Chrétien de Troyes

Chrétien de Troyes is the writer chiefly responsible for recasting the Legendary Histories about the reign of Arthur (NAEL 8, 1.117-28) into the genre we call romance. Wace had refashioned Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin prose History into French octosyllabic couplets, and he endowed the characters with polished manners and rhetorical speech. Still, his Arthur and the knights of the Round Table (Wace is the first author to mention the Table) are still essentially a warrior band, engaged in collective military and dynastic exploits. By contrast, in Chrétien's romances individual knights ride out alone on aventures — our word "adventures," referring to unexpected, often marvelous encounters that advene or come to pass. Adventures may involve strange, monstrous, or magical opponents (e.g., the Green Knight); fierce single combats (sometimes between fellow knights of the Round Table who do not recognize one another in unfamiliar armor); and, most important, the adventure of falling in love. To win and retain a lady's love, to forfeit it through some offense and then regain it through deeds of valor and by attaining a higher consciousness gives a unifying structure to a whole series of separate adventures. Chrétien designs his romances to educate, test, and redeem the character of his hero in both love and war, and especially to reconcile these chivalric responsibilities, which often pull in opposite directions, so as to fashion the model of a perfect knight.

Chrétien's romances created a new mythos for the age of feudalism. He invests the holding of land, the conduct of war and tournaments, and the relationships between knight and lady with a quasi-religious code of honor. The knight is bound by loyalties pledged to his lord, his lady, and to God — his troth or "trouthe," in the sense of being true to someone or something, a word constantly invoked in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the best romances, conflicting loyalties and their resolution give form and meaning to the knight's adventures.

The very length of Chrétien's romances is part of their character, making it impossible to represent these tales fairly in brief excerpts. Nevertheless, one may highlight certain motifs that can enable the student to contrast Arthurian romance with the chronicle selections from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Layamon and to provide contexts for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Malory's Morte Darthur. We provide brief excerpts with connecting summaries from two of Chrétien's later works, Yvain or the Knight with the Lion and The Knight of the Cart, which are closely related in time of composition but are very different in character. The selections are from the translation by David Staines (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990). Another good prose translation, easily available, is that by William W. Kibler (London & New York: Penguin Books, 1991).


From Yvain or the Knight with the Lion

Yvain may serve as the textbook example of romance as it is characterized in the introduction to Chrétien de Troyes. In pursuit of adventure and reputation, Sir Yvain sets out alone to try his luck at a magic spring where his cousin has been humiliated. He falls in love with the widow of a knight he has killed, marries her, breaks a promise to her, goes mad when she rejects him, regains his senses, and finally, after serving as champion for many ladies in distress, wins his way back into her good graces.

The opening verses are a good example of how adventures move outward from Arthur's court and how the king himself is often marginalized. The presence of the queen and other ladies as listeners to the telling of a tale indicates the appeal of romances to women as well as to men. The passage also illustrates the stress placed on courtly protocol, here exaggerated by Sir Kay, Arthur's seneschal. In Arthurian romance, Kay acquires the stock character of a jealous, insecure, ill-tempered knight, who serves as a foil for genuine courtesy and whose narrow idea of chivalry often gets him and other knights into trouble.

Storytelling at Pentecost

Arthur, the good king of Britain, whose valor teaches us that we too should be courteous and brave, was holding court with all kinglike splendor at Carlisle in Wales on that feast so worth its cost one has to call it Pentecost.

After dinner the knights gathered again here and there through the halls where the ladies, married or unmarried, called them. Some knights talked of recent events; others were speaking of love, the tribulations and the sorrows and the blessings that often come to the disciples of his order. At that time Love's order was still fine and flourishing. Now, alas, there are very few disciples; nearly all have deserted him so that Love is held in disrepute. In olden days Love's disciples were known for courtesy and bravery, generosity and honor. Now love has become an idle word. Those who know nothing of his order maintain they love; but they lie. They have no right to talk. In their boasting, love is but an idle tale and a lie.

But now let us speak of those who once were and leave aside those who still are, for a courteous man, though dead, is worth a great deal more, in my opinion, than a living churl. So it is my pleasure to relate a story worth listening to about the king whose fame spreads near and far. And I do agree with the belief of so many Bretons that his renown will last forever. Thanks to him, people will recall his chosen knights, fine men who strove for honor.

