Chrétien de Troyes: Life and Work
he old city of Troyes must feature prominently in any map of literary history. For it was there that Chrétien de Troyes was inspired to write four romances which together form the most complete expression we possess from a single author of the ideals of French chivalry. These romances, written in eight-syllable rhyming couplets, are tales of knighthood, bravery and courtly-love. They treat respectively of Erec and Enide, Cligés, Yvain, and Lancelot. The poem "Guillaume d'Angleterre" has been attributed to him by some scholars, although many find this doubtful. A list of works in "Cligés" mentions a romance "Du roi Marc et d'Iseut la Blonde", of which no trace remains. Another poem, Le Roman de Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal, was begun in about 1175 for Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders (1142-1191), to whom Chrétien was attached during his last years. It was left unfinished at his death after he had written more than 9000 lines.
he four completed romances (with three of them finished by Chrétien himself) are definitive Arthurian romances in the sense that they established characters and motifs that would be developed by later poets. Chrétien introduced new characters to the literature, notably Lancelot and Perceval, but he also established a new kind of vernacular poem, set in the (fake historical) Arthurian world of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace but with the addition of wonders and marvels inspired by Celtic literature. Chrétien, having established this new genre, went on to transcend it in his unfinished Roman de Perceval.
Erec and Enide
This is the first ever Arthurian romance. It defines conventions and motifs that will reappear not only in Chrétien's later works but also in many romances by later poets. It begins, for example, with what would be the standard beginning of an Arthurian tale: at a religious festival (in this case it is Easter) Arthur's court has assembled to feast and be merry. An adventure is announced, in this case the customary hunt of the white stag. White animals, often a stag or a doe, often appear in the poems of Chrétien and his epigones: they might be creatures from the Celtic otherworld. The hunters depart except for Erec, who offers to accompany Queen Guenevere and her lady-in-waiting. Following the hunters, they meet a knight with his lady and a malicious dwarf, who strikes first the Queen's attendant and then Erec; who goes to fetch arms before pursuing the knight and the dwarf. Meanwhile, the king has taken the stag, and the custom demands that the victor shall bestow a kiss on the most beautiful lady at the court. Each knight nominates his lady for the kiss but Guenevere manages to defer the decision until Erec has returned. He is now caught up in another local event, the Custom of the Sparrowhawk, in which he defeats the knight with the dwarf by championing a beautiful maiden, Enide. Then Erec and Enide return to Arthur's court, where the king bestows the kiss on Enide, to the acclaim of the company. The pair are married at Arthur's court and retire to the kingdom of Erec's father, Lac. After a while they hear that the other knights are concerned about Erec neglecting his knightly duties. So Erec resolves to set out in search of adventures and Enide accompanies him. There follow a series of adventures, or episodes, in which the bravery of Erec and the loyalty of Enide are tested. Then, in their final challenge, the couple rescue a knight and his lady from enslavement in a false paradise, in the "Joy of the Court" adventure. Finally they return to Arthur's court where, upon the death of King Lac, Erec and Enide are crowned.
In this romance Chrétien plays with allusions to works by other authors, notably Ovid, but the most important influence was the story of Tristan and Ysolt (Iseult, Iseut). Chrétien clearly knew Thomas' Roman de Tristan and he also drew on Béroul's version. In parts of this romance, with its deception of the royal uncle and various magic potions, he comes close to a parody of the Tristan poems. The story of Cligés is preceded by an account of his parents. Alixandre, eldest son of the Byzantine emperor, joins Arthur's court and there falls in love with Soredamors, a sister of Gauvain. After helping Arthur recover his kingdom from a usurper, Alixandre marries Soredamors: their child is Cligés. His life is modelled on that of Tristan. Like Tristan, Cligés is orphaned. Like Tristan, he falls in love with a foreign princess, Fenice, who is betrothed to his uncle, Alis. Fenice obtains from her nurse a magic potion that will cause her husband to believe that he is sleeping with her, when he is only sleeping. Cligés helps his uncle secure his throne and marriage by defeating the Saxons, whose leader had a claim on Fenice. Then, following his father's advice, he travels to Arthur's court, where he defeats some of the leading knights in a tournament. On his return to Constantinople, he is reunited with Fenice, who has decided to escape from her marriage by feigning her own death, with the help of another potion. So she is pronounced dead, and buried, and then resurrected (appropriately for someone named after the Phoenix) to live in secrecy with Cligés. But they are discovered and forced to flee, seeking sanctuary at Arthur's court. The lovers stay there until they hear that the emperor Alis has died of a broken heart, on which news they return to Constantinople where they are crowned and live happily ever after.
