Taking the legends surrounding King Arthur and weaving in new psychological elements of personal desire and courtly manner, Chrétien de Troyes fashioned a new form of medieval Romance. The Knight of the Cart is the first telling of the adulterous relationship between Lancelot and Arthur's Queen Guinevere, and in The Knight with the Lion Yvain neglects his bride in his quest for greater glory. Erec and Enide explores a knight's conflict between love and honour, Cligés exalts the possibility of pure love outside marriage, while the haunting The Story of the Grail chronicles the legendary quest. Rich in symbolism, these evocative tales combine closely observed detail with fantastic adventure to create a compelling world that profoundly influenced Malory, and are the basis of the Arthurian legends we know today.
Chrétien de Troyes, commonly regarded as the father of Arthurian romance and a key figure in Western literature, composed in French in the latter part of the twelfth century. Virtually nothing is known of his life. Possibly a native of Troyes, he enjoyed patronage there from the Countess Marie of Champagne before dedicating his last romance to Count Philip of Flanders, perhaps about 1182. His poetry is marked by a learning and a taste for dialectic acquired in Latin schools; but at the same time it reveals a warm human sympathy which breathes life into characters and situations. Whilst much of his matter is inherited from the world of Celtic myth and the events notionally unfold in the timeless reign of King Arthur, the society and customs are those of Chrétien's own day. In his last, unfinished work, Perceval, the mysterious Grail makes its first appearance in literature.
I really can't say enough in praise of this beautiful book. Each poem had translated into prose in a lively and vivid style. The dialogue is crisp and natural, and the action is non-stop. But Chretien's intentions go even more profound than merely telling cracking yarns. Each is a sensitive and intelligent exploration of human nature. Marital love is ever an essential theme in Chretien. In Erec and Enide, the hero neglects his knightly reputation to devote himself to his new bride, and in Yvain, the hero does the opposite and neglects his bride for valor. Both must embark on a series of adventures culminating in seeing the error of their ways and setting matters right. Lancelot is an excellent story. Nowhere does Chretien condemn the illicit relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere, despite negative references elsewhere to the adulterous love between Tristan and Iseult. The introduction suggests that Chretien's patroness may have proposed the theme. Perhaps, then, Chretien was anxious not to offend the French Court. At any rate, he didn't finish the romance and gave it to someone else (including this book's ending). Nevertheless, he delivers the most mysterious, powerful, and influential Arthurian story. Here we see the holy grail, the bleeding lance, and the castle of maidens, all of which have become essential ingredients in Arthurian lore. Moreover, its unfinished state presented an irresistible challenge to later poets, some of whom tried to finish it. Others went back to the beginning and offered alternative versions. The only story that gets a little static is Cliges, where the characters occasionally go off into protracted musings on the nature of love. But once you've got past these bits, which, to be fair, are intelligent insights, it's still an excellent read. All in all, I hugely recommend this book. And if it doesn't want to make you start exploring Mallory, Von Eschenbach, and the rest, you've got no romance!
Questo libro è la raccolta di 5 romanzi medievali e leggendolo mi sono trovato proiettato indietro nel tempo, in un mondo affascinante e ben diverso dal nostro.
L’autore ci racconta storie intrise di lealtà, eroismo, generosità e, soprattutto amore, quell’amore cortese interpretato magnificamente dai cavalieri della corte di Re Artù.
Combattimenti furiosi, eroi invincibili, duelli appassionati e scenari grandiosi, con l’amore per una damigella o una regina a fare da motore alle avventure mirabolanti, dove si guarisce con unguenti miracolosi e ci si consegna spontaneamente, sulla parola, alla persona designata dal vincitore che ti ha graziato, anche se questa persona, dama o cavaliere, si trovi a centinaia di chilometri di distanza!
Nonostante gli anni passati (i racconti sono del XII secolo) e lo stile d’epoca, ho sognato ad occhi aperti e mi sono persino arrabbiato per il comportamento della regina Ginevra!
The Arthurian Romances by Chretien de Troyes. Troyes is a famous French poet known for his Arthurian work. One of the reasons I combined this review is because some of his works are also in the Arthurian Legends collection above. Anyway. The edition I have contains the stories of Eric and Enide, Cliges, Lancelot, Yvain, and Perceval. I love the stories of Erec and Enide. It is full of the chivalry concept that you think of when reading anything about King Arthur. Then there is Perceval and his search for the Grail. I love these stories so much. They are the definition of classics. I am glad I got to revisit them. 5 out of 5 stars!
Have I ever told you that I have a HUGE obsession for Arthurian legends? Well, I'll tell you now :P Chretien de Troyes works are so witty, extremely modern and romantic! My favourite is -of course- Lancelot du lac ou le Chevalier de la Charrette... motivations? 1- This is the first novel EVER that has Lancelot as the main character. Infact, Chretien is actually Lancelot's "dad"... 2- It's fun! Lancelot looks so silly! 3- It's romantic! Lancelot&Guinevere are so in love...they're just...<3 4- Adventure! Chivalry! Knights Jousting! What else can I ask from a novel? For what concerns the other ones: "Ywain" and "Erec et Enide" are re-tellings of welsh legends -you can find the same stories in the Mabinogion-. I didn't like the way Erec behaved with Enide through the story: In the end I'd rather lock myself in a tower than let a guy like that come close to me again, husband or not -he treated her so HORRIBLY! Wasn't he supposed to be a knight? The MOST courteous and romantic type of man on earth?-. "Cliges" is a lovely story and Fenice is a great character. They found a really clever way to overcome a major issue in medieval literature... They basically are the "Anti Tristan&Iseult"... Did i mention that Chretien was a huge fan of marital love? That he believed that love could only exist between husband&wife...and that every character of his find fulfillment of his/her love in marriage? Pretty ironic that he became famous for a tale of Adultery...and for "fathering" an adulterine character -the most famouse one,besides"... "Perceval" is another re-telling from Mabinogion. I like Perceval, he's such fun :P
I came across this one in my background reading of The Death of King Arthur . I knew these tales have left a huge impression as King Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Merlin and Sir Gawain are still part of our literary culture, but I never would have guessed its complex journey of going back and forth between two nations, England and France, leaving a mark on both.
