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message 1: by Lia (last edited Jun 03, 2018 12:13PM) (new) - added it

Lia | 522 comments Mod
Arthurian RomancesFrom the introduction

“Unlike Erec, who sets off for adventure accompanied by his bride, Yvain sets out alone upon his series of marvellous adventures in order to expiate his fault and rediscover himself. He eventually meets up with a lion which, among other possible symbolic roles, is certainly emblematic of his new self”

No wonder they came up with monomyth and master myth etc, the more I read, the more they all sound the same. The Lion, the rediscovery (recovery?) of his hidden self. Where have I seen that before?

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Another clear borrowing (Helen this time?)

“Chrétien claims in his prologue to The Knight of the Cart that he was given the source material by the Countess Marie. If that is true, then she probably conveyed to him a popular Celtic abduction story, or aithed. In these mythological tales a mysterious stranger typically claims a married woman, makes off with her through a ruse or by force, and carries her to his other worldly home. Her husband pursues the abductor and, after triumphing over seemingly impossible odds, penetrates the mysterious kingdom and rescues his wife”

Then again, Homeric epics are supposedly made up of recombinations of existing folklores and oral tales anyway. Even the borrowing itself is ... borrowed.

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“Yvain begins an adventure, it is interrupted so that he can complete a second before returning to finish the first”

Like Odysseus set out to sail home, but then is told to visit Hades first?

message 4: by Ian (last edited Jun 07, 2018 03:42PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Source-hunting for Arthurian romances has long been a favored occupation of scholars, perhaps triggered by the fact that the documents they work with frequently refer to earlier texts that they are translating or re-working. Sometimes these actually exist, which is encouraging to those trying to make a scholarly reputation by uncovering another one, or just drawn to the problem.

At the tail end of the medieval traditions, this is true of Malory, where French and Middle English sources are known for most of the narrative. (Book Seven, in Caxton's arrangement, may be his own work, but maybe not.) However, even there the notice that something is "as the Frensshe boke saieth" can be a cover for Malory's own invention. Which we wouldn't know unless the overall source can be tracked down. So a full appreciation of his artistry does call for documenting his sources, or non-sources.

One of the fountain-heads of the medieval image of Arthur, although not usually the source of the romance stories, is Geoffrey of Monmouth's highly imaginative "History of the Kings of Britain." (I've reviewed several translations.) Along with prior tales of King Lear and Cymbeline (and even old King Cole!), the "History" includes Arthur's wars with the Saxons, the re-unification of Britain, and his later wars with the Romans and with Mordred.

Geoffrey seems very forthright about his source for all of this previously-unknown history, an "Old British Book" (either Welsh or Breton, the Latin can mean either). Despite some valiant attempts to identify it with one or another Welsh document, it is clearly mostly a figment of Geoffrey's fertile imagination, with a few hints perhaps gleaned here and there.

For example, Arthur and his kidnapped queen make a cameo appearance in a Welsh saint's Life, which may indeed be pre-Geoffrey, or at least independent of him, and there are a few more passages to suggest that someone was telling stories about Arthur before him.

The ages of the Welsh "Culhwch and Olwen" and "The Dream of Rhonabwy," both collected in what moderns have dubbed "The Maginogion," are closer to fairy tales than later romances, especially the former -- although it does contain "impossible" quests, and a weird collection of displaced Irish heroes, ancient British gods, and possibly historical Welsh warriors in place of the Round Table. The ages of the two stories seem to be in dispute, but they are nothing like Geoffrey.

In any case, such knowledge of Geoffrey's Arthur which surfaces in the romances probably came not through the original Latin, but from a French translation by the Norman poet Wace, who introduced the Round Table for the first time (that we know of).

One suspects that, like Geoffrey, Chretien was making up his sources when he mentions them, but the "Lancelot" in particular does resemble the story in the saint's Life I mentioned above, down to some of the names. So he has some minimum credibility there. The case of "Perceval," where he also claims a source given him by a patron, is much cloudier.

