Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1041
Chrétien de Troyes’ Cligès, like his later Lancelot: Ou, Le Chevalier à la charrette (c. 1168; Lancelot: Or, The Knight of the Cart, 1913), can be read as part of his analysis of and response to what scholars call “courtly love,” though that is a modern, not a medieval, term. The twelfth century was the first point in recorded history in which the consensus did not hold amorous love in contempt. Both the Roman and the Germanic traditions regarded love as something that conflicted with higher passions—loyalty to Rome in the first instance, and to the king in the second. When political conditions in Europe settled down after the long period of anarchy ensuing from the collapse of the Roman Empire, the troubadours, or minstrels of southern France, began to express a new idea. Peace gave women a new prominence in society, and these minstrels were eager to make a profit from it. They began to write love songs that extolled ladies for their charm, wit, and beauty. It did not matter if she returned the emotion; what was important was the experience and the analysis of the emotion of desire itself. When the northern poets picked up the theme, it underwent a transformation. For such a love to be satisfactory, they argued, it must be mutual, and if it was mutual, it must be deserved on both parts. So, not only must the lady be charming, witty, and beautiful, but also must her lover (the knight, since the common people were not considered capable of fine emotion) be brave, courteous, and utterly devoted to pleasing the lady. Some regard as the ultimate expression of courtly love Tristan and Isolde, the story of the adulterous passion of Tristan, Cornwall’s greatest knight, for Queen Isolde, the wife of his uncle.
Many have seen Cligès as a kind of anti-Tristan. The prologue indicates that Chrétien already wrote a romance “of King Mark and Isolde the Blonde,” and he also makes a number of other references to the story. Cligès suggests to Fenice that they run away together, but she refuses. She does not want others to speak of them “as they do of Isolde the Blonde and Tristan,” for everyone will “blame our pleasures.” Her solution is to feign her own death before the consummation of her marriage and to have Cligès hide her in an orchard. According to medieval custom, marriage was binding only if consummated, so technically they are not committing adultery. In addition, the potion Alis is given to convince him that he is taking his pleasure with Fenice parallels an episode in the Tristan legend. When Tristan takes Isolde to Cornwall to marry King Mark, Isolde’s mother concocts a love potion so that the marriage should not be unhappy. Unfortunately, Tristan and Isolde drink the potion by mistake, beginning the whole affair. Rather than using a love potion—which seems rather an artificial excuse for falling in love—Cligès and Fenice fall in love because of their desirable qualities. It is, unlike Tristan and Isolde’s, a genuine love naturally occurring. It is governed not by passion but by level-headedness, as Fenice’s planning illustrates.
Another episode duplicating one in the Tristan legend is the deception of Alis. To preserve the illusion of her own virginity, Isolde has her maidservant, Brangane, stand in for her on the wedding night. Later, fearing that her servant will reveal the secret, Isolde plots to assassinate Brangane. For his romance, Chrétien designs the episode with the potion that gives Alis the illusion that he is sleeping with Fenice. This enables the author to avoid the rather uncomplimentary scene in which Isolde plots to have Brangane murdered. There are other parallels that help to clarify the similarity of the two stories. Cligès is Alis’s nephew, just as Tristan is Mark’s; Alexander and Soredamors (Cligès’s parents) fall in love on board ship, as do Tristan and Isolde; and the orchard to which Fenice retires strongly resembles the idyllic paradise that Tristan and Isolde discover in the forest when they elope from the court. On the whole, however, the comparison is one of contrast rather than similarity.
In some ways, Cligès can be considered a manual for the perfect courtly love relationship. Both Alexander and Soredamors and Cligès and Fenice have the requisite personal characteristics for such a romance. However, the difference in their respective situations allows Chrétien the opportunity to test the theory of courtly love against two different sets of standards. Alexander and Soredamors are both unattached. The only obstacle between them is their own sense of inadequacy—which is, in truth, simply an appreciation for the excellence of the other’s very great worth. Once recognized, their love follows a relatively simple path through courtship to marriage, and trouble arises only when they meet with political treachery in the form of Alis the usurper. When one passes to the next generation, however, one sees immediately that the author is eager to show a different situation in which courtly love can operate. The rules of southern courtly love required that the lady be unobtainable—preferably because married. This, of course, led to the idea that adultery was to be admired, a concept that Chrétien did not value. The question still persisted: What if married people fell in love? How could their love be resolved with moral conduct? The author’s solution, of course, is that Fenice refrains from sleeping with Alis, but his allusions to the Tristan legend make it clear that the alternative is not something lovers should consider. The result of the morally correct conduct is a happy ending. Cligès and Fenice live happily ever after, reigning as emperor and empress of Constantinople until their extreme old age. The result of Tristan and Isolde’s choice, however, is tragedy: the deaths of the hero and heroine. Here, Chrétien reveals one of the essential elements of medieval romance. It is the opposite of tragedy, for where tragedy concerns the results of making a morally bad choice, romance takes the potentially tragic situation and explores the alternative route: the morally good choice and its consequences.