King Arthur in Hebrew

King Arthur in Hebrew

Curt Leviant translates an unlikely Hebrew-language classic into English

Curt Leviant’s academic work does not only involve Yiddish. A great deal of his work also is with Hebrew, both ancient and modern.

Some of his work has been unexpected.

It was in unexpected pursuit of a Hebrew text that in 1968 the not-yet-Dr. Curt Leviant and his father, Jacques, found themselves standing at the base of a marble staircase that led to the Vatican library’s vast manuscript collection.

To be accurate, of course they didn’t just find themselves there. It takes work, not magic, to get to those stairs.

Just to get to the base of the staircase, “you have to apply for permission,” Dr. Leviant, who lives in Middlesex County and is retired from Rutgers University, said. “You have to tell them what manuscripts you are looking for. You have to know it’s there.” Once you’ve jumped through all the hurdles, however (and to be fair, those hurdles are put up by all research libraries), “they grant you permission, and they will prepare it for you.

“You walk in through the library doors, and before you there is a huge marble staircase, and a guard standing there. When you show him your admission documents, he presents you with a huge key — it’s golden, or maybe copper, but I remember gold — and you take the key, and you walk up the very long, very beautiful marble staircase, and through a double glass door.

“And then there is another attendant there, and to him you give the key, and he opens the door for you.

“You walk into a room with long tables. As I entered, I looked up, and I saw another tier, with smaller desks, and what looked like three sculpted cardinals. I saw the red hats and the red cloaks. They looked like sculptures, but when I looked closely at one of them, he blinked.

“They were there studying, but as far as I could tell no one of them turned a page.

“And then a man leads you to a desk, where your huge folio manuscript, about two and a half feet long and one and a half feet wide, already is opened up to the right page. And then you spend hours copying it.

“And then you go home.”

The grail at the end of Dr. Leviant’s pilgrimage was an unlikely manuscript. It was called “King Artus”; it’s what he calls, in the subtitle of the book he wrote about it, a “Hebrew Arthurian Romance of 1279.”

What is a Hebrew Arthurian romance? Medieval romances in general, and the legends of King Arthur in particular, are steeped in the Christian world, inextricably tied into it.

So what is this book?

It is, as its author, an Italian translator whose name we do not know and whose circumstances we can deduce but do not know, the story of the life and death of King Arthur, “Judaized and transformed,” Dr. Leviant said.

“We know the translator was a master of Hebrew, and he knew the Bible, and even knew the oral tradition,” he continued. “He knows the secular literature. He was not in the ghetto, where secular literature was anathema. That’s why Italian Jewish literature is so rich.”

There might well have been other similar manuscripts, Hebrew language versions of popular romances, with a more or less visible overlay of Jewish references, but none of them are extant, Dr. Leviant said.

Although the story in “King Artus” is fairly straightforwardly Arthur’s as we know it today, there are little touches that tie it to Jewish literature. When, for example, Arthur’s mother, the Duchess, learns that her husband is dead and she has been deceived by the shape-shifting Uther Pendragon, she tries to figure out how that could be possible. “No sooner had he gone more than a bow-shot’s distance away from the castle than the messenger came straight to my chamber.” That bow-shot’s distance comes not from Arthurian legend but from the story of Hagar, who sits a bow-shot’s distance away from her son Ishmael when Abraham casts them out and she does not want to see her son die.

“How clever and wonderful a translator this anonymous Jew is in being able to fit in these quotes from biblical literature,” Dr. Leviant said. “I am convinced that much of secular literature, especially from this period, has a Jewish base.”

Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews starred in “Camelot” as Lancelot and Guinevere — or are they King David and Bathsheva?
Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews starred in “Camelot” as Lancelot and Guinevere — or are they King David and Bathsheva?

There are obvious connections between some biblical characters and some Arthurian ones, he added; Lancelot could be analogous to King David, the great warrior who fell in love with someone married to a warrior; Guinevere then would be not entirely unlike Bathsheba.

In fact, Dr. Leviant said, there are archetypical situations that can be found both in medieval romances and in the Bible; “if you edit out the names so that you see just the sentence, you wouldn’t know which it is from. The situation could fit both the Arthurian character and the biblical one.” That’s not surprising; “these storytellers were Christians, and what they called the Old Testament was part of an educated person’s reading.”

In an appendix to his translation of “King Artus,” Dr. Leviant lists 30 such situations. They include, more or less at random, “A king whose son rebels again his father and dies in a battle against him,” “A drink which a faithful wife can easily consume, but which gives trouble to an adulteress,” “A harper who so angers the king that the latter forces the harper to flee,” and “The God-induced tempest, which abates when the hero is removed from the ship.”

It is easy for modern Jewish readers to know where the biblical references are from — Absalom, the bitter waters of the book of Numbers, David and King Saul, and Jonah. It’s not so easy for us to put them in the Arthurian canon, but that’s what Dr. Leviant’s book is for.

As he concludes, “the Arthurian adventures, which at first glance seem to be so secular-Christian, actually contain an undercurrent of Jewish tales.”

And at some level, a good story is a good story.