Some medieval romancers seem to have caught on to the nebulous nature of these claimed "sources." Robert de Boron's "Merlin" includes Merlin himself dictating most of the events of the story to a confessor, shortly after they take place -- an unimpeachable source, naturally! (Never mind that it garbles a section about Arthur's father, clearly derived, at second or third hand, from Geoffrey.)

Most of the adaptations of Chretien's romances into Middle High German are up-front about being translations from Chretien, and take care to assert the expert knowledge of French on the part of the German poet (mainly Hartmann von Aue). One need look no farther for a source there. (Although someone may have tried, being desperate for an "original contribution to knowledge" to earn a doctorate.)

But the rendering of his "Perceval" by Wolfram von Eschenbach (as "Parzival") not only recasts and completes the unfinished story, including a life of the hero's father unknown to Chretien, it downplays Chretien's contribution in general. Wolfram claims to have another, superior, source, by a certain Kyot the Provencal (from southern France -- unless he means Provins, instead), who got it from a translation from Arabic written by an astrologer, who ....

This "clue" has been extremely popular with source-hunters, with irreconcilable results. I suspect that, barring coincidence, or a very indirect influence on later romancers, he did have a non-Chretien source for a couple of things, but mostly spun the story of the source out of his own head, along with much of the rest. (I've reviewed the four English translations, with a little more information on the unexplained parallels.)

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“[Erec] is filled with lavish depictions of garments, saddles and trappings, and ceremonies that give proof of his keen attention to detail and his pleasure in description. Justly famous is the elaborate description of Erec’s coronation robe (ll. 6698–763), on which four fairies had skilfully embroidered portrayals of the four disciplines of the quadrivium: Geometry, Arithmetic, Music and Astronomy”

Like Achilles’ shield, and Odysseus’ clothes/ pin.

I wonder when we stopped appreciating material objects as significant narrative devices. So many contemporary readers complain about “excessive” descriptions of things (even in Flaubert).

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Ian wrote: "Wolfram claims to have another, superior, source, by a certain Kyot the Provencal (from southern France -- unless he means Provins, instead), who got it from a translation from Arabic written by an astrologer, who ..."

That sounds like Odysseus telling the Phaeacians about what Helios said to Zeus through Calypso who heard it from Hermes ...

Don Quixote and his frame story suddenly makes so much sense! Turns out it’s part of the “romance” tradition!

It would be good to see some links to your reviews, Ian.

message 7: by Ian (last edited Jun 07, 2018 03:43PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Lia wrote: "It would be good to see some links to your reviews"

For Wolfram, I sometimes have multiple copies of what is essentially the same review, because Amazon kept stripping them from pages where they belonged (and put them elsewhere in some cases), or failed to carry them over when dealers put up new pages.

See, for a review of the Oxford World's Classics translation (the latest)

For the Penguin Classics translation, see my review at
(This was hard to find -- they had my review of another translation at the top, and I had to dig down deep to find the one I wanted.)

For the Mustard and Passage translation of Vintage Books (which may only be available used, and has several pages from dealers), see, for example.

I also have a bunch for the old Jesse Weston verse translation, which is in the public domain, and often reprinted or offered in digital versions -- a whole lot of e-books. Also as an example, see

I'll do a similar presentation for Malory and for Geoffrey of Monmouth. Right now I feel the need for a break.

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Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments I've assembled a list of my reviews of Malory's "Le Morte D'Arthur". As with Wolfram, they are repetitious, in order to cover the problem of Amazon scrambling reviews. I do discuss in them other editions I have not reviewed directly (sometimes because Amazon had already transferred one of my reviews to its page, and wouldn't let me do a new review there).

For the two-volume Penguin edition, edited (and modernized) by Janet Cowan (which is my favorite form of the Caxton edition), Vol. 1, see

and Volume 2

(Note that the review of volume 2 is older, a relic of Amazon's somewhat unreliable catalogue over a decade ago, which wouldn't bring up Volume 1)

For old-spelling texts of the Winchester MS (a topic I explain in all the reviews) there are now several options, but I've only reviewed three of them, two in actual print books.

