On the face of it, producing a book-length study of Walter Map could look a lot like chasing shadows. We know so little of his biography and only one work by him, De nugis curialium (Courtiers’ Trifles), appears to have come down to us, and that only in a single manuscript. Yet it is clear that Walter’s reputation in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was considerable. References to him appear in the works of writers such as Gerald of Wales and Hue de Rotelande, and he was credited with sections of one of the most widely disseminated versions of the Arthurian legend, the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. Joshua Byron Smith’s engaging and thought-provoking study uses what we know of Walter’s life, works and reputation to explore a range of important questions, not only about Walter himself, but about the transmission of the Matter of Britain and the relationship of Welsh, Latin and French writing in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Although the attribution of parts of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle to Walter was almost certainly mistaken, Smith demonstrates that this very error can offer illumination. What sort of figure must Walter have been for his authorship of a large body of Arthuriana to be plausible? And, conversely, what can the persistent association of Lancelot-Grail Cycle with Walter tell us about the early transmission of the Matter of Britain? Smith’s first chapter, ‘Walter Map, Wales, and Romance’, explores Walter’s cultural background and suggests that he was known to his contemporaries as an expert on Wales and as a writer of romance, qualities that could well have fed into his association with the Matter of Britain. In Chapters 2 and 3, Smith addresses Walter’s modern reputation and mounts a defence of the literary qualities of De nugis curialium. Responsibility for the structural deficiencies of the work has traditionally been laid at Walter’s door: a century ago, James Hinton conjectured that the surviving manuscript represented a collection of fragments for which Walter had no particular overarching plan and, more recently, R. A. B. Mynors and C. N. L. Brooke declared the text ‘an untidy legacy of an untidy mind’. By contrast, Smith sees a more conscious craftsman at work. He suggests that De nugis curialium is unfinished, rather than ‘untidy’—an amalgam of five works at varying stages of revision. In Smith’s analysis, the nature and extent of the revision points to Walter’s artistry and to the coherent plans he must have had for his writings. Smith also highlights how much later scribes may have altered Walter’s work and attempts to disentangle Walter’s original text from the scribal interpolations in the surviving fourteenth-century manuscript. Here Smith is sometimes on rather speculative ground, but his work is meticulous and his arguments must be reckoned with in any future assessment of Walter’s literary ambitions. Chapter 4 is a close study of the most famous of the stories in De nugis curialium, King Herla. The work has long been considered an important analogue to range of texts, including the Middle English Sir Orfeo. Several elements in King Herla echo motifs found in Welsh writing and scholars have been inclined to assign it a Celtic-language source. However, Smith’s analysis tells a rather different story. Building on his discussion of Walter’s tendency to rework narratives, Smith sees King Herla as a revision of the shorter tale of Herlething found elsewhere in De nugis curialium. Interestingly, the supposedly ‘Celtic’ elements appear in the longer revised text and not in the shorter one, leading Smith to suggest that medieval authors could ‘drastically remodel their sources to integrate them into the Matter of Britain, with one effect being that they appear Celtic to modern readers’ (p. 84). He introduces the useful concept of ‘Britonicization’ to describe this literary process. In the final two chapters, Smith broadens his perspective to consider the cultural and linguistic currents in which Walter was operating. Accounts of the Matter of Britain still often point to rather nebulous ‘Celtic’ sources and to an initial phase of oral transmission. Smith highlights the problems with such assumptions and argues instead that the Matter of Britain finds its way into French through Latin clerical texts. Smith’s discussion here is truly interdisciplinary and reflects a rare command of scholarship in Celtic, Latin and French Studies. This account of literary transmission between Britain and mainland Europe returns us to the question of Walter’s connection to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. Smith’s final chapter, ‘Walter Map in the Archives and the Transmission of the Matter of Britain’, considers Walter’s association with this important work. Smith posits that early scribes of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle imagined Walter, not as the text’s author (narrowly defined), but as a compiler, a collector of tales of ancient Britain, working in Latin, rather than French. This is in line with the process of compilation that Smith imagines for De nugis curialium and is rather more plausible than the idea that Walter wrote lengthy French-language romance narratives. Although this final chapter could well have been the most speculative in the book, it emerges as a real highlight. One of this book’s great strengths is its prose style, which is at once lively and lucid. Smith caters well for an interdisciplinary audience and opens up some key work in Celtic Studies to scholars in other fields. Although Smith makes a series of powerful larger arguments about his subject, the ordering of information is sometimes a little curious. For instance, the two key themes of Chapter 1—Walter’s Welsh connections and his reputation as a writer of romance—seem rather uneasily yoked together. However, this is a small issue in what is a rewarding and engrossing book. It will be of interest to scholars across a wide range of fields, not only for what is has to say about Walter, but for its interrogation of a range of still widespread assumptions relating to the transmission of the Matter of Britain. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 2, 2018
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