Chrétien de Troyes: Yvain

March 5, 2012

Yvain
The Knight of the Lion
Chrétien de Troyes
Translated from the Old French by Burton Raffel
(Yale, 1987) [c.1177]
241 p.

But today love is almost
Deserted, its followers fallen
Away, its worshippers gone.
For those who practiced Love
Could truly call themselves courtiers —
Noble, generous, honorable.
Love has turned into silly
Stories, told by liars
Who feel nothing, know nothing, all talk
And empty boasts, dishonesty
And vanity and windy noise. (ll.18-28)

But Chrétien’s poem is far from being windy noise. He gives us a tale as antidote, a tale that is noble, generous, and honorable, about those who lived when Love was properly worshiped. He turns, once again, to Arthur’s celebrated court, and to the knight Yvain.

The story of Yvain has many twists and turns, but the basic shape is simple: Yvain kills a knight in combat, and then falls in love with the man’s widow. Needless to say, she has a motive to hate rather than love him, yet his devotion to her is irrevocable. He must therefore win her love, against her own heart. I give little away by noting that he eventually does so, though by trickery (not his own) so cunning and gentle that it seems a happy, not a monstrous, conclusion. It is easy to see how it might have fell out otherwise, for there is something truly ugly about a man seeking to wed the woman whose husband he has slain — think of David and Bathsheba, or Richard III and Lady Anne. But Chrétien wittily turns the tables on this ugliness, putting the lady into the position of power and making Yvain the conquered one:

And yet a new love had hunted in his heart
And completely conquered its prey.
His enemy had captured his heart,
He loved the creature who hated
Him most. Not suspecting a thing,
The lady had avenged her lord’s death.
She’d managed a greater vengeance
Than anything she could have accomplished
By herself, without Love’s assistance,
Who came to him so gently
That it struck his heart through his eyes. (ll.1356-1368)

A principle of Arthurian romance is that Love is imperious; when she summons, a true knight obeys, for devotion to her is one of the knight’s chief glories:

Not to accept Love’s wish
When Love comes, and Love asks, is more
Than wicked, it is treachery. And I say,
And whoever worships Love
Let him listen, that a deserter from Love
Deserves no happiness. I may lose,
But I’ll always love my enemy.
How could I hate her,
If I wish to be loyal to Love?
What Love wants, I want. (ll.1443-1453)

This whole-hearted, child-like exuberance is, for me, part of the appeal of reading Chrétien. Unless I am badly misreading the tone, and even making allowances for an element of good-natured exaggeration, Chrétien finds, and expects his listeners to find, joy in commitment, dedication, devotion, and sincerity. We seem to be a long way from anything resembling irony or cynicism, and that is refreshing.

This reminds me of something C.S. Lewis wrote in The Discarded Image about the generally happy demeanor of medieval authors and — by inference — of medieval man. Lewis believed this disposition was rooted, in part, in their view of history and the cosmos, though both were also, not incidentally, entangled with their religion. Comparing medievals to the nineteenth-century devotees of progress, he wrote:

Medieval and nineteenth century man agreed that their present was no very admirable age; not to be compared (said one) with the glory that was, not to be compared (said the other) with the glory that is still to come. The odd thing is that the first view seems to have bred on the whole a more cheerful temper. Historically as well as cosmically, medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight. The backward, like the upward, glance exhilarated him with a majestic spectacle, and humility was rewarded with the pleasures of admiration…There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need be neither proud nor lonely.

This portrait of the medieval temper does not suit our caricatures of the period, but it is worth reflecting on. There is actually quite a lot to support it. Consider the earthy good humour of Chaucer, the glory of Dante, Aquinas’ clear-eyed clarity, the playful grandeur of Ockeghem and Dufay, the magnificence of the Gothic, and so on. They could express sorrow, of course, but it is noteworthy that medieval Europe never produced anything like Kafka or Beckett. Themes of despair, alienation, anxiety, meaninglessness, angst, and nihilism, which have informed a good part of our greatest contemporary literature, were far from them. In saying this, I intend no criticism of our literature: times are such that we have need to explore those themes, and would be at fault if we did not do so. But that medieval men seem not to have needed to do so, certainly not in a major way, says something good about their spiritual and emotional health. Perhaps it really was a good time to be alive (as has been argued).

Which is not to say that they were perfect. Consider Yvain, for instance: in the early part of the poem he falls well short of the knightly ideal. A principal concern of the poem is to chart his moral progress as he faces and conquers various temptations and challenges. It is here that the subtitle of the poem becomes relevant, for in the course of his adventures Yvain earns the loyalty of a fearsome lion, and this lion serves him not only as a companion, but also as a kind of moral catalyst. St. Paul says of the Holy Spirit that “He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear”, and in a similar way the lion offers aid when it is needed, never allowing Yvain to go down in defeat, but gradually allowing Yvain’s own confidence and strength (his virtus) to increase.

The poem offers many charms to the reader. On the one hand, we have fantastic elements familiar from legends and fairy tales: magical rings, terrifying giants, elaborate traps and contraptions, cunning disguises. On another hand we have Chrétien’s authorial persona, who interrupts the story here and there to offer commentary. Sometimes he dispenses pithy sayings (“Better to be silent than speak badly.” (l.2164); “There’s nothing difficult about fooling a fool.” (ll.2464-5)). Occasionally he wanders off the narrative trail to pursue a fleeting thought deep into the underbrush; consider this amusing example, in which a reference to Yvain both loving and hating someone causes everything to grind to a halt:

How can two things
So utterly unlike find
Themselves at home together?
Impossible, it seems to me:
They could share the same roof,
And if they tried living
Together, they’d surely be quarreling
And commotion, as soon as each
Knew the other was there.
And yet the house could have many
Rooms, bedrooms, and galleries,
And it might well be like that:
I suppose Love could hide
In some out-of-the-way room, and Hate
Go up on balconies hung
Over highways and streets, choosing
To exhibit herself in public. (ll.6024-40)

And on a third hand (but who’s counting?) there is quite a lot of broad comedy on offer. At one point Yvain pulls up on his trusty steed before a castle called — wait for it — the Castle of Infinite Misfortune. And what does he do? He asks for a place to sleep. When a friend counsels him against entering, he replies:

I suspect there is honor
And sense in your words, if only
I were able to do as you say.
But I’ve no idea where else
I might find lodging for tonight. (ll.5163-7)

Oh, poor Yvain. He has a tough time, I can tell you, getting out of that mess. Later, as the poem nears its completion, there is a climactic battle between Yvain and Gawain, both in disguise and neither aware of the other’s identity. They fight for hours, neither able to gain the advantage. Eventually, during a lull to catch their breath, they discover who they are. Throwing down their weapons, they embrace and, before King Arthur’s throne, each proceeds to lay claim to having been defeated by the other, the better to honour his friend. For Arthurian knights, victory in battle is everything. This is funny stuff.

Anyway, I enjoyed the poem. As with the earlier romances, Burton Raffel has translated it into a metre of three stresses per line. There are about 6800 lines in all.

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