On that particular day, many were surprised to see the king rise so soon and take his leave. Some were saddened by his departure and discussed it at length. Never before at such a grand feast had they seen him retire to his chamber to rest or to sleep. But on this day the queen happened to detain him, and he stayed beside her so long that he forgot himself and fell asleep.

Outside the door to his chamber were Dodinel and Sagremor, Kay and Sir Gawain. And Sir Yvain was there, as well as Calogrenant, a most agreeable knight, who had begun to tell them a tale more to his shame than to his credit. Hearing him tell his tale, the queen left the king's side and came upon them without being noticed so that she appeared among them before any saw her except Calogrenant, who leapt to his feet to greet her. Kay, who was quarrelsome and mean, sarcastic and spiteful, addressed him. "By God, Calogrenant, now I see that you are brave and nimble! How it delights me that you are the most courteous of our group! I know that you have complete faith in yourself, lacking as you are in wisdom. How proper for my lady to believe you surpass all of us in courtesy and bravery! Perhaps we neglected to rise out of laziness or because we didn't care. By God, no, sir! We didn't because we did not see my lady, and you had already stood."

"Kay, I think you would have burst had you not been able to pour out the venom that fills you. You are malicious and ill bred to quarrel with your companions," said the queen.

[The story that Yvain's cousin Colegrevant proceeds to tell is of his defeat by a knight who is the lord-protector of a magic spring. If anyone pours water from a gold basin into a hollow emerald stone beside the spring, this act generates a terrific lightning storm, and the perpetrator must fight the lord of the fountain. Yvain secretly sets off to repeat each step of his cousin's adventure. He releases the storm and mortally wounds the master of the spring. However, riding in hot pursuit of his defeated foe, Yvain's horse is cut in half by the falling portcullis, and Yvain is trapped inside the castle. The maid of the lady of the castle helps Yvain because he once showed her courtesy. She lends the knight a ring that makes him invisible to protect him from the lord's retainers who realize that the slayer is present because the corpse bleeds freshly. While invisible, Yvain falls in love with the widow of the dead man as she mourns her lord. Through the urging of the maid, the lady lets herself be persuaded to marry Yvain as the likeliest candidate to succeed her husband as the protector of the spring. Arthur and his court arrive at the castle, and the marriage is celebrated with great pomp. As Yvain prepares to settle down, his friends, and especially Sir Gawain, urge the newlywed knight to leave his bride.]

Gawain's Counsel

When the king had sojourned there until he wished to stay no longer, he had preparations made for his departure. During that week, all the men had begged and pressed Sir Yvain, as insistently as they could, to let them lead him off with them. "What?" Sir Gawain asked. "Will you be like those men who are less worthy because of their wives? Holy Mary damn the man who marries and regresses! When a man has a beautiful lady as his beloved or his wife, he should lead a better life. It is not right for her to love him after his honor and his renown cease. Certainly you would be angry too if you grew soft from her love. A woman quickly withdraws her love — and has every right to do so — and despises the man, in the realm where he is lord, who regresses because of her. Now more than ever your renown should increase. Break loose from the bridle and the halter, and we shall go to tournaments, you and I, so that people will not call you jealous. You must not daydream now. You have to frequent and engage in tournaments and strike with all your force, whatever the cost. He is indeed in a dream who does not stir. You have to come, I assure you. Do not try to evade. Take care our companionship not lapse on your side, dear companion, for it is not going to end on my account.

"It is a wonder how a man values a life of never-ending ease. It is good to wait for joy. A small pleasure when delayed is sweeter than a large pleasure enjoyed at once. The joy of late love is like green firewood when set aflame, for the longer the wait in lighting, the greater heat it yields and the longer its force lasts. One may grow accustomed to habits that are hard to throw off. When the wish to do so comes, it is impossible.

"I grant you, if I had such a beautiful beloved as you do, dear companion, then by the faith I owe God and all the saints, I would leave her most reluctantly. I would be a fool, I know. But one offers good advice to another that he would not take himself, as preachers who are faithless and dissolute teach and proclaim what is right with no intention of practicing it."

