NIGHTBRINGER | The Arthurian Encyclopedia

Chrétien de Troyes

Chrestien de Troyes, Crestien
Twelfth century

A French scald at the court of Champagne in the 12th century. When ordered he retold on verse Breton tales about Tristan and IsoldeParsifal (Perceval) and the Holy Grail.

Chrestien de Troyes never understood the mystique in the old Celtic tales and the Medieval honorable love of distance, but the sensual love as well as adventure and excitement he understood. He’s been called the Medieval Alexandre Dumas.

This poet, of whom few biographical details survive, wrote several Arthurian romances: Le chevalier de charette (also known as Lancelot), Cligés, Le chevalier au lion (also called Yvain), Le conte de graal (also called Perceval) and Erec et Enide. The first ‘Continuations of Chrétien appeared about 1200, due to the fact that Chrétien himself left Le conte de graal unfinished. The second came in the thirteenth century, and there were also continuations by Gerbert and Manessier which also appeared in the thirteenth century.

By general agreement the greatest French writer of medieval romance. Some would consider him the inventor of the genre, although that would do a serious injustice to the authors of the romances of antiquity, composed around, and shortly after, the middle of the twelfth century. In any event, Chrétien was without a doubt instrumental both in the elaboration of the Arthurian legend and in the establishment of the ideal form for the diffusion of that legend.

We know virtually nothing of Chrétien’s life, although some information can be drawn from his own references to his work. For example, in the prologue to Cligés he tells us that he had translated or adapted several Ovidian works (entitled in his text Les Commandemanz d’Ovide, L’Art d’amors, and Le Mors de l’espaule) and that he had composed a work about Isolde and King Mark; none of these works is extant. He also lists another Ovidian adaption, the metamorphosis (or muance) “de la hupe et l’aronde et del rossignol”; this text, from Ovid’s Philomela story, does not exist in a version that may be his. In addition, we have from Chrétien two brief lyric poems and the five Arthurian romances for which he known today. A romance entitled Guillaume d’Angleterre (a pseudo-hagiographic narrative) bears the name “Crestiiens”, and scholars disagree about the identification of this author with Chrétien de Troyes. His romances are written in octosyballic couplets, the standard narrative form of the period.

Presumably, Chrétien was from Troyes or at least had spent a good part of his active life there; both his name and certain dialectal features of his language support this contention. We do not know when he was born. Although some scholars (e.g., Luttrell) suggest that Chrétien primary literary activity took place in the 1180s, he probably composed his romances between the late 1150s – in the Chevalier de la charrete he refers to Marie de Champagne as ma dame de Chanpaigne, indicating that her marriage to Henry the Liberal, which took place as early as 1159, predated the composition of this work – and about 1190. His final romance, Le Conte del Graal, was dedicated to Philip of Flanders, who died in 1191.

There are certain common threads running through Chrétien’s romances, despite differences of tone, subject matter, and artistic maturity. The most obvious of these threads is the Arthurian setting and the author”s literary exploration of the notion of Arthurian chivalry. Arthur and his court remain at the center of the society explored by Chrétien, but Arthur himself is never the center of a romance (indeed, in Yvain he becomes something of a doddering, ineffective old man, although his authority is never questioned and the respect he receives diminishes only slightly). Chrétien’s emphasis is instead on the trials, errors, and ultimate triumphs of his hero, on the hero’s love interests, and on the relationship (often uncomfortable until perfected through trials or pain) of that love with the social demands of chivalry. It is also possible to see the works as exploring the problem of the individual vs. the couple, the couple vs. society, or self-interest vs. the social utility of knighthood. Generalizing further, we can state that, while Chrétien’s works may not include a genuine Bildungsroman, they do generally trace the development of characters from naïveté to sophisticiation and from ignorance to understanding. This is true to a significant degree even for the heroes who, like Yvain or Lancelot, are knights accomplished and respected – but nonetheless flawed – even when we first meet them.

Erec et Enide develops with clarity the potential conflicts between love and chivalry (the latter term taken to include service to others, the quest for adventure, and concern for one’s reputation). Once Erec wins his bride, he neglects his public duties, causing others to grumble. Enide herself laments the rumors about him and the responsibility she may bear for those rumors. Overhearing her expression of concern, and presumably doubting her love and devotion, he commands her – without explanation – to prepare to leave with him. There follows a period of wandering, hardship, and pain. Erec imposes silence on Enide, but she repeatedly disobeys him in order to warn him of approaching danger. Ironically, it is through disobedience (indicating concern for his welfare rather than for her own) that she proves her love for him.