The original is written in Old French poetry. This modern prose translation was not as tough to read as I had feared, but my bigger worry was if I could comprehend any of its intertextuality. When I finished the second of five stories, I realised how it was lucky I had read Peter Ackroyd’s modern retelling of tales of King Arthur first. Without this, I would have missed the importance of a knight (and the relevance of their lifestyle), and I would have completely missed how love, even sensual love, has an affinity to Christianity. This made me think back to my reading of Tales from 1,001 Nights, which also tied love and sex to religion, but to Islam.
The first two stories, Erec and Enide and Cligės are beautiful romances – with a real modern feel and page turners, the last three are kind of like an adventure historical fiction. Okay, they weren’t always a riveting read, but I found them to be just as good for filling up narrative gaps with back stories (like the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere) or showing a different side to a character (Sir Gawain). What I liked the most about this read is it introduced me to more than the stock characters of King Arthur’s story, I also liked how it represented women. These knights, with all their courage and bravery, became weak and futile without the love of a woman. It’s the gift of a woman’s love that powers them and energises them to beat their foe or win a challenge. Without these women the knights lose their superpowers; so some of the women in these stories were just as important as the men.
This book is available on Gutenberg for free but I opted for this Penguin ed because of the intro essay and notes. I wasn’t disappointed, the essay gave me insight to interesting facts about how and why Chrétien de Troyes ended up writing these tales, facts which would have been difficult if I did not have a tiny understanding of England’s history of the Plantagenet – the period where there’s these close links to England and France after the Norman conquest. It would also be in this moment where I finally understood how tales that originated in England were first recorded in writing by a French author. His stories left such an impression, that down the line they would be written again three centuries later by Thomas Malory, an English author, and whose version is better known. If you’re interested in these tales you should check this one out.
I found this read enjoyable and at the same time helpful. King Arthur and co are no longer characters that I only know by name, now when I hear their names, I will be able to appreciate them better. Also, I now have more context to have a broader understanding of terms like chivalry, so finally Order of the Garter is making a touch more sense to me.
Books are brilliant, I can’t imagine a world without books.
The stories in this book were written in the 1100s and are a translation from French. There are five stories altogether and some are better than others. They are all to do with knights from King Arthur's court. The five stories are: Erec and Enide, Cliges, Lancelot, Yvain and Perceval.
Erec and Enide - parts of this story read like a fairy tale but de Troyes' overly descriptive and flowery language overpower the plot. He detours from the plot to spend a page describing a dress, or the saddle on a horse.
Cliges - this is really a story in two parts, the first part tells the reader the story of Cliges' mother and father, while the second part deals with Cliges and his adventures. His romance with a married woman is the most compelling part of the plot and I was unable to put it down at that point! Lancelot is also briefly mentioned here as well.
Lancelot (The Knight of the Cart) - the one story I was really looking forward to was one of the biggest disappointments! The plot dealt, in part, with Lancelot's affair with Guinevere but I just couldn't get interested in his story and ended up skipping paragraphs just to finish it.
Yvain (The Knight with the Lion) - in my opinion this was the best story of the five. It covers whole years of Yvain's life and has a feel good happy ending.
Perceval: the story of the Grail - a fairly interesting story about a Welsh boy who journeys to King Arthur's court to become a knight. There are flashes of dark humour in Perceval's innocent misunderstandings of what it means to be a knight. The Holy Grail is mentioned for the first time but be warned; this story is unfinished so if you read it hoping for a conclusion you will be disappointed
From William W. Kibler’s introduction the 1991 Penguin Classics edition of Chrétien de Troye’s Arthurian Romances:
“Certainly no translation can hope to capture all the subtlety and magic of Chrétien’s art. But one can hope to convey some measure of his humour, his irony and the breadth of his vision. He was one of the great artists and creators of his day, and nearly every romancer after him had to come to terms with his legacy. Some translated or frankly imitated (today we might even say plagiarized) his work; others repeated or developed motifs, themes, structures and stylistic mannerisms introduced by him; still others continued his stories in ever more vast compilations.”
Written in the latter half of the twelfth century, the works that compose Chrétien de Troye’s Arthurian Romances—Erec and Enide, Cligés, The Knight of the Cart, The Knight with the Lion, and The Story of the Grail—are invaluable today for functioning as the basis of the Arthurian legends with which contemporary readers are now familiar. Interestingly enough, as the legends have survived until today in the form of only a few manuscripts, the manuscript containing the earliest and best copies of Chrétien’s romances, the Annonay Manuscript, was cut apart and used as filler for book-bindings (!!!) in the eighteenth century; only fragments of Erec and Enide, Cligés, The Knight with the Lion, and The Story of the Grail belonging to the Annonay Manuscript have been recovered. The Guiot Manuscript is the primary manuscript referred to in the English prose translations by William W. Kibler and Carleton W. Carroll contained within this edition of Chrétien's Arthurian Romances.