Sir Gawain spoke so often, and with such strong insistence, that his companion promised to speak of this to his wife and then to set out if he could obtain her leave. Whether this was wise or foolish to do, he would not return to Britain without her permission. When he took his lady aside to discuss the matter, she was not expecting a request for permission to depart. "My dearest lady," he said to her, "you are my heart and my soul, my well-being, my joy, and my happiness. Grant me one favor for your honor and for mine."

[Yvain begs the favor of a year's leave of absence from his new wife to pursue his knightly career with a solemn promise to return at the end of that time. He forgets his promise and goes mad when the maid appears at Arthur's court and tells Yvain that her lady will never see him again. He regains his senses, but carries on alone and miserable.]

Yvain and the Lion

[Click on image to enlarge] Absorbed in his thoughts, Sir Yvain was riding through a deep forest when he heard a loud cry of pain from the trees. He turned in the direction of the cry. When he reached a clearing, he saw a lion and a serpent, which was holding the lion by the tail and scorching his haunches with burning fire. Sir Yvain spent little time looking at this strange sight. When he considered which of the two he would help, he decided to go to aid the lion, because a serpent with its venom and treachery deserved nothing but harm. The serpent was venomous, and fire was darting from its mouth, so full of evil was the creature.

Intending first to kill the serpent, Sir Yvain drew his sword and advanced. He held his shield before his face as a protection against the flames gushing from the serpent's throat, which was more gaping than a pot. If the lion attacked him later, there would be a fight; yet whatever happened after, he still wished to aid the lion. Pity urged him and pleaded that he help and support the noble and honorable beast.

With his keen-cutting sword he attacked the evil serpent, pinning it to the ground and slicing it in two. He then struck it again and again until he had cut and hacked it to pieces. But he had to sever a piece of the lion's tail because the head of the wretched serpent still gripped the tail. He cut off as little as necessary; in fact, he could not have removed less. When he had freed the lion, he expected that the lion would spring at him and he would have to fight, but to the lion such an idea never occurred. Hear what the lion did. In a manner befitting the worthy and nobly born, he began to show that he was surrendering. He stood on his hind legs, stretched out his forepaws together to the knight, and bowed his head to the ground. Then he knelt down, his whole face wet with tears of humility. For certain Sir Yvain realized that the lion was thanking him and humbling himself before him, since he had delivered him from death by killing the serpent. This adventure delighted Yvain. He cleaned the serpent's venomous filth from his sword, which he then placed back in its scabbard. Then he resumed his journey. The lion walked close beside him, never to leave him, but to accompany him always to serve and to protect him.

[The lion becomes Yvain's inseparable companion, exemplifying in the world of nature the loyalty that his master has betrayed in the human world. Returning to the spring, Yvain collapses in grief. ]

Alas, Sir Yvain almost lost sense when this time he neared the spring and the stone and the chapel. A thousand times he called himself wretched and miserable. He was so distraught that he fell in a faint; his sharp sword dropped from its scabbard and the point pierced through the meshes of his hauberk close to the neck below the cheek. There is no mail that does not break open, and the sword cut the skin of the neck beneath the gleaming mail and made his blood spill. The sight convinced the lion that his master and companion was dead. Greater than ever before was the anger he experienced, as the display of his grief commenced. Never have I heard told or described such grief. He threw himself about, clawing himself and screaming. He wanted to kill himself with the sword he thought had killed his good master. With his teeth he grabbed the sword from him, laid it on a fallen tree, and steadied it on a trunk behind, fearing it might slip when he hurled his breast against it. He had almost accomplished his desire when Yvain recovered from his swoon. The lion had been rushing at death like a wild boar, careless of where he impaled himself. Now, however, he took restraint.

[After many more adventures in which Yvain is assisted by the lion, he pledges to fight a judicial duel as champion of a lady whose right of inheritance is being wrongly denied by her older sister, who has engaged another knight as her champion. King Arthur serves as judge of the duel.]

