Chretien De Troyes has had the peculiar fortune of becoming the best known of the old French poets to students of mediaeval literature, and of remaining practically unknown to any one else. The acquaintance of students with the work of Chretien has been made possible in academic circles by the admirable critical editions of his romances undertaken and carried to completion during the past thirty years by Professor Wendelin Foerster of Bonn. At the same time the want of public familiarity with Chretien’s work is due to the almost complete lack of translations of his romances into the modern tongues. The man who, so far as we know, first recounted the romantic adventures of Arthur’s knights, Gawain. Yvain, Erec, Lancelot, and Perceval, has been forgotten; whereas posterity has been kinder to his debtors, Wolfram yon Eschenbach, Malory, Lord Tennyson, and Richard Wagner. The present volume has grown out of the desire to place these romances of adventure before the reader of English in a prose version based directly upon the oldest form in which they exist.
Such extravagant claims for Chretien’s art have been made in some quarters that one feels disinclined to give them even an echo here. The modem reader may form his own estimate of the poet’s art, and that estimate will probably not be high. Monotony, lack of proportion, vain repetitions, insufficient motivation, wearisome subtleties, and threatened, if not actual, indelicacy are among the most salient defects which will arrest, and mayhap confound, the reader unfamiliar with mediaeval literary craft. No greater service can be performed by an editor in such a case than to prepare the reader to overlook these common faults, and to set before him the literary significance of this twelfth-century poet.
Chretien de Troyes wrote in Champagne during the third quarter of the twelfth century. Of his life we know neither the beginning nor the end, but we know that between 1160 and 1172 he lived, perhaps as herald-at-arms (according to Gaston Paris, based on “Lancelot” 5591–94) at Troyes, where was the court of his patroness, the Countess Marie de Champagne. She was the daughter of Louis VII, and of that famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, as she is called in English histories, who, coming from the South of France in 1137, first to Paris and later to England, may have had some share in the introduction of those ideals of courtesy and woman service which were soon to become the cult of European society. The Countess Marie, possessing her royal mother’s tastes and gifts, made of her court a social experiment station, where these Provencal ideals of a perfect society were planted afresh in congenial soil. It appears from contemporary testimony that the authority of this celebrated feudal dame was weighty, and widely felt. The old city of Troyes, where she held her court, must be set down large in any map of literary history. For it was there that Chretien was led 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, treat respectively of Erec and Enide, Cliges, Yvain, and Lancelot. Another poem, “Perceval le Gallois”, was composed about 1175 for Philip, Count of Flanders, to whom Chretien was attached during his last years. This last poem is not included in the present translation because of its extraordinary length of 32,000 verses, because Chretien wrote only the first 9000 verses, and because Miss Jessie L. Weston has given us an English version of Wolfram’s well-known “Parzival”, which tells substantially the same story, though in a different spirit. To have included this poem, of which he wrote less than one-third, in the works of Chretien would have been unjust to him. It is true the romance of “Lancelot” was not completed by Chretien, we are told, but the poem is his in such large part that one would be over-scrupulous not to call it his. The other three poems mentioned are his entire. In addition, there are quite generally assigned to the poet two insignificant lyrics, the pious romance of “Guillaume d’Angleterre”, and the elaboration of an episode from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” (vi., 426–674) called “Philomena” by its recent editor (C. de Boer, Paris, 1909). All these are extant and accessible. But since “Guillaume d’Angleterre” and “Philomena” are not universally attributed to Chretien, and since they have nothing to do with the Arthurian material, it seems reasonable to limit the present enterprise to “Erec and Enide”, “Cliges”, “Yvain”, and “Lancelot”.
