Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2017-18: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time
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Unit IX: Romance and Mysticism, A.D. 1100-1330

Week 30: Chrétien de Troyes, fl. 1160-75

For this week, please read:

This week, we will dip somewhat into the Arthurian Romance tradition — a tradition fundamentally different from that of epic, but one which has colored many forms of literature since, and which made its influence felt even in the Nibelungenlied, which we read last time. There is an enormous body of literature connected with the Arthurian tradition, only some of which would properly be called romance, but some of the earliest (and finest) examples are the works of Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote in the Champagne district of France in the latter half of the twelfth century. His works are not widely known to the general reading public, which is unfortunate, since they are quite entertaining.

Ivory mirror case; Siege of the Castle of Love. Paris, Muse du Louvre. Photograph, Bruce A. McMenomyThe penetration of the so-called “Matter of Britain” — i.e., the Arthurian tale — into the literature not only of England but also of the Continent (esp. France and Germany) is a testimony to the enduring appeal of the fundamental story. It is unfortunate that we cannot pursue this line nearly as far as I would like — there are many different branches: the Latin chronicles of Gildas and Nennius; the Welsh Mabinogion (in parts); the French “Vulgate Cycle” (including perhaps the purest and most magnificent of the Grail stories); Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan (German, about the ill-fated love between Sir Tristan [Tristram] and Isolde [Iseult], the wife of King Mark of Cornwall) or the same story told by the French author Beroul; Wolfram von Eschenbach’s sprawling Parzival (German, and including, among other things, the story of the Grail). All these are worth reading, and — if you like the Arthurian material — wonderfully varied above and beyond the best-known of the Arthurian tales, the English Morte d’Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory. Authors in the twentieth century have reworked the story as well — including T. H. White (whose The Once and Future King was the immediate inspiration for the musical “Camelot”) or the strange and wonderful Arthurian poetry of Charles Williams (a publisher who managed simultaneously to be a friend to both C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot — who didn’t much like each other) published in two volumes, Taliesin through Logres, and The Region of the Summer Stars.

The central Arthur story is extremely old. When the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 400s, they left an enormous power vacuum behind them, which continental Germanic tribes (specifically the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) were only too eager to fill. As nearly as we can determine, the historical kernel behind our elaborated modern story of King Arthur is the career of a Roman-British chieftain who resisted the newcomers — a story twice as old to Malory as Malory is to us. Fragments of this story are preserved in the tradition, though the names of the chief players are garbled and the narrative confused. Certainly most of the courtly culture we read about from Malory and other late Arthurian authors — with the jousting, and so on — has more to do with fanciful ornamentation than with the historical truth.

Lion, from <i>La Dame  la Licorne</i> tapestry series. Paris, Muse National du Moyen Age (Musee Cluny). Photograph, Bruce A. McMenomyBe that as it may, the fundamental Arthurian story is one of a culture-hero, battling against impossible odds to prevent the collapse of civilization. In most versions of the story, a chieftain arises from obscure origins to lead his people and create an island of culture, which is ultimately to prove only a momentary phenomenon — the cultural and political forces ranged against it are too enormous. Within this story, however, are arranged a thousand strands of subordinate story, involving the separate careers of many heroic figures and one great quest — the search for the Holy Grail.

This week’s romance is relatively free from the complex lines of the central story, but it presumes a basic understanding of the court of Arthur and the characters there. The story is simply entitled Yvain, and it is rather long. What I would like you to do is to go to the site linked here (the translation is rather straightforward, which will be a relief after the recent weeks’ readings) and read at least the first main section (verses 1-2328 — about a third of the whole). If you want to read more, feel free. I suspect many will want to read the whole story, if only to find out how it comes out; but if you can’t, that’s okay. Also read the relevant chapter in Mimesis, “A Knight Rides Forth,” which is based on this tale.