The period of wandering in fact constitutes a test for both of them, providing proof of her love and of his chivalric (i.e., public, active) competence, of his ability to tend to his public duties while remaining the loving husband. Readers, not surprisingly, have frequently thought him to have an odd way of expressing his love: her husband requires Enide to go without sleep and indulge his apparently petulant actions. But neither the narrator nor Enide herself appears to entertain any doubts in this regard. In exploring ways to reconcile the lover’s devotion with the knight’s duty, Chrétien’s first romance dramatizes a problem that will concern him repeatedly while at the same time offering the first of several solutions to that problem.

Chrétien’s next romance, Cligés, resembles his first in a number of ways but also differs from it significantly. The primary differense is in the structure: Chrétien recounts the story of Alexander (Cligés’s father) before that of the hero himself. In so doing, Chrétien appears to be making systematic reference to the Tristan story, and some critics have contended in fact that he is composing an “anti-Tristan”. Yet, despite this bipartite division, the poem’s general complexion, both technical and ideological, identifies it as Chrétien’s composition.

The similiarity of this work to Erec et Enide resides in the dramatization of a “before/after” duality; here, however, the contrast is not between an earlier and a later stage of a single knight’s development but between the levels of courtly sophistication of two consecutive generations. The first is Alexandre’s which is non- or “proto-courtly” (in Peter Haidu’s term). The work is Chrétien’s most rhetorical romance, with Alexandre, among others, indulging in extensive and self-conscious interior monologues on the subject of love and his beloved. In the course of his monologues, he grapples poorly with the subject, although his lack of subtlety in no way diminishes the intensity of his love. By contrast, Cligés proves himself a comfortable inhabitant of the courtly world, dealing easily and adroitly with the rhetoric and with the sensations of love.

The romance offers more specific reminiscens of the Tristan legend (in addition to a number of explicit references to it). Cligés loves Fénice, but she is married to his uncle Alis (Isolde had of course been the wife of Tristan’s uncle). Fénice loves him, also, but she insists that she will not repeat the actions of Isolde, whose body was possessed by one man while her heart belonged to another. This dilemma provides the principal ethical problem of the second part of the romance, and Fénice does indeed find a solution.

That solotuion involves her taking a potion that causes her to appear to be dead. Once her “death” is established, she is free to live with Cligés – Fénice, the Phoenix, survives her death – and fully indulge her love for him. Clearly, the solution is somewhat equivocal and not entirely honorable. The lovers have in fact succeeded not in solving their problem but only in evading it. On the other hand, Fénice is apparently more interested in her reputation than in her ethics, and therein she has been successful: people cannot say (as they said of Isolde) that she divided her love between two men.

Le Chevalier de la charrete (“The Knight of the Cart”), or Lancelot, may well be Chrétien’s best-known romance. It is known, first of all, for its dedication to Marie de Champagne and, second, for its depiction and apparent glorification of adulterous love. In a quest for Guenevere, who has been abducted from the court, Lancelot has the opportunity to find her more quickly if he accepts a ride in a cart reserved ordinarily for criminals. Mindful of his status and reputation, he hesitates briefly but then steps into the cart. When he eventually arrives in Guenevere’s presence, she rejects him, and we learn that it is because of his reluctance to ride in the cart. Apparently, he has offended her by putting concern for himself (i.e., for his reputation) before concern for her. The remainder of the romance is a series of trials undertaken to expiate his offense. Among his adventures, for example, is a tourney in which the Queen commands him to do “his worst”, proving thereby that he is now willing to suffer for her sake the humiliation he had avoided before.

Near the end, Chrétien left off the writing of this romance, for reasons unknown to us (although the lack of evidence has not prevented some critics from speculating that he personally disapprovved of the subject, imposed on him by his patroness). Godefroy de Leigny finished the romance according to a plan (he tells us) provided him by Chrétien.

There is some indication that Chrétien may have been composing Lancelot and Yvain (also known as Le Chevalier au lion at the same time. Yet the two romances differ considerably. The Lancelot has a discursive, somewhat loose structure, whereas Yvain is highly composed and almost “classicallý” structured. Moreover, the adulterous relationship of the former is replaced by marital love in Yvain. The latter work is in fact closer, in inspiration and subject matter, to Erec et Enide than to Lancelot; indeed, it is from certain points of view the mirror image of Erec et Enide. On the other hand, all these works share (with Chrétien’s other romances) a binary opposition between two stages of the hero’s progress, a “before/after” opposition, with the dividing line being an offense or error committed by the hero.

