Tuesday, 31 March 1998

Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances

Edition: Everyman
Contents: Erec et Enide, Cligés, Yvain and Lancelot 
Translation: W.W. Comfort, 1914
Review number: 16

This Everyman volume contains the four romances Erec et Enide, Cligés, Yvain and Lancelot, translated into prose. It's always interesting to read the early source material for the Arthur legends. Although I had read both the Mabinogion and Malory's Morte d'Arthur, these romances were new to me, though they are even earlier than the Welsh legends and I had known their importance for ages.

One of the most interesting parts of these tales is the way that the attempts made by Chrétien to remove the more grossly supernatural Celtic legends in his source material (trips to the underworld, encounters with Celtic deities) has led to the introduction of small inconsistencies and justifications which later turn into important parts of the legend.

There are two difficulties in reading these stories. The first is that they are written throughout in the present tense, which to a modern reader is rather clumsy and wearing. The second is the translation, which is not into modern English, but into the sort of English which Ivanhoe made generations think the right way of writing medieval English. (I've expanded on what I think of this in my review of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel.)

The stories themselves concern standard ideas from the Arthurian background; Erec et Enide is about a knight who becomes sufficiently uxorious to neglect his knightly duties; Cligés and Lancelot concern young men seeking to prove themselves as knights; and Yvain is a balance to Erec et Enide, about a knight who neglects his wife for jousting.

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