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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

If not actually Celtic themselves


Many

years ago, and not a few before M. Gaston Paris had published his views, I read these two forms of the story in the valuable joint edition, verse and prose, of M. Jonckbloet, which some ruffian (may Heaven _not_ assoil him!) has since stolen or hidden from me. And I said then to myself, "There is no doubt which of these is the original." Thirty years later, with an unbroken critical experience of imaginative work in prose and verse during the interval, I read them again in Dr. Forster's edition of the verse and Dr. Sommer's of the prose, and said, "There is less doubt than ever." That the prose should have been prettified and platitudinised, decorated and diluted into the verse is a possibility which we know to be not only possible but likely, from a thousand more unfortunate examples. That the contrary process should have taken place is practically unexampled and, especially at that time, largely unthinkable. At any rate, whosoever did it had a much greater genius than Chrestien's.

This is no place to argue out the whole question, but a single particular may be dealt with. The curiously silly passage about the bars above given is a characteristic example of unlucky and superfluous amplification of the perfectly natural question and answer of the prose, "May I come to you?" "Yes, but how?" an example to be paralleled by thousands of others at the time and by many more later. Taken the other way it would be a miracle. Prose abridgers of poetry

did not go to work like that in the twelfth-thirteenth century--nor, even in the case of Charles Lamb, have they often done so since.

It is, however, very disagreeable to have to speak disrespectfully of a writer so agreeable in himself and so really important in our story as Chrestien. His own gifts and performances are, as it seems to me, clear enough. He took from this or that source--his selection of the _Erec_ and _Percivale_ matters, if not also that of _Yvain_, suggests others besides the, by that time as I think, concentrated Arthurian story--and from the Arthuriad itself the substance of the _Chevalier a la Charette_. He varied and dressed them up with pleasant etceteras, and in especial, sometimes, though not always, embroidered the already introduced love-motive with courtly fantasies and with a great deal of detail. I should not be at all disposed to object if somebody says that he, before any one else, set the type of the regular verse _Roman d'aventures_. It seems likely, again, from the pieces referred to above, that he may have had originals more definitely connected with Celtic sources, if not actually Celtic themselves, than those which have given us the mighty architectonic of the "Vulgate" _Arthur_. In his own way and place he is a great and an attractive figure--not least in the history of the novel. But I can see nothing in him that makes me think him likely, and much that makes me think him utterly unlikely, to be the author of what I conceive to be the greatest, the most epoch-making, and almost the originating conception of the novel-romance itself. Who it was that did conceive this great thing I do not positively know. All external evidence points to Walter Map; no internal evidence, that I have seen, seems to me really to point away from him. But if any one likes let us leave him a mere Eidolon, an earlier "Great Unknown." Our business is, once more, with what he, whoever he was, did.


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