Chrétien did not finish writing two of the legends, and although we cannot be exactly sure why this is today, we have our hunches; the first of Chrétien’s unfinished tales, The Knight of the Cart, was actually completed by the clerk Godefroy de Lagny with the approval of Chrétien and is suspected to have been abandoned by Chrétien due to the failure of the subject matter, the adulterous relationship between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, to appeal to him (the reasons for why this could have been are the subject of contentious debate among literary critics and scholars), while the second unfinished Arthurian legend, The Story of the Grail, is suspected to have been left incomplete due to Chrétien’s death (for more on the continuations of the legend written by other authors, click here).
With Chrétien's Arthurian Romances having been originally written in octosyllabic couplets in Old French, while losing the form and linguistic subtleties of Chrétien’s original verse, Carroll’s prose translation of Erec and Enide and Kibler’s prose translations of the other four legends preserve the most salient thematic features of Chrétien’s romances in their explorations of courtly love, adultery, chivalry, beauty, and Christianity during medieval times, with many an allusion to texts like the Bible and to characters in literature like Tristan, Isolde, Roland, and Ganelon by the erudite Chrétien as well as to Greek writers like Sophocles and Roman writers like Ovid and Virgil in Chrétien’s literary manifestations of the Classical theme of translatio studii. The contemporary reader will hopefully find these historical conceptions of love, masochistic in the way that they drive the protagonist of each legend to arduously great lengths in order to achieve a certain goal, fascinating despite their antiquity and obsolescence; in addition, they should appreciate Chrétien’s keen penchant for deftly interlacing the narratives of his Arthurian legends and his innovation in establishing unique motifs like the rash boon in these tales. He was, as far as I am aware, a writer way ahead of his time.
I can't believe it's taken me so long to get round to reading this. I've had it on my reading list for ages -- before I knew it'd be a set text -- and I'm glad I finally got round to it. It isn't a novel, as such, of course, but a set of somewhat connected stories, the last one of which is unfinished. I'm surprised by how great a part Gawain plays, even in the stories of the other knights, particularly in The Story of the Grail -- I don't think I've really seen him get so much attention in the grail story, except as a failure, in other texts.
In any case, I knew "Erec and Enide" from some other source, that preserved it almost entirely -- almost a translation, rather than a reinterpretation! No surprises in this one, for me. This edition has a good clear translation. Of course, by modern logic, Erec's treatment of Enide makes no sense at all and is horribly cruel -- I think the more modern version I read had him suspecting her of infidelity, and emphasising it as the reason for his treatment of her -- but we're not talking modern logic!
I hadn't read "Cligés" anywhere, though, although it was familiar from the similarities it had with "Tristan and Isolde". The behaviour of Fenice seems very much like a criticism of faithless Isolde; it'd have been interesting to read Chrétien's version of "Tristan and Isolde", if it survived.
"The Knight of the Cart" has survived quite well in later interpretations, although it's been pruned and added to. It was interesting to read this one, although funny that though Lancelot is praised here, he's not really present in the other texts. He isn't the model of excellence that Malory makes him: Gawain seems to have that role.
"The Knight with the Lion" is interesting. I think bits of it survive -- I knew the story about the spring -- but a lot of his wandering, and how he met the lion, was unfamiliar to me.
"The Story of the Grail" follows the Welsh knight, Perceval. I can't say I really enjoyed that much, with the contempt of the characters for the Welsh, and the way Perceval was pretty much characterised as a simpleton. But a large part of the story follows Gawain, which I enjoyed a lot, and most of his adventures in this story were new to me.
It's kinda fun reading this and reading about how silly the whole idea of chivalry -- that never really existed -- was. Idealisation or not, I do love Arthuriana for its ridiculous excesses: every maiden is the most beautiful in the world, more beautiful than Helen of Troy, and every knight is the best and the most courtly in the land... Medieval literature can get away with it; I'm afraid modern lit can't.
Arthurian romances is a particular favorite genre of mine to read. Chretien de Troyes is more or less the originator of some of the most famous episodes in the Arthurian mythos.
In my junior year of high school, I took a class on Medieval literature and it was defiantly my favorite class in high school. I had a great teacher who was passionate about the subject and a class willing to learn. It was there that I first read Chretien de Troyes and his stories of chivalric romance. We only read one of his poems, Yvain. Later, I bought a copy of this book and read his other four romances.
Lancelot is the first story to introduce Camelot's greatest knight and the love affair between him and Guinevere.
Percival is the first ever story to feature the Holy Grail. It is the most mystical and haunting that Chretien wrote. Unfortunately, he died before he could finish it and we never find out if Percival obtains the Grail.
Yvain is the best in the book. In many ways it is the precursor of the modern novel. Yvain is the story of a knight-errant, who is rejected by his wife and performs a number of heroic deeds in order to regain her love. it features some very memorable episodes, like Yvain fighting two demons in a haunted castle, the rescue of a maid burning at the stake, and Yvain's friendship with a lion. I don't know by Hollywood hasn't adapted this book yet. It is made for film.
Arthurian Romances is the fictional record of how a culture thought about how the upper classes should behave in court. Courtly love was a conventionalized view of love between a knight and married woman. he was supposed to love her from afar and perform deeds in her honor. How often this happened in Medieval Europe is difficult to determine. French poets, like Chretien, wrote poems like Lancelot and Yvain as how real knights should behave. Reading these poems for me helps me get into the intellectual milieu of the 12th century.
