contributor.author: Craig R. Davis

title.none: Lacy and Grimbert, A Companion to Chretien de Troyes (Craig R. Davis)

identifier.other: baj9928.0706.004 07.06.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Craig R. Davis, Smith College, crdavis@smith.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Lacy, Norris J. and Joan Tasker Grimbert, eds. A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes. Arthurian Studies, vol. 63. Woodbridge, U.K.: D.S. Brewer, 2005. Pp. xiv, 242. $80.00 (hb) 1-84384-050-2 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.06.04

Lacy, Norris J. and Joan Tasker Grimbert, eds. A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes. Arthurian Studies, vol. 63. Woodbridge, U.K.: D.S. Brewer, 2005. Pp. xiv, 242. $80.00 (hb) 1-84384-050-2 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Craig R. Davis
Smith College
crdavis@smith.edu

This volume contains succinct but full chapters by sixteen contributors on the sources, achievement and reception of one of the first major poets in Old French. If Chrétien de Troyes did not invent the classic Arthurian romance, he certainly established its conventions and first imagined the key fictional relationships that ever since have continued to provoke powerful responses in subsequent readers of the genre. The collection provides useful and compact scholarly aid to all serious students of Chrétien de Troyes, including fresh thematic studies of his extant works and a ready reference on the poet's patrons, manuscripts, and verbal art, as well as on the later medieval continuations, adaptations and influence of his work. It supplies a select bibliography of other bibliographies, editions, translations, and critical studies, with a helpful index.

John W. Baldwin begins by locating "Chrétien in History," observing that the poet's likely floruit spans the three decades from 1159 to 1190. The period is remarkably well documented in both Latin and French sources, but Chrétien religiously eschews any contemporary political reference whatsoever in the creation of his distinctly imaginary worlds. Perhaps for this very reason he was an almost instant success in other countries, soon being translated into English, German and Norse, and inspiring in his own tongue multiple progeny in verse and prose, including the vast Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles of the next century or so. Chrétien's fantasy realm also provoked a curious reaction in the work of Jean Renart and Gerbert de Montreuil, who composed romances with fictional protagonists modeled on the Arthurian knights of Chrétien, but which are placed among secondary historical characters in stories that are precisely situated in contemporary time and actual place.

June Hall McCash looks more closely at what we know about "Chrétien's Patrons" for further insight into the influence of their personal visions upon his art. The poet says explicitly that Marie, Countess of Champagne, gave him the matiere ('plot') as well as the san ('theme, purport') of his Lancelot: he was presumably to express her own ideas of fin'amors ('true love'). Chrétien says Philip of Flanders gave him a livre ('source text') for his Perceval. The result of this direction from above is that Marie's love story and Philip's Grail quest became the "most powerful and influential works [Chrétien] ever produced...even unto our own day, while the romances that he completed and wrote apparently without patronage, though they may be artistically superior, have remained largely within their medieval context and have not caught the world's imagination." (25) The difference, McCash suggests, is that the heroes Lancelot and Perceval find themselves in service to something "greater than themselves, more important than their own reputations, their personal honour or even their social responsibility," while Erec and Yvain have more quotidian and culture-bound preoccupations in learning to balance their identities as effective fighting knights with their other roles in life "as husband and ruler". (25)

