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The Arthurian Companion, Second Edition
Phyllis Ann Karr
Green Knight Publishing, 591 pages

Ed Org
The Arthurian Companion
Phyllis Ann Karr
Phyllis Ann Karr's other works include her Frostflower duology (Frostflower and Thorn (1980) and Frostflower and Windbourne (1982)) and single novels such as The Idylls of the Queen (1982), Wildraith's Last Battle (1982) and At Amberleaf Fair (1986).

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Green Knight Publishing

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

As a reference, this work is extremely problematic.  Growing out of and originally researched for a role-playing game, King Arthur's Knights, the author admits in her foreword that the original edition of this companion was "godfathered... into print" by the game's creator, and that to the second edition's "origin as role game research can be traced some of its idiosyncrasies."  While this admission points to some of the problems -- at times the author's extrapolations of certain figures, actions and behaviours read as if taken from a role play manual -- the admission in part prepares and forewarns the reader of their questionable interpretive presence, perhaps in part excuses what follows.

The author herself is a writer of fictional fantasy and romance, with a long bibliography of work, much of it Arthurian-based.  Her background of study is that of an enthusiastic amateur, not in itself damning, as there is an abundant record of other gifted amateurs having contributed significantly to any variety of fields.  The difficulty here is that it readily becomes apparent that Ms. Karr is both out of date as well as unaware of significant areas of Arthurian scholarship, nor are her methods always scholastically rigorous.  If, after a brief perusal of her sources, entries and especially her appendices, I, considering myself at best an amateur in this field of study, find discrepancies and errors in presentation and analysis, real scholars will certainly raise their eyes from dusty study, shouting loudly foul.

The first indication of trouble starts in the preface, "About the Text."  The author honestly admits that the Companion is "selective rather than exhaustive," by implication a work more popularizing than comprehensive or academic, its selections personal and idiosyncratic, nor necessarily established, as in the case of geographical localities, upon archaeological evidence, with the book's information more textually based than contextually supported by scientific or historical research or evidence. More importantly, however, the immediate problem announced in the preface regards the author's choice of primary source material.  As Mallory comprises the bulk of the text's reference, supplemented primarily by Chrètien de Troyes' earlier Arthurian Romances, the 8-volume Vulgate Version, and the various stories surrounding Gawaine exploits, especially those by the Gawaine Poet, the author's selection of A.W. Pollard's printing of Mallory, based upon the Caxton edition, alerts anyone familiar with recent Arthurian scholarship of an obvious problem.  As Mallory's publisher, Caxton is to be applauded for bringing this work to the public; but it has long been recognized that in doing so he took great liberties in editing Mallory's original material to suit what he felt were the tastes of the late 15th-century audience.  Since the subsequent discovery in 1934 of the Winchester Manuscript, most scholars have come to conclude that this document represents a truer version of Mallory's original, absent Caxton's elisions and amendments, and today editions based upon this manuscript, or those drawing from both, are considered more authentic -- with Eugene Vinaver's edition generally regarded as the most authoritative. 

That Ms. Karr has chosen to continue to use the Caxton version raises questions as to her familiarity with contemporary Arthurian scholarship. It also presents the reader who selects one of the more reliable editions of Mallory's work with a problem regarding the use of the Arthurian Companion, since all the entries' book and chapter notations are based upon Caxton rather than Vinaver or one of the other Winchester Manuscript editions.  This automatically places a limitation upon its usefulness.

Additionally, in the foreword as well as the appendices, the author admits to only recent familiarity with the work of Chrètien.  This becomes glaringly apparent, along with the author's unfamiliarity with other elements of recent literary criticism for the period, in certain of her entries, as well as her comments directed towards Chrètien's work in the appendices.  Nowhere in the book is any mention made of the fundamental concept of "courtly space."  Had the author been aware of this concept and its relationship to the structuring and storyline of Chrètien's narratives, she would not have misapprehended the role of dwarves within the romances, instead recognizing their appearance as an intrusion and disruption of the values and aesthetics associated with the idealized world of the courtly.  This would have prevented Ms. Karr from inaccurately extrapolating an entirely pedestrian role in the narratives that ignores their essentially symbolic and allegorical function. 

A greater appreciation of literary scholarship in this area might also, more importantly, have avoided the unfortunate and laughable, if not funny, associations the author draws between Chrètien and comics, calling them "the Looney Toons cartoons of the day," finding "Chrètien's romances primarily comical," or suggesting that "Perhaps the best way to translate the spirit of his romances for us moderns would be to make them into comic books or animated cartoon features."  I won't even get into the author's literary justifications of Disney's Goofy King Arthur.  All I can say is that while scholars have a reputation for non-violence, were I the author, I would avoid attending in future any academic medieval seminars!

The author's willingness to venture conclusions and extrapolations based upon apparent misapprehension or lack of information, even though her analysis of Chrètien's work, aside from her own reading of it, is based admittedly upon only "a mere smattering of books and footnote references," plagues many of the other entries. This leads to unsubstantiated or incorrect assumptions, such as that "a noncombatant would have had a certain ambassadorial immunity as messenger, which a knight would not want to have," offered up as evidence for why knights are little used as messengers in Mallory, or that "events of obviously mystical origin... would probably be beyond the reach of a simple necromancer, even one as great as Merlin or Morgan."  While such conclusions may make sense to the author, they are purely speculative, without actual evidential basis provided by the texts themselves. 

Similarly, the author's apparent lack of historical background leads also to inaccurate conclusions, such as her failure to recognize the dishonour attending Lancelot's riding in a cart being due to the latter's historical association as a conveyance for criminals to execution.  Identically, elsewhere the author, while recognizing anachronisms in Mallory's writing, on the same page (528) fails to identify the "white monks" as Cistercians. This identification, along with their associations and support of the Templars, is particularly important in any reading or understanding of the Grail quest. 

This predilection to base assumptions upon little other than a personalized reading of the text often leads the author to interpretations that greatly undermine the credibility of this work as a reference.  Similar is a yielding to personal values in deciding what and what not to include.  In the case of Perlesvaus, held by some scholars to be an essential work of Arthurian literature and Grail study, as well as a sequel to that of Chrètien's, this work is refused inclusion due to its brutal and grim portrayal of the medieval Arthurian world, a depiction some historians might find far more faithful to the historical period than the idealized, fanciful and courtly aesthetics of Chrètien.  Perlesvaus is described by the author as a "monstrous piece," a "vile thing" "tainted with such deplorable vibes... I would not suffer it to remain in my house." The author's selective and idiosyncratic approach here reveals itself to be predicated more upon her own personal valuations of Arthurian literature, her preferences implicitly biased rather than an attempt to provide the balanced approach one should expect of a scholar, and which should be anticipated in such a reference, regardless of its popularization or limitations in scope.

While I will not state this work is without value in terms of offering the casual reader a spot reference for the reading of Mallory or Chrètien de Troyes, especially when cursorily looking up characters, place names or events, I hesitate to recommend it.  I myself will certainly keep this volume, turning to it from time to time as a quick reference.  Nor do I believe this work was written or intended for the true scholar.  Yet, for this very reason as a reference this work remains unsettling, and for the average reader ample caution must be applied when reading any entry not directly verifiable or supported by the actual texts. The explanatory comments and observations in particular may be regarded as suspect.  For that reason alone, if not more: caveat emptor.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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