A Duel between Friends

[Click on image to enlarge] Because the men failed to recognize each other, they drew back in readiness. At the first assault, their thick ash lances shattered. Each spoke not a word to the other, for had they conversed, their encounter would have been different: they would have gone not to attack with lances and swords, but to hug and kiss each other. Now they were assaulting and maiming each other. Their swords were not the better for this, nor were their helmets or shields, which were battered and split. . . . Stunned from the hard blows of the pommels on the helmets, they almost knocked each other's brains out. Their eyes bulged from their heads. Their fists were huge and square, their muscles strong, their bones hard. Savage were the facial blows they delivered with their tightly gripped swords, which were of immense service to them in their violent strokes. . . .

All were astonished that the battle was so equal; there was no way to tell who was better or worse. The two fighters themselves, who were buying honor at the expense of agony, were amazed and aghast. They were so evenly matched in their assault that each wondered about the identity of his opponent, who put up such fierce resistance. Their arms were tired, their bodies in agony, and their blood, hot and boiling, bubbled from many wounds and ran down under the hauberks. It is no wonder they wanted rest, for they were in severe pain. They paused to rest, each man thinking to himself that at long last he had met his equal. . . .

Their pause lasted a long time. They dared not fight again, for they wanted no further combat: the night grew dark, and they stood in dread of each other. These two motives prompted them to maintain peace. Yet before they left the field, they would learn each other's identity and know compassion and joy.

Brave and courteous as he was, Sir Yvain was the first to speak. His good friend did not recognize him from his words, which were almost inaudible. His voice was weak, hoarse, and cracking, for he was badly shaken by the blows he had received. "Sir," he said, "night advances. I am certain you will not be reproached or blamed if it separates us. For my part, I admit that I both fear you and esteem you. I have never been in a battle that caused me so much discomfort. There has never been a knight I so wanted to see and to know. I have the highest admiration for you. I expected to see myself defeated. Well you know how to land your strokes to their full advantage. I never knew a knight so expert in delivering blows. I would have preferred to receive much less than you have given me today. Your blows have completely stunned me."

"I swear you are not so stunned and dizzy," answered Sir Gawain, "for I am just the same or perhaps more so. If I were to know who you are, I doubt that I would be displeased. If I lent you anything of mine, you have repaid the account well, principal and interest. You generously paid back more than I was ready to accept. But however that is, since you would have me tell you my name, I shall not keep it from you. I am Gawain, son of King Lot."

When Yvain heard these words, he was taken aback, and completely at a loss from anger and vexation. He flung his bloodied sword and his shattered shield to the ground and dismounted. "Ah, alas, such misfortune!" he cried out. "We have waged this battle in such shameful ignorance because we did not recognize each other. Had I known you, never would I have fought you. I would have surrendered, I assure you, before the first blow."

"What? Who are you?" asked Sir Gawain.

"I am Yvain, who loves you more than any man alive anywhere, and you have always loved and honored me in every court. So much do I wish to make amends to you for this situation and to honor you that I am going to declare that I was utterly defeated."

"Would you do that for me?" asked the gentle Sir Gawain. "I would certainly be most presumptuous to accept such amends. This honor will never be mine, it will be yours. I give it to you."

"Oh, dear sir, say no more. That could never be. I am so exhausted and hurt that I can endure no longer."

"You certainly waste your words," his friend and his companion answered. "I am the one who is defeated and exhausted. I say this not to flatter you. There is no one in the world so unknown to me that I would not say this to him rather than receive more of the blows."

With these words they got down and threw their arms around each other. They kissed, each continuing to declare that he had been defeated. . . .

[King Arthur settles the dispute in favor of the younger sister who had been unjustly disinherited. Yvain is recognized by all as the Knight of the Lion. On his knees he begs his wife for forgiveness.]

"Lady, one should have mercy on a sinner," he said. "I have paid for my ignorant action, and I wish to pay for it still. Folly made me stay away, and I acknowledge my guilt and disgrace. I have been most bold to dare come before you. But if you would allow me to stay, I will never wrong you again."

"That is certainly my wish," she answered. "Otherwise I would perjure myself, unless I did all I could to make peace between you and me. If it be your pleasure, I shall grant your request."

"Lady, five hundred thanks," he answered. "God could not grant me more happiness in this mortal life, so help me the Holy Spirit."

Now Sir Yvain had his pardon, and you may believe that however great his distress had been, he had never been so happy. All had come to a fine end. He was cherished and loved by his lady, and she by him. . . .


