Erec and Enide is the first of a collection of metrical romances by Chrétien de Troyes, a master tale teller of the medieval period about whom very little is otherwise known. The poem is the oldest romance on Arthurian materials extant in any language. It has sometimes been called the first novel because of its consistent plot. Written in eight-syllable rhyming couplets, the story provides the most idealized expression of the code of chivalry by a single writer of medieval times.
Like the author’s Yvain (c. 1170), Erec and Enide deals among other things with the conflict between and the attempt to reconcile knightly and marital responsibilities. Apparently Chrétien himself thought much of the work: In the romance’s first paragraph he states that “now I shall begin the tale which will be remembered so long as Christendom endures. This is Chrétien’s boast.”
His scarcely modest claim was well founded, for this romance of Arthurian England in the sixth century has outlived myriad other medieval romances. The poem offers various and contrasting riches, including a mélange of real and unreal incidents, exact and exaggerated statistics, logical and implausible motivation, and wildly supernatural events in close juxtaposition with homely, concrete ones. From this often unlikely material, Chrétien devised a well-constructed plot. Moreover, the author, in welding his diverse and sometimes incongruous elements together, had a serious purpose, for he was interested in problems of individual conscience and in the choices individuals had to make in the face of conflicting loyalties and personal emotions. Chrétien was intrigued with how humans solve these problems as members of a social group. All the usual and contrived situations of medieval romance served Chrétien as a means of setting forth these problems and providing complicated webs to entrap the protagonists.
Although Erec, a king’s son, married the daughter of a poor vavasor, or country squire, Chrétien takes care to make them equal in beauty and breeding. However, when because of excessive love of his wife, reports circulate that Erec has permitted himself to desert the tourneys and quests and fail to continue proofs of his knighthood, the story becomes the tale of married love subjected to the pressures of the man’s other obligations and duties. It is also a story of a wife’s patient endurance of her husband’s eccentricities and abuse. In many respects, Chrétien intended Erec and Enide, for all its comic incidents and exaggerated postures, to be a straightforward narrative of love being testing. In this it is similar to Geoffrey Chaucer’s late fourteenth century “Clerk’s Tale” on the familiar theme of the patient Griselda.
It is characteristic of Chrétien that he focuses on the analysis of love, particularly as felt by his heroines. Such subtleties of thought are rare in medieval romance, but Chrétien’s women in love verbalize their considerations in matters of the heart. Enide, for example, upbraids herself for false pride after she told Erec what others were saying about his valor, and in a soliloquy she tells herself it is right that she suffers: “One does not know what good fortune is until he has made trial of evil.” Not until the fourteenth century, in Chaucer’s Criseyde, is there a romance heroine engaged in such subtle love analysis.
Chrétien provides convincing characters, not merely stock figures. In Erec and Enide , he does not focus on battles or such farcical scenes as the one in which Enide must marry the Count against her will but rather on Erec’s gradual realization of the great love his wife has for him. The plot development takes Erec to the point where at the...
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end he says, “for I love you now more than ever I did before.” He has learned the value of humility and faithfulness.
In a time when fin amour, or courtly love (in other words, adulterous love), was supposed to be the reigning material for poets and romance writers, Chrétien showed far more concern for love within the marriage bond. As a matter of fact, he stressed this kind of love as the ideal union. When he dealt with adulterous love as in his Lancelot (after 1164), he seems ill at ease and handles both plot and characterization with less finesse. Most critics as a result conclude that in this latter work he wrote on demand and not out of inclination. In both Yvain and Erec and Enide, however, he concentrates on the difficulties in marriage and on solutions of those difficulties.
Chrétien said at the beginning of his romance that “jongleurs were accustomed to garble and mutilate” the story, but that he himself had ordered his material into a unified, coherent whole. Chrétien not only successfully develops the plot but also shows progression in character development. He combines descriptions of lavishly ornamented watered silk, ivory, gold tapestries, and red armor; of the ragged garments of a peasant girl in a poor household; of the hardships of wayfaring on roads infested with evils of all sorts; and finally of a brilliant coronation ceremony and a happy ending for the reconciled Erec and Enide. With consummate artistry he makes his poem entertaining and at the same time poses comments on the problems of married love.