Arthurian Romances: Old Stories Are Strange Stories

Cover images for Arthurian RomancesTitle:  Arthurian Romances (“Erec et Enide,” “Cligés,” “Yvain,” and “Lancelot”)

Author: Chrétien de Troyes

Publication Date: 1170-1190. This translation was published in 1914.

LC Call Number: PQ1447.E5K53

Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian Romances are, as far as I know, the earliest surviving embodiment of the Arthurian legend. According to the introduction, the author’s patroness was one Countess Marie, the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine; she is particularly credited with the inspiration for the “Lancelot.” I wasn’t very scholarly about my choice of edition, so I am working with a prose translation from 1914, but W. W. Comfort. Working with a prose translation of a verse work means that what I am reading is probably closer to the literal meanings of the words used but that the entire feeling of the work is probable changed, so I am hoping that I don’t make any assertions that will sound completely ridiculous to those who are familiar with the original. The way the footnotes are included in the book is somewhat annoying, because they are keyed to particular lines of verse which are not marked clearly for the reader.

There are four Arthurian romances included in the volume which I read, “Erec et Enide,” “Cligés,” “Yvain” and “Lancelot.” To most people, by which I mean, to me when I started reading, only the last of these titles is recognizably Arthurian. As it happens, Arthur and Guinevere show up in all of them, Gawain is important in all but the first, and both “Yvain” and “Lancelot” have a lot to do with Kay. It is interesting, however, that the main characters in these stories have not become as famous as many other Arthurian figures. “Erec and Enide” and “Cligés” were composed before the other two, and I did notice an increase in complexity as I went along. In any case, since each of these romances is a separate story, I will deal with each of them in turn. I would like to notice one interesting thing, though; they are all exactly the same length. Is this a feature of this particular genre of poetry? I’m inclined to think so because “Lancelot” was finished by another poet and still follows the same rule, although it ends somewhat awkwardly.

“Erec et Enide” has a plot that feels like a fairy tale, more than any of the others, probably because it focuses rather extensively on arbitrary prohibitions and makes use of characters who appear to double each other in odd ways. Enide, interestingly enough, is described as being not only beautiful (this is standard, of course), but also very clever. This cleverness manifests itself mostly in her ability to notice people sneaking up on them, but what’s curious about it is that the story regards Erec as being overly devoted to her. In fact, he’s weirdly controlling. Enide’s father is a poor vavasor, which the footnotes explain is an honorable freeman but not a noble. Once it’s agreed that she and Erec will be married, he refuses to give her any clothes that would improve upon the old rags that poverty has forced her to wear, and instead insists upon presenting her to the queen in this state. Enide’s opinion on this matter is not mentioned. Later in the story, Erec learns that he is the laughingstock of the court for spending all his time with his wife, and decides to go on a quest, bringing her with him. However, he forbids her from speaking to him as they are riding along and becomes angry when she alerts him to thugs who are about to attack them. This is one of those things that I don’t know how to read because of my cultural distance from the original. Would a contemporary reader have found his behavior bizarre and alarming? I can’t say; all I know is that it certainly seems that way to me.

The things that happen toward the ending of the story might provide some clue, however. Erec comes across a court which is in trouble because of the “Joy of the Court,” which turns out to be a giant who challenges people to duels and kills them. After Erec defeats him, the giant explains that this is not his fault because he blindly agreed to perform a favor for his wife who then requested that he remain in a garden with her until somebody could beat him in a fight. This situation is certainly reminiscent of what was said about Erec earlier in the story and would seem to show Erec’s merit in abandoning the comfort of staying home with Enide when he realized that people were remarking upon it. But what’s even stranger here is that the lady, who turns out to be Enide’s cousin, is not blamed for her unreasonable clinginess but is rather allowed to tell the story herself and express her love for the giant. In another gesture showing that she is not the villain of this story, the narrative remarks upon her beauty and manners. What to make of all this? My reading is that the narrative sees all that has happened here as part of the nature of the parties involved; the women represent home life and the reader is not surprised to see that they want their men to stay with them as much as possible, but the men are seen as having a responsibility to resist a life that is nevertheless seen as very appealing, because they should be righting wrongs and fighting people and so on in order to fulfill their role in society. So there’s conflict, but although the story seems to see women as a force that must be controlled for the betterment of society, they aren’t condemned for their role in making things more difficult. Enide is seen as remarkable because she encourages Erec to quest and is even able to accompany him, but even she participates in a very limited way, and in silence.

