Author: Chrétien de Troyes, 12th century French poet,Translation: William W. Kibler and Charleton W. Carroll
Literary period: Medieval literature
Jean @ Howling Frog Books suggested that I read something from Chrétien de Troyes for my Arthurian Lit Challenge; so I ordered the complete Arthurian Romances, which includes five separate stories: Erec and Enide (1170), Cligès (1176), Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (both 1177-1181), Perceval, the Story of the Grail (1181-1190).
It took about two months to read, and that was probably because the subject matter charmed me to read only in the evenings after everyone went to bed and it was quiet and peaceful in my house.
My goodness! Sometimes I imagined I was reading one of those Harlequin Romance novels. No, I have never read one, by the way, and have only glimpsed the front covers in my local used bookstore. The Harlequins are probably not even comparable, but I thought I would share my naive imagination.
The stories in Arthurian Romances feature a dutiful, brave, chivalrous knight who falls madly in love with the most beautiful lady he has ever set eyes on. The knight then pursues the fair maiden and promises to love and serve her loyally in exchange for her heart.
But, what really matters is how Chrétien describes these romances. Here is a sample (from "Erec and Enide"):
The hunted stag who pants from thirst does not so yearn for the fountain, nor does the hungry sparrow-hawk return so willingly when called, that they did not come into each other’s arms more eagerly. That night they fully made up for what they had so long deferred.
If I write anymore, I shall blush.
One of my favorite lines comes from the story of Lancelot, when Chrétien, the narrator, must discontinue his description of Lancelot’s forbidden love with Guinevere:
Her love-play seemed so gentle and good to him, both her kisses and caresses, that in truth the two of them felt a joy and wonder the equal of which has never been heard or known. But I shall let it remain a secret for ever, since it should not be written of: the most delightful and choicest pleasure is that which is hinted at, but never told.
Chrétien also includes words of wisdom:
It is the truth that a good heart is humble, but the fool and the braggart will never be rid of their folly.
When a man devotes himself to true goodness, his full worth can never be told, for no tongue can rehearse all the goodness a noble man can do.
And I like this next one (for a good laugh):
A woman does not know how to bear a shield nor strike with a lance; she can help and improve herself greatly by taking a good husband.
Finally, as with most medieval tales, the Romances feature numerous battles between formidable knights, fearless of dying - especially in combat and for an honorable cause. There are also Catholic and Christian overtones throughout the stories, which clearly demonstrate the influences of medieval life and literature.
It was a pleasure to read Arthurian Romances; however, there is one thing I noticed: Chrétien's wording is beautiful, but it is almost as if the English translation waters it down or does not do it justice. It is too bad that I do not know French because, while the English translation I read was fine and good, how much lovelier might it have been in its original form?