Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2093
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 that is meaningful in the romance. The same Yvain who could not get enough adventure finds himself required by his sworn word to perform two rescues nearly at one time, one of which is rescuing Lunete from the stake to which Laudine has condemned her for the “treason” of having aided Yvain. Yvain learns from his adventures that promises are neither to be made nor to be broken lightly and that he is not to be one such as Chrétien describes at the beginning of the romance, one who hears but does not understand: “for speech is completely wasted if not understood by the heart.” At the end, however, Chrétien tempers Yvain’s triumph with irony, causing one to wonder how perceptive Yvain really is when one reads of Laudine’s less than gracious acquiescense—she has sworn an oath and will not be forsworn even if this means accepting Yvain—and Yvain’s delight at their being reunited. In any event, a vital balance has been achieved between love and chivalry, and the Knight with the Lion has progressed in understanding beyond the Yvain of the beginning of the romance.
Chrétien does deal with the extramarital passion that characterized the Provençal love lyric in two of his romances, Cligès and Lancelot. In the latter, Chrétien is credited with being the creator of the story of the love between Lancelot and Guinevere, although he claims to have written the story at the behest of his patroness Marie de Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. However reluctant Chrétien may seem—he turned over completion of the tale to one Godefroi de Leigny—this reluctance did not keep him from creating a complexly structured sequence of adventures each functioning not so much as instructive but as demonstrative of the lover’s state. That Chrétien did not complete the romance himself may argue less for reluctance to write a romance of this kind than for the demands of writing the Yvain, generally believed to be contemporaneous. All that was significant in the Lancelot was completed by Chrétien; only the denouement remained for Godefroi.
In Lancelot, love and reason are set in opposition, and love triumphs. Lancelot, in quest of the queen, who has been abducted by Meleagant, prince of Gorre, is made to look almost foolish as he venerates a lock of Guinevere’s hair as if it were a holy relic, or becomes so involved in a reverie that he is unhorsed when he does not respond to a challenge, yet he never fails in any of his adventures. Those who taunt him for his unavoidable although unknightly ride in a cart when he has no horse cannot touch him with their mockery. Lancelot’s reasonable hesitation before riding in the cart leads to his being rejected by Guinevere, but his lover’s folly of absolute obedience to Guinevere’s commands to “do his worst” at a tournament is accounted to his glory. Chrétien is clear-sighted enough to portray this glorious folly, ironically, as folly still, and Guinevere, for all her imperiousness, mourns when a false report of Lancelot’s death leads her to believe that her harshness is the true reason for his demise.
Once Lancelot and Guinevere meet in love, Chrétien shifts his emphasis to the conflict between Lancelot and Meleagant; Lancelot, by virtue of knightly prowess, maintains the necessary balance between love and chivalry as he champions Arthur’s queen against her abductor’s accusation of adultery. Chrétien remains silent with regard to the truth of the accusation against Guinevere, and the tension between truth and protestation remains implicit as he focuses on the contrast between Lancelot and Meleagant as types of the lover: Meleagant, the abductor whose accusation is true, falls before Lancelot, the chivalrous lover, whose protestation is false. Chrétien narrates the story requested of him while making his own ironic observations by means of the dramatic and ironic tensions present in the narrative.
Cligès has been considered by some to be Chrétien’s commentary on the Tristan legend. The general structure of the romance, the love story first of the parents and then of their son, Cligès, duplicates that of the Tristan tales. Later, Fenice, lover of Cligès, uses an elaborate stratagem to remain true to Cligès despite her marriage to his uncle, saying that she does wish to be a second Iseult. The lovers Fenice and Cligès are exemplary in their faithfulness to each other, but their derelictions otherwise are glaringly obvious. The romance ends with their being wed, but the closing comments attribute to Fenice’s success in deceiving her husband the Eastern practice of using eunuchs as harem guards. Chrétien is never blatantly sarcastic, but one senses that the artist relishes giving his version of a very popular story.
Chrétien’s career of innovation culminates in the unfinished Perceval. The romance, which in Chrétien’s version is not overtly the Christian spiritual quest it was to become, is built around the theme of the Wasteland whose ruler, the wounded Fisher-King, can only be healed by certain questions asked by the chosen hero. This hero, Perceval, whose character is a compendium of the traits of Chrétien’s earlier heroes, is brought up in ignorance and isolation by his mother and is so intent upon observing his conception of knightly decorum in the Fisher-King’s presence that, fearing to seem uncouth, he fails to ask the necessary questions. Publicly denounced at Arthur’s court, he sets out on a long, uncompleted series of adventures to redress his offense. The romance breaks off in the middle of a series of Gawain’s adventures which form a parallel to Perceval’s. There is controversy among scholars as to whether the romance would end with Perceval’s triumphant return to ask the questions (a denouement used in later retellings of the tale) or with some ending that goes beyond the relatively simple pattern of Chrétien’s other romances. The lack of resolution in Perceval led to several Continuations and one later medieval masterpiece, the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach. Almost immediately, Chrétien’s story was Christianized; that is, explicit links were made between the Grail and the chalice of the Last Supper and the lance of the Grail-ritual with the lance of the Crucifixion, by Robert de Boron. Later retellings of this version such as the Old French Quest of the Holy Grail (1225-1230) linked the grail-quest ever more firmly with the tragic downfall of Arthur’s court; these versions led to the grail-story as retold in Middle English by Sir Thomas Malory.
Chrétien’s contributions—the quest for adventure, the Lancelot-Guinevere affair, and the Grail-legend—provide the framework, lacking only the downfall of the Arthurian milieu, of the later Arthurian cycle of romances. Conventions that are present, it is true, in other romances of his time are crystallized in his works. It is unfair to his contemporaries and his literary descendants to term them mere imitators, but the medieval romance of chivalry received from Chrétien de Troyes a form ample and flexible enough to accommodate the variations, embellishments, and departures of those who came after him.
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