Sunday, February 09, 2014

Fortnightly Book, February 9

I have several things coming up the next two weeks, so I need a lighter book for the fortnightly book. And it's an interesting one as much for the complexity of the story: The Romance of Tristan & Iseult, as retold by Joseph Bédier, translated from the french by Hilaire Belloc and Paul Rosenfield. Joseph Bédier was a great scholar of French literature who did a great deal to re-popularize the old chansons and gestes. This is one of his popular works, a piecing together of a unified story from various sources. To create a popular work was the intent, but it took a great scholar to do it. As he notes in the author's Note at the beginning:

In this book I have tried to avoid a mixture of the ancient and the modern. To steer clear of disparities, anachronisms and embellishments and, through the exercise of historical understanding and critical discipline, to avoid intrusion of our modern concepts into older forms of thinking and feeling, has been my aim, my effort, and no doubt, alas, my delusion. My text has been assembled from so many sources that, were I to enumerate them all in minute detail,t his little volume would be weighed down by a profusion of footnotes.

In the Note he indicates that he has sources in Anglo-Norman, German, and French sources, particularly the Anglo-Norman poet Thomas, Béroule, Gottfried von Strassburgh, and Eilhart von Oberg. In this sense, the work is much like Tolkien's Sigurd and Gudrun texts: it is a literary creation, but it is a highly scholarly literary creation.

Hilaire Belloc, who might best be summarized as a force of nature, was, of course, French as well as English. His father was French, his mother was English; he was born in France, educated in England, spent time in the French artillery, and became a naturalized citizen of England in his thirties; he kept double citizenship the rest of his life. He was a Catholic, of course (his mother had been converted by Manning) and active in politics, which was a potentially dangerous combination; he seems to have survived by his sheer frankness and candor about it, mixed with his formidable speaking skill and wit. Belloc translated Bédier's work on Tristan, abridging it both by eliminating chapters and certain passages.

In 1945, Paul Rosenfeld put out a version of Belloc's translation, adding the chapters and passages that Belloc had left out.

The version I'll be using is a nice Heritage Press (New York); you can see pictures here, although I don't have the slipcover. It has quite a few richly colored illustrations. The type is 16-point Bembo.

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