Yvain is the most elegant and sophisticated of Chrétien de Troyes’s romances, exploring the very nature of courtliness through the adventures of its hero, Sir Yvain of King Arthur’s Round Table. An important part of his twelfth century romance is chivalric discourse, whereby the characters discover the principles of courtly behavior as much through conversation as through deeds of arms. This code was essentially a set of ethics to which wellborn knights and ladies adhered. It was grounded, above all, in social responsibility. Courtly behavior allowed one to achieve perfect balance in reconciling one’s own desires with the necessities demanded by one’s social position.
When Yvain fails to keep the one-year deadline imposed on him by his wife, Laudine de Landuc, he is guilty of sacrificing his personal commitment to Laudine to his social duty as a knight. In this respect, he is the counterpart of another of Chrétien’s heroes, Sir Erec, who neglects his knightly renown to languish in the arms of his wife, Enide. When Yvain, overcome by grief for having failed to keep his promise, neglects his own knightly responsibilities, he is rightly termed mad. His stripping of his knightly armor is an outward sign of his inward rejection of courtly standards. Yvain ceases to be a knight, and it is appropriate that he is nourished by a hermit during this period of penitence and renunciation. The episode with the lion marks his reentry into the world of knighthood.
Yvain’s rescue of the lion shows his new maturity and understanding of proper behavior, since it shows a heart that can pity as well as be brave. It also shows that Yvain is once again capable of right thinking, as he reasons out that it would be better to save the lion rather than the serpent when he finds them in combat. Chrétien’s general pragmatism does not desert him here; he adds that, if need be, Yvain is prepared to do battle with the lion as well. The lion, one of the most delightful beasts of medieval romances, is the model of a true knight, bowing in homage to Yvain and continuing along with him as a faithful retainer. It is precisely through the lion’s perfect courtly behavior that readers understand that Yvain is now worthy of such loyalty: He has matured in courtliness and is now ready to be finally reconciled with Laudine.
The similarities between the lion incident and the classical Greek fable of Androcles and the lion suggest a possible source; what is interesting is the way Chrétien uses the story of a man helping a wounded lion that later repays him in time of need. The battle with the snake—traditionally a symbol of evil—becomes a struggle between villainy and nobility. It is, in essence, the chivalric battle. Greek fable is translated to medieval Christian iconography.
Yvain is separated from other chivalric romances by the attention paid to the psychological states of the characters and by the way these states are probed through conversation. This is most notable in the exchange between Yvain and Laudine in which Yvain persuades her to marry him even though he has just slain her husband. The way has been prepared for Yvain, however, in a remarkable internal dialogue Laudine has already had with herself, in which she takes both her own part and the part of her husband’s slayer. By demonstrating to herself that the unknown knight who has killed her husband meant her no malice or harm, Laudine has readied herself to be won later by Yvain’s actual plea on his own behalf.
This kind of psychological resolution of a difficult problem is relatively rare in medieval literature. Typically, psychological issues were explored through allegory , in which allegorical figures such as Mercy or Good Deeds reveal the internal pressures brought to bear on the...
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