A cycle of three -- or, by some counts, four -- Arthurian romances attributed to the poet Robert de Boron (or Borron) is of exceptional importance. It seems to have provided the model for the later Vulgate Cycle, which includes "Lancelot" and "The Quest of the Holy Grail," and its successors, including Thomas Malory''s "Le Morte D'Arthur." Obviously, everyone seriously interested in Arthurian literature will have read it. Wrong. Very wrong.
To begin with, there is, unfortunately, direct manuscript evidence for only "Joseph of Arimathea" (the early history of the Grail) and the opening of "Merlin" in verse. What we have for the whole cycle, concluding with "Perceval" (the Grail Quest), and "The Death of Arthur" (as either the conclusion of "Perceval" or a short continuation of the cycle), is a prose redaction. The relationship of this to the work of the original poet in its later portions is uncertain -- assuming that there was a complete version in verse.
The prose retelling exists in a variety of manuscripts, only two of which (known as Modena and Didot, the latter famous but textually corrupt) contain the whole collection, and they otherwise differ among themselves. There have been a number of editions of the medieval French texts, based on different manuscripts and editorial principles, so even those with a good reading knowledge of Old French have not necessarily read the same book.
For those of us who read only English (at least with any fluency), there has been only the last section, as "The Romance of Perceval in Prose: A Translation of the E Manuscript of the Didot Perceval" by Dell Skeels, published by University of Washington Press in 1961. It was once available in paperback (1966 printing), but is long out of print. Fortunately Skeels resisted the turn-of-the-century models of Sebastian Evans and W.W. Comfort, and turned out workman-like modern English instead of pseudo-Malory. Unfortunately, he provided only half the story (the Quest and the Death of Arthur), and the information provided about the material was limited.
Now Nigel Bryant has come riding to the rescue of beleaguered amateur Arthurians and besieged students (sorry, I can't resist the image) with another of his modern language translations. (He has also made available in English the "Perceval" of Chretien de Troyes, and a selection of its numerous continuations, and also the rather odd "Perlesvaus," as "The High Book of the Grail"). Originally published in hardcover as Volume XLVIII of an ongoing Arthurian Studies series, "Merlin and the Grail" is readable, critically astute, and bibliographically up to date (although I have yet to find Skeels in the bibliography or notes.) It is exactly what I longed for a quarter-century ago when trying to make sense of passages in William Roach's 1941 edition of "The Didot Perceval, According to the Manuscripts of Modena and Paris." We have at last a really early version of the origin and wanderings of the Grail, the conceptions and births of Merlin and Arthur, and the King's early reign, and the insertion of the Grail Quest into the traditonal "history" of Arthur's reign.