Professor Foerster, basing his remark upon the best knowledge we possess of an obscure matter, has called “Erec and Enide” the oldest Arthurian romance extant. It is not possible to dispute this significant claim, but let us make it a little more intelligible. Scholarship has shown that from the early Middle Ages popular tradition was rife in Britain and Brittany. The existence of these traditions common to the Brythonic peoples was called to the attention of the literary world by William of Malmesbury (“Gesta regum Anglorum”) and Geoffrey of Monmouth (“Historia regum Britanniae”) in their Latin histories about 1125 and 1137 respectively, and by the Anglo–Norman poet Wace immediately afterward. Scholars have waged war over the theories of transmission of the so-called Arthurian material during the centuries which elapsed between the time of the fabled chieftain’s activity in 500 A.D. and his appearance as a great literary personage in the twelfth century. Documents are lacking for the dark ages of popular tradition before the Norman Conquest, and the theorists may work their will. But Arthur and his knights, as we see them in the earliest French romances, have little in common with their Celtic prototypes, as we dimly catch sight of them in Irish, Welsh, and Breton legend. Chretien belonged to a generation of French poets who rook over a great mass of Celtic folk-lore they imperfectly understood, and made of what, of course, it had never been before: the vehicle to carry a rich freight of chivalric customs and ideals. As an ideal of social conduct, the code of chivalry never touched the middle and lower classes, but it was the religion of the aristocracy and of the twelfth-century “honnete homme”. Never was literature in any age closer to the ideals of a social class. So true is this that it is difficult to determine whether social practices called forth the literature, or whether, as in the case of the seventeenth-century pastoral romance in France, it is truer to say that literature suggested to society its ideals. Be that as it may, it is proper to observe that the French romances of adventure portray late mediaeval aristocracy as it fain would be. For the glaring inconsistencies between the reality and the ideal, one may turn to the chronicles of the period. Yet, even history tells of many an ugly sin rebuked and of many a gallant deed performed because of the courteous ideals of chivalry. The debt of our own social code to this literature of courtesy and frequent self-sacrifice is perfectly manifest.
What Chretien’s immediate and specific source was for his romances is of deep interest to the student. Unfortunately, he has left us in doubt. He speaks in the vaguest way of the materials he used. There is no evidence that he had any Celtic written source. We are thus thrown back upon Latin or French literary originals which are lost, or upon current continental lore going back to a Celtic source. This very difficult problem is as yet unsolved in the case of Chretien, as it is in the case of the Anglo–Norman Beroul, who wrote of Tristan about 1150. The material evidently was at hand and Chretien appropriated it, without much understanding of its primitive spirit, but appreciating it as a setting for the ideal society dreamed of but not realised in his own day. Add to this literary perspicacity, a good foundation in classic fable, a modicum of ecclesiastical doctrine, a remarkable facility in phrase, figure, and rhyme and we have the foundations for Chretien’s art as we shall find it upon closer examination.
A French narrative poet of the twelfth century had three categories of subject-matter from which to choose: legends connected with the history of France (“matiere de France”), legends connected with Arthur and other Celtic heroes (“matiere de Bretagne”), and stories culled from the history or mythology of Greece and Rome, current in Latin and French translations (“matiere de Rome la grant”). Chretien tells us in “Cliges” that his first essays as a poet were the translations into French of certain parts of Ovid’s most popular works: the “Metamorphoses”, the “Ars Amatoria”, and perhaps the “Remedia Amoris”. But he appears early to have chosen as his special field the stories of Celtic origin dealing with Arthur, the Round Table, and other features of Celtic folk-lore. Not only was he alive to the literary interest of this material when rationalised to suit the taste of French readers; his is further the credit of having given to somewhat crude folk-lore that polish and elegance which is peculiarly French, and which is inseparably associated with the Arthurian legends in all modern literature. Though Beroul, and perhaps other poets, had previously based romantic poems upon individual Celtic heroes like Tristan, nevertheless to Chretien, so far as we can see, is due the considerable honour of having constituted Arthur’s court as a literary centre and rallying-point for an innumerable company of knights and ladies engaged in a never-ending series of amorous adventures and dangerous quests. Rather than unqualifiedly attribute to Chretien this important literary convention, one should bear in mind that all his poems imply familiarity on the part of his readers with the heroes of the court of which he speaks. One would suppose that other stories, told before his versions, were current. Some critics would go so far as to maintain that Chretien came toward the close, rather than at the beginning, of a school of French writers of Arthurian romances. But, if so, we do not possess these earlier versions, and for lack of rivals Chretien may be hailed as an innovator in the current schools of poetry.
And now let us consider the faults which a modern reader will not be slow to detect in Chretien’s style. Most of his salient faults are common to all mediaeval narrative literature. They may be ascribed to the extraordinary leisure of the class for whom it was composed — a class which was always ready to read an old story told again, and which would tolerate any description, however detailed. The pastimes of this class of readers were jousting, hunting, and making love. Hence the preponderance of these matters in the literature of its leisure hours. No detail of the joust or hunt was unfamiliar or unwelcome to these readers; no subtle arguments concerning the art of love were too abstruse to delight a generation steeped in amorous casuistry and allegories. And if some scenes seem to us indelicate, yet after comparison with other authors of his times, Chretien must be let off with a light sentence. It is certain he intended to avoid what was indecent, as did the writers of narrative poetry in general. To appreciate fully the chaste treatment of Chretien one must know some other forms of mediaeval literature, such as the fabliaux, farces, and morality plays, in which courtesy imposed no restraint. For our poet’s lack of sense of proportion, and for his carelessness in the proper motivation of many episodes, no apology can be made. He is not always guilty; some episodes betoken poetic mastery. But a poet acquainted, as he was, with some first-class Latin poetry, and who had made a business of his art, ought to have handled his material more intelligently, even in the twelfth century. The emphasis is not always laid with discrimination, nor is his yarn always kept free of tangles in the spinning.
