Ryan's Reviews > Arthurian Romances

Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes
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Jun 12, 2008

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Read in June, 2008

The predecessors to the medieval romance (of which the Arthurian tales are probably the most famous) were the chansons de geste (songs of deeds), epic poetry written down in the 11th and early 12th centuries, though sung much earlier. Their subject was war, which was plentiful, and martial honor, which was perhaps less so. Things started to settle down a bit as monarchies consolidated power, and with the rise of court culture comes a literature that develops elaborate codes of chivalry and courtly love, the direct ancestors to modern views of romance, 'courtship,' even personality. Stories tended to be of individual male heroes and their interactions with damsels (often but not always in distress), which was the impetus for some sort of chivalric adventure. Pagan (i.e. Celtic) folktales supplied most of the content, though they were refashioned to fit Christian, monarchical, and courtly needs. And lo! 'Fantasy' as we know it had its chief ancestor.

I checked this out of the library just to read Perceval, the oldest surviving written account of the Grail myth. It's both de Troyes' most famous tale and the least complete. You can find the plot on wikipedia, but it's interesting to note that the Grail has nothing to do with Jesus at this point, it's a pagan borrowing. Anyway, the story is pretty entertaining for the first half, then it switches abruptly to Gawain's story (which isn't as well-paced), then both end unresolved. Later writers took this incompleteness as an opportunity.

About the Everyman edition: a functional introduction followed by prose translations of all five stories: Erec and Enide, Cligès, Yvain, Knight of the Lion, Lancelot, Knight of the Cart, and Perceval, the Story of the Grail. There are ok notes, but the translation is stilted and kind of boring. I recommend getting verse translations of one story at at time and a good companion. If you need the single-volume treatment, David Staines has a better prose translation but no notes.
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