I decided that the first book on my challenge this year was going to be one that I have been working on for like... three years. It's been brutal, you guys, I hate it. Chretien was such a misogynist. At one point this guy complains that women are all afraid to give in to their passions, so you HAVE to rape them, because even when they really want it (and they ALWAYS really want it) they'll always kick and scream and say no, and then, when you go through all that trouble they don't even thank you for it. I'm not making this up, it's in the book. It took me so long to read because I wanted to rip my eyes out after every story. Cliges was the only story that I found interesting, and it has strong Romeo and Juilet overtones (yeah, yeah, I know, R&J had overtones of Cliges, not the other way around, but you know what I mean). IDK what to tell you. It's very Knights of the Round Table... everything we've come to expect from these books, with all the bizzarity, misogyny, and "heroism" these kinds of books entail. So it does what it says on the tin. It's got the same depth and symbolism as other books of its time and genre so I should rate it higher I guess. But I'm not going to. Also, it ends in an ellipses, mid story. The notes suggest Chretien may have died without finishing it, and there were four people who transcribed it who added endings on to the story, all of which were apparently pretty similar. So that's a thing. I'm not sure why I keep reading these, they make me so unhappy. I guess, for me they're like action movies: I love this genre, and I want to love the stories being told, but they are never FOR me. I'm never the target audience, and they are always full of things that act as a slap across the face. One of these days I'm going to find my Mad Max Fury Road or Jupiter Ascending of King Arthur stories. But it's not this day.
Originally published on my blog here in March 1998.
This Everyman volume contains the four romances Erec et Enide, Cligés, Yvain and Lancelot, translated into prose. It's always interesting to read the early source material for the Arthur legends. Although I had read both the Mabinogion and Malory's Morte d'Arthur, these romances were new to me, though they are even earlier than the Welsh legends and I had known their importance for ages.
One of the most interesting parts of these tales is the way that the attempts made by Chrétien to remove the more grossly supernatural Celtic legends in his source material (trips to the underworld, encounters with Celtic deities) has led to the introduction of small inconsistencies and justifications which later turn into important parts of the legend.
There are two difficulties in reading these stories. The first is that they are written throughout in the present tense, which to a modern reader is rather clumsy and wearing. The second is the translation, which is not into modern English, but into the sort of English which Ivanhoe made generations think the right way of writing medieval English. (I've expanded on what I think of this in my review of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel.)
The stories themselves concern standard ideas from the Arthurian background; Erec et Enide is about a knight who becomes sufficiently uxorious to neglect his knightly duties; Cligés and Lancelot concern young men seeking to prove themselves as knights; and Yvain is a balance to Erec et Enide, about a knight who neglects his wife for jousting.
Chrétien de Troyes Romans de la Table Ronde – written in early French language from 1170 to about 1185 The stories of King Arthur and his Knights, five of these stories have survived the centuries and are assembled in this collection. - Erec et Enide - Cligès - Le chevalier de la Charrette, the story of Lancelot - Le Chevalier au Lion, the story of Yvain - The Legend of the Graal, the story of Percival and Garvin This is the book that defines the rules and laws by which the knight has to flourish and gain everlasting honor and fame. Pray to God, obey your king and succor, help and save any maiden, lady or widow in distress. Always honor your given promises, never turn away from challenges and danger, but be humble and not loud and proud. Many of these stories are of Celtic origin, as we read about mysterious forests, magic fountains, terrible giants, ferocious lions and beautiful castles, romantic love and colorful adventures.
The British may have started the whole Arthurian movement, but the French really took it to the next level. French writers added a number of innovations to the legend we know and love today, including the character of Lancelot. Chrétien introduced the character in Erec and Enide, then added the whole Guinevere love wrinkle in The Knight of the Cart. Both of these poems are included in this collection, along with Cligès, Yvain, and Perceval.
Altogether this excellent collection contains all five of Chrétien's major poems. These works were highly influential to the later development of the Arthurian legend, and Camelot buffs will really enjoy this volume. C'mon...it's first appearance of Lancelot in world literature! If that piques your interest, you will like this book. 4 stars, recommended.
Sous la direction de Michel Zink, avec une traduction française moderne par Jean-Marie Fritz et Charles Méla. Contient : « Erec et Enide », « Cligès », « Le Chevalier de la Charrette » ou « Le Roman de Lancelot », « Le Chevalier au Lion » ou « Le Roman d'Yvain », « Le Conte du Graal » ou « Le Roman de Perceval », suivis de « Chansons » et avec, en appendice, « Philomena », le tout de Chrétien de Troyes. Volume massif, il faut le dire, mais un trésor inestimable.
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.
A prose translation with an introduction and footnotes, by William K. Kibler. I enjoyed them somewhat. The antiquated style, the endless repetition, the dry description and the meandering, random, red-herring plots that seemed to have been invented by Chrétien as he went along, were detrimental to absorbing and appreciating the stories fully. On the other hand, the dialogue was often witty and the character development good. Surprisingly, Chrétien wrote many strong women characters. The stories:
"Eric And Enide." This was translated by Carleton Carroll. A much shorter version of this is in Bullfinch (he uses the Welsh name for the hero "Geraint"). An original premise: Eric drags his wife off with him on adventures after she hurts his pride.
"Cligés." The monologues, in which Alexander and Soredamors, and then Cligés and Fenice, take turns ruminating ad nauseam on the caprices of Love, detract. Good combat scenes, however.
"The Knight Of the Cart (Lancelot)." Truncated versions of this and the two following stories appear in Bullfinch. A straightforward plot, but with so many ultimately useless divagations it's tiresome to follow.
