CORVALLIS, Ore. - The legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is a well-known fixture both in literature and in the cinema, where films such as "Excalibur" and "First Knight" have brought alive the tales of violence, courage and chivalry.
The saga of "Le Chevalier Delibere" is not so familiar. In that work by Olivier de La Marche, the title character confronts his own mortality for the first time.
Written in 1483, "The Resolute Knight" reflects the era's preoccupation with death. The allegorical poem has been fully translated into English for the first time by Carleton W. Carroll, an Oregon State University professor who specializes in the Middle Ages. The resulting book ("Le Chevalier Delibere") is available in many libraries and book stores in the Northwest.
Carroll says that people in 15th-century Europe were "obsessed with death" - a stark contrast to the 12th and 13th centuries, which spawned the Arthurian legends. They, too, related tales of violence and death, but they also dealt with chivalry and were written with an idealized view of the world.
"The later Middle Ages didn't produce a lot of jolly literature," Carroll said. "They weren't full of laughs. But the tales were very moral and reflected the mentality of the times."
Scholarly interest in the late Middle Ages, Carroll says, is booming. He teaches courses in Old French literature and interacts with colleagues at the University of Oregon, Portland State University and elsewhere who work in the same field. Their scholarly pursuits may soon be mirrored by public interest. Author Michael Crichton, who wrote "Jurassic Park" and other best-selling novels, has a new book out called "Timeline," in which contemporary graduate students are transported back to 14th-century Europe. A movie may soon follow, which would make it one of the few Hollywood treatments of that era, Carroll said. Two standouts were different versions of "Henry V," by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. "The Name of the Rose," with Sean Connery, was another, he added.
Carroll welcomes the attention such popular books and films bring to the Middle Ages, and points out that "The Resolute Knight" was something of a best-seller in its day. The fact that 16 complete manuscripts - all centuries old - still exist today suggests that La Marche's poem was highly popular in the 15th and 16th centuries.
"The poem is 2,700 lines long, and you don't painstakingly copy a manuscript like that without a reason," Carroll said.
"If there wasn't any interest, or you couldn't make money from it," he added, "you wouldn't go to the expense of hiring a scribe to copy it."
Carroll viewed 14 of the 16 manuscripts personally, and studied microfilms of the other two. He found they all differed - some slightly, others significantly. The variations could have been the result of shoddy copying, or of different interpretations of La Marche's work.
In this allegory, "The Resolute Knight" ponders his own demise, wondering whether it will come from Lord Accident, who dispatches the young and strong, or, more likely, from Sir Debility, who finishes off the aging with unseen blows.
In his quest, he meets a hermit who shows him instruments of death from history and legend - the sling with which David slew Goliath; the sword Mordred used to kill King Arthur; and the instruments that led to the deaths of Samson, Julius Caesar, Achilles and others.
He also learns the fates of people he has known who died in the previous 35 years, including the allegorized chronicle of two dukes from the Court of Burgundy and others of the Knights of the Golden Fleece.
"The author, La Marche, worked in the Court of Burgundy for the last two dukes, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold," Carroll said. "So his writings about the court are really his own reflections about the people and the times.
"That is one of the values you get in translating these old manuscripts," Carroll pointed out. "It provides another window into history."