Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Book Review: The Enchanted Cup

Title: The Enchanted Cup

Author: Dorothy James Roberts

Date: 1953

Publisher: Appleton Century Crofts

ISBN: none

Length: 368 pages

Quote: “Tintagel seemed to Tristram a place of peace.”

But it only seemed that way, because Tristram was not a man of peace.

There are different versions of the Tristram and Isolde story, from different times and places. It seems to have been a sort of anonymized expression for all the stories of Forbidden Love in western Europe. Tristram was a knight who dishonored his position, not just by adoring the Queen in the obligatory idealistic way, but by being caught in bed with her. Sources disagree on what happened next but agree that he didn’t live very long. Some say that Queen Isoud, or Isolda, or Ysotta, or Yseult, or whoever, didn’t live very long either. Many say that she was absolved of blame because her servant testified that she and/or Tristram had somehow inadvertently drunk a love potion that had been prepared for Isoud and the somewhat older King Mark whom she was about to marry.

As fictional characters this couple were absolved from blame by their very names: Tristram, or Tristan, meant “sad,” and although Isoud could be a form of various names that were used by real people it could also be understood to mean “izzard, the last letter in the alphabet, thus sometimes used to represent ‘the end’ or ‘death’.” Anyone reading or listening to a story about them was meant to understand that they were doomed.

The Enchanted Cup is a version of the old story in twentieth century novel form. It contains pretty landscapes and lively single combats and an improbably prettied-up vision of Merrie Old Europe. It’s an enjoyable read if you don’t think about what the author seems to be trying to say with her story, which is “Even though slavish obedience to a physical attraction got these two idiots killed, they had chosen to ‘live for the moment,’ and were happy.”

All sources agree that according to the official legend that was what the Sad Man and The End did, but I’d rather consider more realistic and/or happier stories:

* The young man had a mad crush on the older man’s wife, but since he was neither murderous nor suicidal he ignored his destructive impulses, and in due time they went away. He married a young woman who was single and lived reasonably happily ever after.

* The young man had a mad crush on the older man’s wife, but it wasn’t mutual, and when he finally gave up on her and let himself appreciate a woman who did like him, he realized that stifling his attraction to Ms. Wrong had made him better able to appreciate Ms. Right, and they lived happily ever after.

* The young man had a mad crush on the older man’s wife, yes, and it was mutual, and they had a few opportunities to act out their feelings...and then  the physical attraction ran its course and they mutually realized they didn’t like each other.

* The young man had a mad crush on the older man’s wife, and it was mutual, but because both of them were the kind of people who are capable of True Love they realized that both of them still had certain obligations toward the older man, so the wife did her marital duty and the young man stayed single, and in due time the older man died and left them free to live happily ever after. (Medieval English literature did have the legend of Patient Griselda, a dutiful wife who waited for years for her husband to learn to appreciate her; it remained to the twentieth century to construct a version of the Lancelot and Guinevere story in which that couple were wiser and happier than Tristram and Isoud—a male version of Patient Griselda.)

* The young man had a mad crush on the older man’s wife, and when the older man realized that it was mutual and long-term, by way of punishment he condemned them to spend their lives together, and after several years of misery and a few mutual attempts at murder they finally confronted the emotional issues that made them such miserable company for each other. Then they realized that, if they’d confronted their emotions sooner, they might have been happily married to more congenial people.

So on the whole I don’t like this novel. At the same time I’ll confess that the author does a good job of constructing her imaginary world, such that each individual chapter was a pleasure to read. If you just want a nice medieval-fairy-tale atmosphere, a vision of medieval Europe that medieval Europeans might have enjoyed, you’ll enjoy The Enchanted Cup.

Dorothy James Roberts, who wrote several other novels based on medieval ballads and fairy tales, no longer needs the dollar she'd get if this were a Fair Trade Book. The usual terms apply: $5 per book, $5 per package (at least one more book of this size would fit into the package along with this one), $1 per online payment, for a total of $10 to Boxholder, P.O. Box 322, Gate City, Virginia, 24251-0322, or $11 to the e-mail address you will receive by e-mail from salolianigodagewi @ yahoo.