Lancelot, or the knight of the cart
In his introductory remarks, Chrétien writes that his patron (Countess Marie) has given him the "subject and matter" of the romance. Probably also the title, which the poet diligently follows with an episode in which the knight rides in a cart, which Chrétien explains is shameful. It is unclear how much of the story was determined by his patron's request but it is likely that she left the poet free to write whatever he wanted. This romance is significant because it introduces a new hero to the Arthurian world. He is Lancelot, a knight whose character and passions would catch the imagination of other poets, such that he soon displaced Gauvain as the first knight of the Round Table.
Once again, Arthur's court has gathered at the time of a religious festival (in this case on Ascension Day). An unknown knight bursts into the room and challenges Arthur to send his Queen into the forest with a champion who will fight for the release of the king's subjects who are held captive. The impulsive Keu (Kay) demands the adventure. Some of the other knights follow in his tracks and find his riderless horse. Gauvain sees another unknown knight who is in pursuit of the missing Guenevere. A dwarf promises the knight information on the queen's location if he will step into the dwarf's cart, which he does after a moment's hesitation. Chrétien explains that a cart was used for transporting condemned prisoners. This motif of the knight in the cart being done with, Gauvain follows the Knight of the Cart. They arrive at a castle where they spend the night. It turns out to be a Castle of Wonders, where the Knight of the Cart survives both a sleep on the Perilous Bed and a flaming lance. Leaving the castle next morning, the knights meet a damsel who tells them that the queen's abductor is called Meleagant of Gorre. To reach him the knights must either cross the "bridge under water" or the "bridge of swords". They separate. The Knight of the Cart goes in search of the sword bridge, defeats a knight defending a ford and arrives at a castle where the chatelaine offers him a good time. Returning to the pursuit of Meleagant, he arrives at a cemetery where there is a tomb reserved for the one who will rescue the queen and liberate the prisoners. Lifting the cover of the tomb, the Knight of the Cart confirms that he is one who will succeed. After leaving the cemetery a haughty knight challenges the Knight of the Cart, who quickly defeats him. Then a damsel (later revealed to be Meleagant's sister) demands the head of the haughty knight. The Knight of the Cart gives the haughty knight a second chance, cuts off his head and gives it to the damsel, who accepts it and promises to help the Knight of the Cart in the future, when he is in need. Then he arrives at and crosses the Sword Bridge, which cuts him badly, to demand his combat with Meleagant. The next morning as they fight, watched from a tower by the captive queen, she reveals to a damsel, and to the reader, that the name of the Knight of the Cart is Lancelot of the Lake.
He defeats Meleagant, whose father the King of Gorre asks Lancelot to spare his life. He does so and a rematch at Arthur's court is agreed. Taken to Guenevere, she refuses to speak to him, although her monologues reveal her love for him. So Lancelot leaves in search of Gauvain, who has been taken prisoner. Then he forces his way into the room where the queen is sleeping, damaging his hand when he bends the bars of a window. Lancelot and Guenevere consummate their mutual desire but quietly, so as not to wake Keu, who is sleeping in the same room. The next morning Meleagant finds the queen's sheets bloodied (from Lancelot's wounds) and accuses Keu of rape. Lancelot fights Meleagant again, this time as the queen's champion, in defence of both Guenevere and Keu. The combat is again stopped by the intervention of the King of Gorre. Meleagant imprisons Lancelot but Gauvain, Keu, Guenevere and other prisoners are released. At this point in the story, Chrétien seems to have lost interest, and we read in the epilogue that Godefroi de Leigni has completed the romance, following directions given him by Chrétien. Continuing the romance, Godefroi writes that Lancelot is allowed out of captivity to fight, anonymously, in a tournament. Suspecting his real identity, Guenevere requires the knight to fight two contests "as a coward" and then allows him to win the third. After which Lancelot returns to his captivity. More than a year later he is found and released by Meleagant's sister. Lancelot arrives at Arthur's court in time to replace Gauvain in a combat with Meleagant: this time Lancelot kills his opponent. There is great joy and feasting. As an exercise for later poets, there remains the unresolved tension between Lancelot's loyalty to Arthur, as a knight of his Round Table, and his love for Guenevere.
