Chrétien de Troyes Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Love, chivalry, mesure (moderation or balance), and irony are the primary elements of the romances of Chrétien de Troyes. His protagonist must, to be worthy of love, seek adventures by means of which he can display his prowess in knightly combat; at the same time, he cannot neglect the demands of love for the sake of adventure.

Erec and Enide

Chrétien addresses the former problem in his earliest romance, Erec and Enide, his first Arthurian romance. Erec wins Enide as his bride and is so enamored of her that he ceases to enter tourneys or seek adventures. He accidentally hears Enide’s soliloquy of concern that he is being mocked for his uxoriousness and commands her to dress in her best garments, to ride before him as he goes out to prove his skill, and to remain silent under all circumstances. Enide, riding ahead, sees ambushes prepared for Erec and breaks his command by warning him. He rebukes her each time and defeats his would-be attackers. The lovers are reconciled after an extended series of adventures; Erec is convinced of his wife’s faithfulness and respect and Enide is convinced of his worth.

Erec and Enide demonstrates the pattern of swift rise (the winning of Enide), sudden fall (the blow to Erec’s pride), and slow recovery (the adventure sequence) characteristic of many of Chrétien’s romances. It is not Erec alone who must be corrected, although his lack of balance, his démesure, is greater than Enide’s. Enide, whose words alert Erec to his faults, appears also to be submitting to correction as she endures Erec’s harshness. She needs to speak and he to hear, but the result of the revelation is Erec’s anger and distrust. Although it seems that she is being punished for no reason, earlier circumstances suggest that her concern for Erec’s reputation is, in part, concern for her own status, since her marriage to Erec resulted in her being elevated from the daughter of a poor knight to being the wife of the heir to a kingdom. When, commanded to silence, she speaks to protect Erec, and Erec, to preserve them both, must perforce listen; the difference from the initial incident lies in the appropriateness of motivation and response. Once real reconciliation and understanding are achieved, the lovers return to their kingdom, Erec’s prowess having been confirmed by his adventures.


Yvain presents the opposite problem from that of Erec and Enide: Yvain, a young knight of King Arthur’s court, is so involved in knightly adventure that he neglects his duty as a lover, with disastrous results. Yvain leaves Arthur’s court in order to be the first to attempt a new adventure—to find a spring whose water will cause a storm when it is poured over a magical rock beside it. The storm summons a knight whom Yvain defeats and pursues into the knight’s city. Yvain, trapped in the city, is aided by Lunete, handmaiden to Laudine, the slain defender’s widow. Yvain has fallen in love with Laudine and, through Lunete’s machinations, the two are wed. Although he is passionately in love with Laudine, he is reminded by Gawain not to neglect adventure. Yvain receives Laudine’s permission to seek adventures, but she sets a definite term on that permission—a year—after which her love will turn to hate. Yvain forgets, learns of Laudine’s rejection from a messenger before all of the court, leaves the court, and goes mad. He abandons his clothing (signs of his rank), the court (his proper milieu), and his reason in an attempted flight from himself. After a long period of insanity, he is cured and starts on a long series of adventures, in the course of which he is befriended by a lion. All of his adventures necessitate rendering service, the proper use of his skills as a knight. With Lunete’s help he conquers the last obstacle, Laudine’s determined refusal to forgive him, and the lovers are reconciled.

Chrétien employs the same general structure in Yvain as he does in Erec and Enide, but the narrative is denser and the characterization more deft. From the beginning, Yvain’s youthful self-centeredness and touchy pride prepare the reader for both his lack of understanding of what a lover’s fidelity must be and his emotional devastation when his failure is made public. Laudine, whom Lunete manipulates into accepting Yvain as her new husband, is intensely concerned with her reputation—only feudal necessity obviates the potential ugliness of this new courtship—and her own pride is much injured by Yvain’s negligence. This same concern with honor plays into Lunete’s hands as she entraps Laudine in an oath to do all in her power to reunite the Knight with the Lion with his lady. Lunete’s perspicacity contrasts with the prideful blindness of the two lovers, and even the Lion, in a scene of rich comedy and seriousness, demonstrates his faithfulness to Yvain, whom he believes to be dead, by attempting to commit suicide with Yvain’s sword.

It is not simply the content of Yvain’s adventures but their place in the narrative sequence...

(The entire section is 2093 words.)