Imagine no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail

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
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11 thoughts on “Imagine no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail

  1. Chrétien was one of those really influential medieval writers who helped initiate and create the romantic image of Arthurian knights and of damsels in distress that is so familiar to us nine centuries later. And he wrote great stories!

  2. I’ve heard of Chretien but not read him. Wasn’t the Arthur myth we know today a combination of his work and Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur? Never been sure which bits came from where, though.
    Can’t remember which Hollywood film we were watching a few months ago, but it was set in the modern day and they had a character pullng the sword from the stone and being named the new king of England. I was incensed – all those tourists who’ll come over here, expecting to find Excaliber sticking from a stone in central London! It’s a myth for heaven’s sake. My other half had to calm me down and remind me it was only a film.
    It was racoons in 101 Dalmatians all over again.

    1. Racoons! Bleugh … I’d forgotten those, thanks a bunch, Lynn! And aren’t there some in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit travesty?

      The Arthur myth can certainly be traced from the debris of folklore, 12th century writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth and on through Chretien via scores of other poets and writers to Malory and on to Spenser and Dryden (with music by Purcell) to the Victorian reflowering of Arthuriana under Tennyson and his successors. It’s vastly more complex than we can imagine, and I speak as a relatively ignorant amateur who’s studied the subject for the best part of a half-century. Some day I may even write down to fruits of my deliberations!

      1. Well, you don’t sound like an ignorant amateur to me 🙂 Though, granted it sounds like you’d need a couple of life times to write anything defninitive on the subject.
        I’m not sure about the crime of having racoons in the Hobbit films – I watched the first film and there was so much drinking and carousing and ‘fol-de-rolding’ I lost attention – too busy searching for the exit!
        I know American films’ main market is Americans and I know the racoon is short hand for them for rascally pests – but honestly, a tiny scan of Wiki could’ve told them the only place you’ll find them here is sitting bored in a zoo enclosure. Just irritating 🙂

    1. Nothing more than a myth? But the myth itself is vastly more potent and significant to our collective psyches than the question if whether one shadowy figure existed or not, let alone whether he may or may not have had an impact on historical events. My shelves of both learned and misconceived studies, many flatly contradicting each other, are testament to the power of that constantly evolving myth.

      Think of it as a tornado, Col, a whirlwind drawing in whatever debris it plucks from its path; ultimately its origin may be nothing more than empty air set in motion by serendipitous circumstances …

        1. If the best of the retellings of Arthurian legends are about love and life and quests undertaken to find meaning then one can’t ask much more; but if they’re just a parade of personages about whom one cares not a jot, or cardboard cut-outs for mediocre authors to hide behind or preach a dubious sermon around then they will indeed be insignificant tales full of sound and fury. And you and I, Col, will of course have nothing to do with them!

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