Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant Isles or, The Book of Galehaut Retold

  • Hardcover printing (2007)
  • Patricia Terry and Samuel N. Rosenberg
  • wood engravings by Judith Jaidinger
  • Boston: David R. Godine, 2006 (actually released in 2007)
  • xxvii + 228 pages
  • Hardcover: ISBN-10 1-56792-324-0
  • Hardcover: ISBN-13 9781567923247
  • E-book version (2012)
  • E-book version of Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant Isles was prepared in 2012
  • Kindle: ASIN B00BIPOJU8
  • E-book: ISBN 9781567924657

Remembering Patricia Terry

Patricia Terry, the highly admired medievalist, was a remarkable writer and translator. Our first collaboration centered on the tale of Sir Lancelot and Lord Galehaut—that remarkable tale of chivalric love that we drew from 13th-century French sources and recast in our own language.

I can’t forget how our casual lunchtime conversation at a translators’ conference turned to King Arthur and his knights and, in particular, to Lancelot and Galehaut. That discussion kindled Pat’s interest in a shared re-telling of their complex and ambiguous friendship. In no time at all, we were thoroughly engaged in a wonderfully creative reconstruction of a long-eclipsed love story. We were giving it new life after eight centuries of dormancy. Pat never faltered as a model of taste, tact, and gentle persuasiveness—it was pure pleasure to work with her.

A retelling—not a rewriting of the story

To summarize parts of the Introduction… This book might sometimes be mistaken for a kind of “fan fiction,” as if we had come up with a new plotline to set and develop in the Arthurian world. Not at all. Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant Isles began with a series of early 13th-century Old French prose romances collectively called the Lancelot-Grail, or Arthurian Vulgate Cycle. The entire cycle, along with an early sequel, is available in English translation in the five volumes of Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, Norris J. Lacy, general editor (New York and London: Garland Publishing [now Routledge], 1993-1995). (I was one of the translators for the section known as The Prose Lancelot.)

Of the five romances—The History of the Holy Grail, The Story of Merlin, Lancelot, The Quest for the Holy Grail, The Death of King ArthurLancelot is by far the longest and most luxuriantly filled with character and incident. The story of Lancelot and Queen Guenevere has, since the twelfth century, been part of every significant account of King Arthur. Their story is fully developed in Lancelot and The Death of King Arthur, where it will reach its unhappy end, along with the downfall of the kingdom.

The second, overlapping, love story (related in Lancelot) tells of Galehaut, Lord of the Distant Isles, sacrificing his power, his happiness, and ultimately his life for the sake of Lancelot. This part of the great Arthurian narrative has been wholly forgotten. To bring this story into focus, we have stripped away everything not closely related to the development of Lancelot’s affective life and the role of Galehaut in that evolution. Thus, various subplots and missions involving one or another knight of the Round Table have been set aside. We have eliminated a host of characters, reduced the presence of others, and even reshaped the trajectories of a few.

All changes have been made in the interest of tightening the story without distorting the fundamental facts of the original narrative. In any case, it was our intention, not to prepare an English-language abridgement of the Old French source, but to retell this central love-drama in such a way as to restore its complexity and emotional depth for the modern reader.

A poetic summary of The Book of Galehaut

Retelling a prose narrative may be achieved in countless ways. What follows is my summary adaptation (in verse) of The Book of Galehaut derived from a passage in Samuel N. Rosenberg and Patricia Terry, Lancelot and the Lord of the Distant Isles.


Returning home to Sorelois, accompanied by Lancelot, Galehaut finds his lands devastated and his main castle in ruins. Lancelot attempts to comfort him. Then,

  • Galehaut smiled ruefully.
  • “Do you think it’s for my castles that I grieve?
  • For land or wealth I may have lost?
  • The proud designs of conquest I’d conceived
  • before I saw what love that goal would cost?
  • No, my friend, possession was never what I sought;
  • nor did power, nor did lordship guide my heart.
  • Glory it was—renown— for which I fought.
  • Each victory was just another start
  • in one long drive to test myself and move
  • beyond what I had done, to see what else,
  • what further might there was that I could prove.
  • Triumphs left me needing to surpass myself,
  • and even the defeat that once had seemed
  • the very summit of my youth’s ambition
  • would soon have given way to further dreams,
  • defeating Arthur but a momentary mission.
  • But then, my friend, I saw you on the field,
  • and everything was changed. What happened then,
  • and matters still, I barely need reveal.
  • I stood in awe, stock still before my men,
  • and knew that day no kingdom in the world
  • could claim my interest anymore.
  • No foe could make me want to hurl
  • my spear or slash with steel and sword
  • through his defensive mail. No, that day
  • you won my trust and my devotion,
  • and if it meant that Arthur stood to gain
  • unchallenged ’mid the clashes and commotion,
  • what matter? I knew thenceforth my heart
  • was fixed elsewhere.
      • Still, this ruin that we see
  • confirms a real foreboding: it is the start,
  • the very sign, of fate’s inconstancy.
  • Two men alone have ever caused me fear:
  • myself for one; the other, my friend, is you.
  • Whether this month, tomorrow, next year,
  • if either met misfortune, there’d be one truth,
  • a calm, unhesitating consequence.
  • The result for me would be the same.
  • I’d pray and beg the Lord’s benevolence
  • to let me stay alive no single day
  • beyond the doleful hour of your death.
  • Love, I fear no pain except your loss!
  • But any parting would leave me too bereft.
  • Dare I evoke the Queen and say what cross
  • she’s given me to bear? Were she alive
  • to generosity, as I have been,
  • she would remember me and recognize
  • how I contrived to satisfy her sin.
  • But it was for you, of course, your joy
  • no less than hers—which made it mine as well.
  • Above all, though, it was a gift unspoiled
  • by second thoughts, ungrudging, uncompelled.
  • The Queen herself once said it’s not a gift
  • unless you feel prepared to give it up.
  • I’ve learned, heartsick, how true that is.
  • But in the end, my friend, there’s only this:
  • If ever I should lose your trust,
  • your company, your life,
  • the world, my friend, would soon lose mine.”

—Samuel N. Rosenberg (2019)

An earlier version of this poem appears as Samuel N. Rosenberg, “Retelling the Old Story.” In Telling the Story in the Middle Ages: Essays in Honor of Evelyn Birge Vitz, ed. Kathryn A. Duys, Elizabeth Emery, and Laurie Postlewate (Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 2014), 242-244.

Lancelot-Grail volumes

Related publications

Samuel N. Rosenberg, “Galeotto before the Fall.” In “Accessus ad Auctores”: Studies in Honor of Christopher Kleinhenz, ed. Fabian Alfie and Andrea Dini (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS [Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies], 2011), 51-59.

Samuel N. Rosenberg, “Translation and Eclipse: The Case of Galehaut.” In The Medieval Translator/Traduire au Moyen Age, Vol. 8: The Theory and Practice of Translation in the Middle Ages, ed. Rosalynn Voaden, René Tixier, Teresa Sanchez Roura, and Jenny Rebecca Rytting (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2003), 245-255.

Samuel N. Rosenberg, trans., Abridged version of Prose Lancelot, Part III. In The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature, ed. Byrne R. S. Fone (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 115-122.