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W. R. J. Barron

Charismatic Arthurian scholar

W. R. J. Barron was a medievalist of great charisma, and first and foremost an Arthurian scholar.

William Raymond Johnston Barron, medievalist: born Belfast 14 December 1926; Lecturer in English, Manchester University 1957-73, Senior Lecturer in English 1973-92; died Seville, Spain 12 April 2004.

W. R. J. Barron was a medievalist of great charisma, and first and foremost an Arthurian scholar.

That peculiar mixture of scholarship and speculation, fact and fantasy in medieval Arthurian studies, together with the attraction of the Arthur legend for all sorts and conditions of men and women, may partly explain why the subject retained such fascination for him throughout his life. At Manchester University, where he spent most of his academic career, he taught his special course, "Arthurian Romance", with erudition, energy, enthusiasm for text and subject, and engagement with his students.

His first significant publication, dedicated to his mother, was his edition and translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1974, revised 1998). Student-friendly, like Barron, it epitomises his particular verbal skills, his ability to synthesise by an exact choice of word or flair of syntax. In 1980 the Gawain text engaged Barron further in the extraordinary and fascinating study published as Trawthe and Treason: the sin of Gawain reconsidered and dedicated to the memory of Eugène Vinaver.

Professor of French at Manchester until 1966, Vinaver produced the edition of Malory which is still the authoritative text. Barron was actively involved in the Vinaver Trust, established in 1981 by the British branch of the International Arthurian Society (of which Barron was President, 1983-86). The trust, founded through Vinaver's generosity, might have foundered, had it not been for Barron's 1986 appointment as Director, when he re-established it financially. He remained Director until 1990 and then served as a trustee until 2002.

In its brief existence the trust has supported the publication of over 50 scholarly works. Barron himself gave freely, not only of his time and expertise, but also of his income, by a large donation that established a research fund for doctoral candidates, whose future he feared for with the marginalisation of medieval studies in British universities. The Barron Bequest is a lasting memorial to the generosity, in the fullest sense of the word, of a distinguished academic.

Through the Vinaver Trust, Barron helped establish the series that substantially revises R.S. Loomis's 1959 publication Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages. Barron was series editor for The Arthur of the Welsh (1991), The Arthur of the English (1999, for which he was also volume editor) and The Arthur of the Germans (2000), and was at his death overseeing publication of The Arthur of the French. He was a familiar speaker at the British and international conferences of the International Arthurian Society and contributed regularly to the society's Bibliographical Bulletin, the British Section of which he edited from 1966 to 1969.

William Raymond Johnston Barron was born in Belfast in 1926, the younger son of William and Elizabeth Barron, and educated at Carrickfergus and the Royal Academic Institute, Belfast. In 1948 he graduated from the Department of History and English at St Andrews University with a First. The university went on to award him the degrees of BPhil and PhD, after which a Rotary Foundation bursary took him to Yale. On his return, he taught briefly at Aberdeen University before his appointment to Manchester University, where he remained until his retirement in 1992.

Ray Barron was deeply interested in people, encouraged students and new colleagues, engaged them as equals in scholarly discourse, and imputed to them the same energy and commitment to life and learning that he had himself. In practical terms, he held wonderful tea parties for new colleagues, where his excellent cooking was served to guests sitting on Persian prayer rugs in his semi-Eastern interior at Fallowfields. He was also involved in the Stage Society, both as producer and actor. Through his friendship with the BBC producer Gillian Hush, who was struck by his remarkable fluency and wide-ranging interests, he made several successful appearances on the Radio 4 programme A Word in Edgeways, chaired by Brian Redhead.

Besides numerous articles and contributions to books, Barron also edited a Robert Henryson Selected Poems (1981) and published English Medieval Romance (1987) and, with his Manchester colleague Carole Weinberg, an edition and translation of the Arthurian section of the Early Middle English poem the Brut ( Layamon's Arthur, 1989) and then of the full poem ( Layamon's Brut, 1995).

By now Barron had retired to a medieval chantry cottage in Devon. His friendship with Michael Swanton, an early colleague at Manchester, now at Exeter University, bore fruit in contributions to the English department, where Barron was Honorary Research Fellow and taught on the MA in Medieval Studies. Besides his Arthurian publications, he published with Glyn Burgess an edition of The Voyage of St Brendan (2002).

As ever, he supported medieval studies and his medievalist colleagues, and he revived his dramatic interests. On Christmas Day 2000 he appeared on the Channel 4 programme The Real King Arthur, where his typically articulate comments were chosen to conclude the programme: "The key to romance is the projection of that which we would like to believe but know in our hearts is not true."

In some ways this is a clue to Barron himself, essentially a romantic with a pragmatic grip on life. He had spent the years 1969-71 teaching in Iran, at Isfahan and Pahlavi (now Shiraz) universities. This was a high point of his life, when he travelled widely and got to know the customs and character of the people. His love affair with Iran and its people was cut short by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the hurt of the loss remained with him.

Over many years he unsuccessfully sought a publisher for his critique on the Iranian political situation, but in 2003 he published his thoughts and experiences as a novel, Hostages, under the pseudonym Rae Barron. Set in Shiraz over three months in the summer of 1980, it takes the form of letters from an imprisoned academic to his Iranian wife and to the British Council representative in Shiraz. Forceful and relevant today, it explores the humanity and inhumanity of man, finding, as Barron always did, inhumanity in all those who take upon themselves to be "our masters" and humanity in the mass of the people, particularly the young, whom Barron cherished for their energy and idealism.

Barron remained physically young. The walking holidays which he had taken all his life represented what he recently called "living life on MY terms" (which his commitment to research and other people did not always allow him to do). The holidays were a chance to meet new people and engage in that exploration of the Other which fascinated him in his medieval research. They were undertaken as a medieval pilgrim might have travelled - with almost no baggage, walking 20 or 25 miles a day from village to village, sleeping in modest accommodation. In this way Barron walked over much of the medieval world of Europe and the East.

He died of a heart attack in Seville on 12 April. He had that day walked some distance and arrived unannounced at a hotel. He went out to dinner and asked for an early call but was found, still dressed, by his bed in the morning. It is fitting that Ray Barron should have died, as he lived, in the midst of life, just about to do the next thing.

Sue Powell