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An alternative view
on 26 March 2012
If you have time - and if you're about to read this book you must have it to burn - please indulge me in my offer of an introduction to Chrétien de Troyes as an alternative to the overreverent and numbingly serious one offered by Penguin. I do so not because I feel Chrétien's work lacks value. To the contrary, it's without doubt a cultural treasure, offering an insight into the sensibilities and preoccupations of its time. It's more because if you're about to spend the long, long time it is going to take you to read the work, you deserve a health warning. And maybe one of those Parental Guidance stickers Tipper Gore wasted so much time inventing, instead of doing something worthwhile like her old man did and campaigning for some cleaner air.
One particularly shocking realisation from reading Chrétien's account is that, far from being a great English hero, Arthur is in fact very French. As, of course, was England itself at the time. So possibly one of the more interesting perspectives the Arthurian Romances give us is of England as an extension of France, with Arthur trundling off for extensive stays in Brittany, leaving the estate in the care of one of his counts. Even whilst in England, Arthur lives anywhere but Camelot, he is marginal to most of the stories, and Merlin, Avalon, Excalibur and other elements of the English popular legend are conspicuous by their almost total absence (actually, Excalibur is in the hands of Gawain, not Arthur), although Guinevere's extra-curricular activities with Lancelot are as in-your-face as it gets: apart from being peripheral, Arthur is also a big time cuckold.
Erec And Enide initiate the proceedings. Erec is a knight given to random acts of bravado and derring-do, Enide is one of many most-beautiful-girls-in-the-world. Following their marriage, Erec takes a break from kicking medieval butt, but Enide feels guilty, worrying that her man is losing his essence, and in a moment of ill-considered thinking out loud unwisely proffers the opinion that she has emasculated him. Uh oh! Erec responds by saddling up a horse for each of them, and together they storm around the countryside, picking fights with anyone they encounter (the whole world, it seems, was ripe with bad guys to kill in those days), and sleeping rough. Next time, Enide is by now thinking, she'll keep her mouth shut. Only the timely intercession of Arthur's retainers saves Erec from certain death during this rampage, and eventually he gets it out of his system and the couple return to married bliss, Enide for one probably a little wiser and more reticent.
The early theme of Cligés is of the coyness of the two lovers, Alexander and Soredamors, who fancy each other to bits but lack the self-assurance to act on it. But once they've sorted all that out Soredamors gives birth to the eponymous Cligés, who reprises the whole saga with the daughter of the Emperor of Germany, Fenice. There follows a complication whereby Fenice has to marry Cligés's uncle, a Romeo and Juliet-like subterfuge where Fenice imbibes a potion which makes her appear dead, an elopement by the two of them to Arthur's court, and a hurried-feeling ending where everyone lives happily ever after. The work gives the impression of an audience with too much time on its hands, with elaborate descriptions and more than a shovelful of repetition, with Cligés "distressed and troubled", knights "weary and exhausted", a servant "bound and tied". The whole story is abbreviated by the obligatory episodes of blood-letting, with Cligés storming around lopping off legs, arms and heads.
By now the feeling is creeping in that such tales were the bread and butter of Cervantes's inspiration for the tales of Don Quixote, who aspired to la vida del caballero and roamed the campos of Renaissance Spain unrighting not-wrongs and spreading mayhem and mirth throughout La Mancha and beyond. This is reinforced by the title of the next tale, The Knight Of The Cart, vaguely reminiscent of the hidalgo's initial nombre de guerra, the Knight of the Sorry Face, and the fact that the cart-bound Knight and his companion Gawain, who admittedly is rather less funny than Sancho Panza, fetch up at a hostelry and are lavishly entertained and fed without any apparent need to pay, just as the Don expects to, based upon his extensive study of tales of chivalry. Quixote may also have modelled his obtuseness on that of Lancelot, who blunders around the countryside making the most baffling of decisions, allowing himself to be duped by the most obvious cons, and fulfilling promises that any rational person would neither make nor believe. This makes for some irritation in the modern sensibility.
