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Guiron le courtois: introduction
Guiron le Courtois is the third great Arthurian prose cycle, almost entirely unpublished, and by far the least studied. The earliest parts of the cycle were probably originally composed in the 1230s, just after the initial circulation of the Lancelot-Grail and the Tristan en prose (Lathuillère 1966). Its oldest nucleus is composed of three romances, which recent scholarship refers to as the Roman de Méliadus, the Roman de Guiron, and the Suite Guiron (Morato 2010, Lagomarsini 2012 and 2014)
Next to nothing is known of the authors. In the prologue to the Méliadus, the oldest portion of the cycle, the narrator refers to himself as Hélie de Boron and to his work as Palamedés. This title never really stuck. The true protagonist is King Méliadus de Leonois, Tristan’s father, while Palamedés, still a child, appears only at the story’s beginning. (An analogy here is the title of the Agravain, named after the protagonist of the first chapter). Hélie is in all likelihood a fictitious authority; we come across his name also in the epilogue to the Tristan en prose and in the Suite du Merlin, one of the late prequels to the Lancelot en prose. We can therefore suppose a strong link between these texts, even though we cannot say whether this implies that the works were from the same environment, or were a product of collaboration or competition (they may of course have been both) (Lathuillère 1966, Morato 2010).
The Roman de Guiron and the Suite Guiron are anonymous. Cyclical manuscripts often bear the title Guiron le Courtois, referring to the main hero of the cycle, even if this title, unlike Palamedés, is not used in the early stages of the textual tradition.
There is no documentary evidence concerning the place of production of any part of the cycle, although France would be the most likely hypothesis given the association with other texts. A document produced by Frederick II’s chancellery in Foligno registers the receipt on 5 February 1240 of 54 quires ‘de libro Palamides’ belonging to one ‘Johannes Romanzor’, which helps to date the text (Lathuillère 1966 and 1973). This is also the first reliable attestation of an Arthurian prose romance in Italy and confirms the relevance of the circulation of Old French narratives in the intellectual entourage of the Emperor. This librum is without doubt the Roman de Méliadus, but considering the significant number of quires, may also have included a cyclic version with the Guiron.
There are strong arguments in favour of the attribution to Rustichello da Pisa of a group of episodes added to the cycle at a later stage, known as Les aventures des Bruns. However, it is very difficult to say whether they predate or follow Rustichello’s other Arthurian text, the so-called Compilation; both texts were probably written between the third and fourth quarters of the thirteenth century (Lagomarsini 2012 and 2014).
The cycle’s narrative action is for the most part set in the years immediately following Arthur’s coronation, though the many retrospective accounts generally go back to the reign of Utherpendragon. The diegetic temporal setting thus more or less coincides with that of the Merlin en prose and its Suites. Lancelot and Tristan have not yet been born (in the many stories-within-the-story disseminated in the narrative) or are very young (in the main narrative itself). The protagonists are on the one hand the solitary and proud Méliadus, and on the other a new hero, Guiron le Courtois, and his clan, the Bruns, a lineage of chthonic demigods of exceptional size and strength. They are accompanied by familiar but still young figures like Morholt and Gauvain and a group of illustrious fathers – for example, Lac, Erec’s father, and the Bon Chevalier Sans Peur, the father of Brunor le Noir and Dinadan. A structured system of prolepses, prophecies, and presentiments anchors the tales of the cycle to the Arthurian future, that is, to the eschatological events of Tristan’s death, Arthur’s death, and even the mythical conquest of England by Charlemagne (Trachsler 2004 and 2014, Albert 2010, Morato 2010, Wahlen 2010).
The cycle circulated extensively: there are around 40 extant witnesses, but also many lost copies which appear in records of libraries and book collections from Burgundy to Catalonia. They are particularly numerous in the collections of Pavia, Mantua, and Ferrara, as well as in other smaller Italian inventories (Cigni 2003, 2006, 2010). The print tradition, too, was significant, with editions of the Roman de Méliadus and of the Roman de Guiron in the first half of the sixteenth century (Lathuillère 1966, Wahlen 2010). The cycle moves between languages and genres. In Tuscany, famous episodes were translated into the vernacular and rewritten: this is the case of two tales included in the Novellino (end of 13th c.), or the Cantari di Febus-el-Forte (14th c.) (Limentani 1962, Delcorno Branca 1996 and 1998, Morato 2007, Psaki 2014). Heroes from the cycle are included in the armoriaux tradition and on decorated rooms and wooden ceilings in various parts of Europe (Trachsler 2007; Cigni 2003 and 2006, Allaire 2014). The presence of Fébus, the most redoutable of Guiron's ancestors, in a sonnet corona written around the last quarter of the fourteenth century, which takes up the tradition of the Nine Worthies with relation to the cycle of frescoes painted by Giotto in Castel Nuovo (ca. 1331-1332), is also evidence of the cycle’s popularity (Lagomarsini, in press). Above all, the cycle’s matter and the experimental nature of its narrative form emerged as structurally decisive for many texts, from the Prophécies de Merlin (Venice, c. 1275) to Luigi Alamanni’s Gyrone il Cortese (Paris, 1548), as well as for Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (Rajna 1900; Praloran 1999 and 2009; Morato 2012 and 2013).