Monday, April 14, 2014

Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes

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?  


Unknown said...

Wait, English translation is not in verse? I wonder then if it does do justice the original, as the original is in verse. I've read three of them in Russian, and the verse was beautiful: it felt totally medieval! Unfortunately, there are no Russian translations of Lancelot or Perceval that I could find in the Internet, so I guess I'll have to read them in English. So it's really a pity there is no verse :(

Sophia said...

Oh I read both Lancelot and Yvain for my Arthurian Lit class - I'm saving the rest for summer when I have more time. I did enjoy reading them and am looking forward to the rest!

Jean said...

Ekaterina, there is a verse translation, but I've only seen it a couple of times. Each story is published separately and is more expensive. I have not read any of them! I do like them in story form, though. My book doesn't have the Grail story--I want to get hold of it. I'm reading the Quest of the Holy Grail right now and it is so cool.

Cleo said...

Thanks for the lovely review, Ruth! I'm so looking forward to reading these stories. I am mired in Le Morte d'Arthur at the moment, partly because I've over-committed on other reads and partly because I can't seem to spur myself to get into the story. At least I have Chretien to look forward to.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you read all the works of Chretien de Troyes! That's so cool.

Chretien de Troyes wrote his works in old French. I can read middle and modern French but not old French. So, I read a modern French translation of The Knight and the Cart. I have compared some passages to the old French and the original seems very beautiful indeed. Chretien de Troyes writes in the Alexandrine (12 syllables, AABB rhyme scheme).

Ruth said...

My version was not in verse, and I had no idea it was available. The plain English was really fine, and I am glad to have read it in this manner, but the wording seems too beautiful to be something written so simply.

Ruth said...

Yvain was one of my favorites, and I also liked Erec and Enide.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Cleo.

Oh, no! I was hoping you were enjoying Le Morte d'Arthur. It's not on my TBR list, but I do want to read it at some point.

Ruth said...

Old French? Would it help to know Latin in order to read Old French? Not that I can read Latin, but I was just wondering.

Even in a modern French language, it seems, would be more fitting compared to the simple English version I read. The subject matter just calls for something intricate.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Jean, for introducing me to Chrétien. I felt like it took me so long to read through, but it was well worth it.

Jean said...

It might be easier if you listen to Derek Jacobi's very nice audio retelling? I like it a lot.

Jean said...

You are very welcome! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. :)

(And just think--now you are too knowledgeable to get caught as an acquaintance of mine did the other day. He was all excited to find some genealogy that claimed he was descended from Lancelot. Which is a little problematic...)

Cleo said...

Thanks for the tip, Jean. I honestly can't quite peg why I'm not enjoying it. Perhaps reading Once and Future King first put me off it ….??? I'm finding it a little disjointed too. One on-line reading friend, who had read it in a college course and loves it, said the enjoyment is as much from what Mallory isn't saying as it is from what he is. I'm still trying to figure it all out. It's not bad, I just can't seem to connect with it, which is highly unusual because I can usually connect with most classics on one level or another. But I'm plugging away, though very slowly.

Anonymous said...

Knowing Latin would probably help a lot. I understand your frustration about translation. I have found that the best of translations generally pale in comparison to the original. That being said, there are many books I have read in translation that I have enjoyed (Beowulf for example - I really need to post that review).

Ruth said...

Oh, yes. You should post a review of Beowulf. I'd love to know the translation you read, especially if you liked it, because I need to read Beowulf for TWEM poetry. Bauer always suggests a translation, but it is good to know the opinions of others.

o said...

This looks wonderful! I'm going to try and get a copy :)

Anonymous said...

Ruth, I really enjoyed the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf and would highly recommend it. This past summer I read Erec and Enide, Yvain, and Lancelot, but I stopped and moved onto other things before reading the other two. Was Cliges and Percival worth reading?

Ruth said...

I'll write down that suggestion, too. Thanks.

My favorite stories of the Arthurian Romances were of Erec and Enide and Yvain; but I also liked the love story of Cligés and Fenice. It was innocent, and Cligés was brave and good. And while Perceval is my least favorite of the five, it is still worthy. Some of the major themes centered on religious observances, redemption and other Christian qualities, and the honor of a knight. There also seemed to be more conflicts than in the other stories, but I really did not compare them.