Arthurian Romances, by Chrétien de Troyes

One of the things I’ve wondered in my reading of Arthurian romances is why the Monty Python team ever made their Quest for the Holy Grail. I watched it recently, and it is a good parody; it certainly knows its stuff. But after all, why bother? Nobody reads Arthurian romances any more; the world of chivalry clearly has no relevance to the modern world (not, at least, as I’ve experienced it). It hasn’t been in fashion since the Renaissance. (I conclude that one of them – probably Terry Gilliam – and this based on the nature of his other films; you can’t go far in Arthurian romance without coming across The Fisher King – just happened to be interested in the subject).

Like most people, despite being British, I was not brought up on Arthurian romance. I may have read a book about Arthur when I was young; I may even have seen some films; but no one ever cared to teach me about it. Perhaps this is because it falls between the worlds of history and fiction (certainly a lot of the history books of the time, which I’m also currently reading, tend to disparage Arthur whenever they can). But I’m of the impression that the British aren’t generally too interested either in the literature or the history of the period between the Roman and the Norman conquest (perhaps they are scared off by its extreme characteristic of immigration), while I on the other hand find myself increasingly drawn to its chaos. Not, of course, that this is the literature of that period; it is a backward-looking literature that only really begins in the twelfth century. Besides, we like to believe we are drawn from the civilised Latins and Greeks, not a psychotic amalgam of Celts, Danes, Norseman and Germans. And of course the other thing which probably puts off the British is a lot of Arthurian Romance, like the work of Chrétien de Troyes, was written in French.

Chrétien wrote five Arthurian Romances (along with maybe a few other things), of which I’ve now read three. I tried a few years ago to read his first romance, Eric and Enide, but only recall it as turgid stuff which has coloured my view of Arthurian Romance ever since. These other three are however of much better quality.

Yvain (The Knight with the Lion) is about this knight who kills this woman’s husband and then marries her and then goes away to seek adventure, promising to return in a year, but then forgets his promise and goes mad and lives naked in a forest for a bit where he befriends a lion. He then forms a knightly tag-team with this lion, which involves him being challenged by various unchivalrous knights and ogres, who always want to fight him at odds of two or three to one, but stipulate that he’s not allowed to use the lion, because that would be unfair. Yvain agrees to this, and tells the lion not to get involved, but the lion often seems not to understand this injunction.

Lancelot (The Knight of the Cart) is more of a quest-type story. A man turns up at Arthur’s court one day saying if someone would lead Guinivere into a certain dark forest, then he’ll kidnap her; so someone leads her into the forest and he kidnaps her. Then Lancelot and Gawain set out to rescue her, and go through various trials, until eventually Lancelot does rescue her, whereupon they embark on an adulterous affair. On reflection, the whole work may actually be an elaborate allegory of adultery; I should read it again. There is a lot more to these works than I’m making out in these precises.

Perceval (or the Quest for the Holy Grail) is the earliest extent account of the quest for the holy grail, and gives us many of its salient features – not least the issue, which had seriously puzzled me in my reading of another Arthurian romance, of Perceval failing to ask a question he should have asked – a matter seemingly of some importance in Arthurian legend. Much of the mystery here may come from the fact that Chretien never finished this work.

Another aspect of Perceval is that it often borders on burlesque. Even though we are close to the origin of Arthurian romance, there’s already something of the self-parody about it. Perceval has been brought up by his mother in complete ignorance of the world; when he first encounters a knight, he doesn’t even know what he is – he assumes his armour is some sort of natural carapace. Then throughout the work Perceval retains this character of the innocent abroad, which is used to good comic effect and often reminded me a lot of Robert Walser’s narrators. I found myself wondering too, what really divides this romance from a novel; and was Cervantes’ contribution of the knightly burlesque so very new after all? I need to read Cervantes soon.

All good, enjoyable stuff, which should be read more and better known.

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6 thoughts on “Arthurian Romances, by Chrétien de Troyes

  1. Terry Jones, who co-directed The Holy Grail with Gilliam, is also a big medieval buff, having written a few history and lit-crit books.

    Burlesque is a key ingredient of two medieval romances that I’ve read: Guillaume le Clerc’s Fergus and the anonymous Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, both of which are great fun.

  2. Oh yes, of course, Jones even does TV history programmes. I forgot about that.

    I’m sure over time I shall track down all these medieval romances. Chrétien’s Yvain seems to have been as derived from Welsh myth as much as anything else.

  3. There was probably influence the other way, too. The three Welsh prose tales Owain, Geraint and Enid and Peredur may have been influenced by Chrétien (lots of debate on this), although the stories they tell would probably have been of Welsh or at least Celtic origin. All the Welsh stories I’ve mentioned are always included in English translations entitled The Mabinogion*; there have been a few.

    *Strictly speaking, the ‘Mabinogion’ comprises only four stories, but traditionally, seven others (occasionally eight) have been published together with them in translation.

  4. I used to have a copy of The Mabinogion, but I never read any of it and don’t have it any more. I didn’t know all these stories were in it: thanks for that information.

  5. I am not sure that “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” were directly parodying the Arthurian romances. I rather suspect they were parodying Robert Bresson’s film “Lancelot du Lac” – but then again, that’s probably as little-seen as the Arthurian romances are little-read. I used, as a child, to read a lot of retold versions of the Arthurian myths (Roger Lancelyn’s Green’s retelling that used to be published by Puffin Books was a particular favourite of mine), so when I first saw this films – I think I was only 15 – I had a fair idea of what they were taking the mickey out of.
    I tried reading Malory a few years ago, and got a quarter of the way through it. But I started to find the outline of each of the stories rather repetitive. I think I should take it up again, if only because Roger Lancelyn Green (whose retellings for children of various myths and legends I still admire) reckons that the final section, depicting the Last Battle, is among the greatest of all tragic literature in English.

    I ought to read the various romances about Tristram, Perceval, etc., if only because I have taken the first few fledgeling steps towards becoming a fully paid-up Wagner-bore.

  6. Yes, I read a lot of Roger Lancelyn Green, though I dont’t remember one about the Arthurian knights. I too have strugg,ed to get anywhere in Malory. The early sections are quite dull, being just made up history, not even really stories. A lot of these tales really are, I have to admit, quite repetitive.

    I’ve actually been reading Tristan recently, most of the way through Gottfried von Strassburg, and read the Beroul version. Maybe it’s about time I listened to Wagner’s rendition.

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