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The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press (1903)

The History of Oliver and Arthur is a charming mediaeval romance known to us through a 1521 German translation by Wilhelm Liely from the Old French (which in turn was likely based on a Latin original from even earlier). Liely’s work, only a few specimens of which are known to exist today, includes his translation of a better known tale, Valentine and Orson, along with Oliver and Arthur.  While Valentine and Orson had been translated into English a number of times over the years, prior to the edition being reviewed here Oliver and Arthur had only been translated into English once, that by Wynkyn de Worde in 1518. William Morris, at his Kelmscott Press, printed a translation of an old French romance, The Friendship of Amis and Amile, that has many similarities to Oliver and Arthur. However, this 1903 edition from Bruce Rogers and the Riverside Press is the first and only translation into English of Liely’s German translation that I am aware of.

The translation of Oliver and Arthur into English was done by William Leighton and Eliza Barrett, who also wrote a preface to the edition being reviewed here. They call the story “quite entertaining” with “quaint and simple phraseology.”  It is “delightful…that the story is not subject to any limitations whatever.”  These descriptions are all true, if anything understated. It is a very pleasant, romantic tale that fully engrosses the reader today just as it must have to its  listeners or readers half a millennium ago. Here are some examples of writing from the charming, entertaining, delightful and quaint story, one that stands up well to any of Arthurian lore.

Oliver ponders:

…remembering that happiness in this world is not to be compared to eternal happiness, and that the human body is but perishable flesh created to be, in this world, food for worms.

The brilliant thing in this next quote is the realization that so often our problems are self-caused:

This miracle shows us that it is well to keep in remembrance that those who find themselves  in trouble through misfortunes, — too often caused by sins in which they persist,– if they turn to the grace of God, and appeal to his mercy, need not despair; whosoever in his sore need cries out to God in faith, to him will God manifest himself, and relieve that suppliant from his danger.

Next, a short thought, but so true. In some ways thankfully, as such envy is the source of so many stories today!

This was envy, the vice of courts…

Concerning the heroine of our story, a splendid description akin to the later reference in Marlowe of “the face that launched a thousand ships”:

But it was her beauty that gave its greatest brightness to the hall; for she was fair beyond the fairness of other women, fair as that other Helen, for whom the lofty walls of Troy were laid low — that god-born Helen, so beautiful that, in a land of world-famed beauty, she was peerless; so beautiful that her name descended through the ages as a synonym of female beauty; so beautiful as to  set the world in arms for her possession.

In lines that could have come straight from the Bard:

Too much of haste to do a thing,
Sorrow and sore regret may bring.

Ah, the mystery of a woman’s heart!

Although a wise and skilful knight and an accomplished courtier, this Spanish hero was still too young a man to have learned how fathomless is a woman’s heart and disposition: indeed, not many at any age acquire such knowledge.

Here, another example of Shakespearean brevity and wisdom:

…for every evil thing we do,
its punishment we surely rue.

What follows is an ideal often mentioned, never realized:

…for whoever lives long must learn that all men are of one family and one kind, and all should be held to be friends…

A story such as Oliver and Arthur deserves a great private press edition, and lucky for us, there is just such an edition. The Riverside Press was founded in 1862 by Henry Oscar Houghton, predating his more famous Houghton, Mifflin and Company that was formally founded in 1880. From the founding of the Riverside Press, Houghton intended it to be of high quality, using individual pieces of type, hand composition, and printing on hand presses (see here for a historical overview). The Riverside Press lasted for over a hundred years until its closure in the 1970’s, but the works of interest to private press collectors mostly are beautiful editions of classics that were published during the period (1895-1911) in which the great American typographer and designer Bruce Rogers called Riverside Press home. Rogers succeeded another great of American printing, Daniel Berkeley Updike who had just left Riverside Press to start the Merrymount Press.

Rogers brought many ideas and design innovations to the Press, “including monumental and arabesque styled title pages” (from Kent State University, Riverside Press Editions Designed by Bruce Rogers) and:

When it came to selecting type—what we popularly call fonts—for the editions, Rogers moved away from the usual practice of using one favored type for all of the books printed by any one press. Instead, he practiced what was called “allusive typography.” This means that the type chosen for each work alluded to, or in some way referenced, the subject of the work or the time in which it was originally created.

The 1903 Riverside Press edition of The History of Oliver and Arthur is an excellent example of a Rogers’ title page and his allusive style mentioned above. The black letter type, the title page styling, and the use of engravings redrawn from the old woodcuts that appeared in the original edition all make this edition look and feel like something from the medieval era. It, to me, perfectly matches the feel of the story itself and succeeds brilliantly in complementing the delightful, quaint mediaeval romance it contains. The original binding (original quarter linen and dark green boards) can be hard to find in fine shape, so I purchased one with the worst possible binding but with the best possible internals, so to have simply rebound in plain vellum with only minor spine decoration (I felt such binding would not distract from the glorious internals). The cost on the secondary market for this edition seems to usually be between $200 and $600 depending on condition and timing. An excellent price, if you ask me, for an outstanding work from Bruce Rogers during his time at Riverside Press.

{Ed. Note: In the coming weeks Books and Vines will highlight the greatest of works from the Rogers’ Riverside era, The Song of Roland.}

About the Edition

Pictures of the Edition

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The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Book in Slipcase
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Covers and Spine
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Macro of Spine
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Title Page
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Macro #1 Title Page
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Macro #2 Title Page
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Sample Text #1 (Preface)
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Macro of Sample Text #1 (Preface)
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Macro #1 of Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Macro #2 of Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Sample Illustration #5 with Text
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Sample Illustration #6 with Text
The History of Oliver and Arthur, Riverside Press, Colophon
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