Reference has been made to Chretien’s use of his sources. The tendency of some critics has been to minimise the French poet’s originality by pointing out striking analogies in classic and Celtic fable. Attention has been especially directed to the defence of the fountain and the service of a fairy mistress in “Yvain”, to the captivity of Arthur’s subjects in the kingdom of Gorre, as narrated in “Lancelot”, reminding one so insistently of the treatment of the kingdom of Death from which some god or hero finally delivers those in durance, and to the reigned death of Fenice in “Cliges”, with its many variants. These episodes are but examples of parallels which will occur to the observant reader. The difficult point to determine, in speaking of conceptions so widespread in classic and mediaeval literature, is the immediate source whence these conceptions reached Chretien. The list of works of reference appended to this volume will enable the student to go deeper into this much debated question, and will permit us to dispense with an examination of the arguments in this place. However, such convincing parallels for many of Chretien’s fairy and romantic episodes have been adduced by students of Irish and Welsh legend that one cannot fail to be impressed by the fact that Chretien was in touch, either by oral or literary tradition, with the populations of Britain and of Brittany, and that we have here his most immediate inspiration. Professor Foerster, stoutly opposing the so-called Anglo–Norman theory which supposes the existence of lost Anglo–Norman romances in French as the sources of Chretien de Troyes, is, nevertheless, well within the truth when he insists upon what is, so far as we are concerned, the essential originality of the French poet. The general reader will today care as little as did the reader of the twelfth century how the poet came upon the motives and episodes of his stories, whether he borrowed them or invented them himself. Any poet should be judged not as a “finder” but as a “user” of the common stock of ideas. The study of sources of mediaeval poetry, which is being so doggedly carried on by scholars, may well throw light upon the main currents of literary tradition, but it casts no reflection, favourable or otherwise, upon the personal art of the poet in handling his stuff. On that count he may plead his own cause before the jury.
Chretien’s originality, then, consists in his portrayal of the social ideal of the French aristocracy in the twelfth century. So far as we know he was the first to create in the vulgar tongues a vast court, where men and women lived in conformity with the rules of courtesy, where the truth was told, where generosity was open-handed, where the weak and the innocent were protected by men who dedicated themselves to the cult of honour and to the quest of a spotless reputation. Honour and love combined to engage the attention of this society; these were its religion in a far more real sense than was that of the Church. Perfection was attainable under this code of ethics: Gawain, for example, was a perfect knight. Though the ideals of this court and those of Christianity are in accord at many points, vet courtly love and Christian morality are irreconcilable. This Arthurian material, as used by Chretien, is fundamentally immoral as judged by Christian standards. Beyond question, the poets and the public alike knew this to be the case, and therein lay its charm for a society in which the actual relations or the sexes were rigidly prescribed by the Church and by feudal practice, rather than by the sentiments of the individuals concerned. The passionate love of Tristan for Iseut, of Lancelot for Guinevere, of Cliges for Fenice, fascinate the conventional Christian society of the twelfth century and of the twentieth century alike, but there-is only one name among men for such relations as theirs, and neither righteousness nor reason lie that way. Even Tennyson, in spite of all he has done to spiritualise this material, was compelled to portray the inevitable dissolution and ruin of Arthur’s court. Chretien well knew the difference between right and wrong, between reason and passion, as the reader of “Cliges” may learn for himself. Fenice was not Iseut, and she would not have her Cliges to be a Tristan. Infidelity, if you will, but not “menage a trois”. Both “Erec” and “Yvain” present a conventional morality. But “Lancelot” is flagrantly immoral, and the poet is careful to state that for this particular romance he is indebted to his patroness Marie de Champagne. He says it was she who furnished him with both the “matiere” and the “san”, the material of the story and its method of treatment.
