Garin le Loherain Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Garin le Loherain

(Also Garin le Loheren) Twelfth-century French poem.

One of the lesser known medieval chansons de geste, a category of epic verse concerned with French or classical heroes in historical settings, Garin le Loherain is the central work of the Loherain cycle, a group of poems detailing the heroic exploits of the knightly class in medieval France that also includes La geste des Loherains, Gerbert de Mez, and Hervis de Mes. A tale of two feuding clans, vassals to the ineffectual French ruler Pépin le Bref in the eleventh century, Garin le Loherain concentrates its narrative on the noble Garin, son of Hervis, detailing his family's struggle against the treacherous House of Bordelais. Relatively infrequently studied outside of France in the contemporary period, Garin le Loherain typifies the poetic depiction of strained feudal loyalties in the medieval period, and is noted for its lack of romantic machinery (otherwise typical of the chansons de geste) and remarkable “Death of Begon” episode, praised for its compressed artistic integrity.

Textual History

While some scholars suggest that a prototype of the epic may have been composed sometime before 1168, the generally accepted date for the earliest extant manuscript of the poem is given as 1180-85. Some critics speculate that Garin le Loherain may have derived from oral tradition as a sung narrative, although modern studies have tended to support its written origins. An assortment of texts exist, numbering about fifty in varying states of emendation—some featuring rhymed as well as more common assonant verse—and several survive from the epic's period of highest popularity in the fourteenth century. Many of the extant manuscripts are fragmentary; of these, four begin with the noted “Death of Begon” episode.

Plot and Major Characters

The poem opens at the royal court of Emperor Pépin le Bref in the mid-eleventh century. Dictatorial but easily manipulated, Pépin heeds the wishes of Hardré, an imperial advisor of the House Bordelais and a nefarious influence on the French ruler. Scheming to weaken his aristocratic rivals, Hardré convinces Pépin not to honor his feudal oaths to protect vassals in southern France against the invading Saracens, claiming that to do so would be too costly. Without assistance, Hervis de Mes, one of these vassals, a member of House Loherain and father of the poem's principal protagonists Garin and Begon, looks to Germany for aid against the aggressors. Later, when Pépin also refuses his obligations to another vassal, Tierri de Morïane, again at the urging of Hardré, a council of knights gathers and protest mounts. Led by Garin and Fromont, the son of Hardré, a combined force sponsored by the Loherain and Bordelais clans rides to aid Tierri in the south against the Moors. In the decisive moment before battle, however, Fromont fails to give his men the order to attack alongside Garin. Fromont's cowardly refusal to confront the enemy, a seminal act of dishonor, precipitates his gradual decline into perfidy. After the invaders have been repelled, Tierri offers his lands and only daughter, Blanchefleur, to Garin; Fromont receives nothing.

Meanwhile, in light of Pépin's recent and unwise appointment of Garin's brother Begon to the position of Duke of Gascony (a vassalage that grants him lands in the territory controlled by the Bordelais), Fromont objects to the marriage, demanding Blanchefleur and her father's lands as a promised concession from the Emperor. The action shifts back to court as Fromont incites the nobles in the royal palace. Infighting erupts and Fromont's father Hardré is killed. In the ensuing melee of interests, Pépin temporarily sides with the Loherain. Shortly thereafter, Archbishop Henri, bribed by his cousin Fromont, convinces the Emperor to marry Blanchefleur as a means to conclude the strife with the Bordelais. Seeking to sway his former friend, Fromont suggests that Garin help him kidnap Blanchefleur for Pépin, and in return promises him the hand of his own sister. An indignant Blanchefleur, however, flatly refuses the scheme. Subsequently, Fromont attempts to brand Garin a traitor, planting a rumor that the knight has attempted to assassinate Pépin. In response, Begon duels to protect the family honor and slays his opponent. Begon, meanwhile, has married Biatrix, daughter of Milon of Blaye, and in so doing has gained still more lands coveted by the Bordelais.