Laurence Harf-Lancner explores "Chrétien's Literary Background." She reminds us that Old French romanz was originally an adverb from Latin romanice, 'Romanishly, in the Roman manner (of speaking)', as opposed to the Latin manner of writing, yielding the noun romanz for a work in that colloquial tongue. This stress upon ordinary utterance is reflected in the fact that these works "adopted the octosyllabic couplet, the most neutral metre, the closest to prose...in radical opposition to the chanson de geste, composed in chanted decasyllabic or alexandrine stanzas." (28) This difference between a higher and lower poetic register in vernacular poetry suggests that romances were designed not for formal public declamation by heart, but rather to be read, quietly to oneself or aloud to others, as illustrated by a scene in Yvain. Yet, romance writers, too, were proud of the dignity and significance of their work, promising readers, especially at the Plantagenet court in London, that they were preserving not only the memory of Greco-Roman antiquity but also of ancient Britain. The elegant ambience of Arthur's court, described in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (1138) and Wace's Roman de Brut (1155), found expression in the lais of Chrétien's contemporary Marie de France, as well as in his own first Arthurian romance Erec et Enide (c. 1170). Both Chrétien and Marie also drew upon popular oral antecedents, so that a number of themes and motifs from Celtic tradition, including an interest in love and the marvelous animal guide--a white doe or stag or boar--appear in their works. Norris J. Lacy notes briefly what we know about this oral tradition in "The Arthurian Legend Before Chrétien," suggesting plausibly that the poet found there several ideas, not originally associated with the figure of Arthur, that he himself securely fixed in the Arthurian orbit. Among these story-patterns may very well be the "love triangle" between Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere, which was probably modeled upon an older cycle of tales about the court of Cornwall involving Drystan, Yssyllt and Marc. But Lacy has probably overstated the case for the extent of Chrétien's original invention when he suggests that it was this poet who "set the paradigm of the episodic romance [and] shifted the primary focus from Arthur himself to one or more of his knights". (51) This tendency is already apparent in the Welsh prose tale Culhwch ac Olwen (11th c.), where Arthur's men undertake a whole series of anoethau ('difficult tasks'), as well as in the earlier Welsh poems, Pa Gwr yw y Porthawr ('What Man Guards the Gate?') and Preiddeu Annwn ('The Spoils of Annwn'). In this last poem, Arthur joins his men to seek a miraculous cauldron of rebirth from the lord of the "Un-world" or Otherworld, a story that clearly anticipates Chrétien's quest for the Grail. It is sincerely to be regretted that the editors of this fine collection did not recruit among their experts a scholar conversant with these vernacular Brittonic traditions, promulgated in a distinct cultural complex through many centuries from southern Scotland through Wales to Brittany. Chrétien and Marie de France were the main conduits through which these Celtic narrative forms entered the higher registers of European literary tradition. Yet, Lacy relegates to a single footnote one of the abiding questions of Chrétien scholarship: the relationship between y tair rhamant, the three medieval Welsh romances--Owein, Gereint and Peredur--and their obvious analogues in Yvain, Erec et Enide and Perceval, respectively. These Welsh texts, once taken by some scholars as Chrétien's actual sources, post-date his own three romances in their extant MS form by two centuries. There are thus at least three possibilities, in order of increasing likelihood: (1) both sets of romances in Welsh and French derive independently from common lost sources, either oral or written; (2) the surviving Welsh romances represent written lost archetypes from the 12th century or earlier with which Chrétien somehow became familiar: at least we can recall that the poet himself says he was given a book containing the story of the Welsh knight Peredur/Perceval by Philip of Flanders; or (3) my own view, that the extant Welsh romances are based upon the three poems of Chrétien, who had been inspired by tales from Brittonic tradition, then transformed them in his own distinctively assimilative imagination, after which they were borrowed back and "retraditionalized," that is, adapted once more to the style and structure of popular Welsh cyfarwyddiaid ('prose story-telling'). This reviewer would have loved to see the question reopened and explored in depth by a scholar who knows both Chrétien and Celtic tradition, since it remains one of the most fascinating unanswered questions of comparative medieval literature. Parallels to such oral/literary cross-fertilization, even between languages, can be adduced from South Slavic, South Asian and many other traditions. But in any case, Lacy supplies in his chapter a very clear and useful account of Chrétien's relation to his known literary antecedents, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace.

Douglas Kelly explains Chrétien's "Narrative Poetics: Rhetoric, Orality and Performance," with special focus upon his effort to create une mout bele conjointure ('a most beautiful composition'), as the poet says in the beginning of Erec et Enide. Chrétien saw as the heart of his poetic technique the artful conjoining of striking and unexpected elements, from the original plot and theme that he put together for Marie in Lancelot, to the entrelacement ('intertwining' or juxtaposition of disparate and mutually reflexive episodes). He once even conjoins different romances, as when Gauvain's unsuccessful quest for Guenevere in Lancelot is adduced as the reason for his absence at the end of Yvain. And of course Chrétien revels in more localized double entendres and other forms of paronomasia. These various rhetorical and narrative conjunctions are combined, for instance, in the scene that concludes the two interlaced episodes that make up the "mini-romance" at the beginning of Erec et Enide, the Hunt for the White Stag and the Sparrowhawk Duel. The two lovers are themselves joined in une mout bele conjointure, this time a sexual union more passionate than "the hunted stag...pants from thirst for the fountain" or "the hungry sparrowhawk" returns to the falconer's bait (lines 2077-82). Kelly reminds us that while Chrétien wrote his romances to be read, these clever conjunctions and other poetic effects were also designed to be enjoyed aurally by thoughtful listeners who could not themselves read. (52)

In "The Manuscripts of Chrétien's Romances," Keith Busby describes the texts which these readers used, many revealing a clustering of words on the page and use of punctuation that seem to mark the rhythm of the octosyllabic line and signal other metrical and oral effects, like enjambment, rising or falling intonation, or serial enumeration. Busby concludes that these manuscripts "served as performance copies for jongleurs or reference copies for professional organizations". (74) On the other hand, "illuminated manuscripts were almost certainly intended for individual private reading," but the illuminations seem often to have been added, space permitting, to texts that had been earlier used as performance copies. There are no surviving manuscripts from Chrétien's first audience at the Anglo-Angevin court. Of the five romances, Perceval survives in the greatest number (fifteen), while the others are preserved in seven or eight medieval copies apiece, showing a continued interest in Chrétien's work through the middle of the fourteenth century. Peter F. Dembowski reprises the modern history of "Editing Chrétien," the different approaches undertaken and the challenges encountered therein.