Scholars have sought to fix the chronology of the poet’s works, and have been tempted to speculate upon the evolution of his literary and moral ideas. Professor Foerster’s chronology is generally accepted, and there is little likelihood of his being in error when he supposes Chretien’s work to have been done as follows: the lost “Tristan” (the existence of which is denied by Gaston Paris in “Journal des Savants”, 1902, pp. 297 f.), “Erec and Enide”, “Cliges”, “Lancelot”, “Yvain”, “Perceval”. The arguments for this chronology, based upon external as well as internal criticism, may be found in the Introductions to Professor Foerster’s recent editions. When we speculate upon the development of Chretien’s moral ideas we are not on such sure ground. As we have seen, his standards vary widely in the different romances. How much of this variation is due to chance circumstance imposed by the nature of his subject or by the taste of his public, and how much to changing conviction it is easy to see, when we consider some contemporary novelist, how dangerous it is to judge of moral convictions as reflected in literary work. “Lancelot” must be the keystone of any theory constructed concerning the moral evolution of Chretien. The following supposition is tenable, if the chronology of Foerster is correct. After the works of his youth, consisting of lyric poems and translations embodying the ideals of Ovid and of the school of contemporary troubadour poets, Chretien took up the Arthurinn material and started upon a new course. “Erec” is the oldest Arthurinn romance to have survived in any language, but it is almost certainly not the first to have been written. It is a perfectly clean story: of love, estrangement, and reconciliation in the persons of Erec and his charming sweetheart Enide. The psychological analysis of Erec’s motives in the rude testing of Enide is worthy of attention, and is more subtle than anything previous in French literature with which we are acquainted. The poem is an episodical romance in the biography of an Arthurinn hero, with the usual amount of space given to his adventures. “Cliges” apparently connects a Byzantine tale of doubtful origin in an arbitrary fashion with the court of Arthur. It is thought that the story embodies the same motive as the widespread tale of the deception practised upon Solomon by his wife, and that Chretien’s source, as he himself claims, was literary (cf. Gaston Paris in “Journal des Savants”, 1902, pp. 641–655). The scene where Fenice feigns death in order to rejoin her lover is a parallel of many others in literary history, and will, of course, suggest the situation in Romeo and Juliet. This romance well illustrates the drawing power of Arthur’s court as a literary centre, and its use as a rallying-point for courteous knights of whatever extraction. The poem has been termed an “Anti–Tristan”, because of its disparaging reference to the love of Tristan and Iseut, which, it is generally supposed, had been narrated by Chretien in his earlier years. Next may come “Lancelot”, with its significant dedication to the Countess of Champagne. Of all the poet’s work, this tale of the rescue of Guinevere by her lover seems to express most closely the ideals of Marie’s court ideals in which devotion and courtesy but thinly disguise free love. “Yvain” is a return to the poet’s natural bent, in an episodical romance, while “Perceval” crowns his production with its pure and exalted note, though without a touch of that religious mysticism which later marked Wolfram yon Eschenbach’s “Parzival”. “Guillaime d’Angleterre” is a pseudo-historical romance of adventure in which the worldly distresses and the final reward of piety are conventionally exposed. It is uninspired, its place is difficult to determine, and its authorship is questioned by some. It is aside from the Arthurian material, and there is no clue to its place in the evolution of Chretien’s art, if indeed it be his work.
A few words must be devoted to Chretien’s place in the history of mediaeval narrative poetry. The heroic epic songs of France, devoted either to the conflict of Christendom under the leadership of France against the Saracens, or else to the strife and rivalry of French vassals among themselves, had been current for perhaps a century before our poet began to write. These epic poems, of which some three score have survived, portray a warlike, virile, unsentimental feudal society, whose chief occupation was fighting, and whose dominant ideals were faith in God, loyalty to feudal family ties, and bravery in battle. Woman’s place is comparatively obscure, and of love-making there is little said. It is a poetry of vigorous manhood, of uncompromising morality, and of hard knocks given and taken for God, for Christendom, and the King of France. This poetry is written in ten — or twelve-syllable verses grouped, at first in assonanced, later in rhymed, “tirades” of unequal length. It was intended for a society which was still homogeneous, and to it at the outset doubtless all classes of the population listened with equal interest. As poetry it is monotonous, without sense of proportion, padded to facilitate memorisation by professional reciters, and unadorned by figure, fancy, or imagination. Its pretention to historic accuracy begot prosaicness in its approach to the style of the chronicles. But its inspiration was noble, its conception of human duties was lofty. It gives a realistic portrayal of the age which produced it, the age of the first crusades, and to this day we would choose as our models of citizenship Roland and Oliver rather than Tristan and Lancelot. The epic poems, dealing with the pseudo-historical characters who had fought in civil and foreign wars under Charlemagne, remained the favourite literary pabulum of the middle classes until the close of the