“Cligés” is different; it’s a love story, or, more precisely, two love stories. One is about Alexander, who comes from Greece to be temporarily part of the court of King Arthur and falls in love with Soredamors, one of Guinevere’s handmaidens, and the second is about his son, the title character, who has a very similar character arc. A large chunk of the first half of the story is devoted to internal dialogues about whether love is okay, as Alexander and Soredamors try to decide whether they should speak to each other. The footnotes remark that this is tedious, but it’s kind of humorous to me. Both characters make liberal use of contemporary tropes about how love works, with comparisons to arrows, illnesses, the business about love going in through the eye, and so on. Alexander thinks about it this way:

I have engaged my thoughts in a mad enterprise. But is it not better to keep my thoughts to myself than to be called a fool? My wish will never then be known. Shall I then conceal the cause of my distress, and dare not to seek aid and healing for my wound? He is mad who feels himself afflicted, and seeks not what will bring him health, if perchance he may find it anywhere; but many a one seeks his welfare by striving for his heart’s desire, who pursues only that which brings him woe instead. (99)

There’s more of this sort of thing on both sides; eventually it’s up to Guinevere to bring them together, because they are incapable of making up their minds. In this part of the romance, there is some war-related plot in the background, but it really only serves to establish Alexander’s worthiness and isn’t really important aside from that. The second half of the romance is about their son Cligés and is driven by the events in Greece; his uncle Alis has taken it over in his father’s absence, and his father agreed to this provided that Alis does not marry. Of course, after Alexander’s death, Alis does try to marry a woman named Fenice, but Cligés becomes attached to her instead. There are more of the same internal dialogues as Fenice decides what she thinks of Cligés’s advances, but naturally, this is a match.

And this is where the story gets weird. The political stuff doesn’t get resolved until the end of the story, which means that Fenice marry Alis, but the story preserves her eligibility by having her give him a potion which causes him to fall asleep every time he tries to have sex with her and that he has accomplished this. The logic here gives me some difficulty. On one level, at least it protects Fenice from rape and allows the narrative to preserve the identity of Alis as somewhat honorable, but it seems in the narrative as if the primary purpose of this plan is to invalidate the marriage, which it doesn’t seem to really do, if Alis still believes that it is a real marriage. Although the potion protects Fenice, she still takes a lot of punishment over the course of this story. Ultimately, they resort to yet another potion which simulates death in Fenice, Romeo and Juliet-style, but the difference between this story and Romeo and Juliet is that some doctors appear and torture Fenice in an attempt to prove that she is alive. Both the torture and the fate of the evil doctors is described in some detail. I’m not sure exactly what this moment in the plot does for the story; I suppose it’s intended to make it somewhat more plausible that the sleeping potion would fool people? But it’s odd. The other difference from Romeo and Juliet is, of course, the happy ending.

One more thing that interested me about Cligés was the way that the servants were portrayed. Fenice has a nurse named Thessala who is clearly some kind of witch; if this nurse isn’t one of the sources for Thessaly in “A Game of You,” then she’s another branch from the same tree. Even more interesting is the servant John, who keeps a secret room in his secret castle where Cligés and Fenice can live and hide out until the plot is resolved. It’s interesting to read this after reading some more cynical takes on medieval life (thinking in particular of A Song of Ice and Fire here); I find myself wondering what John is doing with this secret castle and how he’s able to come and go without being noticed by anyone. I love the idea that he has access to his own private world which he controls and which is untouched by the nobles he serves, but it is somewhat surprising that Cligés doesn’t have any problem with this and in fact allows him to keep it.

