Arecco, Arech, Arrake, Arrok, Erech, Erés, Errak, Errake, Erex, Eric, Heret
Chrétien de Troyes gave us our earliest known written version of this knight’s story, although Chrétien alludes to earlier sources, and a large body of scholarly opinion would consider the Mabinogion story Gereint Son of Erbin evidence that Chrétien was telling the truth about this, rather than using a literary decive to introduce his own new characters. The first legends in which he appears recount his marriage to Enide and their subsequent adventures. Later, the Prose Erec (part of the Post-Vulgate Merlin continuation) describes an entirely different set of adventures in which Enide is absent. In Welsh legend (and in Tennyson), he is called Geraint.
The son of King Lac (the Norse version of the story, Erex Saga, names his father as Ilax), Erec resembled Absalom for good looks (Absalom was the third son of King David of Israel and was considered the most handsome man in the kingdom), King Solomon for speech, a lion for pride, and Alexander (presumably the Great) for giving and spending – a virtue, in the world Chrétien describes. Erec’s homeland is variously noted as Nantes, Destregales, or Carnant.
The source of his name may be Guerec or Weroc, a Breton name which belonged to a tenth-century count of Nantes. Guerec, in turn, may have a relation with Gweir of Welsh legend whose father, Llwch Lleminawc, like Lac, means ‘lake’. Wolfram von Eschenbach gives him a sister named Jeschute, while in the Post-Vulgate his sister is unnamed. We learn from the latter source that his mother, Crisea, had taken precautions to protect Erec against all forms of enchantment.
Already before the age of twenty-five Erec was a renowned knight of the Round Table: Chrétien names him a second, after Gawaine and before Lancelot, in the roll call of Arthur’s knights. (Since this placement comes during Erec’s own story, however, it may be colored by flattery.)
During Arthur’s ceremonial hunt for the White Stag, Erec embarked on a quest to revenge an insult done to Guenevere and himself. His quest took him to the town of Laluth, where he caught up with the insulting knight – Yder, son of Nut. Erec found lodging at the humble home of an impoverished nobleman named Licorant (Liconal). There, he fell in love with Licorant’s daughter Enide. Erec learned from Licorant that Yder was in the town for an annual sparrowhawk tournament. Entering the tournament with Enide, Erec defeated Yder and forced him to surrender to Arthur. Erec returned to Arthur’s court where he was honored for his victory, and was given Enide’s hand in marriage at Pentecost. Eric was acclaimed victor in the tournament between Evroic and Tenebroc.
Erec soon brought Enide back to his own kingdom of Nantes, but he was so in love with her that he lost his interest in arms and combat. He spent all of his time with his wife, and his reputation began to suffer as a result. Hearing grumbling from Erec’s subjects and comrades, Enide became disconsolate. She eventually confronted Erec with the situation. Angered and embarrassed, Erec decided to embark on more adventures – with his unfortunate wife in tow, but with no other warriors. Erec badly treated Enide, who was forced to watch as bands of rogues attacked her husband.
Chrétien’s Erec, unlike the Mabinogion’s and Tennyson’s Gereint, does not suspect his wife of infidelity, nor do her words invite such misinterpretation; from the beginning, he understands her lament on the fateful morning as exactly what it is: a fear for his chivalric honor. This may make his subsequent actions – taking her along as his only companion on an extended round of often foolhardy adventures, forbidding her to speak to him without permission and scolding her whenever she disobeys in order to warn him of impending peril, and so forth – even less explicable to our modern sensibilities. He appears to do it all for the sole purpose of proving to her his unsillied knighthood and manliness. Tennyson has probably made the story far more accessible to the modern reader, yet Chrétien’s version retains a rambling, tounge-in-check charm peculiarly its own.
In Erec’s favor, when he conceives his plan for adventures alone with only his wife for human company (clearly an unusual move, especially for a king’s son, in an age when “aloneness” in the modern sense was rare), he may wish to test himself at least as much as her. Chrétien’s Erec bids Enide wear her best gown, as if to show her off, whereas his counterpart Geraint makes her wear her worst, as if to shame her; in refusing his father’s pleas to take along thirty of forty knights, a supply of money, etc, Erec begs him to take care of Enide, should she return widowed, and freely give her half the kingdom.
