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Kinsmen of the Grail
Dorothy James Roberts
Green Knight Publishing, 320 pages


Michael Cohen
Kinsmen of the Grail
Dorothy James Roberts
Dorothy James Roberts was born in West Virginia in 1903 and educated at Barnard and Wisconsin, where she specialized in medieval studies. She was the author of more than a dozen novels -- including A Man of Malice Landing (1943); The Mountain Journey (1947); Marshwood (1949) -- though her historical fiction remains the most widely read. Fire in the Ice (1961), based on an Icelandic saga, was hailed in the New York Times as "one of the finest historical novels of recent years." In addition to these she wrote three Arthurian novels: The Enchanted Cup (1953) based on the Tristam and Iseult story, Launcelot, My Brother (1954), and Kinsmen of the Grail (1963). She died in 1990.

ISFDB Bibliography
Biographical material on D.J. Roberts, available on tape
Publisher's site

Related Arthurian on-line texts referred to in review (alphabetically by title)

Historia Brittonum (c. 835) by Nennius
Full text
Portion referring to Arthur -1
Portion referring to Arthur -2
Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1150) by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1154)
Portion referring to Arthur
Idylls of the King (1859-1885) by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
Individual links to poems
La Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
Part I of complete text
Part II of complete text
Books X and XI
Annotated text under development
Excerpt
Perceval (c. 1180) by Chrètien de Troyes
Summary
"Peredur" (c. 1200) from the Welsh Mabinogion
Site-1
Site-2
Perlesvaus (c. 1120)
Complete text
Excerpt from Perlesvaus
14th century English
Sir Perceval of Galles
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

(* indicates texts which can be found on-line, see links to the left)

Dorothy James Roberts' Kinsmen of the Grail, originally published in 1963, is a well-written and engrossing Arthurian novel based on the early 12th century Perlesvaus. Rather than concentrate on the title character, Perceval, its focus is Gawain and how he is torn between his own Grail quest and saving his uncle Arthur from the treachery of Kei and Bryant. Having read much of the original source material some 20 years ago, I can attest that Roberts' novel captures the feel of the originals (she was after all a medieval scholar), but avoids much of their oft-repeated clichés (damsels in distress sitting in the appropriate nasty enchanter/knight/giant's castle, jousting scenes, purely chivalrous romance, and the "meanwhile knight X was..." tangents). This and her use of simple modern English (as opposed to archaisms like "forsooth" and "yclept") provide a fresh, very readable and entertaining approach to what can at times be a very tired genre.

As the author points out, many English readers see the stories of Arthur, and in particular of the Grail Quest by Perceval and others, as a strictly English purview. After all, Arthur makes his first appearance in the Welsh monk Nennius' 9th century Historia Brittonum* and it is the early British "historian" Geoffrey of Monmouth who creates much of the Arthurian mythology in his Historia Regum Britanniae* (c. 1150). They may then think of the early 12th century Welsh Mabinogion account of "Peredur"* and the 14th century Sir Perceval de Galles* -- in more recent times of Sir Thomas Malory's massive 15th century La Morte d'Arthur,* and the Victorian Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson.* Even more recent writers like T.H. White (The Once and Future King) and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Avalon series are the product of English writers.

However if you were scouting out Arthuriana in the monasteries of 13th century Europe you would have found a huge preponderance of French metrical and prose romances. The earliest of these was Chrètien de Troyes' (1135-1190) uncompleted metrical romance, Perceval* (a.k.a. Conte du Graal, c. 1180). A number of completions of his work were undertaken throughout the early 12th century, including Robert de Boron's now fragmentary Perceval. Around 1120, an anonymous author put together Perlesvaus a.k.a. Le Haut Livre du Graal which survives in two complete manuscripts (Oxford and Brussels) and numerous fragments. This work gathered, in one text, all of the Grail legend and was one of the earliest prose texts in the French language. While it is the story of Perceval's Grail quest, Perlesvaus spends several chapters following Gawain's adventures. Gawain is presented as one of Arthur's top knights, and though somewhat quick to anger, he certainly isn't the object of ridicule that Malory would later make him out to be. So it is from Perlesvaus, and not English sources, that Roberts has taken her inspiration.

What I most enjoyed in the portrayal of Gawain was the author's keen observation of a middle-aged man. At the time of the story Gawain has been a knight for some 20-odd years; he's still a powerful knight but he knows he's slowing down and that he increasingly needs to rely on his experience rather than merely physical prowess. He's just a bit irked when the young Perceval, who has been kept shielded from all knightly pursuits by his mother, goes off to the City of Legions (i.e., Camelot), pulls an enchanted sword out of a stone, and becomes "super-knight" overnight -- not to mention that Gawain's killed his best horse, been beaten up and roamed around lost for days trying to track Perceval down.

Widowed for many years, but not averse to an inn-keeper's daughter here and there, Gawain falls deeply in love with Perceval's widowed mother, Iglais. An impatient man and a hardened warrior he is entranced and confused by her pacifism and how at peace she appears amidst the turmoil around her, but he loses her when she must retire to a convent for her son to fulfil his destiny. A thoroughly practical man, he is gradually led, through her and others, to search for the Grail, believed to be in the possession of certain members of Perceval's family. This quest for both the object and what it represents leads him through a spiritual learning experience which draws him more and more urgently to the Grail. But he is pledged to Arthur, and when Kei and Bryant begin to plot against the king, Gawain is torn between his duty and his personal quest.

While I highly recommend going back to the original sources, you certainly won't find there the same focus on the personal and spiritual development of a specific character as that which Roberts has portrayed so well with Gawain in Kinsmen of the Grail. Roberts has melded the best elements of the modern novel with the early Arthurian romance to create a character who isn't just another cardboard knight on yet another damsel in distress rescue mission. So if you're tired of the invincible pretty boy Launcelot (Richard Gere comes to mind here), and the doltishly innocent Perceval, try the story of a real ol' trooper of a knight -- it's in Dorothy James Roberts' Kinsmen of the Grail.

Copyright © 2000 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.


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