After a period of relative tranquility between the rival houses, Garin's brother experiences a sharp decline in his fortunes, culminating in the renowned “Death of Begon” episode, which forms a stunning dramatic interlude in the epic and in the Loherain cycle as a whole. The episode centers on a melancholy Begon as he endeavors to raise his spirits by visiting Garin after an interval of some seven years and joins in a celebrated boar hunt. Ignoring the protests of his wife, who fears the treachery of his enemies, Begon prepares himself for a journey east. Later, while engaged in the hunt for wild boar, Begon separates from his companions in the forest of Vicogne, a wilderness area that straddles territory owned by Fromont. Mistaken for a poacher, Begon draws the attention of Fromont's seneschal, who dispatches six men—including Thiebaut du Plesseis, Fromont's nephew and a sworn enemy of Begon—to waylay the trespasser. Fighting the men alone with his back to a tree, Begon slays four before being fatally pierced by an arrow. Fromont soon learns of the incident and recognizes the dead man as the brother of Garin. His son Fromondin sharply rebukes Thiebaut for the action, while Fromont himself laments this ignoble death and surely rekindled feud. The Loherains demand Thiebaut as the price for Begon's murder, but Fromont fails to convince his kinsmen to pay this debt of honor. Following their refusal, Fromont descends irrevocably into his role as traitor and antagonist to Garin. The remainder of the epic describes the Loherains’ revenge for Begon's murder. Rigaut, a former peasant and nephew of Begon knighted earlier in the epic, kills Thiebaut's nephews and later raids Bourges, sacking the Bordelais city. (Thiebaut also meets a violent end on the battlefield later in the poem.) Garin himself attacks Guillelme de Blanchefort, a Bordelais clansman supposedly under Pépin's protection at the time. Pépin subsequently shifts his support to the Bordelais. By the work's conclusion, Garin finds himself deeply in debt. His reputation wounded by Fromont's continued treachery, he must mortgage his holdings to the Prince of Cologne. Thereafter, he meets his doom in a church at the hands of a band of traitors

Major Themes

Critics distinguish a number of thematic elements in Garin le Loherain associated with the epic's depiction of a feudal social order in a state of violent disruption. Catastrophic family negotiations, internecine warfare, an acquisitive quest for wives and land, the breakdown of feudal obligations, and a lack of worldly justice are a few of the motifs that exist alongside a principal focus on treachery and revenge. Together Fromont and Garin personify these dual motivations in the poem. Fromont, for all of his treacherous lineage, however, generally appears to make his poor decisions based on circumstance and the dictates of family honor, rather than as the result of his own, internal motivation. For several scholars, Fromont embodies an outward expression of instabilities in the precarious feudal social structure of medieval France—a threat that eclipses even that of invading Saracens. Garin, while brave and steadfast, has little hope of withstanding the forces unleashed by the treachery of the Bordelais, and in opting for vindication, seals his own fate. A complementary theme divides the Frankish society depicted in the poem by gender, with commentators observing that its female characters represent ethical judgment and the wisdom of restraint, while its male figures universally lack these qualities. Invariably, men pay the price for their mistakes in the world of Garin le Loherain with their lives.

Critical Reception

Unlike the more renowned of the medieval chansons de geste, which generally feature deeper romantic, nationalistic, or religious elements, Garin le Loherain principally chronicles the daily facets of vassalage and feudal strife without these devices. Mildred K. Pope (1914) examines some of its stylistic qualities in relation to the better-known Chanson de Roland, observing that Garin’s repetitive syntactical formulation and more limited techniques of versification suffer in comparison. In contrast, the poem's compelling storyline and individualized characterizations have been designated as its most outstanding qualities. A favorite in the late medieval period, especially in the fourteenth century, when it enjoyed a phase of extreme popularity, Garin le Loherain has elicited little non-French scholarly interest in the contemporary period. Those critics who have considered the work have generally compared it with other chansons de geste, including Raoul de Cambrai or Aye d'Avignon, which bear certain similarities in terms of subject or theme. Other critics, such as Herman J. Green (1941), have opted for a more archeological approach, tracing the historical or literary lineage of named figures in the poem, especially those of its villains Fromont and Thiebaut, or have examined the textual history of the epic. The “Death of Begon” episode in Garin le Loherain has been considered one of the finer verse movements in the genre. Crafted by the poet in what W. P. Ker (1896) calls “the most varied, as well as the most compact” moment of expression in the epic, the “Death of Begon” scene stands on its own as a moving vignette of heroic action.