"The Knight With the Lion (Yvain)." My favorite. An archetype of the courtly romance, with lots of fighting and fantastic elements (like Yvain's pet lion, which also undoubtedly represented courage or nobility). Yvain - "Owain" in Bullfinch and maybe history - is a true hero. There were also very strong women characters.
"The Story Of the Grail (Perceval)." The beginning is excellent, with the naive Perceval learning to become a knight. And there's some suspense and mystery. But on the whole there are too many subplots for my taste, especially when Gawain is involved. It ends mid-sentence, presumably with Chrétien's death.
This is the old, and obsolete, W.W. Comfort prose translation from the early twentieth century: he offered FOUR Arthurian romances by Chretien de Troyes, excluding the fifth, Perceval. Since they are out of copyright, these translations are now being reprinted, complete or one at a time. They are usually available very cheaply -- I suggest getting all four in one file, like this one, if you are interested, and can't afford the modern translations.
I found Chrétien de Troyes' Arthurian Romances to be extremely enjoyable and entertaining. It is famous as a piece of Arthuriana, introducing famous concepts/characters such as Camelot, the Holy Grail, and Lancelot. It is also famous, historically, for its role in popularizing (if not even straight up inventing) the genre of Medieval Romances. I found it to be wonderfully informative when read with an eye open to historical tips; it shares many interesting facts about life in the middle ages, their mentalities, their methods, the knowledge available to them. For a collection of stories written during the supposed "Dark Ages,"the amount of culture and knowledge exhibited is surprising. The nearly constant references to Greek classics in Cligés was particularly fascinating. I found the stories to be particularly interesting when considering the idea of "Amour Courtois," or courtly love. It proves to me that, at the beginning of this concept, it was not meant to be something illicit and sinful, but rather something that promoted virtue and holiness... In fact, I see (along with some scholars) the story from this collection that is perhaps the most famous, The Knight of the Cart, which introduces Lancelot and the love triangle between him, Arthur, and Guinevere, as an attempt to portray the folly of immodest and impure relationships. I also found it to be the least interesting of the collection. Personally, The Knight with the Lion was the most enjoyable of all the stories. This is a must-read for all Arthurian and medieval scholars. In my opinion, it is also the most enjoyable collection of Arthurian stories that I have read. Happy reading!
In this masterpiece collection of Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian works, we have many a shattered shield, broken lance, blood spattered hauberk, blood drinking sword, and mighty horse. There are mysterious brooding knights who stand as gatekeepers and guardians of ethereal, dreamlike lands, there are decapitations and dismemberments too numerous to count, magical rings revealing illusions or disguising the wearer or imbuing them with special power. There is the zealous love of maidens, boiling passions and unforgettable characters borne of the untamed medieval imagination, excursions into 12th century courtly ethics, abusive dwarves, and grand adventures in strange distant lands. Love is treated dramatically, yet with a touch of realism and in a poetic manner that emphasizes its vicissitudes and oddness and unexplainability.
Although this translation presents the originally poetic works in prose, it seems that little of poetic power was lost in translation. Often the prose flows so eloquently and musically that it retains the feel of poetry in its ability to evoke images, sensations, atmospheres, and emotions. And it does these in a style that, at least to my mind, does justice to the time and place of its composition instead of trying to feel modern and altered for “accessibility”. Chrétien’s writing is exquisite, and was inspired by Celtic and classical sources like Ovid, chanson de geste, Welsh myth, southern French troubadour poetry, Tristan legends, Virgil, the Medea legend, Alexander the Great, Caesar, and other conquerors of history who set templates for his fantasy.
His dialogue is lively and composed with grace, adeptness, humor, style, and charisma. Unlike many other fiction writings of the period, Chrétien takes us into the minds of his protagonists. Emotions and inner feelings and conflicts are portrayed in sophisticated and nuanced ways, as opposing ideas of love and hate do battle within one heart, or senses of duty or honor or justice create conflicting priorities, or desires for vengeance compete against desires for courtesy, or lust for honor competes against the need to do the right thing and watch over someone’s safety. There is a struggle in following courtly ethics when these work against one’s benefit or wellness. We see endless examples of tribulations that are physical, mental, and social. A motif recurring in these tales is one in which a boon is requested and agreed to before the granter of the boon is made aware of what is being asked, thus setting them on an often perilous quest. There are times that my thoughts on a book are so dense and excited that I feel I lack the vocabulary to adequately convey them. This is one such case.
The figures of legend he introduces us to make displays of great deeds and heroism and chivalry and honor. They are guided by noble hearts, and they show courage in the face of extreme danger. They are knights in extraordinary circumstances, doing what they can to enhance their reputations and renown. Figures that represent the twelfth century French ideal in man. They abide by the highest virtues of character. The men of Arthur’s court are valiant, adventurous champions and warriors, exhibiting prowess in arms, courage against all odds, endurance and the ability to take beatings and keep standing, to fight to the death, but will not stoop to dishonor. Any chance to prove themselves is taken and eagerly carried out, in all fantastical manner of feats and epic quests and strange trials and inexplicable happenings and foreboding circumstances. In two different stories Chrétien makes financial metaphors for battle, with lending, borrowing, and repaying with interest his phrases for relaying the exchange of blows.
Although Arthurian legend originally had Arthur living in the fifth and sixth centuries, these stories clearly place Arthur and his knights in twelfth century Britain. The Knight with the Lion, the story of Yvain, references the Sultan Nureddin, who lived in the twelfth century. Another clue is the decoration of knight’s shields with their coat of arms, something we see in the tournaments in Erec and Enide, which became a practice in the late twelfth century.
