The life of England’s Greatest Knight as told to his own household minstrel. It may not be 100% accurate but the gist is more than enough! It’s the medieval biography of the man who after great tournament success (he claimed to have beaten over 500 knights), served as warrior, diplomat and statesman to four kings and who at the age of 70 crowned his truly remarkable career with victory at the Battle of Lincoln. Nigel’s translation makes it available in modern prose for the first time.
The greatness of Chrétien de Troyes lay in his inventiveness and his keen awareness of the impact that Arthurian stories could (and did) have on their audience, and his skill in taking myths and folklore and polishing them into elegant tales which some say prefigure the modern novel. Of course, Chrétien died before finishing Perceval but the work inspired others to complete it, resulting in four ‘alternative endings’ written simultaneously by poets with no knowledge of each other’s work. Nigel’s translation makes available not just the first literary appearance of the mysterious Grail but also the first ever translation of the whole of this compelling body of tales.
The Prehistory of King Arthur’s Britain
Perceforest is a monster. Not literally, that would be weird, but in terms of length: this sprawling prehistory of King Arthur’s Britain runs to over a million words. Not surprising then that it’s been relatively under-studied in the past, though happily it now attracts more attention. It begins with the arrival in Britain of Alexander the Great. His follower Perceforest is made king, only to find the country infested by the “evil clan” of Darnant the Enchanter. In the dazzling adventures that follow magic, the supernatural and chivalric ideals all jostle for supremacy, but can a lasting peace be found? Nigel Bryant’s great achievement is to present a version that gives a complete account of every major episode, linking extensive passages of translation, to form an accessible, highly readable version of an extraordinary romance. Bear in mind this abridged version still runs to 640 pages, but thankfully Nigel prepared yet another version as an ideal introduction, A Perceforest Reader, which is available in paperback and eBook.
Let’s switch away, temporarily, from Arthurian literature to this, one of the most important sources for the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War. Jean le Bel was canon of the cathedral at Liège and a great admirer of Edward III – he had actually fought alongside him in Scotland – who wrote from personal experience and eyewitness accounts, determined to record events “as close to the truth as I could, according to what I personally have seen and remembered, and also what I have heard from those who were there”. The result is a strikingly vivid text that gives invaluable insight into the period. In this edition Nigel Bryant provided the first English translation.
Here’s a great way to end this list, with a work that really sums up Nigel’s apparently tireless work and profound skill. The original Grail romances were composed by a number of different writers whose stunningly imaginative works introduced an array of difficult contradictions. Nigel’s great achievement here is to have wrought from them a beautifully readable version of the Grail story in a single, consistent narrative which never fails to capture the wonder and mystery of the originals. It’s a triumph and a real jewel in our list. Nigel Bryant, you are our Arthurian hero!
More Nigel Bryant books can be found here