The older of these is a paperback version of Eugene Vinaver's pioneering edition as "Works,", (three volumes, 1947) here titled "Malory: Complete Works" As noted in the review, it has very little in the way of help for the novice reader: I think it was intended as a less expensive textbook, and the teacher was expected to fill in missing information, or direct the student to other resources.

As a note in passing, I recently acquired pdfs of the three-volume form, complete with Vinaver's commentary, so I may have more to say on it in the future.

There is also an on-line version of the Winchester manuscript itself -- not readable without some instruction in fifteenth-century handwriting, but quite pretty, with its lavish use of red ink for proper names. It probably isn't worth your time.

A more recent edition (although not the most recent) is by Stephen H.A. Shepherd,, for the Norton Critical Editions series. It is titled in full "Le Morte Darthur, or, The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knightes of the Rounde Table," giving a place to both of Caxton's two suggested titles. It uses some of Caxton's readings where they are clearly superior to the Winchester version.

These are all fairly expensive (although used copies are often available), and I mention several other versions of Caxton's edition in all of them.

My most recent Malory review is of the Delphi Classics "Complete Works," which avoids choosing between the two texts by including both. It is fully searchable, and has working hyperlinks from the tables of content, which helps a lot in such a long book (as an example on hand, Shepherd's edition has 698 pages, not including the front-matter, the supplements, and the glossary).

Next, I will probably go on to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin "History," and two of its vernacular adaptations (there were quite a number, in Old French, Welsh. Middle English, and Old Icelandic, etc., etc.)

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Looks great Ian, I'm still going through your first batch of reviews. I will have you know that it's too late to cry "don't say I recommended it!" :p I really enjoyed the very brief mention/ context of Wagner's plundering -- wasn't Malory also a plunderer (or worse)? Those grail people...

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Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Lia wrote: "wasn't Malory also a plunderer (or worse)?..."

Malory is in the mainstream of medieval respect for an "authority" -- in this case, his "French book." He condenses, he updates, and from time to time adds something new (or at least untraceable), but is fairly faithful to the material he had at hand. For example, his Tristram story is incomplete, probably because his copy of the Prose Tristan wasn't complete, either. In the Quest of the Grail, he condenses, and changes emphasis by omission, but he translated pretty faithfully for the most part. (Given that we don't have copies of the French manuscripts that Malory used, he may have been even more faithful than he seems.)

Wagner, on the other hand, *says* that he is using one version of the Grail, '"Parzival," plucks a few names and incidents from it, and then completely changes the nature of the Grail in that source, and the character of the protagonist,, and with them the meaning of the story.

Ironically, his chalice version is much closer to the mainstream of French Grail romances than it is to Wolfram, with a stone fallen from Heaven.

Ironically, because Wagner generally despised the French, and claimed to be championing German culture.

(Of course, Wagner despised almost everyone at some point in his life, including fellow-Germans, who had failed to appreciate him, despite all his efforts to point out his own greatness.)

On medieval use of "auctoritees," there is a good, brief discussion by C.S. Lewis, in "The Discarded Image," which, again, I've reviewed -- twice, in fact. See
(2004 review)

(2012 review)

The later review has a whole string of comments, and replies.

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Ian wrote: "Malory is in the mainstream of medieval respect for an "authority" ..."

Sorry Ian, I was referring to some sources that said Malory was a thief (and maybe a rapist) who wrote his chivalric romance from within the prison. Other sources said he was a political prisoner who was jailed for supporting the Yorks. I'm only starting to read about these writers. I don't know how reliable this is, I just thought it's ironic that this "code of honour" supposedly came from a Ulyssean-plunderer. (And this whole affair obviously also parallels Cervantes writing DQ in jail.)

I never tire of you talking about Wagner, BTW. I've read about him from music/ modernist scholars, but I'd love to read more from people with Arthurian background!

message 12: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments The Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, the most likely candidate for the author of the "Morte," has long (from the late nineteenth century, I think) been a problem. I leave open the possibility that he is the wrong Malory, but consider it pretty thin.