In Chrétien’s works, Arthur is an aged king whose glories are part of history. The tales here are not about him directly, he is a king whose name has become synonymous with honor and power and chivalry. His court is the greatest in the world, his kingdom the most flourishing. His deeds are not of interest. Each story focuses on the adventures and deeds of one knight of Arthur’s court, with the exception of the last one, the Story of the Grail, which has a narrative split between Perceval and Gawain. These stories are each about as long as a novella, and the longest, Story of the Grail, was never finished, leading to the composition of five different continuations written by other authors of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Three of the stories have parallels in the Welsh Mabinogion, but scholars believe neither that book nor this inspired the other: both were based on oral or written source myths that have since been lost. Perceval has a twin in the Mabinogion’s Peredur, Erec has a twin in the Mabinogion’s Gereint, and Yvain has a twin in the Mabinogion’s Owein. While many details differ, there are scores of similarities between the stories, and in Erec’s/Gereint’s case, almost the entire narrative is shared, with minor changes. Chrétien’s stories are longer and more fleshed out, but it’s of course fascinating to compare the stories and observe how they differ in their style and focus and details, reflecting differing cultures (Welsh and French).
There’s no need for me to discuss each story at length, but I’m going to anyway. I have a swarm of thoughts flying around about each of these stories, and find them each thrilling and fascinating for dozens of reasons so that I’m now going to become that dull guy at a party everyone avoids because he goes on and on about things no one cares about, unable to read the room when everyone is bored by his endless monologue. Since four of the five stories have Welsh or German adaptations, or both, I find it important to relay some of the key elements of these stories so I can compare them later. This is for my own benefit, but also for anyone intrigued by this book, but not intrigued enough to read it.
Erec and Enide This is an adventure story about Erec of Arthur’s court, the second hand man after Gawain, and his defending the honor of Guinevere against a mysterious knight and his dwarf. He marries Enide who he meets in the town harboring this knight. His love is so great he no longer wants to perform heroic feats, just wants to stay at Enide’s side and be with her. Rumors begin and Enide’s mourning gets him to realize he must go out into the world to seek adventure and danger and heroic acts. As punishment he takes his wife with him on all sorts of fantastic adventures, attaining even greater glory than ever before, meeting other remarkable characters along the way. The tale climaxes in the Joy of the Court, his final adventure. He is then crowned king. The story is filled with violence and dismemberment and bloodshed and skull splitting and savage combat and broken armor and weapons. It presents psychological depth to Enide’s fears and reflections and worry as she is dragged along this series of quests and adventures.
Cliges This is an Arthurian saga in the proper sense, starting a generation before the main heroic narrative. To my knowledge, this is the only story here without a Welsh or German parallel. The depth of emotion in Alexander and Soredamors as they fall in love is poetic and masterfully composed, bard-like, and authentic. The storytelling interweaves romance with contrasting violence of equally potent poetry, scenes of war, execution, valor, blood, brains, and bones, as Alexander and his Greek companions, now in service of King Arthur, help the king to reclaim his castle from Count Angrés. Alexander is rewarded with the kingship of Wales for his heroism and victory. And all this before the birth of our titular character, Cliges, the son of Alexander.
Cliges and Fenice’s love is also deep, emotionally nuanced and insightful, poetic. Alexander’s brother Alis has become emperor of Greece and, against his agreement with Alexander, is wedded to Fenice, the daughter of Germany’s emperor. This means Cliges might not rise to the throne as agreed, if Alis has a child.
Fenice was originally promised to the Duke of Saxony, and so the Duke and his army attack to steal her away. Cliges reveals himself to be every bit the hero his father was, with the same cleverness for disguise, and rescues Fenice after brutal battles with the Saxons, decapitations, impailings, and ruthlessness. She and Cliges fall in love, but Cliges, upon his dying father’s wishes, goes to Arthur’s court and proves himself in a tournament, disguised in a new armor each day. Here we are gifted torture, defenestration, a potion-making necromancer, many deceptions through disguise, false death, and enchantments. Cliges hides Fenice away in a tower, and after harrowing feats and good fortune, he becomes emperor of Greece. His uncle has died of sadness at the loss of his wife.
The Knight of the Cart This tale is mysterious and dreamlike, constantly presenting us with bizarre circumstances. Guinevere is taken to the distant land of Gorre by Kay at the behest of a mysterious visitor to Arthur’s court in an effort to free the people of Logres who are held captive there. This story features the first ever mention of Camelot. Lancelot, though unnamed for most of the story, is encountered by Gawain amongst the remnants of battle against a large force shortly after the queen has been taken away. They are approached by a dwarf driving a cart. He offers to guide them to Gorre, but only if one of them will ride in the cart. In this age, criminals were condemned to ride in carts to be mocked and ridiculed by the townspeople. Lancelot agrees to ride in the cart, and this decision is held against him throughout the story, as everyone he encounters knows him as the knight who rode in the cart. Thus his honor is stained, his reputation scarred, and it serves as justification for others to hate him.
The knights soon split up to take different paths to the same goal. Lancelot is often lost in thought as he moves through this land, thinking of the queen. He encounters many grand adventures, and meets loyal and admiring companions who are eager to have him free them from this land. There are many bloodthirsty enemies, and maidens who request favors and offer repayment in the future. Lancelot removes a stone slab, said to require the strength of seven men. It is said that moving it would allow the release of all foreigners held captive to this strange land. This shows he is capable of freeing all the captives who have settled. An uprising later occurs, Logresians versus natives. In his later meeting with Guinevere he slices his finger and leaves blood on the queen’s sheets, an obvious nod to the Tristan legend, when his blood on Isolde’s sheets reveals their affair. Lancelot is held captive for a long time in a tower, and later rescued by Maleagant’s sister, whom Lancelot gifted the head of a knight he met in battle, their final battle to the death. Lancelot proves himself quite capable of decapitations in these adventures.
