Chrétien’s Equal: Raoul de Houdenc
Translated by NIGEL BRYANT
Thank you Mr Bryant for taking the time to answer some questions about your new publication Chrétien’s Equal: Raoul de Houdenc. To begin with, can you please provide an overview of this book?
It’s the first English translation of the complete works of Raoul de Houdenc, a major, hugely influential figure in 13th-century French literature, but surprisingly little known.
Why do you think that is? Why has there been such a long period of neglect for Raoul’s work?
Because he doesn’t fall into any category. His two surviving Arthurian works are brilliant – he had a major influence on the development of Arthurian romance: in his own time, and by writers immediately following him, he was rated as the equal of Chrétien de Troyes – but he didn’t write only Arthurian romances, or indeed romances. He was a polemicist, a satirist, and is generally regarded as a pioneer in allegory. He’s elusive, impossible to pigeonhole.
What made you want to take on this project?
I need to thank David Johnson, professor at Florida State. Some time ago he asked me in passing if I’d thought of translating La Vengeance Raguidel. I wondered why he’d mentioned that in particular, and as soon as I started reading it I knew. There was a fresh and distinctive voice at work, and a fascinating take on Arthurian romance and especially on the character of Sir Gawain. I was hooked from the off and had to read more by Raoul. It became compulsive and I read the lot! I wanted to get properly inside his head and the best way to do it was to translate. As it happens, Raoul’s authorship of Raguidel has sometimes been questioned, but if you read his other work there’s little serious doubt that he’s the author. Raguidel has the same pace and rhythm, the same wryness of tone and often outrageous sense of humour – it’s clearly the same mind at work, and Raguidel’s most recent editor, Gilles Roussineau, has no qualms about naming Raoul unequivocally as the author on jacket and title page.
What can readers expect from your work?
Variety and surprise. Raoul’s surviving works are so diverse: The Romance of the Wings is an impassioned tract about the values of chivalry, and the ideas within it are interestingly at the heart of his two Arthurian romances, especially Meraugis of Portlesguez. There’s a furious rant against declining standards, especially among the bourgeoisie – The Burgess’s Burgeoning Blight – and there’s his amazing Dream of Hell, which had far-reaching influence on later works, most famously on The Romance of the Rose.
What makes Raoul de Houdenc unique from other French poets of the time?
He seems strangely close to us. It feels as though there’s a modern person trying to get out.
Do you have a favourite among Raoul’s work? If so, why is it your favourite?
I’m not sure. I loved translating all of them because they’re linguistically very rich, and it was exciting finding ways of conveying the wicked tone of Raoul’s work. My favourite is probably The Dream of Hell, largely because it’s not a morbid, sadistic (or masochistic) otherworld fantasy: it’s Raoul’s expression of the here and now. Not so much l’enfer c’est les autres, more l’enfer c’est le monde autour de moi. It brims with irony, it’s raging satire, the blackest of humour. If you want a contemporary’s view of the world in the early thirteenth century, you won’t find anything more vivid. And the English don’t come out of it well.
You are a Boydell legend with many published works and your contributions to medieval studies is highly valued. Do you have a favourite from your Boydell publications?
That’s very flattering! I don’t wish to sound pompous but I’m grateful to the medieval writers – they created the stuff! I think the first third of Chrétien’s Perceval is one of the masterpieces of world literature. But actually, Raoul de Houdenc is right up there with him.
What do you have planned next?
Following on from The History of William Marshal and The Song of Bertrand du Guesclin I’ve just finished another chivalric biography, The Book of the Deeds of Jacques de Lalaing, the 15th-century Burgundian knight. But it’s not in fact a biography at all – it’s a fascinating assemblage of documents, including part of a lost chronicle. It’s rich source material for historians – as, in the most surprising of ways, is Raoul.
NIGEL BRYANT is well known for his lively and accurate versions of medieval French works. His translations of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval and all its continuations and of the extraordinary late Arthurian romance Perceforest have been major achievements; he has also translated Jean le Bel’s history of the early stages of the Hundred Years War, and the 13th- and 14th-century biographies of William Marshal and Bertrand du Guesclin. He was awarded the 2019 Norris J. Lacy Prize for outstanding editorial achievement in Arthurian studies.
Images taken from the Vienna MS of the Roman de la Rose (Cod. 2568, folio 7r), by kind permission of the Austrian National Library