Chrétien de Troyes: Erec and Enide

January 10, 2012

Erec and Enide
Chrétien de Troyes
(Yale, 1997) [c.1170]
Translated from Old French by Burton Raffel.
246 p.

Coming in, I knew that Erec and Enide was the first romance written by Chrétien de Troyes, but I did not know that it was actually the first Arthurian romance written by anyone. It is not that Chrétien invented the Arthurian tradition, of course, but he was the first to pluck a strand of it and weave a high-brow poetic masterpiece. It is a lively and hugely enjoyable tale, full to the brim with the winsome qualities we associate with medieval literature: brave knights, beautiful maidens, chivalry and honour, mystery and enchantment, quests, feasts and tournaments, and good humour.

The story concerns Erec, a knight of Arthur’s circle, and his love for Enide, a noble but (at poem’s beginning) poor young woman. Erec meets her while on a quest to avenge a slight to Queen Guinevere’s honour, and they are soon married in Arthur’s court. Blissful in his beloved’s arms, Erec forsakes those activities — adventuring, jousting, and hunting — proper to a knight, preferring to lounge about in bed, and folks’ tongues begin wagging. Spurred by this gossip, Erec undertakes a quest, taking Enide with him, not so much for companionship (she is instructed not to speak) as simply to witness his feats of valour. The culminating adventure, which apparently draws on Welsh source material, has Erec entering a mysterious garden, there to rescue a knight of surpassing strength and strict honesty trapped by his own promise not to leave until he is defeated in combat. Doing him this favour, Erec and Enide return in triumph to Arthur. The poem closes with a long and lavish description of a celebratory feast.

The overarching drama of the poem seems to be the gradual process by which Erec and Enide come to trust and honour one another. Though they have a rocky beginning, with their marriage apparently setting Erec at odds with his knightly vocation and bringing dishonour thereby on Enide, through a series of trials their love finds security in a firm and trustworthy friendship. Friendships are forged, too, with other noble figures (including a dwarf knight who, say this volume’s brief accompanying notes, may be an import from Welsh faerie), and by poem’s end Erec and Enide are a well-established and well-respected couple, praised by all and enjoying the finest company.

There are strong similarities between Chrétien’s Erec and Enide and the Welsh tale Geraint ac Enid, which is among the Arthurian stories in the Mabinogion. Actually, several of Chrétien’s romances have Mabinogion counterparts, though apparently it is not clear to scholars which direction the influence ran. As to its literary influence, Chrétien’s poem was widely read and imitated. It established certain conventions which he, and other writers, would observe in later romances: an Arthurian setting, a story that opens on a major Christian festival, consists of a series of adventures, and closes with a feast.

The poem, which is nearly 7000 lines long, was written in Old French, in rhyming pairs of octosyllabic lines. The translator, Burton Raffel, decided not to adhere to this specific scheme in his English rendering, but did adhere to an alternate scheme of his own invention: blank trimeter (if that is a real name for a metrical scheme). This works well: the blank verse relieves him of the obligation to shoehorn everything into rhymes, and the trimeter provides a structure that nonetheless trips along nimbly. Although the poem affords pleasures that might justly be described as simple, having many elements we now associate with fairy tales, the simple pleasures hardly exhaust its richness. I am told by someone who has studied Chrétien in the original that the poetry itself is anything but simple, but thrives, linguistically and thematically, on intricate structure and subtle resonances. I caught the simple pleasures, and gladly, but only detected hints of the more refined enjoyments, no doubt on account of my lack of familiarity with this sort of literature. There is a remedy for that: I’ll keep reading.

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