In "Philomena: Brutal Transitions and Courtly Transformations in Chrétien's Old French Translation" from Ovid's Metamorphoses, Roberta L. Krueger considers a work for which "there is general consensus today that the stylistic features and thematic preoccupations...reveal the nascent talent of the Champenois master". (89) She concludes that if "Philomena is indeed Chrétien's, then the founding narrative by one of the first and most influential romancers is a tale not of love and honour, but of deception, rape, incest, mutilation, infanticide and cannibalism". (89) This tale probes "the problematic link between courtly discourse and uncourtly violence that will pervade later Arthurian romance". (91)

Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox discuss a much more idealized depiction of erotic desire in "Erec et Enide: The First Arthurian Romance," one which offers a model of personal growth and maturity that addresses many of the conflicts of value inherent in a rapidly changing feudal society. Chrétien was also responsive to current philosophical movements, especially the view of the natural world expressed by his contemporary Neoplatonic colleagues writing in Latin at Chartres, Bernardus Silvestris and Alain de Lilles. He, too, depicts a powerfully personified female Nature, "who herself thrice marvels at the superlative beauty of her own creation [Enide] (vss 411-41)". (116) But Chrétien reveals a further sense that these goods of Nature, beauty and desire, do not by themselves provide an adequate impetus to moral action and social responsibility. (118) In the "Joy of the Court" episode at the end of the romance, the now wiser heroine and rehabilitated hero free another couple imprisoned, as they had been, in a "deceptively 'edenic' garden" of love (118), thereby inspiring in others what they have learned themselves, that is, to harmonize private passion with public service.

Joan Tasker Grimbert describes Chrétien's least appreciated and perhaps most ironic of his five romances in "Cligés and the Chansons: A Slave to Love." She includes a discussion of his two extant love lyrics or chansons courtoises, in part to clarify both his early debt to and later distance from the troubadours. These two short poems evoke the longing of a "perfect lover" which "is thoroughly believable" in its brief intensity. (136) But Chrétien challenges the quality and sustainability of that passion in Cligés, where two sets of lovers must persevere through many obstacles and practice many deceptions in order to achieve their happy ending. He finishes his poem on a peculiarly ambiguous note, saying that ever after Byzantine empresses were guarded strictly by eunuchs to prevent the same kind of passion that ruled his heroine Fenice from similarly enslaving them.

Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner describes "Le Chevalier de la Charrette: That Obscure Object of Desire, Lancelot," a character whose "absorption in love for the queen generates a magnetic force field pulling the desire of others toward him even as his [own desire] overflows into service for all". (142) Yet, Chrétien has constructed many scenes in a way that forces us to ponder the effect of the smitten hero's feelings upon his own dignity and quality as a character: "Has love humiliated or elevated the knight? Is Lancelot ennobled or emasculated by his submission to the queen?" (143) The answer seems finally to be that the lover's desire is a kind of holy, even messianic power that transforms and transcends the emotional lives of those who come into contact with it--its mortal object, the haughty queen, no less than others. Chrétien thus converts the "subversive and disordered passion" of adulterous love (147) into a potent force in the service of a king and society it only seems to betray. Lancelot is "not Arthur's best knight in spite of, but because of his love for the queen" (154), Bruckner avers. Chrétien is not "recommending or disapproving courtly love" (154), but rather inviting "debate, interpretation and judgment" on the part of his readers: his "success can be measured by the passionate enthusiasm" of both medieval and modern responses to the hero and his love that Chrétien has imagined. (155)

Similarly searching readings are offered by Tony Hunt in "Le Chevalier au Lion: Yvain Lionheart" and Rupert T. Pickens in "Le Conte du Graal: Chrétien's Unfinished Last Romance." Annie Combes discusses "The Continuations of the Conte du Graal" and Michelle Szkilnik "Medieval Translations and Adaptations of Chrétien's Work," while Emmanuèle Baumgartner concludes the collection with "Chrétien's Medieval Influence: From the Grail Quest to the Joy of the Court." This volume will thus be a new starting point for all future work on "the Champenois master" and his literary legacy.