The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1772

Alexander, the older son of the emperor of Greece and Constantinople, scorns knighthood in his own country. Having heard of the famed King Arthur of Britain, the young prince is determined to emulate the brave and courteous knights of that monarch’s court and to win knighthood by his own merits....

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Alexander, the older son of the emperor of Greece and Constantinople, scorns knighthood in his own country. Having heard of the famed King Arthur of Britain, the young prince is determined to emulate the brave and courteous knights of that monarch’s court and to win knighthood by his own merits. Accordingly, he swears never to wear armor on his face or a helmet upon his head until King Arthur himself should place his knightly sword on him. At last he is allowed to have his own way, in spite of the disapproval of his father and his mother’s grief at being separated from her son, and he sets sail at once for Britain. With him go twelve noble companions and a store of rich treasure.

When Alexander and his friends arrive at the royal court in Winchester, King Arthur and Queen Guinevere welcome them with gracious speech. All who see him are impressed by the young Greek, not only for his generosity but also for his strong character and handsome appearance. Sir Gawain, a knight of great prowess and the nephew of the king, takes him for his friend and companion, and King Arthur, about to make a journey into Brittany, includes the young man in his retinue. On the trip, Alexander and the damsel Soredamors, sister of Sir Gawain, fall deeply in love. Since each feels that such a love is hopeless, they do nothing but grow pale and sigh and tremble, so that Queen Guinevere, observing them, mistakes their lovesickness for the effects of the heaving sea.

King Arthur remains in Brittany through the summer, and during that time the young lovers are much perplexed and distressed by emotions they are unable to reveal to each other. At the beginning of October, messengers arrive with news that Count Angrès, who was entrusted with the rule of the kingdom during the king’s absence, is raising an army and preparing to withstand King Arthur on his return. Angered by this traitorous deed, the king transports a great host across the channel and prepares to lay siege to London, where Count Angrès assembles his forces. Prince Alexander and his twelve companions are knighted while the king’s army is encamped outside the city walls. Queen Guinevere’s gift to the young knight is a white silk shirt on which Soredamors embroidered strands of her own hair, indistinguishable from the golden thread of the design.

When Count Angrès and his army slip away from the city under cover of night and retreat to the strong castle at Windsor, King Arthur and his troops pursue the traitors and besiege the fortress. During the siege Alexander displays great bravery and prowess. One night, while he attends the queen, Guinevere notices that the gold thread on his shirt is tarnishing but that the golden hair of Soredamors is as lustrous as ever. So the damsel’s deed is disclosed, and Alexander rejoices to wear on his person a token of the lady to whom he vows undying devotion.

A short time later, Windsor Castle is taken through his wit and valor. He and several of his companions dressed in the armor of vanquished traitor knights and then went by a secret path into the fortress, where they killed many of the enemy and captured Count Angrès. For this deed Alexander is awarded a gold cup which the king promised to the most valiant of his knights. In the meantime, believing Alexander killed during the fighting inside the castle, Soredamors reveals her love for the young prince. After the battle, the knight receives three joys and honors as the reward for his valor: the town he captured, a kingdom in Wales, and, greatest of all, the hand of Soredamors. From this union is born a handsome son, Cligès.

Meanwhile, in Constantinople, the emperor dies without hearing again from his older son, and Alis, the younger heir, assumes the rule of the empire after receiving a report that Alexander died. Hearing that his brother took the crown, Alexander sets out to reclaim his kingdom, accompanied by his wife, his small son, and forty valiant knights from King Arthur’s court. When Alis learns that his older brother is alive, an amicable arrangement is made whereby Alis will rule in name only and the affairs of the kingdom will be entrusted to Alexander. In addition, Alis promises never to marry or to have heirs, so that Cligès will in time reign over Greece and Constantinople. Before Cligès grows to adulthood, however, Alexander dies of a pestilence and Soredamors of grief.

Not long afterward, advisers begin to urge Alis to take a wife, with the result that the emperor is moved to break the oath made to his brother. The bride proposed is the daughter of the emperor of Germany, Princess Fenice, prophetically named for the phoenix bird. The princess previously was affianced to the duke of Saxony, however, and that incensed nobleman feels that he has a prior claim to her hand. While arrangements for the wedding are being made, Cligès and Fenice fall deeply in love. At about the same time, the duke of Saxony sends his nephew to proclaim that his uncle’s claim to the princess will be defended against the Greeks. His defiant speech so angers Cligès that he challenges the young Saxon to trial by arms and, in the melee, unhorses him and routs his followers. By this time, although Fenice loves Cligès dearly, she prudently decides that she will not yield herself to either the uncle or the nephew, and, with the help of her nurse Thessala, a sorceress, she plans to remain a virgin. A potion served unwittingly to the bridegroom by his nephew makes it seem to the emperor that he possesses his bride, though he never does so in reality.

On the return trip to Constantinople, the nephew of the duke of Saxony sets an ambush for the travelers. When Cligès kills the treacherous knight and the duke offers a reward for Cligès’s head, that resourceful young knight cuts off the head of an enemy and affects a disguise as his father did before him. Fenice is abducted, however, during the battle that follows. Overtaking her captors, Cligès kills all but one, who survives to carry to the duke news of what happened. The conflict ends when Cligès, inspired by his love for Fenice, defeats the duke in single combat. The lovers then part, Fenice going to Constantinople with her husband and Cligès traveling to England, there to fulfill his father’s wish that he receive knighthood at the hands of King Arthur.

