Thursday, May 13, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
José María Gutiérrez Arranz, The Cycle of Troy in Geoffrey Chaucer: Tradition and "Moralitee". Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. Pp. xiii, 135. ISBN 9781443813075. £34.99.
Reviewed by Edmund Richardson, Princeton University

Here are the fragments of the past, glittering and strange: a medieval knight, gloomily discussing Dares Phrygius; a farmyard rooster, cursed by nightmares and musing on Andromache; Troilus, poetically compared to a carthorse.

Offering a wide-ranging survey of the reception of the Trojan War in medieval Europe--focused around the work of Geoffrey Chaucer--this strange and troubling book points towards a rich field for classical reception studies. The glimpses it affords of medieval engagements with the ancient past--in fables and poems and fantastical reworkings of classical sources--are tantalizing. Ancient and contemporary worlds fuse together, time and again, in the most confounding ways: Cressida, for instance, is so moved by a story from Thebes that she decides to leave Troy, dressed in a medieval widow's habit, 'to pray and read the lives of saints in a cave' (52).

This was a quicksilver discourse--where antiquity might drift into focus for a while, only to slip away all of a sudden (supplanted, perhaps, by that carthorse). Rarely has the force of imagination been brought more thoroughly to bear upon the past; even an infamous nineteenth century burlesque of the Trojan War, where Helen was a Trojan and Paris a Greek (cf. The Times, Sept. 8th, 1854, 7, col.f for a review), seems tame compared to some of these Troys. Gutiérrez Arranz is to be congratulated for his desire to introduce this material to a more general audience (his work is directed, according to the jacket, 'not only to researchers, but to every kind of audience'); these are tales to be relished.

The book lets slip its narrative, allowing it to advance by leaps and bounds. After a brief Introduction, Part I provides a dizzying eight-page survey of 'The Cycle of Troy in Ancient Literature'--while the scarcely more sedate Part II summarizes medieval engagements with Troy. Perhaps inevitably, the effect is overwhelming: the text hops from Joseph of Exeter to Albert of Stade to Guido delle Colonne (all 23), with minimal background information on these authors, their works, and the discourses within which they wrote. Secondary references are scanty, and Gutiérrez Arranz has a tendency to rely on one or two key texts in each section of his book: over half the references to secondary material in Part II, for example, point to Callen King's Achilles. Paradigms of the War Hero from Homer to the Middle Ages (Berkeley, 1987).

In Part III, the pace slows, as Gutiérrez Arranz focuses in on the heart of his work, Chaucer's engagement with the story of Troy. After a brief biographical sketch of Chaucer, he works through his interpretations of figures from the Trojan narratives, character by character. This results in a comprehensive catalog--but, once again, one with a problematic narrative line; Gutiérrez Arranz's desire for completeness--his wish to include every single character--often frustrates his ability to tell a coherent story. (Part 3.2.3 is entitled, for instance, 'Xantipus, Antenor, Briseis, Criseyde, Deiphobus, Hecuba, Laomedon, Mnestheus, Polydamus, Poliphete, Polymnestor, Polites, Polixena, Priam, Ripheus, Sarpedon and Troilus.' The result, perhaps inevitably, is a work which is descriptive far more often than it is analytical.)

The material is often so wondrous--and the book potentially so timely--that I found myself wishing for prose which grabbed the reader by the scruff of the neck, and demanded delight. Instead, the argument is hard to grasp, fog-bound--obscured, above all, by typographical errors. These average three or more per page, and run the gamut of possibilities: from grammatical mistakes ('what a Spanish researcher did pointed out' [ix]) to spelling mistakes ('delivered over to the hing [king]' [37]), quotations incorrectly transcribed ('she had poured thm [them]' [115]), incorrect formatting (B.C. appears as b.C. on some pages [2] and B.C. on others [1]), and the truly Freudian ('Ut, paene extinctum cinerem si sulphure tangas, / Vivet' (Ov. Rem. Am. 731) is translated as 'Just as near-extinct members [embers], when touched with sulphur, spark back into life' [88]). From the first paragraph of the Introduction these mistakes pile up, page after page.

Even when technically correct, the style itself baffles--with the narrative line frequently swallowed up by overly-complicated prose ('According to this, the thematic metafiction can be defined as an agglutination of those elements in the text itself' [41]). In a book written for the general reader, such excesses are not fitting; many, indeed, leave me baffled still. Gutiérrez Arranz also quotes from a rich variety of languages--including Latin, medieval English and medieval French--but only consistently translates the Latin (leaving French untranslated on 37, for example, and Italian on 43). Once again, this is not appropriate given his intended audience; I, for one, would have appreciated an elucidation of phrases such as 'how that it koude gon, was of bras' (42). The difficulties which this books presents to the reader may best be summed up by quoting one typical paragraph, in its entirety:

Troilus reminds Boethius in other aspects. Proud of his insensitivity for being mad about love, Troilus has allowed the luxury of being self-confident and sanctimonious. His desperation for watching Criseyde becomes more distressed when he notices that those at whom he mocked mock him now, and use the same excuses to do it. This anguish to mockery tortures him, so that he can't afford complaining (Camargo 1991, 216-218).' (74)

Baffled at so many turns in my reading--brought time and again to a standstill--I began to think that this was an elaborate postmodern joke: a work on the entanglement of traditions which was itself hopelessly entangled; a study of the difficulty of comprehending the relationship between the past and the present which itself resisted comprehension. Was the joke on me, and my longing to see through the mist? Yet this, I suspect, is to wonder over-much; the answer is simpler, and glimpsed in shades of gray.

Rarely, I fear, has more been lost in translation. Gutiérrez Arranz does not appear to be accustomed to writing in English--and he should not have adopted it as the language of his book without careful assistance from a professional translator. Many of this book's stylistic difficulties could have been resolved, had it even been proof-read by a native English speaker: it would have been easy to correct the imperfectly expressed phrases ('wooden gods' [54] to 'woodland gods'), and iron out the needlessly overwrought style ('Westminster Abbey and the nearest homonymous palace' [35])--for these are traps which so many of us fall into, when facing an unfamiliar language with little more than a thick dictionary for our defense.

The loss is deeply regrettable--for this could have been a glorious work. The way Gutiérrez Arranz has been dealt with by his publishers, Cambridge Scholars Publishing (not affiliated with Cambridge University or Cambridge University Press), is, by contrast, inexplicable. This book appears to have received no editorial input whatsoever: no proof-reading, no correction, no care--even down to the author's name being imperfectly printed on the back jacket (as José Maria Gutiérrez, rather than José Maria Gutiérrez Arranz). By allowing a manuscript with such rich potential and fiery material to be published in so half-finished a form that it can scarcely be called readable, they have truly failed in their obligations both to the author and to his readers.

In spite of its many difficulties, there is rich material here, for those who have the time and the patience to search for it. Classical reception studies could surely profit from looking more closely at these kaleidoscopic and glorious medieval engagements with the ancient world. As for me, from this moment on, whenever I read of Troilus I shall always remember that carthorse. His name is Bayard.

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