thirteenth century. Professor Bedier is at present engaged in explaining the extraordinary hold which these poems had upon the public, and in proving that they exercised a distinct function when exploited by the Church throughout the period of the crusades to celebrate local shrines and to promote muscular Christianity. But the refinement which began to penetrate the ideals of the French aristocracy about the middle of the twelfth century craved a different expression in narrative literature. Greek and Roman mythology and history were seized upon with some effect to satisfy the new demand. The “Roman de Thebes”, the “Roman d’Alexandre”, the “Roman de Troie”, and its logical continuation, the “Roman d’Eneas”, are all twelfth-century attempts to clothe classic legend in the dress of mediaeval chivalry. But better fitted to satisfy the new demand was the discovery by the alert Anglo–Normans perhaps in Brittany, perhaps in the South of England, of a vast body of legendary material which, so far as we know, had never before this century received any elaborate literary treatment. The existence of the literary demand and this discovery of the material for its prompt satisfaction is one of the most remarkable coincidences in literary history. It would seem that the pride of the Celtic populations in a Celtic hero, aided and abetted by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who first showed the romantic possibilities of the material, made of the obscure British chieftain Arthur a world conqueror. Arthur thus became already in Geoffrey’s “Historia regum Britaniae” a conscious protagonist of Charlemagne and his rival in popularity. This grandiose conception of Arthur persisted in England, but this conception of the British chieftain did not interest the French. For Chretien Arthur had no political significance. He is simply the arbiter of his court in all affairs of justice and courtesy. Charlemagne’s very realistic entourage of virile and busy barons is replaced by a court of elegant chevaliers and unemployed ladies. Charlemagne’s setting is historical and geographical; Arthur’s setting is ideal and in the air. In the oldest epic poems we find only God-fearing men and a few self-effacing women; in the Arthurian romances we meet gentlemen and ladies, more elegant and seductive than any one in the epic poems, but less fortified by faith and sense of duty against vice because breathing an enervating atmosphere of leisure and decadent morally. Though the Church made the attempt in “Parzival”, it could never lay its hands so effectively upon this Celtic material, because it contained too many elements which were root and branch inconsistent with the essential teachings of Christianity. A fleeting comparison of the noble end of Charlemagne’s Peers fighting for their God and their King at Ronceval with the futile and dilettante careers of Arthur’s knights in joust and hunt, will show better than mere words where the difference lies.
The student of the history of social and moral ideals will find much to interest him in Chretien’s romances. Mediaeval references show that he was held by his immediate successors, as he is held today when fairly viewed, to have been a master of the art of story-telling. More than any other single narrative poet, he was taken as a model both in France and abroad. Professor F. M. Warren has set forth in detail the finer points in the art of poetry as practised by Chretien and his contemporary craftsmen (see “Some Features of Style in Early French Narrative Poetry, 1150–1170 in “Modern Philology”, iii., 179–209; iii., 513–539; iv., 655–675). Poets in his own land refer to him with reverence, and foreign poets complimented him to a high degree by direct translation and by embroidering upon the themes which he had made popular. The knights made famous by Chretien soon crossed the frontiers and obtained rights of citizenship in counties so diverse as Germany, England, Scandinavia, Holland, Italy, and to a lesser extent in Spain and Portugal. The inevitable tendency of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to reduce poetry to prose affected the Arthurian material; vast prose compilations finally embodied in print the matter formerly expressed in verse, and it was in this form that the stories were known to later generations until revived interest in the Middle Ages brought to light the manuscripts in verse.
Aside from certain episodes of Chretien’s romances, the student will be most interested in the treatment of love as therein portrayed. On this topic we may hear speaking the man of his time. “Cliges” contains the body of Chretien’s doctrine of love, while Lancelot is his most perfect lover. His debt to Ovid has not yet been indicated with sufficient preciseness. An elaborate code to govern sentiment and its expression was independently developed by the troubadours of Provence in the early twelfth century. These Provencal ideals of the courtly life were carried into Northern France partly as the result of a royal marriage in 1137 and of the crusade of 1147, and there by such poets as Chretien they were gathered up and fused with the Ovidian doctrine into a highly complicated but perfectly definite statement of the ideal relations of the sexes. Nowhere in the vulgar tongues can a better statement of these relations be found than in “Cliges.”
So we leave Chretien to speak across the ages for himself and his generation. He is to be read as a story-teller rather than as a poet, as a casuist rather than as a philosopher. But when all deductions are made, his significance as a literary artist and as the founder of a precious literary tradition distinguishes him from all other poets of the Latin races between the close of the Empire and the arrival of Dante.
— W. W. COMFORT.
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