In part 2 of Cervantes's work, Quixote transforms into the Knight Of The Lion; the subject of Chrétien 's next tale is Yvain, the Knight With The Lion. Yvain is yet another knight errant looking for adventure, for which it could also be said yet another aristocratic thug wandering the countryside looking for trouble. Interestingly, the heroic seneschal Kay from the previous story is now a lifelong boorish prig, in the opinion both of Yvain and Guinevere. Yvain's and Lancelot's tales transpire to be concurrent, so Gawain and Lancelot are MIA at the time of some of Yvain's tribulations, meaning Yvain has to seriously multitask as the only superhero available. The knight rather stumbles through this concatenation of disjointed misadventures, and the lion itself only appears about half way through, by which time the knight has been disowned by his wife, whom he married almost immediately after butchering her husband, for scarpering a couple of days after the nuptials on a world tour of tourneys and failing to return within a year, as he promised (The guy just forgot! And I suppose the lion ate his homework, too.), and also recovered from the consequent madness which reduced him to a naked hunter. But Yvain also turns out to have a revolutionary streak, overthrowing the evil oligarch who runs a sweatshop where every day is early Monday morning, and liberating its overworked, emaciated slaves.
The final tale, of Percy and the Grail, begins in ribaldry, with our Perce depicted as a rustic Welsh buffoon who nevertheless masters the arts of knightliness with apparent ease, ultimately transforming from floundering Daffy Duckling (though never ugly) to accomplished swan. It's important to pay attention in this tale as failure to do so can leave you totally confused as to what's going on. Then again, paying attention doesn't always help, as when the story lurches away from Percy and instead follows some caper involving Gawain. Which suddenly ends. And we find that while a couple of weeks have passed in Gawain's world, an anomaly in the space-time continuum has caused five years to pass in Perceval's, during which time he has been wandering in an amnesiac state (that old potato!), distributing further random mayhem around the countryside. Fortuitously wandering into a hermit's hovel, his memory is restored and the quest is rejoined! Only then to revert to Gawain, in whose hands it remains to the end, calling into question the reason why Perceval gets top billing.
Some of the grail legend has of course come down to us in various other forms, notably Eliot's The Waste Land and Wagner's Parsifal (and, of course, Monty Python!), so there's value here in going back to one of the sources, although the tale's origins go further back, to early Celtic myths and the Mabinogion. Regrettably, you will search in vain for such information in the Penguin introduction.
As a piece of literature Arthurian Romances seems pretty poor. Its construction is haphazard, the story line chaotic, its trajectory stumbling. The tales are riven with what we may call continuity problems, with little care taken in the present for what has gone before, as with the maidens who have apparently starved themselves for three days in readiness for a totally unforeseeable event. There's an impression of making it up on the spot, and regularly returning to familiar themes: quarrelling sisters, unbeatable knights vanquished, aggrieved maidens, interminable encounters with spiteful and vindictive nobles. The best modern analogue would be cartoons. Names also seem to be a problem, with neither Lancelot nor Perceval having one for half of their stories, meaning sometimes they have to become "our knight", but at others they and half a dozen other nameless characters are just "the knight" or "he", which can be a little confusing.
The translation often doesn't help, with possibly too literal a translation of the medieval text, but sometimes the object form of pronouns replaces the subject (her for she, him for he), there are a few incongruous modern-ish idioms in amongst the "damsels" and "my lords", and at one point comes a really grating insertion of "exculpate" in amongst the chat. At the back of the book there's a useful glossary, and some of the notes are enlightening, although I am still puzzled, despite the "explanation", about how Carlisle manages to be situated in Wales.
Inconveniently, (especially for him, as the reason is possibly his death) Chrétien never managed to complete the Grail story, so the book ends with a synopsis of the various Continuations, which seem to have followed a similar "pattern" to the original, that is, medieval shaggy dog story. Interesting, but often less than captivating, this book requires patience, which is only rarely rewarded with entertainment.