As I am sure you have found, or will find, that, while the accusations against him were serious, he was never brought to trial on *any* of them -- possibly a sign that even a stacked or intimidated jury (the usual kind in those days), wouldn't have accepted the evidence for the charges.

Or that they would have accepted cattle-rustling from an enemy as legitimate military action during a Civil War, in which anyone might have taken part.

The rape charge may may be nebulous, if we apply our definitions -- Shepherd's edition has an article by Catherine Batt, eighteen closely-printed pages, given over to a discussion of the problem from the point of view of definitions of the word, legal and common, in the fifteenth-century.

It turns out it *could* be any kidnapping of a woman, perhaps in order to extort compliance with something else from the victim's family. Shepherd includes actual English letters from the fifteenth century which mention this as a serious threat in a property dispute.

Still pretty bad, of course. The difference between lawsuits and private war among the aristocracy was pretty thin during the recurrent prevailing anarchy under weak kings and during contested kingships.

Malory doesn't seem to have enriched himself at the expense of others, or not very much -- part of his time in prison was for debts he accumulated while awaiting trial. (Prisoners were expected to provide for themselves, and amounted to a literally captive market, perhaps with little choice in who they bought from, and how much they were charged.)

Malory also may have changed sides between the Lancastrians and Yorkists, ultimately leaving himself with few friends of any importance. And his prison-breaking couldn't have helped, either.

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That's so interesting, Ian. Some of the sources I was reading also accused him of robbery of church relics -- which sounds almost like Indiana Jones (and the cattle-raiding could be initiatory like Hermes and Odysseus!) The prison escape made it epic. It seems fitting that his own life story is just as colorful and "romantic".

I've read that they had no word for rape in Greco-Roman literature either, and the word we translate as rape today is essentially the word for kidnapping back then. It's crazy to think that the conflation of rape and kidnapping persists to something as recent as the fifteenth century.

message 14: by Ian (last edited Jun 11, 2018 11:10AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Turning back from Malory and his life, to the beginnings of the main Arthurian tradition in the first half of the twelfth century, finally brings me around to Geoffrey of Monmouth, who established a "history" of Britain that Milton still felt worth summarizing. It is our oldest narrative of an "historical" Arthur, with implied exact dates, and plausible enemies (the Saxons), and even his expedition to the continent may have a contemporary model (albeit much less ambitious than his march on Rome).

Beyond that, however, Geoffrey is the first we know of to have given Arthur a modern (1130s) court, complete with knights (listed by name, a few of them still familiar) and tournaments , although not quests, and all the latest fashions. An image which still pursues us, with adjustments for later periods, in, e.g., the film version of "Camelot" (White's version is also anachronistic, but strikes me as altogether grittier).

Geoffrey spent the last few years of his life as a Bishop, but his earlier ecclesiastical rank is not very clear. His "History of the Kings of Britain" (which a recent editor has noted he probably called "The Deeds of the Britons") exists in several groups of manuscripts, traditionally distinguished by the dedications they carry -- he may have been struggling to find a patron, like most medieval writers.

He also seems to have invented a (patriotic) Welsh Archbishopric, which complicated things when other people, some of whom disbelieved the rest of the book, took it seriously, and tried to have it revived.

There have been a bunch of translations into modern English, beginning in the eighteenth century, some of which are available as free or cheap Kindle editions, but I doubt that they are worth the reader's time, being based on bad text editions, and a poor knowledge of medieval Latin.

The oldest I've reviewed is one by Sebastian Evans, once part of the Everyman's Library series, which I don't especially recommend. See my comments on it, and some others, at

If you decide you want to read Geoffrey, you should probably try a library for one of the more recent versions (which are getting a little expensive).

Very good is the Lewis Thorpe translation (Penguin Classics)
The Latin text it is based on is respectable, but not really up to the latest standards. However, the translation is filled with stuff to help the reader, as I indicate in the review. (I can remember when the first US printing was something like $1.95.....)

