Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1931
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 his own fame until reminded by Enide that she has heard malicious gossip about him. The hero brusquely undertakes a series of extraordinary adventures, in the company of his bride, and both are put to the test. Enide in fact proves her love by disobeying Erec’s commands. Their paired quest leads ultimately to a glorious conclusion.
Arms versus love is a question to which Chrétien adverts again in Yvain. It is with his second major work, Cligés, however, that he departs from the Arthurian mold by basing his story on popular Greco-Byzantine materials. With great literary virtuosity, dazzling metaphors, and dramatic analyses, he exalts the reciprocal love of Fenice and Cligés. His heroine is a victim of a forced marriage. Many interpretations of the text stress its ironic and mirrored echoing of Iseult’s adulterous passion for Tristan. The evidence for profound intertextuality of this romance with classical, especially Ovidian, sources has yet to be fully appreciated.
Interrelationship between texts is quite obvious when discussing Yvain and Lancelot. Chrétien’s third and fourth romances were most likely composed more or less simultaneously, as certain events dealing with the location of the characters suggest. The incomplete Lancelot recounts another famous story of adultery, that of the hero with his overlord’s wife, Guinevere (Arthur’s queen). The theme—apparently representing a “case” for debate—was possibly suggested by Marie de Champagne, a confusing but necessary conclusion because of the striking contrast with Chrétien’s otherwise frequent praise for fidelity in marriage. That may explain the text’s excessive irony and humor, often noted by critics. Lancelot, the servile lover of the imperious Guinevere, is treated with ridicule. With both Yvain and Lancelot, however, what becomes truly significant for the author is less the vindicated couple predestined to rule than the individual hero’s destiny and place in society.
Yvain is considered by many Chrétien’s consummate masterpiece, a sophisticated, witty, and finally wise extravaganza in which the romantic situation of Erec and Enide is reversed. Yet the conflicting obligations of marriage and chivalry are treated again. Chrétien’s trademark—a deep understanding of human nature and the creation of extraordinary adventures—is clearly embedded in this seductive, persuasive, and humorous treatment of the widow’s too hasty marriage to her husband’s slayer. Yvain decides, in order to avenge his cousin’s honor, to take action before the other knights of the Round Table do so. The failed adventure leads the hero to try to compensate for it. He voyages to the magical storm-provoking fountain in Brocéliande Forest and, as his cousin had done before him, pours water on the stone—which provokes an immediate challenge and attack by the lord of the castle, Esclados, whom Yvain defeats and mortally wounds. In fact, Yvain chases Esclados back to his nearby castle. Lunete, the wily servant of Esclados’ widow, Laudine, proceeds to hide Yvain; the knight is smitten with the grieving widow, marries her, and thereby becomes the fountain’s new champion.
At the fountain, Yvain must now challenge the visiting retainers of King Arthur, whom he bests, but Gauwain, Arthur’s nephew and the model of chivalry, encourages the knightly hero to depart from this land and his marriage and go a-tourneying. Laudine grants the wish, with the condition that he must return within one year. Absorbed by his feats of arms, Yvain forgets to return, is denounced by Laudine, and falls from grace: In shame and grief, he goes stark mad. Magically cured, he rescues a lion, who expresses his gratitude by becoming Yvain’s companion. Penitent and valorous after a complex series of liberating adventures, Yvain wins Laudine’s pardon, and their happiness in the end restores favor and fulfillment.
Chrétien’s last and most curious romance was, like Lancelot, left unfinished. Interpreted as a story of initiation, Perceval does relate the psychological and spiritual development of the story’s protagonist. Arms, love, and religion all figure in the narrative—viewed by some as allegorical. Perceval’s naïveté leads to amusing social blunders, but the humiliating intrigue of the whole episode at the Grail Castle, including the mysterious procession, leaves both the young hero and the reader unsatisfied. After numerous fantastic adventures, all becomes clear on a certain Good Friday: Perceval is touched by grace, and true charity is revealed to him. He learns that his lack of charity in hastening toward his own self-fulfillment—instead of rushing to his mother’s side as she fell in a swoon from grief—prevented him from asking his host (in fact, his uncle) the crucial questions about the Grail and the Bleeding Lance. The quest for the latter, a restorative-destructive instrument, is undertaken by Gauwain in a mysterious series of interrelated yet self-indulgent adventures.
Chrétien de Troyes’s lasting influence extends well beyond twelfth century France. An obvious debt is owed to him by the many compilers of later prose romances, beginning with the Vulgate cycle. Middle High German writers, such as Hartmann von Aue and Wolfram von Eschenbach, and others who composed Dutch, Scandinavian, and Provençal works, adapted his romances freely for their special audiences. From “The Franklin’s Tale” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) to the heroic and fairy tale-like elements in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), the French-derived Arthurian legends even found their way into the Wakefield and York mystery-play cycles and, more important, into Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), which itself has inspired modern adaptations, from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859-1885) to John Boorman’s adventure-fantasy film Excalibur (1981).
Chrétien’s genius conferred upon the Matter of Britain new prestige; his talent exploited the resources of a fledgling vernacular so that aesthetic awareness, logic, and harmony began to emerge in this period. Purity in vocabulary and clarity in syntax are also part of his legacy to the French language, as is the supple rhyme of his narrative poetry. Medieval romance took a giant step with Chrétien de Troyes, a leap into fantasy, legend, adventure, self-discovery, and especially self-actualization, through a tradition of values—marital, erotic, poetic, and literary.
Chrétien de Troyes. Chrétien de Troyes: The Knight with the Lion, or Yvain. Edited and translated by William W. Kibler. New York: Garland Publishers, 1986. This fine edition complements Kibler’s translation of Lancelot (1981) and other volumes in the Garland Library of Medieval Literature series. The series provides excellent introductions, modern English translations facing the Old French texts, and detailed bibliographies.
Frappier, Jean. Chrétien de Troyes: The Man and His Work. Translated by Raymond J. Cormier. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1982. This illustrated critical work includes extensive notes and an index. The considerable bibliography was last revised in 1981.
Kelly, Douglas. Chrétien de Troyes: An Analytic Bibliography. London: Grant and Cutler, 1976. Part of the Research Bibliographies and Checklists series, this volume is an indispensable reference tool. Includes index.
Loomis, Roger Sherman, ed. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961. A comprehensive collection of articles on a wide array of Arthurian topics. Illustrated.
Topsfield, L. T. Chrétien de Troyes: A Study of the Arthurian Romances. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981. A useful survey by a specialist in troubadour poetics.