At a great tournament on the plain before Oxford, Cligès, changing his armor each day, defeats King Arthur’s most valiant knights and bears himself so bravely that he becomes the subject of much speculation concerning his origin and whereabouts, for the young warrior retires to his lodgings every night and keeps away from the feasting that follows each day’s tourney. As the Black Knight, he defeats the mighty Sagremore; as the Green Knight, Sir Lancelot of the Lake; as the Vermilion Knight, Sir Perceval of Wales. On the fourth day, disguised as the White Knight, he would have defeated Sir Gawain, his uncle, had King Arthur not intervened. Then Cligès appears in his own person and at the royal banquet reveals his name and tells his story to the pleasure and astonishment of all. King Arthur and Sir Gawain, in particular, are delighted to find their young kinsman so brave in conduct, so pleasing in modesty and knightly courtesy.

On his return to Greece, Cligès learns that Fenice misses him as much as he desires her. Since their great love can no longer be denied, they are able, with the help of Thessala and an artful stonecutter, to devise a plan that will ensure their happiness. From the artisan, John, Cligès gets possession of a tower in which the builder constructed hidden chambers with secret entrances and exits. Thessala then concocts a potion that puts Fenice into a trance so deep that all except three skeptical physicians from Salerno believe her dead. The three doctors are slain by a mob of indignant women before they can restore Fenice to consciousness by acts of torture, and the body of the empress is placed, amid great mourning throughout the kingdom, in a sepulchre that John built. From there she is taken in secret by Cligès, restored to life, and hidden in one of the secret chambers of the tower.

There, for a year and two months, they are free to take their pleasure with each other as they please. At the end of that time, Fenice begins to pine for the out-of-doors, and John reveals a secret door that opens upon a walled garden filled with beautiful blooming trees and flowers. Cligès and Fenice have much joy in their hidden paradise until, one day, a hunter searching for his lost hawk climbs the wall and sees the lovers asleep in each other’s arms. Although Cligès awakens and wounds the hunter, the man escapes to tell the emperor what he saw. Alis dispatches troops to the tower, but Cligès and Fenice have already fled. Arrested, John accuses the emperor of having tried to wrong Cligès by marrying and expecting to produce an heir; then the artisan reveals how Alis was tricked by the potion he drank on his wedding night, so that he never possessed his wife except in his dreams. The emperor swears that he can never again be happy until he takes his revenge for the shame and disgrace that was put upon him.

In the meantime, Cligès and Fenice, with Thessala’s aid, elude their pursuers and enlist the aid of King Arthur, who promises to fill a thousand ships with knights and three thousand more with men-at-arms to help Cligès regain his rights. Before the mighty expedition can set sail, however, messengers arrive in Britain with word that Alis died of rage and grief because the lovers escaped him. With Fenice, Cligès returns to rule over Greece and Constantinople, and there the two live happily in love, as husband and wife, lover and mistress.

Since that time, however, every emperor, remembering the story of Fenice and her potions, has had little confidence in his empress and kept her closely guarded, attended by no man except one who was a enunch since his boyhood.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 271


*Athens. Greek city in which the Greek prince Alexander is born and where he dies; a place of rich tradition and heritage, but also one that harbors deception and deceit in this work. Alexander wishes to take leave of his family to be properly trained as a knight in Britain under the tutelage of King Arthur. He returns to Greece after his father dies to reclaim his rightful place as emperor; however, that place has been taken from him by his brother Alis.


*Brittany. Province of Celtic origin in what is now the western part of France that has been an important trading center throughout history. Alexander leaves Brittany with King Arthur and his retinue along with the Queen and Soredamors.


*Windsor. King Arthur’s knights do battle with Count Angrés and his traitors. Alexander and Soredamors are wed here, and Alexander is made king of a large kingdom in Wales. In addition, this is a place of historical interest, in terms of beauty, culture, and diversity.


*Cologne (kah-LOHN). German city with roots going back to the Roman era. It serves as the foreign location to which Alis descends in order to fulfill his own needs, while simultaneously breaking an oath with his brother in order to marry the eldest daughter of the German emperor.


*Wallingford. Ancient English borough near present Oxford where knights go for a tournament. This setting is also the location of many tragedies.

Underground tower

Underground tower. Place where Fenice is kept after she and Cligès feign her funeral and burial. The setting symbolizes secrecy and that which is hidden.


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Frappier, Jean. “Chrétien de Troyes.” In Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, edited by Roger Sherman Loomis. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1959. This is a good starting point for a study of Chrétien de Troyes, dealing mainly with sources and characterization.

Haidu, Peter. Aesthetic Distance in Chrétien de Troyes: Irony and Comedy in Cligès and Perceval. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1968. This is an examination of the style and structure of two of Chrétien’s romances. Haidu concludes that the major theme of Cligès is the difference between appearance and reality.

Loomis, Roger Sherman. Arthurian Tradition and Chrétien de Troyes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949. Loomis shows how Chrétien’s romances were influenced by Celtic mythology. Although his conclusions have been challenged, his work is very stimulating, especially when he deals with the Sword Bridge.

Noble, Peter S. Love and Marriage in Chrétien de Troyes. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1982. This book examines the theme of love and marriage in all of Chrétien’s romances, concluding that he prefers in Cligès a more self-controlled love than that seen in the Tristan legend.

Polak, Lucie. Chrétien de Troyes: Cligès. Critical Guides to French Texts 23. London: Grant and Cutler, 1982. This is the best critical study on Cligès. Polak examines the themes of war and love, and she makes a detailed comparison of Cligès to the Tristan story. She points out that, according to Chrétien’s epilogue, Fenice is not regarded with favor by posterity and argues that she had been overly obsessed with appearing to be blameless.

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