The Knight With the Lion This story shows us that seneschal Kay is a sarcastic, mean spirited curmudgeon, feared by most in Arthur’s court for his sharp tongue. Yvain is the son of Welsh king Urien, making him one of the only Arthurian knights to be based on a real historical person. This son, Owein, also appears in two tales of the Mabinogion. Yvain sets off to avenge his cousin by performing a ritual of water on a stone, creating storms and then a serenity with birds singing, followed by a knight who comes to defend his fountain. He slays the knight and after being hunted eventually marries the knight’s widow and becomes lord of this peculiar realm. During his tournament tour away from home with King Arthur he stays abroad too long, turning his wife against him. In his anguish he flees to the woods, to live as a “madman and a savage” away from society.
He lives like this until he is rescued by a woman who applies an ointment from Morgan the Wise to him, healing his mind. He returns to her village and later helps the villagers fight off a count who is pillaging them. After this heroism he sets off into the woods again, and rescues a lion from a dragon. He and the lion become inseparable and stay close together. Their bond is envious, an almost heartwarming companionship of fierce warriors who love one another as equals. Together they achieve many an incredible victory, such as that against Harpin of the Mountain, a giant demanding the daughter of the lord of the town Yvain stays in. They then rescue the damsel Lynette who rescued Yvain earlier from the angry villagers whose lord he would later become. They save her from the flames of her accusers, fighting three men. Yvain fights alone at first, then his lion joins the fray. Its wrath is poetically told as he slays and tears and shreds the seneschal and his brothers. It is beautifully savage rendered carnage. Yvain and his lion become heroes of justice, building a reputation for helping those in dire circumstances.
The Story of the Grail All the tales so far are imbued with a wonderfully mysterious essence, but the Story of the Grail tops them all in its puzzling, ominous, strange encounters and events. A simple-minded and funny young boy named Perceval the Welshman becomes a skilled warrior and is taught by an elder knight to handle and carry himself in a courtly, respectable way. He is taught to stop asking so many dumb questions, and to be silent more often. A laughing maiden in Arthur’s court, upon meeting him, signals a prophecy that this boy will become a great knight, and Kay slaps her for this. The boy obtains a set of red armor by killing a thieving knight with his hunting javelin. In his impetuous youthfulness and ignorance he kisses a woman in a tent and takes her ring, angering her husband who, later, becomes the Haughty Knight of the Heath. Perceval defends a town under siege by defeating the attacking commander and the king, both of whom he sends to Arthur and to inform the queen’s maiden that he will be back to avenge the slap Kay gave her.
He sets off to find word of his mother. He meets and is lodged by the exalted Fisher King, who gives him a fine sword from a Venetian smith, and in whose keep we see the grail and a mysterious lance that bleeds from its tip. Perceval does not ask questions, as he was taught. From a woman he later meets under peculiar circumstances, holding the decapitated body of her beloved knight who has been killed by the Haughty Knight of the Heath, he learns that his failure to ask questions about the grail and lance has brought bad fortune to the Fisher King. His wounds will not heal. A later ugly prophetess predicts all sorts of terrible things will befall his people because Percival did not inquire about the lance and the grail.
The Haughty knight has been leading his wife on her malnourished palfrey to pay for what he assumes was a rape, when she was kissed by Perceval. Perceval defeats this knight, and demands he treat his wife better, and sends him to surrender himself at Arthur’s court. There is a scene much like one in Peredur Son of Evrawg from the Mabinogion. Perceval stands still while staring at blood in the snow from a goose’s neck, reminding him of his love’s cheeks. He is lost in thought, and is approached by men of Arthur’s court wishing to speak with him, and he defeats them all until Gawain uses his kind words to bring him to Arthur.
Here the narrative shifts to follow Gawain as he travels to do battle in defense of his honor after he is accused of treason and murdering a man, and his adventures along the way. When in danger of being taken by townspeople he uses chessboard as a shield and for the first time the sword Excalibur is mentioned being at his side. He and a damsel he has met defend themselves by thrashing the townspeople and throwing chess pieces. Eventually he is tasked with finding the lance that bleeds. It is said this lance will destroy the kingdom of Logres. After he’s given this task, we return to Perceval. After years of adventuring and having forgotten God after his sins, he meets a hermit who tells him the secret of the grail. It carries a holy life giving host. He learns this hermit is his uncle, and the hermit’s advice is like that of his mother and cousin earlier, repeating themes of biblical moral codes. Perceval’s quest becomes in some capacity what seems almost allegorical. He is relearning his Christian religion and upbringing. Things are growing more complex and the tale is showing no sign of being resolved.
We return to Gawain. Shortly after surviving strenuous ordeals to retrieve a horse and strange maiden, to then heal a knight and be mercilessly betrayed and robbed, and then to fell another knight and recover his stolen horse, he is told by a boatman “this is a wild land full of great wonders.” Quite the understatement. All people he meets have an oddness to them, as though they are part of some elaborate puzzle. He sees the Bed of Marvels, survives its traps and spells and becomes lord of this castle. Then encounters the Perilous Ford and survives it as well, before having himself tasked with yet another quest that will distract from his seeking the bleeding lance.