Yvain, or the knight with the lion
Once again, Arthur's court has gathered at the time of a religious festival (in this case at Pentecost). After Arthur has gone to bed, some of his knights continue to make merry. Yvain overhears a cousin, Calogrenant, relating an adventure in which he had lost face. Yvain vows to avenge his cousin and leaves for the scene of the adventure, the magic fountain in the forest of Brocéliande. He challenges and defeats the defender of the fountain, Esclados le Ros, then pursues the mortally wounded knight to his castle, where Yvain falls in love with his widow Laudine. With the help of her quick-witted maid, the gender-fluid Lunete, Yvain persuades Laudine to marry him. No sooner are they married than Yvain is called away from Laudine by his best friend Gauvain, on the understanding that he will return to her by an agreed date. Yvain spends a longer time than he had expected in adventures with Gauvain, so that by the time he returns to Laudine, she has changed the locks on the castle doors and he is not admitted. Yvain has a breakdown and wanders around in the forest for a while, until a group of ladies find him and restore his sanity. He then embarks on six adventures before returning to the fountain, where Lunete's machinations achieve a reconciliation of Yvain with Laudine. In one of his adventures, Yvain rescues a lion from combat with a dragon, and the lion becomes a good friend. So when Yvain returns to the castle, presumably disguised, accompanied by the lion, he is introduced to Laudine as The Knight of the Lion. But as soon as he has been received by Laudine, it is revealed to her by Lunete that the knight is, in fact, her husband. Yvain admits that he did not keep their agreement, apologises for his behaviour and so is forgiven by Laudine, who takes him back, and they all live happily ever after.
ontemporary poets (in the last two decades of the twelfth century) writing about the Grail included Robert de Boron, although he wrote only about the history of the Grail and not about the Quest. For Boron the Grail is the cup of the Last-Supper, while for Chrétien it is a dish, wondrous but not explicitly holy. Then for Wolfram it became a magical stone. There can be no doubt that Wolfram's main source, for his poem Parzival (ca.1205), was Chrétien's romance (with its first and second continuations) or that he also used other, related material, probably all in Old French: his naming of characters suggests a French source other than Perceval. The existence at this time (1200 to 1205) of other Grail stories, some of them now lost, is suggested by Wolfram's claim to have found the story in a book. For example, Wolfram, in his retelling of the story, gives the name Anfortas to the Fisher King and it has been suggested that the name derives from the Old French "enfertez". Similarly, Parzival's wife he renames as Condwiramurs, which is plausibly derived from the Old French "conduire amours". A few characters are given names by Wolfram although they (or their equivalents) were not named in the Perceval, for example Chrétien's Lamenting Maiden becomes Sîgune. It is possible that Wolfram's invented these names but more likely that he found them in another book, not by Chrétien, that told the story of Perceval. So by 1205 there was a growing literature about the quest for the Holy Grail, of which only a few poems have survived.
t is widely although not universally accepted that Chrétien de Troyes based some of his poetic writings on Celtic sources (the so-called Matter of Brittany) one such candidate being the story of Peredur, a version of which would be incorporated into
the collection of Welsh legends known as the Mabinogion2; alternatively, Welsh and Breton tales
provided material used in both romances. This would explain Chrétien's
hrétien's story, which later authors would follow to a lesser or greater extent, is about a youth who had a sheltered upbringing. After the deaths of his father and brothers, his mother took him to her castle in the Welsh forest and there brought him up in ignorance of war and weaponry. After the boy has met a group of knights who were passing through the forest, he leaves his mother, who dies of a broken heart. Perceval goes out into the world and naively tries to follow his mother's advice, which only causes trouble for himself and others. He goes to Arthur's court and asks to be knighted but there he is only laughed at. He meets an old knight called Gornemant who gives him a rudimentary education in the use of weapons and the code of chivalry. Gornemant advises the boy not to ask too many questions. Perceval wanders in search of knightly adventure: he rescues a damsel in distress and falls in love with her, his Blancheflor. Then his wandering takes Perceval to an encounter with the Fisher King, who invites him into the Grail Castle: where he witnesses a strange procession in which a boy carries a spear that bleeds, while a maiden carries a shining Grail. The boy, recalling his teacher's advice, does not ask for any of this to be explained and he fails to ask the Question that would have healed the wounds of the infirm king. The king gives Perceval a sword which his cousin later tells him will break at a crucial moment. It is not mentioned again by Chrétien de Troyes but in Gerbert's Continuation we can read that Perceval shatters the sword at the gates of the Earthly Paradise. As a result of his failure to ask the Question, the land becomes a Waste Land. (In versions of the Grail story in which Gauvain is the quester, the land is already wasted before the quester arrives at the Grail Castle and so his failure fails to heal both the wounded king and the land.) Chrétien does not provide the names of Perceval's parents (these and other names were later added by Wolfram von Eschenbach in his retelling) but he does say that the Fisher King is Perceval's maternal uncle.