From The Knight of the Cart

Chrétien's Yvain is a typical chivalric romance inasmuch as the hero painfully makes up for the broken promise that divided him from his lady. At the end they are happily reunited, and the claims of love and honor are resolved so that Yvain has it all — his lady, his lion, his best friend, and the exemplary character of true knighthood. For Sir Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, there is no such happy resolution. Indeed, Chrétien himself never finished The Knight of the Cart. Another poet wrote a conclusion in which he tells us at what point Chrétien left off. For Lancelot there is no way to resolve his conflicting loyalties to his lord King Arthur and his lady Queen Guinevere except in death.

Chrétien's Knight of the Cart is the earliest known appearance of the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere. Lancelot, who in romance becomes the preeminent knight of the Round Table, does not even appear in the Legendary Histories. There are references to The Knight of the Cart in Yvain, but there is no hint there of his affair with the queen. Presumably that affair was modeled on the popular Tristan romances in which Tristan is sent to transport Isolde from Ireland as the bride of his uncle Mark, the king of Cornwall. They fall in love when they accidentally drink the love potion Isolde's mother had prepared for her daughter and King Mark.

In The Knight of the Cart, Lancelot and Guinevere are already lovers. At the beginning of the romance, Chrétien states that both the story and its sens (its idea or meaning) were given to him by his patroness Marie, Countess of Champagne, the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine by her first husband, Louis VII of France. Possibly Chrétien never completed the romance because he was not happy with the assignment. Nevertheless, the affair marks a turning point in Arthurian romance. It becomes a given that future romancers are forced to deal with or must conspicuously ignore or gloss over.

The romance opens, as do other Arthurian tales (especially Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) with a challenge to the court. Sir Meleagant from the mysterious land of Gore dares any knight to escort Guinevere from court and to protect her from being abducted by force. Arthur foolishly promises to grant a wish to Sir Kay, who vaingloriously asks to accept the challenge. The opening illustrates both Arthur's weakness and the binding nature of a word of honor, even when keeping it is an invitation to disaster.

Meleagant's Challenge

The king took the queen by the hand. "Lady, you must accompany Kay without protest," he said to her.

"Hand her over to me now," Kay said. "There is nothing to fear. I shall bring her back perfectly safe and happy." The king gave her to Kay, who led her away. All the others went out after them. There was no one who was not upset.

You can be certain the seneschal was quickly armed. His horse was led into the middle of the courtyard along with a palfrey fit for a queen. The palfrey was not restive or stubborn, and the queen approached and mounted. Sorrowful and despondent, she sighed and spoke low lest she be heard: "Alas, alas, if only you knew, I believe you would never let Kay lead me a single step. . . ." At their departure, all the men and women present assumed that she would never return alive, and they grieved as deeply as though she lay dead on her bier. In his impudence the senschal was taking her to the spot where the other knight awaited her.

No one's grief was strong enough to prompt him to follow after her until Sir Gawain addressed the king, his uncle, in private. "Lord, you have behaved like a child, and I am astonished," he said. "But if you heed my counsel, then while they are still near, we shall follow them, you and I, along with any others who wish to come there. As for me, I could not hold back from racing after them. It would be wrong for us not to follow them, at least until we know what will happen to the queen, and how Kay will behave."

[Gawain sets out in hot pursuit and meets another armed knight (not identified until much later) on foot because he has ridden his horse to death. He borrows a spare horse from Gawain and gallops ahead. Gawain finds that horse lying dead on the ground, which is "strewn with broken shields and lances." He catches up with the other knight who is riding in a cart driven by a "miserable dwarf, ill-born and ill-bred." Chrétien explains that a cart in those days was used only to lead "murderers and robbers" to be executed and any man riding such a cart has "lost all honor." The title and plot of the romance turn on the unnamed knight's split second hesitation before mounting the cart, a moment in which he weighs the shame that would cost him against his mission.]

The Cart

[Click on image to enlarge] Sir Gawain galloped after the cart, and seeing the knight sitting in it, was amazed. Then he spoke. "Dwarf, if you know anything of the queen, tell me."

"If you have as little self-regard as this knight sitting here, jump, if you wish, into the cart alongside him. I shall drive you with him," the dwarf answered.

