The verse written by 12th century poet Chrétien de Troyes represents the earliest of the Arturian romances as we recognize them today. These poems have been widely popular and have influenced the shape of every King Arthur and his Knights tales that came after. This translation of these five tales puts the verse into prose format, which has it’s pluses and minuses.
“Erec and Enide” follows the story of the two title characters, starting with Erec’s adventures and eventual winning of Enide’s hand, followed by Erec and Enide riding off to wander the land in search of quests together.
“Cligés” is a more meandering tale, which begins with Alexandre of Greece’s journey to King Arthur’s court in order to win renown, and then his son Cliges’ adventures and his romance with his uncle’s wife.
“The Knight of the Cart” is Lancelot’s tale, in which the queen Guinevere is taken away by an evil knight. Lancelot pursues her and fights many adventure in his great love for her. It’s an interesting one, because Lancelot is made to look foolish more than once in his love for her.
“The Knight with the Lion” is Yvain’s tale and follows a similar format as the other in that a knight goes off to meet a great adventure. Along the way he wins the love of a maiden, who then casts him off when he fails to return when he’s told to. He goes temporarily insane and has to fight many adventures before he can win her back.
“The Story of the Grail” is Perceval’s quest, though it also includes much of Gawain’s adventures. Perceval starts out as an idiotic ass, leaving a wake of damage on his way to becoming a knight. The grail has less of the Christian affiliations in this version and has to do with the Fisher King (not Arthur), who suffers from wounds that will not heal. There’s a lance that bleeds from its tip, as well as the grail in association with the Fisher King. This tale was not finished by Troyes, but the translator gives a nice round up of the various continuations written by other poets of the time period, which begin to bring in the more heavy handed Christian elements.
Some random thoughts, in no particular order:
1. The storytelling skill gets better with each subsequent story, which makes me think that “Eric and Enide” was written first and Troyes skill improved with each story he told (though I can’t be sure of that). The last three tales are the best in the book, and “The Knight with the Lion” is probably my favorite.
2. There’s a lot of redundancy. Characters will say one thing, repeat it in a slightly different order, then repeat it a third time, just to make sure you really know that they mean what they say. Also, the plot lines repeat fairly often and by the end of the book it’s easy to tell exactly how each battle will turn out: with the knights starting on equal footing, landing many great blows, and the blood flowing and so on. This repetition can make the reading kind of tedious.
3. The people in this era apparently believed that a fight could prove guilt or innocence. If you’re accused of treason or a crime, welp, facts don’t matter as long you have the best knight to fight for you. The winner is proved right, because God would only let the right one win. Uh-huh.
4. People were also rather obsessed with beauty. Beauty = good. Ugliness = evil. All the heroes are the most handsome of knights and draw the eye of every spectator to them. All the good maidens are beautiful and fair.
5. Arthur is kind of a fool. The most obvious demonstration of this is in “Eric and Enide,” in which it essentially goes:
Arthur: I want to do this thing, because it would be sooooo coool.
Gawain: That’s a very bad idea, because something bad will happen.
Arthur: You’re right, but I’m going to do the thing anyway, because I’m the king and the king should do whatever he wants.
*does the thing*
*the bad starts to happen*
Gawain: I told you if you did the thing something bad would happen.
Arthur: I know. You’re so smart. Now tell me how to fix it.
6. Kay is interesting in that he starts out noble and well loved in “Eric and Enide” but gradually becomes more of an ass by the time “The Story of the Grail” rolls around, when he’s called evil tongued and rude and worse and yet they still love him. I would have booted him to the curb.
7. As much as maidens and women are almost never given names and act as objects for the knights to win, they also have a surprising amount of autonomy and strength. Women are often found hanging out alone in the woods and it’s not uncommon for a girl to take up a horse and ride over hill and dale in search of a knight to help her, essentially having her own form adventure. Many of the women also own their own lands and rule their own castles. However, when women have power over men, their demands tend to be rather arbitrary and often have to do with keep the man by her side. In the end, the demands seem not to be so much about her wishes as they seem to be about setting up an adventure for some guy.
8. Morgan le Fay, sister to Arthur and always a favorite of mine, appears only in passing in these stories. But when she does, she is presented in a positive light, as a powerful healer and known for creating the best tinctures and good potions. Apparently, it’s not until later versions that she begins to play the part of the evil traitor.
9. The people are ridiculously prone to emotion. When saddened, they pull their hair, scratch their faces, threatened suicide, faint from sorrow and boredom, but all that can turn around in an instant to beaming dancing joy. A knight leaving darkens the skies and is an end to all good feeling; his return that very night is a cause for feasting and celebration. I’m surprised anyone got anything done with all this flailing about from one mood to another.
10. Oh, I have lots more thoughts about this and that, but this list is already long, so I’ll just leave off here.