erceval meets his cousin (who is unnamed in this story but who will become Sigûne in Wolfram's poem). She explains that he failed at the Grail Castle and that it was because of the boy's sin against his mother, who died of grief at his departure. This implies that Perceval's lack of concern for his mother and his lack of compassion for the Fisher King are related, at least in the opinion of his cousin. As he rode to the court of Arthur there was a curious incident (also retold by Wolfram) in which Perceval falls into a trance while contemplating three drops of blood in the snow, which make him think of his beloved. After other knights have failed to do so, Gauvain breaks the trance and accompanies Perceval to Arthur's court. There he is abused by the messenger of the Grail, the Loathly Damsel, for failing to ask the healing question. Another knight arrives with a complaint against Gauvain and so both he and Perceval depart from the court, each on his own quest. In subsequent chapters the poem tells alternately of the adventures of these very different knights. Gauvain demonstrates his courage and courtesy, while Perceval is growing in chivalric honour but lacks spiritual awareness. He meets five knights who criticize him for wearing armour and bearing weapons on Good Friday. They direct him to a hermit (who turns out to be Perceval's uncle) to begin his spiritual instruction. Only when Perceval has achieved a balance between chivalric and spiritual values will he be able to complete his quest. But the poem breaks off before Perceval can return to the Grail Castle, where we assume that he will ask the question(s) and so heal the Fisher King and perhaps his land too.
he unfinished poem Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal is generally considered to be the "definitive" Grail Romance. It is accompanied by four Continuations by other writers, so called because these books continue the story left incomplete by Chrétien. Although he cannot have been the first poet to write about the mystical Grail Castle, the quester and the Fisher King, his Perceval is the earliest written account of the Grail Quest to have survived. Unless the First Continuation, a story about Gauvain, existed in some form already. Several important elements of the story, which were adopted and developed in later versions by other poets, appear for the first time in the Perceval: such as the strange procession seen by the quester at the Grail Castle, and the presence there of two kings, one old and hidden from view, the other wounded. The inconsistencies between the First Continuation and the poem left unfinished by Chrétien can leave no doubt that it is an entirely separate story about a search for the Holy Grail; including the second visit of King Arthur's nephew Gauvain (Gawain) to the Grail Castle. The four Continuations are the following:
Of the fifteen manuscripts of the Conte de Graal, only 4 consist of Chrétien's text alone and the remaining 11 also include the FC. Of these, 10 also include the SC, 7 the TC and 2 the GC.
The First Continuation: A Story About Gauvain
The First Continuation is a story in which Perceval is hardly mentioned: it tells of the adventures of Gauvain. Jessie L. Weston and
R.S. Loomis were probably right to assert that it was written independently of the Perceval and it could be older. This is not really a "continuation": it appears to be a different version of
the Grail story in which Gauvain is the hero. A short bridging passage connects the abrupt end of the main text (which breaks off in mid- sentence) to this story. R.S.
Loomis commented that, in this Continuation,
The Second Continuation: A Story About Perceval
After the many digressions of the FC, and its discrepancies with the earlier text, the author of this next Continuation attempts to bring the story back to the narrative begun by Chrétien. Of the 35 episodes in this long poem, William Roach identified 27 concerning Perceval and only 4 about Gauvain. So although the SC is more closely related to the Perceval, it does not have the same pattern of alternating between and contrasting the adventures of the two very different heroes. Perceval finds the path to the Castle of the Fisher King but he gets distracted by a beautiful lady with whom (forgetting his betrothed Blancheflor) he falls in love. She lends him a hunting dog and sends him off on a quest for a white stag (a curious echo of the Arthurian hunt that features in Erec and Enide). Perceval finds and kills the white stag but then the stag's head and the dog are stolen by a knight. So the story becomes a quest to recover the stag's head and the dog, turning aside from the Grail quest in favour of one that is ultimately about secular love. The character of this Continuation is quite different from that of the earlier poems: it takes place in a fairy land of glass bridges and invisible castles, where everything is white, like the stag. The lady who has bewitched Perceval is some kind of enchantress. Among his adventures in this Continuation, Perceval arrives at the Castle of Maidens, where he asks many pointless questions, as if he has gone to the opposite extreme from his reticence at the Grail Castle. The SC ties up some but not all of the loose ends from the earlier poems: Perceval returns to Beaurepaire as he had promised Blancheflor he would do, but it is only a one night visit before he leaves her to continue his quest. By chance he wanders into the forest of his childhood, where he finds a sister (never before mentioned) who tells him about the distress he had caused by leaving home. Then, losing his way in a storm, Perceval takes shelter in a chapel, which turns out to be the same one that was visited by Gauvain in the FC, complete with a frightening disembodied hand. He moves quickly on, to find the Grail Castle. Instead of solving the mysteries of Lance and Grail, however, the story becomes focussed on the broken sword: which Perceval almost but not quite mends. The king tells him that this shows him not yet to be perfected. It is understandable that readers who reached this point and found so many questions either unanswered or unasked would be disappointed.
