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Long before the Internet made almost everything available to just about everyone, a friend of mine would say of certain publishing houses that they were “doing the Lord’s work”.
He meant that, despite the cost of production and the inevitable loss in the marketplace, these houses persevered in turning out slim volumes of the lesser-known Elizabethan sonnet cycles and classic works of history eclipsed by more up-to-date scholarship. If he were still with us, he’d probably say Ukemi was doing the Lord’s work for audiobooks.
This edition of Chretien de Troyes is the third Ukemi release in my library, joining Boetheus’ Consolation of Philosophy and the amazing, anonymous Mabinogion. Like the first two titles, this one is superbly, vigorously, read. Like the first two, the translation is of a rather reverend vintage, well within the Public Domain.
At first that made me wary; though no chronological snob (C. S. Lewis’ term for one dismissive of past ideas and ideals) I appreciate what modern scholarship can bring to the translation of ancient texts. But beyond a certain stiltedness in Boetheus, my fears have proved groundless. In the case of Chretien, I’m grateful for this prose version. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading the deftly rhymed verse translations by Ruth Cline and Dorothy Gilbert, these fabulous stories, told in four-beat couplets crowded with details, would probably be harder to follow through ear buds.
If you clicked on this book, chances are you already know these stories, so I won’t dwell on their origins and influence. You know about Marie de Champagne; you get the irony that Britain’s greatest hero was celebrated most enthusiastically in France; you know that two of these tales—Yvain and Eric et Enid—are variations of stories that appear in the Mabinogian (which should make for some interesting comparative listening). It only remains to say that the performance by Nicholas Boulton, though a tad hurried, is superb.
No doubt professor Comfort’s essay at the end of this recording would not pass muster in the modern academy. Nevertheless, it is still a solid exposition of the zeitgeist in which Chretien worked, his possible influences, the strengths and shortcomings of his work, and his ultimate place in the Western literary tradition.
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Chretien de Troyes wrote versions of some of the most popular Arthurian stories: Tristan, Lancelot, and Perceval. Of these, the tale of Tristan is lost and that of Perceval unfinished. The poem about Lancelot — The Knight of the Cart — will be familiar to anyone who’s read Thomas Malory, although Chretien’s version is, if anything, even denser with incident and complication.
(It seems to be part of the medieval artistic method to separate the beginning of the tale from its climax with as many and as varied episodes as possible. If you can get into the swing of it, the method is part of the charm rather than a distraction.)
The translation by WW Comfort is in prose and includes four of the surviving tales (minus the one about Perceval). The main goal seems to have been clarity, and if so, the goal was achieved. It dates from the early part of the 20th century, when the fashion in translation was to try to sound “biblical”; but this one doesn’t sound archaic at all, apart from the occasional “thee” and “thou”. It’s easy to focus on the content of the tale rather than the language. The recording includes the translator’s introduction, but thankfully places it at the end, where literary introductions belong.
Nicholas Boulton is the perfect narrator for this. His touch is light and well-paced, with the slightest touch of ironic detachment. This is an excellent choice for anyone interested in the Matter of Britain.