When Sir Gawain heard this, he thought the invitation mad. He would certainly not climb in, he said; it would be base in the extreme to trade a horse for a cart. "Go where you will, and I shall go where you wish," he replied.

And so they continued, one on horseback, two riding in the cart, and in this way they proceeded together.

[Gawain and the Knight of the Cart separate to enter the land of Gore by different bridges, Gawain by a water-bridge, the Knight of the Cart by sword-bridge, which badly cuts him. Reaching Meleagant's castle, Lancelot (he is now called by name) stands in the night below the barred window where the queen and Sir Kay are imprisoned.]

Lancelot and Guinevere Are Reunited

Then the queen came, dressed only in a white shift. She had not put on a dress or a coat over it, wearing only a short cloak of rich wool trimmed with marmot. As soon as Lancelot saw the queen leaning against the window behind the thick iron bars, he addressed her with tender words of greeting. And she at once returned his greeting, a similar desire consuming them both, he wanting her and she him. There was nothing tedious or vulgar in their talk. They drew near and held each other's hands. Powerless to come closer, they became enraged and cursed the iron bars. Yet Lancelot boasted that if it were the queen's will, he would enter there with her, the bars never stopping him.

"Do you not see these bars?" the queen asked. "They are stout to bend and hard to break. You could never dislodge them. There is no way you can squeeze, pull, or wrench them."

"Lady, be not concerned," he said. "I believe these bars to be useless. Only you may prevent me from reaching you. If you grant me permission, my way is clear. But if my scheme does not suit you, then the way is so difficult for me that my entry is impossible."

"To be certain, I do want it. My will does not prevent you," she replied. "Yet you must wait till I am in my bed so that any noise may not cause you harm. It would be no laughing matter should the seneschal, asleep here, be wakened by our clamor. So it is right indeed that I retreat. No good would come if he saw me standing here."

"Then go now, lady," he told her. "But be not concerned about my making any noise. I believe I can pull out the bars gently without much trouble and without waking anyone."

The queen turned away at once, and Lancelot prepared to try and loosen the window. Gripping the bars, he pulled and tugged until he made them all bend; then he wrenched them from their position. But the iron was so sharp that the end of his little finger was torn to the nerve and the entire first joint of the next finger severed. Since his mind was elsewhere, he did not feel his cuts or the blood that dripped from them. Although the window was not at all low, Lancelot slipped through with great ease and speed. He found Kay asleep in his bed, then came to the bed of the queen. He adored her and knelt down before her; in no saint's relics did he place such faith.

The queen held out her arms to him, embraced him, and hugged him to her breast. When she drew him into bed beside her, she showed him every possible pleasure. Love and her heart transported him. It was Love that made her give him such a joyous welcome. If her love for him was great, his for her was a hundred thousand times more so, for in all other hearts Love is absent in comparison with Love's presence in his. So completely did Love establish himself again in his heart that for all other hearts he left little.

Now Lancelot had all he desired. The queen eagerly sought his company and his pleasure as he held her in his arms and she held him in hers. In the pleasure of loving, he tasted such rapturous happiness by kissing and caressing her that theirs was, without word of lie, a wondrous joy, whose equal has never yet been heard or known. But on this matter I shall always be silent. Every tale should pass it over in silence. The choicest and most pleasurable joys are those the tale keeps from us.

All night long Lancelot enjoyed great pleasure. But the day's approach pained him deeply since he had to rise from his beloved's side. Rising made him feel like a martyr, for he suffered the agony of martyrdom in the torture of departure. His heart was persistent in staying with the queen. He could not lead it away, for it knew such pleasure with the queen that it had no desire to leave her. His body departed; his heart remained.

Lancelot returned directly to the window. But much of his blood stayed behind, the blood that dripped from his fingers having spotted and stained the sheets. Full of sighs and full of tears, he went away distraught. The fact that no hour had been set for another meeting pained him, but such an arrangement was impossible. He reluctantly left through the window he had been glad to enter. His fingers, no longer whole, were seriously injured. Still he set the bars up again and placed them back in their position so that it was not evident from either side, behind or in front, that the bars had been pulled, bent, or removed. At his departure he behaved like a suppliant in the room, acting as if he were before an altar.

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