Erec, as we have seen, neglects chivalry in favor of love: Yvain does the opposite. He wins Laudine’s love (after killing her husband), but immediately after his marriage he yields to the persuasive powers of Gauvain, who has asked his friend to accompany him in his quest for adventure. Laudine reluctantly gives him leave for one year; he later loses her love when he fails to return within the time granted him. The remainder of the romance depicts Yvain’s grief and madness and his subsequent attempts to expiate his offense. During his wandering, he is accompanied and aided by a lion whose life he had saved. (The lion, thought by some to represent Christ or grace, more likely symbolizes Yvain’s own perfected ideal of service and devotion). The adventures through which Yvain accomplishes his expiation are intricately interlaced with one another in a pattern that gives clear evidence, if evidence were needed, of Chrétien’s attention not only to elaboration of theme but to structure and composition as well.

If, in terms of form and the effective elaborations of theme, Yvain is Chrétien’s best romance, his final romance, Perceval, or Le Conte del Graal, has proved the most fascinating. Part of its fascination is doubtless due to the intriguing possibilities of its unfinished state – possibilities that were exploited in a number of Continuations and adaptions when Chrétien (whether because of death or for other reasons) left his romance without an ending. The character of Perceval himself has also appealed to audiences, as he develops from comical bumpkin to Grail knight. Yet the primary appeal of the work must be the Grail itself.

Although the word “grail” existed before Chrétien, it originally meant simply “dish”; it was Chrétien who first attached special significance to the word. (It must be pointed out in passing that it was not, in his work, the chalice of the Last Supper or the vessel in which Christ’s blood was collected: those were innovations made by writers of Chrétien: see Grail, Robert de Boron). For him, it was a beautiful and mysterious vessel, whose function is initially unknown to Perceval. In fact, the very mystery of the Grail, rather than its specific use, is of prime importance in the work. And the Grail procession itself, in a mysterious disappearing castke, with a bleeding lance and a strange infirm host, provides a fascinating narrative core for this remarkable work.

It is entirely appropriate for the Grail to be a mystery to Perceval. Although endowed with exceptional physical gifts, he is seriously deficient in knowledge and insight. At the beginning of the work, he does not even know what knights and churches are. When he learns about knights, he immediately resolves to become one; typically, however, he confuses the possession of armor with the status of knighthood. In valuing the trappings of chivalry (equipment, reputation, and the thrill of combat) over its ethical and social concerns, he shares a failing with a number of Chrétien’s other characters, from Gauvain to the early Lancelot; the distinction between Perceval and the others resides in his naïveté and in the consistent comedy of his actions.

When he decides not to inquire about the Grail procession, he is acting typically, since he had been told that a knight is careful not to talk excessively. His failure to ask that question is the critical turning point of the work (as he later learns that the question would have cured the Fisher King, the castle’s inhabitant, and would have restored the fertility of his land). This error corresponds to the crisis that we have noted in Chrétien’s other works, and it requires a similar expiation. In this case, however, the hero’s errors are multiple, for in addition to failing to cure the Fisher King Perceval learns that his abrupt departure from home had caused the death of his own mother. Furthermore, he had along the way taken a lady, Blancheflor, as his love, and yet he repeatedly postpones his return to her, just as he had postponed the Grail question and his return to his mother.

Perceval’s adventures are abruptly interrupted, and the author turns his attentions to Gauvain, who undergoes an extraordinary series of adventures in a strange realm. The suddenness of this shift has led a good many critics to conclude that the story of Gauvain was intended to be a separate romance, but that the vagaries of manuscript transmission had fused the two sequences into one. Specific structural and thematic correspondences between the two halves provide evidence, however, that they were intended to be part of the same romance, even if the opportunity for further revision might have permitted Chrétien to provide a more graceful transition.

Gauvain’s adventures are interrupted in turn by a brief (300-line) but central return to Perceval. In this episode, which takes place on Good Friday, Perceval speaks with a holy hermit, rediscovers God, and hears the explanation of the Grail Castle and of his own past failings. This episode alone in responsible for imbuing the work with a largely religious meaning. Afterward, the focus return to Gauvain, and we learn no more of Perceval in the remainder of this unfinished romance.

Perceval may have been interrupted by Chrétien’s death; in any case, the poet’s career obviously ended at this point. Yet during that career Chrétien was largely responsible for perfecting a literary form that was to remain central to French literature from that time on. His mastery of narrative form and style, his ability to fuse humor with high seriousness, the subtlety of his psychological portraits, and the appeal of his themes established him as a consummate artist. Those who came after developed numerous varieties of romance, but they all owed a good deal to Chrétien de Troyes, and it is reasonable to conclude that they could not have accomplished what they did were it not for their illustrious precursor.