Finally, there is a more recent, and good, critical, edition of the Latin, with a good translation, by Reeve and Wright, in the Arthurian Studies series:
This is pretty strictly for enthusiasts and students. The price may be an obstacle, although, again, it is not outrageous by current standards, and I treated myself to a copy a while back. (This edition rejects the grouping of the manuscripts by dedication, pointing out that they could have been added at any stage -- but those to whom they are offered are something of a who's who of the world of Geoffrey, and, maybe, his scribes.

There is also another modern translation, based on a somewhat inadequate text edition, by Michael Faletra -- I HAVE NOT reviewed it, because I haven't seen it, and it is out of print. For what it's worth, I finally found it on Amazon today, at

In addition, I've reviewed one of the older text editions, based on a non-standard manuscript (which turns out to be one of several). You may (or may not) find some of my discussion of the Hammer edition to be helpful in judging Geoffrey's impact on European culture.

message 15: by Lia (last edited Jun 04, 2018 02:08PM) (new) - added it

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I’m kind of thrilled that Reeve and Wright is available in my library, it’s unfortunate that
Reeve assumes a lot of prior general and specific knowledge on the part of a scholarly reader

It’s just my luck that they don’t have the Thorpe translation.
Edit: nevermind I can get it through ILL. Though it might be cheaper to wait for a kindle sale.

Geoffrey’s “History” presents the British — that is, strictly speaking, the Welsh and their ancestors — as descendants of displaced Trojans, by way of Italy, presenting itself as a sort of sequel to Virgil’s “Aeneid,”

That sounds really really amazing, actually.

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“Another key manuscript that once probably contained all of Chrétien’s romances, and which would have been the earliest and best copy of them, is the so-called Annonay Manuscript. Unfortunately it was cut apart to be used as filler for book-bindings in the eighteenth century, and only fragments of Erec, Cligés, The Knight with the Lion, and The Story of the Grail have been recovered”

Crocodile-stuffing, book-binding ... People manhandled manuscripts like Apollo treated Marsyas ;__;

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“Erec, a brilliant psychological study, appears to have been the earliest romance composed in the vernacular tongue to incorporate Arthurian themes. This poem posed a question familiar to courtly circles: how can a knight, once married, sustain the valour and glory that first won him a bride? That is, can a knight serve both his honour (armes) and his love (amors)?”

This juggling of armes and amors is 100% Ovidian.

message 18: by Lia (last edited Jun 11, 2018 11:01AM) (new) - added it

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“[...]after Chretien, many romances in verse and prose depict Arthur as a problematic figure who, depending upon which of the many texts is considered, is not uncommonly depressed, lethargic, hesitant, powerless, concupiscent, incestuous, short-sighted, or even apparently senile.”
Source: The Arthurian Romances Of Chrétien De Troyes: Once And Future Fictions

I visualize that as Malowe finally meeting the legendary Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando.

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Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Lia wrote: "“[...]after Chretien, many romances in verse and prose depict Arthur as a problematic figure who, depending upon which of the many texts is considered, is not uncommonly depressed, lethargic, hesit..."

The long "Continuations" of Chretien's "Perceval," which I'm currently reading for the first time (barring some excerpts), are a case in point. Arthur's character seems to fluctuate within some of them, depending on the immediate needs of the plot, and, since there are four continuations by as many writers, I suspect that there are more consistent differences I haven't worked out as yet.

In this body of material, Arthur's depression is often accounted for by his worrying about an absent knight. Unfortunately, the solution for this is usually to send out a bunch of other knights to look for him, thus magnifying the problem once a little time has passed without them reporting back, either.

(It probably has to be knights serving as searchers -- given the perils some of them routinely encounter, a mere messenger wouldn't have lasted long. On the other hand, some of the knights just can't resist an "adventure," forgetting about the mission. Although Perceval carries it to an extreme, they seem to be an absent-minded lot.)

