Article abstract: Chrétien is one of the great names in early French literature and is known as the principal articulator of many significant medieval Arthurian legends.
Information about Chrétien de Troyes comes almost solely from indirect evidence in his works, and scholarly speculation has led to much controversy on this subject. A dedication in Lancelot: Ou, Le Chevalier de la charrette (c. 1177; Lancelot, 1914) to Marie de Champagne and another in Perceval: Ou, Le Conte du Graai (before 1191; Perceval: Or, The Story of the Grail, 1914) to Count Phillipe of Flanders, suggest that the poet was connected with the courts of Champagne in Troyes and in Flanders. Like most courtly clerks in this period, Chrétien was doubtless well educated in the Latin tradition of the seven liberal arts. Under the influence of the mid-twelfth century romances and tales of antiquity and working in the vernacular with a style forged by contemporary rhetoric, he describes himself in the prologue to his second romance, Cligés (c. 1170; Cligés: A Romance, 1912), as having already completed certain works in Old French: Érec et Énide (c. 1164; Erec and Enide, 1913), adaptations of several Ovidian poems, and a version of the Tristan legend (a story which nearly became his shirt of Nessus). It also appears likely, based on several precise topographical references in Cligés, that Chrétien visited England at some point in his career.
Most scholars agree that Chrétien’s canon embraces five romances. These include Erec and Enide, Cligés, Yvain: Ou, Le Chevalier au lion (Yvain: Or, The Knight with the Lion, 1914), and Lancelot; the latter two seem to have been composed simultaneously between 1177 and 1181. Chrétien’s last work, Perceval, dates from before 1191 (when his patron, Phillipe of Flanders, died). Besides these, there are two poems in the Provençal troubadour style and an attributed romance, Guillaume d’Angleterre (c. 1170; King William the Wanderer: An Old British Saga from Old French Versions, 1904), that draws on the Saint Eustace legend, a non-Arthurian story with obvious hagiographic themes.
The texts of Chrétien’s main works are preserved in a fairly large number of manuscripts, the oldest of which dates from the early thirteenth century. He composed the romances in octosyllabic rhyming couplets—averaging seven thousand lines in length—in a language that philologists consider to be standard Old French, although some Champenois or Picard dialectal traits persist, possibly because of his scribes or copyists.
Under Chrétien’s powerful influence, courtly literature took on new meaning in the midst of the twelfth century renaissance. The reciprocity of love and friendship, the stress on the values of psychological metamorphosis and self-discovery, and the humanistic rejection of the enthralling obsession and selfish adultery of the Tristan legend all make the romances enduring monuments to his innovative artistry, purity of style, and rich imagination. His ethos embraces a personal freedom actively pursued by his characters (especially the heroines) and an insistence, particularly for his heroes, on a superhuman quest for happiness purified by knightly trials of valor. All of this he presents as an intellectual pastime for a polite, courtly society; it is accomplished with humorous detachment as well.
Chrétien saw himself and is seen still as a synthesizer of several traditions: the Greco-Roman heritage (Vergil, Ovid, Statius), the rich storehouse of Celtic folklore, and occasional scriptural allusions. Chrétien’s skillful combination of separate adventures into a unified, well-knit story led Dante to praise him for having made France a leader in narrative poetry. The complicated question of the Welsh traditional tales that form doublets with several of his romances raises the kind of critical issues scholars continue to debate.
Chrétien’s first major work is also considered the first Arthurian romance on the Continent. (This general observation must exclude the early Welsh traditional tale Culhwch ac Olwen, c. 1100—literally, “how Culhwch won Olwen.”) Erec and Enide, a brilliant bipartite study in human psychology, poses a timely dilemma: In what manner, after marriage, must a knight maintain that prowess and glory with which he won his beloved in the first place? Can honor and arms and love all be served at the same time? Numbed by marital bliss with his young, submissive bride, Erec neglects...
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