Unfortunately Chrétien never finished this story. He also didn’t finish the story of Lancelot, but that one was finished, with his approval, by another writer, in his lifetime. The story of Perceval and Gawain was possibly unfinished because of the author’s death. The Penguin classics version of this book includes an appendix that summarizes the five continuations of the Story of the Grail by different authors. These continuations sound marvelous in their own ways, worth reading if complete translations have ever been made available. Given the complicated and wild threads that kept growing in this story, there was quite a lot of work necessary to tie up all the loose ends. It seems these continuations more than doubled the length of what was already the longest of Chrétien’s Arthurian romances.
This collection is spectacular. Each story is a masterwork of epic and myth making fantasy, a precursor to centuries of imitators and followers. It is a flame of imagination that engulfed the public mind.
I picked this up as I am a big fan of Arthurian-inspired fantasy and modern Arthurian retellings, but besides Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, have read none of the "source material" for the Arthur mythos. I had a lot of fun experiencing what is arguably the foundation for many of the common tropes seen in adventure fiction and modern fantasy. Somewhat naively, I also had not expected these stories to differ in many places from the modern interpretation of Arthurian legend. Indeed, Cliges and Eric and Enide were even entirely new legends for me. The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot) is the romance whose central story seems to have survived largely unadulterated into modern day. Certainly, I think the majority of people know of the torrid affair of Guinevere and Lancelot.
That said, The Knight of the Lion (Yvain) was my personal favorite of Chretien's five Romances. From the nature of Yvain's quest to the relationship between him and his lion (that's the true platonic romance of this story), Yvain's tale was the most magical and fanciful of them all. Admittedly, I'm a huge sucker for the animal companion trope! I would probably give this specific romance a 4.5 stars? The rest would be 3 stars and below.
As much as I enjoyed the Knight of the Lion and even The Knight of the Cart, I strongly disliked Eric and Enide. Eric's treatment of Enide really bothered me, even trying to keep in mind that gender roles in the 1100's looked significantly different than 2021. All five romances are quite misogynistic by modern standards, but it feels especially pronounced in Eric and Enide. (For readers sensitive to sexism, I would not recommend reading any of these Romances at all. It may be worth noting, that Eric and Enide is interesting in the sense that it's one of the first stories that praises love within marriage, rather than marriage as just a political or economic transaction, so it's not a completely useless addition to Arthurian mythology.)
Cliges is the least memorable of the five for me, so in many ways, I feel that makes it the weakest of the five. Even the unfinished Perceval was a more engaging and promising story. However, since Chretien never finished his Grail story, I don't have as much to say...other than I wished he had finished it!
A comment on the edition, the introduction and notes were solid as is often the case with Penguins, but the edition I read was a prose translation of Chretien's original verse. Medieval literature can be a slog even with great translations, but I wonder if some of the sloggy moments in this version is because the magic of verse has been lost in the switch to prose. I may try to track down a verse translation in the future, but not necessarily in a rush.
Chretien de Troyes wrote the oldest extant Arthurian verse romances (although there is a Welsh prose story, "Kulhwch and Olwen," which may be older still). This collection of translations is titled "The Complete Romances" instead of just "Arthurian Romances," used for the roughly contemporary D.D.R. Owen (Everyman, 1987) and Kibler and Carroll (Penguin, 1991) translations, because, in addition to the five such works which are securely attributed to Chretien de Troyes, it contains a lesser known non-Arthurian work, "William of England," written by a "Chretien" who may or may not be the same poet. (The Arthurian works are: "Erec and Enide," "Cliges," "The Knight of the Cart" (or "Lancelot"), "The Knight with the Lion" (or "Yvain"), and "The Story of the Grail" (or "Perceval"). It was originally published in 1990: the current, "updated" version, with new bibliography, was issued in 2010. (The Penguin and Everyman versions also have been updated bibliographically, although not as recently. The Everyman edition replaced an archaic translation of only four of the romances by W.W. Comfort. Confusingly, Owen also edited Comfort's version for Everyman, before the publication of his own version from the same publisher.)
This is another prose version (along with the two cited above). It is based on a single, early, manuscript, also used for a standard Old French text edition, but it contains information on other manuscripts' textual variants (an appendix of 21 pages) more than either of the other two modern versions. This may or may not interest the reader, but it may explain differences between this and other translations in particular passages.
There are separately published verse translations of the five romances by Ruth Harwood Cline, and, confusingly, A.S. Kline. and by Burton Raffel, although these last are not all found on Amazon at the moment.
If you have any interest in chivalry, Arthurian legends, or Medieval texts, this book is a must have. Few people realize that so many of our cherished values and tales spawn from the rules of love and etiquette that Chretien de Troyes encoded in his writing. Ironically, his least favorite work became his best known--that of Lancelot. Eric and Enide, on the other hand, is singularly unique for its era: both the man and the woman function as main characters as they journey together towards a deep and loving relationship. I have also read many of these works in modern French and find David Staines' translations quite well done. Hurrah for IU, my alma mater!
Cavalieri cortesi, belli e valorosi; nobili dame e giovani pulzelle innamorate; giostre e tenzoni mortali… Un tuffo in un meraviglioso mondo passato, dove l’onore e la parola data valgono più della vita.
Solo 4 stelle perché il racconto Perceval o Il Racconto del Graal mi ha convinta un po’ meno, con una trama un po’ troppo ingarbugliata. Per il resto, una lettura che trasuda Medioevo da ogni parola. Bello, bello, bello!!!