Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

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Huon of Bordeaux is a French epic poem or chanson de geste, written in the first quarter of the thirteenth century. As the term chanson de geste indicates, this type of composition is intended to be chanted, most likely to a simple melody played on a zither or lutelike instrument, called the vielle. The poem is composed in assonanced decasyllabic verse arranged in stanzas of irregular length. Each stanza is separated from the next by a short pause that lends itself to a brief musical interlude, which in turn provides the storyteller with an opportunity to recall and organize the next stanza. The term chanson de geste further points out that the song’s subject matter relates to geste, that is, to exploits and deeds.

Huon of Bordeaux is an original and successful composition of approximately 10,553 verses. Despite its considerable size, the unknown author succeeds in steadily advancing the complex plot while maintaining a cohesiveness that is crucial to an audience’s understanding of a text this long. Although the author respects the conventions of the epic genre in plot and setting, he also introduces elements borrowed from other literary traditions, in particular the Arthurian romance. Huon of Bordeaux is undeniably a chanson de geste, but it also has definite characteristics of the verse romance. This form of experimentation within a literary genre has been the focus of a number of interesting critical studies that have led to a better understanding of the process of generic transformation and renewal and to a renewed appreciation of these types of texts.

The poet’s use of the fantastic or merveilleux is especially striking in Huon of Bordeaux, for it transforms a potentially wearisome account of heroic deeds and travel afar into a spellbinding adventure filled with marvel and wonder. It is interesting to note that it is from this work that William Shakespeare later drew inspiration for the green dwarf Oberon in his Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1600). Subsequently, in the eighteenth century, the German author Christoph Wieland, a translator of several of Shakespeare’s works, reintroduces the character of Huon of Bordeaux in his verse romance Oberon (1780). Wieland’s work in turn led to the Romantic opera of the same title by Carl Maria von Weber (1826). The infectious nature of the material of Huon of Bordeaux ensured the poem lasting popularity. A cycle was developed around it in the second half of the thirteenth century. In the fifteenth century, the poem was rewritten in both Alexandrine verse and prose. It was translated into English in 1530 by the English diplomat John Bourchier, Lord Berners, who had previously undertaken the translation of Jean Froissart’s Chroniques de France, d’Engleterre, d’Écose, de Bretaigne, d’Espaigne, d’Italie, de Flandres, et d’Alemaigne (1373-1410). It must have been Lord Berners’s translation of Huon of Bordeaux that Shakespeare knew. The original poem was regularly reprinted, at times even in popular series, right up to the nineteenth century.