Curt Leviant, King Artus: A Hebrew Arthurian Romance of 1279 (Syracuse University Press, 2003)

First things first. I want to make perfectly clear what King Artus is NOT. It is NOT the first volume in a trilogy retelling the tales of King Arthur set in ancient Israel.

This is a serious work of scholarship and reads like a post-graduate thesis (though much easier going than my M.A. thesis). It's a translation of a short medieval work: 21 pages in English, most of them not full pages because of the extensive footnotes. The rest of the slim volume is a commentary on the origins and contents of the text, plus a detailed bibliography of sources in several languages.

King Artus is translated from what Leviant calls The Hebrew Romance. This is a short manuscript, the only known copy of which is in the Vatican library. The Hebrew Romance is itself a translation into Hebrew of part of a lost Italian version of an Old French manuscript of tales of King Arthur. The Hebrew Romance was produced in 1279, a period when there were very few secular books in Hebrew. Indeed, the first part of the manuscript is taken up with the anonymous translator justifying having produced such a work.

The story part of The Hebrew Romance is quite brief, telling only two episodes in Arthur's life: his conception and his wife's adultery. It breaks off in mid-sentence during a description of a tournament.

The real meat of King Artus starts here. Leviant carefully examines the Hebrew source text, almost word for word, pointing out where it follows the presumed Italian text, where it is very close to the Old French and where the translator introduces or removes elements for his own religious and cultural reasons.

Leviant traces many elements in The Hebrew Romance, and in Arthurian legend in general, to Jewish sources. The period when it was written was one of relative peace and tolerance between Jews and Christians, and thus a time of cultural exchange.

Though Leviant does not himself use the word, it is obvious that The Hebrew Romance is a form of "localization." This term, made popular in the software field, means the whole set of linguistic and cultural changes made to a text, a piece of software or whatever to adapt it to a target audience. The translator of The Hebrew Romance evidently dropped Christian references from his source text, and added Biblical turns of phrase, to make his work more culturally acceptable to his target audience.

As a professional translator, I found this work fascinating. Make no mistake, though, this is technical stuff. I can't imagine the casual Camelot devotee finding it very relevant, but it should be of interest to the serious student of culture or language.

(As for retelling the story of King Arthur set in ancient Israel, perhaps that does need to be written too. Myself, I think it would fit nicely into the period of the Judges.)


[Faith Cormier]

Curt Leviant is a novelist and translator. He has published five novels (The Yemenite Girl, Passion in the Desert, The Man Who Thought He Was Messiah, Partita in Venice, Diary of an Adulterous Woman), two novellas (Ladies and Gentlemen, The Original Music of the Hebrew Alphabet, Weekend in Mustava) and many translations. Among the latter are works by Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Grade and Isaac Bashevis Singer. He does not seem to have a Web presence.

King Artus is one of his earlier works. The Syracuse University Press edition is a reprint of the 1969 publication by Ktav Publishing House.