tristan is an adjective. This happens continually throughout the book making things even more difficult to understand. Normally I'd be all over the copy editor and proofreader for this, but given how much this book made my head hurt as just a reader, and as a publishing professional myself I have more sympathy for them (given the crazy deadlines and how hard it is to work on such a bad book) and feel the author really needs to pay attention/relearn his grammar.

There are also contradictions (he goes back and forth on how early Guinevere was a key factor in Arthurian stories) and outright errors that he uses to support his arguments. The Lia Fail, for instance, was never used to recognize the kings of Ulster. My god, all you have to do is look at any basic history of Ireland to know that! The Lia Fail is at Tara, where the high king of Ireland was declared. You can find it on the basic Tara Web site. Hell, even Wikipedia gets it right!

As for the Tristan story representing Louis VII, Henry II, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the author needs to read up on the idea of courtly love and the Plantagenets. The idea that Henry II and Eleanor was a love match is rather silly--nobody married for love at that time in history, no matter how quick the marriage and no matter how well they seemed to get along. Before her marriage to Henry, two other men had already tried to kidnap Eleanor to force her into marriage. By all accounts, the marriage, even in the good days, was very tempestuous. And according to the rules of courtly love, you could not be in love with your spouse.

In short, avoid this book. You will wind up confused. The author fails to prove anything he attempts. It's a hodepodge of ideas that are incoherent, relies on sources that are discredited, and is poorly written. If I had turned this in for my undergrad Arthurian romance class, I would have failed.

Worst, he mentioned "in an upcoming publication." Please, McFarland, don't let this happen. I normally love your books. ( )
6 vote PirateJenny | Feb 9, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Dr Johnson’s quest is to discover 6th century Celtic origins in much later Arthurian romances. He proposes a new methodology for doing so, and applies it to three 12th century romances: Chretien de Troyes’ Knight of the Cart and Perceval, and Thomas of Britain’s Tristan and Iseult. He examines the primary sources, draws from secondary sources, discusses influences on the later writers, and proposes hypothetical oral legends as the bases for the later romances. Much of his information and many of his conclusions are very interesting. The bibliography, which includes both primary and secondary works, is a valuable resource.

This book is, and is obviously meant to be, a scholarly work. However, the intended audience is somewhat unclear and seemingly inconsistent; for example, he devotes a chapter each to the stories of the three romances – which even casual readers of Arthurian lore probably know – but also assumes familiarity with early Celtic works, the various versions of the romances, and prominent Arthurian scholars. I’m far from an expert, but I have probably read more of these works than the average person; I was nevertheless often confused -- particularly when he variously refers to a work by its foreign language title, the English translation, or the author, without ever giving the full information (in either the text or footnotes). Tables or charts of the works, with alternate titles and probable dates, would have been a welcome addition. The poor writing also contributed to the confusion.

Most serious, in my opinion, were the historical errors. As well as several other incorrect statements throughout the book, the conclusions about Tristan were predicated on erroneous facts, highly unlikely assumptions, and a lack of understanding of 12th century history.

This book wasn’t boring to me. But it was unnecessarily confusing and real chore to get through. I’m hesitant to recommend it, except to the most die-hard Arthurian fans – but I suspect that they too will be disappointed. ( )
3 vote ivyd | Jan 26, 2013 |
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This book began as an exploration of the more interesting elements of a single Arthurian story, the abduction of Arthur's queen, and slowly developed into an examination of its Celtic source materials.
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In about 1136, a Welshman named Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote an ambitious composite of British literature and pseudohistory known as Historia Regum Britanniae.
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"There are three archetypal and widespread Arthurian stories--the abduction of Guinevere, the Holy Grail, and Tristan. Through the author's research of the literature and comparative literature of the stories, and by studying the history, laws, and archaeology of the post-Roman period, a new methodology was found for approaching sources"--Provided by publisher.… (more)

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