“Yvain” and “Lancelot” are a little more Arthurian, in the sense that they are more reminiscent of the bits of Arthuriana one soaks up from pop culture in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century than are the others. “Yvain” is actually more about punctuality than anything else. The plot is too complex to summarize here, but Yvain’s initial quest makes very little sense—he hears a story at court about a silly thing that his cousin tried to do unsuccessfully and decides he’s going to try it himself, although it seems more destructive than anything—and by the end of this adventure he finds himself married. Although the motivation isn’t especially clear for any of this, the cast is somewhat more complex because Lunete, the damsel who rescues Yvain with her magic ring is not the one he marries; it’s insinuated that she may marry Gawain but this doesn’t appear to actually happen. Instead, he marries her less interesting queen. There are other ladies in the story as well, including the one who wastes healing potions and one who is in danger of being forced to marry an evil giant. So there’s a rather large group of characters here, and Yvain has obligations to all of them. The result is a plot in which Yvain must juggle his obligations and make sure that he arrives where he needs to be on time. Early on, he fails in this regard; his wife tells him she must return to her within a year and he simply forgets, but the story follows this up by presenting him with asking him to save a maiden and her family from the threats of the giant and then ride across the countryside in time to rescue Lunete from being burned at the stake for a crime she didn’t commit, after which he still needs to meet with his wife in order to reclaim his marriage. The romance actually describes his worries that he will run out of time, while he is waiting for the giant to appear and remembering that he cannot abandon Lunete. Luckily, he’s acquired a pet lion along the way, which comes in handy in all sorts of ways.

This may actually be my favorite of the four (and the unthrifty character who administers healing potions is probably the one who amuses me the most), but there is so much going on here that it is difficult to find a place to begin to write about it. I will say that the game of whack-a-quest described above is extremely entertaining but also is almost a parody of the narrative roles that women can play (this whole rescue-the-damsel thing goes back at least this far).  Oh, and that the lion is kind of amazing.

“Lancelot” actually covers some of the matter with which most modern readers will already be familiar. It begins with the abduction of Guinevere; Kay (whom I love, even though Chrétien doesn’t seem to care for him much) seeks her unsuccessfully, while Gawain and the mysterious “Knight of the Cart” mount a more serious search which eventually takes them to a strange and inaccessible country. I actually kind of wish that the pop culture elements which focus on the Lancelot/Guinevere story would take their plot from here, because this is much more interesting than most of them. It includes the mysterious bridge, the evil prince, the desperation of Lancelot, and some entertaining plot twists. It makes good use of the quest as plot structure.

In fact, Lancelot’s actions escape scrutiny in rather bizarre ways. After he sleeps with Guinevere and leaves blood on her pillow, he must fight to defend her against the accusation that she has slept with Kay, who happened to be in the same room at the time. This is obviously unfortunate for Kay on several levels, but it also has the peculiar result that he is in fact able to claim that he is in the right—she is falsely accused because she did not, in fact, sleep with Kay. On the other hand, this is a rather absurd situation because Lancelot is himself guilty of the crime against which he is defending others. There’s no commentary on this, however; it’s left to the reader. Guinevere isn’t accorded the same immunity to criticism; there’s a moment about halfway through this story when she refuses to speak to Lancelot for no good reason, which just makes her seem capricious and mean. She is shown to care for Lancelot and mourns when she believes he is dead, but defending her isn’t really the purpose of this narrative.

This is also the only tale which turns up a real villain, Maleagant, who (somewhat ineffectively) imprisons people and refuses to listen to his father.

So—after reading this, do I now understand the codes of chivalry and the depths of Arthurian legend? No, not at all, but they are some interesting stories and I’d recommend them to anyone who is interested in the subject matter. However, I suspect that a more recent translation may be better; as I mentioned above, I’m a bit skeptical of prose translations of verse works.

I have a plan at some point to go on to read Malory, so we’ll see if I actually do that…

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