Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2019-20: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time
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Unit IX: Romance and Mysticism, A.D. 1100-1330

Week 30: Chrétien de Troyes, fl. 1160-75

For this week, please read:

Castle of Love
Ivory mirror case: Siege of the Castle of Love.
Paris, Musée du Louvre.
Photograph © Copyright 2010, Bruce A. McMenomy.

This week, we will dip somewhat into the Arthurian Romance tradition — something fundamentally different from that of epic, but one that has colored many forms of literature since, and has made its influence felt even in the Nibelungenlied, as we observed last week. An enormous body of literature is connected with the Arthurian tradition, only some of which would properly be called romance, but some of the earliest (and finest) examples are the works of Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote in the Champagne district of France in the latter half of the twelfth century. His works are not widely known to the general reading public, which is unfortunate, since they are quite entertaining.

The penetration of the so-called “Matter of Britain” — i.e., the Arthurian mythology — into the literature not only of England but also of the Continent (especially France and Germany) testifies to its enduring appeal. Unfortunately, we cannot pursue this line nearly as far as I would like — there are many different branches: the Latin chronicles of Gildas and Nennius; the Welsh Mabinogion (in parts); the French “Vulgate Cycle” (including perhaps the purest and most magnificent of the Grail stories); Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan (German, about the ill-fated love between Sir Tristan [Tristram] and Isolde [Iseult], the wife of King Mark of Cornwall) or the same story told by the French author Beroul; Wolfram von Eschenbach’s sprawling Parzival (German, and including, among other things, the story of the Grail). All these are worth reading, and — if you like the Arthurian material — wonderfully varied above and beyond the best-known of the Arthurian tales, the English Morte d’Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory. Those who are particularly hungry to pursue this material might well consider Western Literature to Dante II, which I teach when there is sufficient demand, and which goes into a good deal more of this material.

Authors in the twentieth century have reworked the story as well — including T. H. White (whose The Once and Future King was the immediate inspiration for the musical “Camelot”) or the strange and wonderful Arthurian poetry of Charles Williams (a publisher who managed simultaneously to be a friend to both C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot — who didn’t much like each other) published in two volumes, Taliesin through Logres, and The Region of the Summer Stars. The Arthurian Grail myth provides some of the impetus for Eliot’s landmark poem The Waste Land.

Tapestry image of lion.
Lion, detail from La Dame à la Licorne tapestry series.
Paris, Musée National du Moyen Âge (Musee Cluny).
Photograph © Copyright 2010, Bruce A. McMenomy

The central Arthur story is extremely old. When the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 400s, they left an enormous power vacuum behind them, which continental Germanic tribes (specifically the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) were only too eager to fill. As nearly as we can determine, the historical kernel behind our elaborated modern story of King Arthur is the career of a Roman-British chieftain who resisted the newcomers — a story twice as old to Malory as Malory is to us. Fragments of this story are preserved in the tradition, though the names of the chief players are garbled and the narrative confused. Certainly most of the courtly culture we read about from Malory and other late Arthurian authors — with the jousting, and so on — has more to do with fanciful ornamentation than with the historical truth.

Be that as it may, the fundamental Arthurian story is one of a culture-hero, battling against impossible odds to prevent the collapse of civilization. In most versions of the story, a chieftain arises from obscure origins to lead his people and create an island of culture, which is ultimately to prove only a momentary phenomenon — the cultural and political forces ranged against it are too enormous. Within this story, however, are arranged a thousand strands of subordinate story, involving the separate careers of many heroic figures and one great quest — the search for the Holy Grail.

This week’s romance is relatively free from the complex lines of the central story, but it presumes a basic understanding of the court of Arthur and the characters there. The story is simply entitled Yvain, and it is rather long. The translation is fairly straightforward, which will be a relief after the recent weeks’ readings; read at least the first main section (verses 1-2328 — about a third of the whole). If you want to read more, feel free. I suspect many will want to read the whole story, if only to find out how it comes out; but if you can’t, that’s okay.

For those who’d like a little taste of the original text in Old French, I give the first stanza here. No, I don’t expect you to be able to read Old French, though you might, if you're familiar with French at all, be able to notice how different this is from the French of the Song of Roland.

Artus, Ii boens rois de Bretaingne,
La cui proesce nos enseigne,
Que nos soiens preu et cortois,
Tint cort si riche come rois
A cele feste, qui tant coste,
Qu'an doit clamer la Pantecoste;
Li rois fu a Carduel en Gales.

Consider for discussion in class:

  1. How does this compare with the tonality of the Nibelungenlied, which is largely based in its presentation on this material or other material of this kind?
  2. What is the hero like here? What qualifies him, and what are his goals? What are his virtues?
  3. Does the arbitrary nature of some of these adventures and apparent obligations bother you?
  4. Is there a meaningful moral axis in this story?