Norris J Lacy and Joan Tasker Grimbert (editors)
A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes
D S Brewer 2008
We have a lot to be thankful to Chrétien de Troyes for: without him there would be no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail; he virtually kickstarted the romance tradition through his use of a vernacular language, French; and of the six surviving texts ascribed to him five have — to a greater or lesser extent — an Arthurian background. So, one of the great literary what-ifs must hinge on whether Arthurian literature, both medieval and modern, would have been what it is now if not for Chrétien.
This Companion, one of D S Brewer’s invaluable Arthurian Studies series, was first published in 2005 in hardback, joining similar studies of the Lancelot-Grail cycle, the Gawain-poet and Malory. Seventeen especially-commissioned and authoritative essays examine the historical and literary and contexts to Chrétien’s works, the six key texts (including Philomena, ascribed to Chrétien) and then the far-reaching responses to his innovation in creating what is termed here “the Breton romance”.
Philomena, a dark tale based on a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, introduced a leitmotif that runs through all his known romances, that of love and desire. In a later romance, Cligés, Chrétien helpfully lists his previous works in French: Erec et Enide, The Commandments of Ovid, Ovid’s The Art of Love and The Shoulder Bite, King Marc and Ysalt the Blonde, and The Metamorphosis of the Hoopoe, the Swallow and the Nightingale (the latter almost certainly the original of the extant Philomena, attributed to a ‘Cretiens li Gois’). These split into two groups, those based on Ovid and those deriving from Breton tales, and it is the latter group that largely survives to this day, though sadly without the Mark and Iseult narrative.
The essays discuss the poet’s significance as an innovator, from Erec et Enide (“the first Arthurian romance”) which introduces Arthur’s court as a frame for the narrative and demonstrates sophistication in its portrayal of individual psychology, through Cligés, the introduction of Lancelot in Le Chevalier de la Charette, Yvain’s exploits in Le Chevalier au Lion and Perceval and Gawain’s quests in Chrétien’s unfinished Le Conte du Graal. As enlightening as the academic studies of individual texts are – with their examinations of subject matter, meaning, interlace and language, with translations – the assessments of Chrétien’s legacy in succeeding centuries are equally insightful, though it would be invidious to single out particular essays for praise: all provide informed interpretations plus delightful background gems (such as Lady Guest providing the first modern transcription of Yvain, in her 1838 Mabinogion translation).
If these essays encourage you to read (or re-read) Chrétien’s Arthurian works they will have done their work well. For specialists and non-specialists alike this must be the ultimate Chrétien vademecum; I certainly appreciated Chrétien’s innovations as a story-teller much more as a result of reading these studies.
- This review first appeared in 2006 in Pendragon, the Journal of the Pendragon Society, and then again here July 24th 2012 before this final (?) re-post