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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 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.
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on 29 December 2005
Chrétien de Troyes is an early French romantic writing, who wrote the first known story about the Holy Grail. De Troyes lived in the Champagne region of France during the latter twelfth century. Peripherally attached to courts including that of the famous Eleanor of Acquitaine, de Troyes stories of the Arthurian legends provides a foundation for almost all future Arthurian stories.
Chrétien's major works include four poems included in this collection: Erec and Enide, Cligés, The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot), and The Knight of the Lion (Yvain). For Grail seekers, the story of most interest will be the unfinished Perceval: The Story of the Grail. Although the tale exists in finished form (in fact, several variations of finished forms), de Troyes in fact only wrote the first 9000 lines of the approximately 32,000 line text. (De Troyes also was embellished or supplemented by later additions to the tale of Lancelot, perhaps because de Troyes did not want to include an adulterous affair).
The story of Erec and Enide is a love story between one of Arthur's knights, Erec, who while out with Guinevere encounters a mean-spirited knight Yder; Erec's pursuit of Yder leads to his meeting Enide, and the two have a stormy relationship (by medieval romantic standards) but ultimately are able to reconcile their love and relationship with public duty.
The story of Cligés is one of tricky and forbidden relationships. Cligés, a native of Greece, falls in love with Fenice, his uncle's wife (Cligés' uncle happens to be the emperor). Their love is discovered, but with the aid of King Arthur, their relationship continues in Cligés' home country of Greece.
Lancelot's story is one of the oldest ideas from the Arthurian legends - the rescue of Guinevere when she is taken captive. This could be done in a chaste and honourable way, but the tale of Arthur has both virtuous and dark elements. Even though this story comes from much older antecedents, de Troyes telling (with the possible additions by a later writer) became the standard Lancelot-Guinevere tale, being the principal one incorporated into Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur.
The story of Yvain is one of romantic questing - Yvain is gone so long on his knightly quests that his wife refuses him to return home. However, with the aid of mystical powers (the lion is an otherworldly creature that symbolises knightly virtue - C.S. Lewis will develop similar symbolic material much later) he returns to his wife after going mad with despair at being barred from her.
Perceval's story is that of the classic search for the Grail, which is also considered now a standard part of Arthurian legend - however, it is not clear that de Troyes was working from earlier stories here.
William Kibler provides notes, an introductory essay, and an essay tracing the history of revisions and continuations to the Grail story. This is fascinating reading, and a must for anyone interested in the Arthurian legends.
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on 10 June 2010
The stories in this book were written in the 1100s and are a translation from French. There are five stories altogether and some are better than others. They are all to do with knights from King Arthur's court.
The five stories are: Erec and Enide, Cliges, Lancelot, Yvain and Perceval.
Erec and Enide - parts of this story read like a fairy tale but de Troyes' overly descriptive and flowery language overpower the plot. He detours from the plot to spend a page describing a dress, or the saddle on a horse.
Cliges - this is really a story in two parts, the first part tells the reader the story of Cliges' mother and father, while the second part deals with Cliges and his adventures. His romance with a married woman is the most compelling part of the plot and I was unable to put it down at that point! Lancelot is also briefly mentioned here as well.
Lancelot (The Knight of the Cart) - the one story I was really looking forward to was one of the biggest disappointments! The plot dealt, in part, with Lancelot's affair with Guinevere but I just couldn't get interested in his story and ended up skipping paragraphs just to finish it.
Yvain (The Knight with the Lion) - in my opinion this was the best story of the five. It covers whole years of Yvain's life and has a feel good happy ending.
Perceval: the story of the Grail - a fairly interesting story about a Welsh boy who journeys to King Arthur's court to become a knight. There are flashes of dark humour in Perceval's innocent misunderstandings of what it means to be a knight. The Holy Grail is mentioned for the first time but be warned; this story is unfinished so if you read it hoping for a conclusion you will be disappointed!
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on 23 August 2003
I really can't say enough in praise of this wonderful book. Each poem is translated into prose in a lively and vivid style. The dialogue is crisp and natural and the action non-stop. But Chretien's intentions go even deeper than merely telling cracking yarns. Each are sensitive and intelligent explorations of human nature.
Marital love is ever an important theme in Chretien. In Erec and Enide, the hero neglects his knightly reputation in order to devote himself to his new bride, and in Yvain the hero does the opposite and neglects his bride for valour. Both must set off on a series of adventures that culminate in them seeing the error of their ways and setting matters right.
Lancelot is an excellent story, though rather odd in that the theme this time is an adulterous relationship, that of Lancelot and Guinevere. Nowhere does Chretien condemn this relationship, despite negative references elsewhere to the shameful adulterous love between Tristan and Iseult. In Kibler's introduction he suggests that the theme may have been suggested by Chretien's patroness. Perhaps, then, Chretien was anxious not to offend the French Court. At any rate, he didn't bother to finish the romance and gave it to someone else to do (the ending is included in this book).
In Perceval Chretien masterfully captures the naivete of the young hero, and he delivers the most mysterious, powerful and influential Arthur story of all. Here we see the holy grail, the bleeding lance and the castle of maidens, all of which have become essential ingredients in Arthurian lore. It's unfinished state presented an irresistible challenge to later poets, some of whom tried to finish it off, others who went back to the beginning and offered their own interpretations.
The only story that sometimes gets a little static is Cliges, where the characters occasionally go off into protracted musings on the nature of love. But once you've got past these bits, which to be fair are intelligent insights, it's still a fine read.
All in all, I hugely recommend this book. And if it doesn't want to make you start exploring Mallory, Von Eschenbach, and the rest, you've got no romance in your soul!
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This is a foundational text in understanding the French Arthurian tradition. If you are studying medieval literature and can't read Chretien de Troyes in his original, then this should be high on your reading list.
On the other hand, if you are a casual reader interested in getting to the sources of the King Arthur stories, you may find Chretien rather disappointing.
For modern tastes, there is far too much narrative here and not enough characterisation or description. Chretien also has the habit of interrupting his denouements with apparently irrelevant observations on the nature of courtly love.
Clearly, Chretien's audience had very different expectations from most modern readers. If you want to enjoy the Arthurian Romances, it's worth trying to get into the mind of the original readers.
You need to remember that although today we see Arthur as escapist legend, in Chretien's time the 'matter of Britain' was a legitimate subject for an intellectual engaging other intellectuals.
Equally, looking back through the eyes of Tennyson (if not Hollywood), we tend to see Arthur as a romantic ideal. This assessment is further clouded by the title of this translation. The word 'Romance' here really means 'Novel', rather than something concerned with romantic love. The idea of love in Chretien is the idea set out in Andreas Capellanus 'the Art of Courtly Love', not that of 'Idylls of the King'.
Finally, the complex of social castes in Chretien was not something exotic or ancient to the original readers. There are layers of meaning which would have be obvious to his audience but which are concealed from us.
I would recommend the chapter in Erich Auerbach's 'Mimesis' entitled 'The Knight Sets Forth', which discusses Chretien's 'Yvain' as the best general introduction to this collection.
Of course, you can just pick this book up and start reading, and if you enjoy it then that is all to the good. However, if you find it heavy going, do not write this off as a 'bad book' - rather, find the time to learn how to read it with something of the eyes of the medieval readers.
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