Chrétien de Troyes: Cligès

December 1, 2011

Chrétien de Troyes
(Yale, 1997) [c.1170]
Translated from the Old French by Burton Raffel
243 p.

Cligès is believed to be the second of five romances written by Chrétien de Troyes, following after Erec and Enide. In the finest medieval tradition, it is a rousing tale of knightly valour, passionate but forbidden love, courtly etiquette, intricate subterfuge, and unnatural wonders. It is written with warmth and good humour.

Our hero is heir to the Byzantine Empire, but, following the advice of his father, he leaves his native land while still a young man in order to test his mettle against the world’s finest knights — none other than Arthur and his circle, of course, in far off Britain. Being a hero he, needless to say, proves himself equal to the mightiest among them (only Gawain is his match). Summoned home, however, by reports that his unscrupulous uncle intends to usurp the throne, Cligès returns to Constantinople, only to himself fall in love with his uncle’s betrothed, Fenice. Though he is unable to prevent the marriage, Cligès and Fenice nonetheless carry on a covert love affair. (This is not quite so improper as it seems, for, owing to a potion prepared especially for Cligès’ uncle, the putative marriage is not actual, if you catch my meaning.) Cligès and Fenice plan to run away together, making use of a ruse of pretended death in order to escape without suspicion. The plot being discovered, however, and their deception revealed, Fenice’s husband conveniently dies of shock, leaving the two lovers free to marry, and granting the reader a happy ending.

Curiously, Cligès himself does not appear until line 2367, the preceding section of the poem, amounting to over one-third of the total length, being devoted to a back-story about his father, whose knightly exploits among Arthur and his companions are a parallel to Cligès’ own. We learn also that Cligès’ mother was none other than Arthur’s own niece, so that he unites in his person the nobility of both East and West.

There are numerous parallels between this story and that of Tristan and Ysault, which was already a well-loved tale at the time Chrétien was writing: in both tales a younger man falls in love with his uncle’s fiancee, and in both a magic potion is used (though for quite different purposes). There are some grounds, apparently, for supposing that Cligès was written as a particularly deft parody of Tristan, and of romantic love stories generally.

The amount of humour in the poem surprised me. We expect, for instance, the poet to praise the surpassing and inarticulable beauty of his heroine, for what language could be as lovely as the heroine of a medieval romance? Chrétien, however, lays it on rather thickly, as in this passage describing Fenice:

Fenice was the loveliest of ladies,
Her beauty unmatched, so wondrous
A miracle that, having achieved it,
Clearly Nature could never
Hope to achieve it again.
Knowing I can’t describe her
In words, I won’t attempt
To tell you of her arms, her body,
Her head, her hands: stretch
My life to a thousand years,
And double my talent each day,
And still I would always fail.
Why should I try, well
Aware that no matter how hard
I worked, and what skill I employed,
All my effort would be wasted.
So: the girl hurried
To the palace…

He is here claiming that his talent is unequal to Fenice’s beauty by a factor of roughly 10^100000, which does seem a bit much. The drubbing on the same theme, exaggerating the claim each time — this strikes me as comedic.

In another place, he introduces an extended metaphor into the description of a battle, but the metaphor is based on just about the least valorous and splendid topic one could imagine: accounting. He writes:

For every leaping swordstroke
Threw off showers of sparks
Like a blacksmith in his forge hammering
Red-hot iron on an anvil.
They offered each other stunning
strokes, both of them generous,
Both determined to pay back
Blows without delay,
Both spending their combat capital
Freely, not counting pennies,
Not stopping to appraise each other’s
Security or calculate interest.

That gradual descent into cool technical jargon after the vivid image of the glowing forge, pivoting around an equivocation on “pay back”, once again sounds like parody to me. (In saying this I assume, of course, that the same or a similar pun is present in the original.)

As a final example, consider this amusing section in which the poet, having alluded to his lovers “giving their hearts to one another”, stumbles over himself to warn his readers not to take the phrase literally.

Their hearts followed their eyes
In a silent exchange of vows.
Vows? They gave themselves!
Gave? No, no, that’s a lie,
For no one can give his heart.
I need to say this differently.
I don’t agree with those
Who say two hearts become one —
That’s false and impossible; a single
Body can’t have two hearts;
Even if two were joined
Together, it wouldn’t be real.
But if you’ll listen for a moment
I think I can tell you exactly
How two hearts can be one,
Without physically joining.
They’re one and the same because
What each one wants is sensed
And felt by the other: that’s all.
They want the same thing and want it
So much that we say — or some of us
Do — that instead of one heart
Each possesses two,
Though a single heart can’t be
In two bodies. And yet two hearts
Can share a single desire,
Much as many different
Voices can sing the very
Same song: the comparison proves
A single body can’t have
Two hearts. Consider that settled.
No matter that one heart knows
What the other wants, and wants it,
Too, they’re still separate,
Just as voices singing
Together are joined, in a sense,
But aren’t a single voice;
No body can have two hearts.

Try to imagine the poet reciting that section before an audience: he keeps circling around, belabouring an obvious point, summing up, then slipping into the mire again, and again. Funny.

This poem has been my introduction to Chrétien de Troyes, and I must say that I enjoyed it thoroughly. It is written with lively intelligence, and the story moves along briskly. Not all medieval literature is readily accessible to modern readers, but this is. I look forward to reading other of Chrétien’s poems in the near future.

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