1995-11-26: Arthurian Romances

Arthurian Romances (~1175, tr 1991)

by Chrétien de Troyes (flourished 1165-1180), tr. William W. Kibler (-) & Carleton W. Carrol (-)

This collection of five romances, translated into prose, is of interest for falling between Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136) and Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (c. ??). Chrétien was evidently influenced by the earlier lais originating in traditions of Brittany, as well as by Geoffrey.

My interest in these works is the memetics of transmission and modification of memes, an interest that cannot be satisfied by one reading. It is clear that many threads in these stories had little or nothing to do with the historical Arthur, but were accretions from other tales told by the same people who told these.

The five tales (the last incomplete) are Erec and Enide, Cligés, The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot), The Knight with the Lion (Yvain), and The Story of the Grail (Perceval). Told by a Frenchman, well after the Conquest of 1066, they contain many British (Welsh) allusions and heroes. The stories range over England, Wales, Brittany and France, as well as other locations in Europe. They were evidently composed for courtly patrons (princes, etc) in France, but who had interests throughout the region.

The topics of the first two tales are arms and love. The protagonists are young knights-to-be, and their ladies. They are inexperienced in love, and reluctant or afraid to reveal their feelings to the objects of their affections. Yet they eventually form strong unions, and the strength of their love aids their strength of arms.

The stories are shallow from our point of view, but not hopelessly shallow. Doubtless, they were very insightful for their time, and promoted views of aristocratic emotional life that appealed to their audience.

I found Erec and Enide the better for its psychological interest, but also cruder in plot. (The plot of Cligés has its own weaknesses.)

Neither story actually impinges on the Arthurian legend. Arthur is simply the King whom all aspiring knights want to serve, attracting the best to his court. That court moves all over France and England, and has no fixed place or Round Table. Gawain is mentioned in both, Lancelot and Sagremor in the second.

[the preceding section was written 1995-08-12]

The Knight of the Cart is a story of Lancelot and Guinevere. More interesting to me than the theme of adultery that pervades Malory and others that followed Chretien, is the Celtic abduction tale on which the story is so clearly based, and its supernatural antecedents. Chretien’s tale is vaguely linked to Arthur, only in that Arthur is the husband of the abducted Guinevere. Nonetheless, he has no role in the winning back of Guinevere; that is the anonymous knight of the cart’s role, later revealed as Lancelot.

The tale is exciting for the evidence it gives of the connection of early Celtic tales with the Arthurian tradition. Certainly, a story of the early development of that tradition must not neglect this theme.

[the preceding section was written 1995-10-30]

The Knight With The Lion is another tale with strong connections to traditional Celtic tales, particularly to the Owein story in the Mabinogion. The tale is about Yvain, who falls in love and wins (with the help of another woman) a great lady and her lands. But he neglects her for the love of arms, at the behest of Gawain. When he realizes his fault, he goes mad, is saved by another woman, and eventually recovers his love. The tale is well-told and contrasts sharply with the Lancelot tale. It is perhaps the best of Chretein’s stories.

The Story of the Grail is peculiar, not least because it was unfinished by Chrétien. The many mysteries concerned with the grail and associated symbols were ‘solved’ in one way or another by at least four other writers who continued the story, but none seems to have been satisfactory. (They are only summarized in this volume.) The tale is evidently concerned with religious duty, as manifested in a knight’s duty to other people. The peculiarities seem to be allegorical, and Chrétien’s symbolism obscure.

These five romances were important to the development of the Arthurian legend as transmitted by Malory, which is the primary thread to our day. As such, they need to be accounted for by anyone who wishes to discern the stages by which that legend developed from its historical basis. Even the ancient Celtic stories, predating Arthur himself, that appear in Chrétien’s work had historical reality as sets of beliefs and attitudes toward authority and social order. Together with actual events and persons, these threads have been twisted into a strong braid. The strength of that braid through the generations deserves examination, as its source is the ordinary mind.

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