Fine a warrior as he undoubtedly was, Erec got some boost from Lady Luck. The robber knights he encountered his first day out, in one band of three and a later band of five, had sufficient chivalry to come at him and be demolished one at a time (though Enide had feared otherwise).
The second day, Count Galoain had a change of heart as soon as he was gravely wounded by our hero and ordered his men to cease their pursuit. Erec next encountered Guivret the Little, who battled him only for the exercise and became his friend. He ended that day by coming to where Arthur and his court happened to be hunting; bent on pursuing his own way incognito, Erec jousted Kay down for trying to force hospitality upon them (considerately using the butt end of his lance, since the seneschal foolishly if typically tried to tilt although not wearing armor), but Gawaine cleverly tricked our hero into spending the night in the King’s pavilions. Arthur fortunately had some ointment made by his sister Morgan (in her beneficial aspect) with which they could treat Erec’s wounds.
Insisting on leaving again after a single night, on his third day Erec rescued Sir Cadoc of Tabriol by killing two giants who had cruelly kidnaped him. Lucky as Erec’s persistence proved for Cadoc and his lady, it cost Erec and Enide something – returning to her, he fell down as if dead. She would have killed herself in despair, but their luck held when Count Oringle of Limors and his company heard her cries and arrived in time to save her. Oringle would have forcibly married the supposed widow, but that evening, after some hours of rest, Erec woke, saw the situation, rescued her, and kindly forgave her the fault that everybody else has so much difficulty seeing in the first place. Escaping Count Oringle’s people, Erec and Enide had the further good fortune again to meet Guivret the Little, who, having heard the news of his neighbor’s doings, was on the way with 1,000 men to the rescue. This fortune Erec did his best to spoil by jousting with Guivret before they recognized each other – Chrétien himself remarks on Erec’s foolishness in galloping to the encounter without identyfing hemself.
On learning who they were, however, Guivret took them to his nearby castle of Penevric, where his two sisters skillfully nursed the model of chivalric reputation back to health. Healed, he rounded off his grand adventure by defeating Mabonagrain to achieve the adventure called the Joy of the Court.
He then found Arthur at Robais and, on the king’s request, agreed to stay at court three or four whole years, providing Arthur ask Guivret the Little to stay also. They stayed until the death of old King Lac, Erec’s father. Erec showed his grief as befit a king, with alms, prayers, and generous gifts until, having distributed all his immediate wealth, he received his father’s land back from Arthur in a Yuletide coronation at Nantes in Brittany.
The version of Erec’s story found in the Post-Vulgate is also entirely different. Knighted just prior to the Grail Quest, Erec proved his prowess by conquering the Castle of the Ten Knights, and by rescuing Bors from the castle of Nabon the Enchanter. Arthur awarded him a Round Table seat, following which Erec embarked on the Grail Quest. He adventured with Meraugis and Hector, who helped him to free his sister and to conquer the Castle Celis, where Lac had been murdered. Soon afterwards, however, Erec slew his sister in order to keep a promise he had rashly made to a lady. In further adventures, he killed Yvain of the White Hands and incurred the enmity of Gawaine and his brothers. Gawaine killed him, and he was buried at Camelot by Meraugis and Hector. The Alliterative Morte Arthure describes his death during Arthur’s final battle with Mordred.
Erec is sometimes associated with his own shield. The design of the shield can differ, but it often incorporates imagery related to his romantic nature, such as symbols of love or scenes depicting acts of courtly love.
Erec has been identified with Sir Harry le Fise Lake, a very minor figure in Malory.
Erec | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
Erec | Hartmann von Aue, late 12th century
Erex Saga | 13th century
Parzival | Wolfram von Eschenbach, 1200–1210
Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin | 1230-1240
Post-Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal | 1230-1240
Prose Tristan | 1230-1240
Alliterative Morte Arthure | c. 1400