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Ian wrote: "some of the knights ADHD readers just can't resist an "adventure," forgetting about the mission..."

Story of my life!

Ian wrote: "The long "Continuations" of Chretien's "Perceval," which I'm currently reading”

Who is the “original” author?

Thinking out loud, I’m wondering if T.S. Eliot’s preoccupation with “Gerontion” and and old, absent-minded figures (Fisher-king?) in his poems is a continuation of that trend. I have read Jewel Spear Brooker’s analysis of his use of Grail legends/ Fisher King catechism some times ago, but I didn’t know anything about Arthurian tales back then.

message 21: by Ian (last edited Jun 11, 2018 12:54PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 103 comments Lia wrote: "Who is the “original” author? ... I'm wondering if T.S. Eliot's preoccupation..."

T.S. Eliot seems to have formed only a vague idea of the Waste Land and Fisher King from reading "From Ritual to Romance," so going to Weston's medieval sources may not be particularly helpful for understanding the poem.

The short answer to the first question is, after over a century of research and proposals of varying degrees of merit, we just don't know.

There is a longer answer, which explains some of the problems, beginning with the fact that Chretien's "Perceval, or The Story of the Grail" is only a fraction of the relevant literature.

(Jessie Weston wrote a two-volume study of "The Legend of Sir Perceval," and her conclusions on the original source, and several other topics, never got general support. Of course, she didn't have reliable editions of the relevant texts to work with, and the relative and absolute dating of some of them was still guesswork.)

Chretien says his patron *gave* him the story, which might seem clear enough. But the poet seems to have died leaving it unfinished, after a longish digression on Gauvain (Gawain), and a brief return to Perceval, which cuts off almost in mid-sentence. Was his source, if he had one, also incomplete, or at least unsatisfactory?

The public apparently wanted more. There were other, prose, re-writings and conclusions, but I'll stick with those which used Chretien's verse form, and might be thought to have Chretien's source available, if it ever existed.

The completely anonymous "First Continuation" picks up the Gauvain story, and essentially ignores Perceval. Some have even suggested, in fact, that the Gauvain portion of "Perceval" was originally another unfinished romance (which would make three for one author), tacked on to the "Story of the Grail," in which case the First Continuation may have a source in the "original" romance -- but probably not.

The Second Continuation, attributed to a certain Wauchier, who wrote other things as well, is devoted mainly to Perceval and his Quest, with some digressions involving Arthur and various knights of the Round Table, some of which also contribute to the mystery of the Graal (some don't), but it breaks off without a real conclusion.

The Third and Fourth Continuations are attributed to Gerbert and Manassier, and the order they should come in is disputed: they seem to have been written pretty much simultaneously, without knowledge of the other, and scribes later did the best they could in arranging them in those manuscripts that contain both.

There are also two "preludes," meant to explain the Fisher King, etc., which don't agree with each other, or have much to do with the story, either. And there is a tacked-on short ending.

I'm still working my way through Gerbert, and will eventually get to Manassier. It does seem that these had no source beyond Chretien, and some version of the first two Continuations, but didn't feel completely bound by any of them.

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“Be gone,’ said Erec, ‘bothersome dwarf! You’re disgusting and hateful. Let me pass!’
‘You won’t pass!’
‘Yes, I will!’
‘No, you won’t!’
Erec gave the dwarf a shove. The dwarf was as evil as could be. With the whip he struck Erec a great blow on the neck.”

All of them — the knight, the maid, the dwarf (and King Arthur ...) — sound like kindergarteners, (not unlike Trump and Kim...)

I don’t see why the Knight is said to be “very handsome and valiant and noble,” the maid who “felt great contempt for the dwarf because she saw how little he was” is said to be a “such a beautiful creature,” so that it’s very wrong to assault her, yet, the dwarf alone is singled out as “evil.”

What I’m really saying is — they deserve each other.

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Apollo liked 5 and 7, the Greeks liked their 12, the Egyptians liked 9. The Gasby’s liked their 5.

Apparently Chrétien De Troyes liked his 500. Why 500?

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