Gerbert's Continuation: An Interpolation
Gerbert's interpolation is only found in two of the surviving manuscripts. It is in the form of a loop in which the text returns, after 17,000 lines, to repeat its first 14 lines. Perceval has been found wanting and so he seeks a path of perfection and redemption, before he can return yet again to the Fisher King . He reflects on his sins, confesses them and tries to make amends. The text is moralising and reminiscent both of the Lancelot-Graal and the Perlesvaus, which suggests that it was written much later than the other Continuations and perhaps for a different audience. This Continuation brings to a close many of the loose threads that still remained after the SC (for example, rescuing the patient maiden, apparently forgotten by Gauvain, who has been besieged by the Dragon Knight all this time at her castle of Montesclaire) but it does not address Perceval's original quest. At the end of the GC he returns yet again to the Fisher King , asks many unimportant questions (by this stage the original significance of the unasked question has been forgotten) and perfectly mends the broken sword.
The Third Continuation: Closure
Probably to satisfy readers who were unhappy with the inconclusive ending of the SC, Manessier continues the story of Perceval. Loomis commented that the TC resembled the Peredur in that it is a tale of murder and revenge. Perceval like Peredur avenges the wrongs done to his kinsmen. Manessier not only borrows an episode from Erec and Enide but also from the Lancelot-Grail cycle and from the Perlesvaus. Although the SC had tied up some threads left over from the earlier poems, it introduced new threads that still need to be tied up. The broken sword is, initially at least, the focus of the story. The Fisher King reveals that the sword had been used to kill his brother, after which in his distress the king injured himself with the broken pieces. He sends Perceval off on a new quest, to avenge the death of his brother. Before doing so, however, the king gives an explanation of the Lance (as the holy lance of Longinus that had pierced the side of Christ, as already was revealed in the FC), the Grail (as the vessel in which Joseph of Arimathea had collected the blood of Christ) and the platter (which is used to cover the Grail). It might have been better to end the story there but Manessier continues with a violent and bloodthirsty sequence of adventures, often of a quasi-religious nature. After slaying the killer of the king's brother, which lifts the curse from the Grail domain, Perceval is assigned another mission, which is to purify the haunted chapel, whose disembodied hand had killed thousands of knights. Perceval destroys the hand by making the sign of the cross. This presumably shows that he has become a perfect Christian knight. On his return again to the Grail Castle, it is the turn of the Fisher King to ask a question: what is the name of the quester? And so it is discovered that Perceval is the king's nephew and heir. The king offers to turn over the Grail domain at once but Perceval chooses to return to Arthur's court. When the Fisher King dies, Perceval returns to the Grail Castle for the last time, to be anointed as the new Grail King.
Chrestïen semme et fait semence ...
hrétien's influence extends well beyond the literature of the middle ages. The characters and their exploits that were introduced by Chrétien in his poetic romances were further developed variously by German authors, such as Hartmann von Aue, Heinrich von dem Türlin and Wolfram von Eschenbach, and by the compilers of later prose romances, including the Vulgate cycle. From "The Franklin's Tale" in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and even to Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King, the Arthurian tradition that was initiated by Chrétien de Troyes has been a thread of European literature.
Chrétien's Arthurian Romances
Discussions and References
A Chrétien Bibliography
There is a vast literature concerning Chrétien de Troyes. Here are a few selected titles.
Footnote 1: Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudo-chronicle Historia regum Britanniae ca.1137, in Latin. Derived from it is Wace's Roman de Brut 1155, in Old French.
Footnote 2: The romance of Peredur is not a branch of the Mabinogion: but it appears in the same manuscripts as the Mabinogion proper.
Footnote 3: R.S. Loomis, Objections to the celtic origin of the «Matière de Bretagne», Romania, 1958.