The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Arthurian chivalric romance

BEFORE

1138 Welsh cleric and chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae popularizes the legend of King Arthur.

12th century The Old French (northern vernacular langue d’oïl) poem Tristan, by Thomas of Britain, tells the legend of the knight of the Round Table Tristan and his lover Iseult.

AFTER

13th century The five-volume Lancelot-Grail cycle (also called Prose Lancelot or the Vulgate Cycle), written in Old French by anonymous clerics, gives an account of Lancelot’s quest for the Holy Grail.

1485 In Le Morte d’Arthur, English writer Sir Thomas Malory reinterprets the traditional Arthurian legends.

The tradition of epic poetry, which had its roots in Homer and Virgil, lived on throughout the Middle Ages in the form of the chansons de geste (“songs of heroic deeds”), written and performed by the troubadours of southern France and their peers in other Mediterranean countries. These medieval epics conformed to the genre by telling tales of valiant acts and the battles of classical antiquity, or the wars against the Saracens and Moors. But in the 12th century, these tales of knights and their adventures assumed a different tone, as the idea of courtly love began to replace military exploits as the predominant theme, and the emphasis shifted from heroism to noble deeds.

Arthurian legend

The poet credited with introducing this change was Chrétien de Troyes, a trouvère (the northern French equivalent of a troubadour) who took his inspiration from the legends of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. In Chrétien’s time there were two distinct cultures in France, recognizable by their dialects: in the south the troubadours used the langue d’oc, while the language of the trouvères was the northern langue d’oïl. It is no surprise then that Chrétien should turn his attention away from the classical Mediterranean and southern French heroes, turning it instead towards the so-called “Matter of Britain”, the legends of Britain and Brittany.

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When Lancelot is asked to ride in a cart, like a common convict, he does so very reluctantly. However, he later redeems himself for his hesitation by his chivalric deeds.

Love conquers all

As well as introducing the Arthurian legends to a French audience, Chrétien reinterpreted the idea of the chivalric (“knightly”) romance. In the tale of Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, he focused on a hitherto lesser-known character, whose quest was largely romantic in nature, and who demonstrated his nobility by defending the honour of Queen Guinevere.

Lancelot’s mission is to rescue Guinevere from the evil clutches of Méléagant, and he embarks on a series of adventures. These inevitably involve fights with Méléagant, in which he eventually emerges victorious, but they also involve his wooing of Guinevere. However, not everything goes his way: a series of misunderstandings and deceits means that Guinevere blows hot and cold along the way, and Lancelot suffers the indignity of being made to ride in a common cart normally used to transport convicts, and at one point ends up a prisoner himself. But in the end, he and his love are triumphant, and both Guinevere’s honour and Lancelot’s nobility survive intact.

An age of chivalry

Chrétien’s innovative approach to epic poetry chimed with the mood of the time, and although the old chansons de geste remained popular with readers, poets across Europe adopted the new style, often on the themes of the Arthurian legends. Many chose to tell the story of lovers such as Lancelot and Guinevere, or Tristan and Iseult; others took up the story of the noble quest for the Holy Grail. During the 13th century, however, the idea of epic poetry was on the wane, and the Arthurian romances were more frequently told in prose, reaching their high point with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.

The genre of Arthurian chivalric romance fell out of favour with the arrival of the Renaissance period. The portrayal of noble knights, damsels in distress, and mannered courtly love had already become a familiar cliché by the time Miguel de Cervantes wrote his Don Quixote in 1605, although the words “chivalry” and “romance” still retain their association with that mythical medieval world.

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Three distinct types of epic poetry had evolved by the medieval period in western Europe. Mainly recorded in Old French, each of these collections was distinguished by its theme or subject matter.

CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES

Little is known about Chrétien de Troyes, a trouvère who, in the late 12th century, served in the court of Marie of France. His adoption of the name “de Troyes” suggests that he may have been from Troyes, in the Champagne region of France, southeast of Paris, but may instead refer to his patron, Marie, Countess of Champagne, whose court was in Troyes. His poems, which date from the period 1160–1180, suggest that he was a minor member of the clergy. Chrétien’s major works were the four romances he wrote on Arthurian stories, and he is credited with introducing into the tales the new idea of courtly love, in the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. A fifth poem, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, was unfinished when he died, in around 1190.

Other key works

c.1170 Erec and Enide

c.1176 Cligès

1177–81 Yvain, the Knight of the Lion

See also: The Song of Roland • “Under the Linden Tree” • Don Quixote • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight • Le Morte d’Arthur