Chretien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances

Chretien de Troyes‘ Arthurian Romances

(1)  Dwarfs

In Erec and Enide, the dwarf is again used as a symbol of evil. This is consistent with what we have seen in Beroul’s Tristan. As Catherine Naber noted in her post, the dwarf seems to have no characteristics other than evil. This aspect makes him rather one-dimensional. We, the readers, are forced to believe that he is evil because we are told that he is. However, we are never shown this to be true, except for the time when we are told that he is ugly. Ugliness is an important signifier in evilness and these two ideas are often related to one another. I know that this is just a style of writing and storytelling, but it still makes me feel a little sad for the dwarf, and dwarfs in general. Being a dwarf must have been hard enough during the Middle Ages without everyone also thinking that you are the symbol of evil, or the embodiment of it. I wonder, however, whether this idea of evil and ugliness also related to women dwarfs. In other words, were little women (female dwarfs) thought of as people who associated with some sort of witchcraft in that time?

2)     Hospitality

In Erec and Enide, hospitality again emerges as a theme, just as it did in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Being welcoming and a good host are considered important values in the society. Thus, when Erec travels to a stranger’s home, he is welcomed and made to feel comfortable. This show of hospitality implies that the home is a safe place to be, and the people who live there are kind and honorable. In return, Eric also acts accordingly. He listens to all that his host has to say, in order to appear polite and thankful (44).

3) Erec and Enide’s Relationship

Erec and Enide’s relationship is characterized by love and status. At first, they are in love with each other, but then they only seem to love the idea of each other. Enide struggles with Erec’s descent down the social ladder and Eric struggles with her reaction to his problems. Eric tries to keep her quiet, wanting to maintain privacy. But instead only alienates Enide. As a result, Enide struggles to understand whether their love was ever real, and whether his professed feelings for her were ever real. This tension between them is presented in a contemporary way.

4)     Beauty

Beauty is an important consideration in Arthurian Romances and medieval literature as a whole. As I have previously discussed, the dwarf is a symbol of evil probably because he is visually ugly. We are constantly told how ugly the dwarf is, in order to buttress the position that he is indeed evil. In contrast to ugliness, beauty is seen as something that is good. Beauty is objectified (but so is ugliness), and beautiful women are, as a result, seen as something heavenly (the ultimate good). This is definitely the case in Erec and Enide. While traveling, Erec is mesmerized by the daughter’s beauty and a beautiful queen. Beauty is equated with goodness, but I wonder how far this notion can really be taken. Beauty was probably hard to come by in the Middle Ages, but then again maybe goodness was hard to come by as well.

5)     Modesty

Another emerging concept in Erec and Enide is the idea of humbleness. Brashness and over-confidence seem to be negative traits, very much unlike contemporary America. Erec is presented as someone who is modest and rather quiet. It is unclear whether his modesty is altogether truthful, and it might just be falsely modest. However, even false modesty shows that a society places a value on maintaining a demeanor of modesty and humbleness. Erec turns down free gifts because he feels that it is improper for him to accept things that he cannot repay in free gifts of his own. This notion of owing something to someone for favor that they have done for you is very important for a stable society. Unfortunately, America seems to be lacking this concept altogether. People are encouraged to take what they can get from whoever’s available, only perpetuating greed, unhappiness and discontent throughout the nation. I wish that we could somehow bring back some a sense of humbleness to the world.

6)     Pride

What I found to be a particularly interesting aspect of Erec in Erec and Enid is his combination of humbleness and pride. On one hand, Erec appears to be humble and modest, carefully paying attention to the social norms of the world in which he lives. For example, he is a gracious guest who does not accept presents that he does not feel that he could repay. On the other hand, Erec is also proud. His reputation is ruined and he goes to great lengths to save it. I think that this might be a difficult notion for a modern reader to understand (except maybe those who were accused of a crime that they have never committed and are now serving time). Reputation in our world seems to be easily fixable. And if the person is famous enough then, in many cases, there isn’t even anything for them to fix. Instead, many politicians and celebrities appear to revel in the idea of just talking about their misdeeds – talk about pride!

7)     Women

I agree with one of the previous posts by Rhoda. Yes, I think we are seeing a birth of an archetype! DeTroyes seemed to have perfected the story of “the damsel in distress.” On one hand, the stereotype seems to come from a positive place in that women did not have many (if any) rights and honorable men should feel like it is their duty to help those who are weaker than they are, or are in trouble. On the other hand, these kinds of ideas about damsels in distress probably also did some harm in terms of perpetuating certain stereotypes. In certain Germanic stories, it is often the woman who goes after a man who has been caught or trapped somewhere.

8)     Guinevere and Enide

Guinevere is a quintessential damsel in distress. In fact, she probably defined the category. She’s abducted and stowed away and requires saving. Her beauty implies her goodness, just like a dwarf’s ugliness implies his evilness. Enide also needs saving. These portrayals create beings in need of rescue, showing the reader that what Catherine Naber said is quite true: “the helplessness of women in Arthurian society is a prevalent theme.” Not only do these women characters need to be rescued, they are also constantly under threat due to their vulnerable position in society. Their status in society depends on the status of their family. Women were given permission to marry by the fathers and then transferred like property to be given permission to do whatever by their husbands. Unfortunately, some of these ideas are still prevalent in our contemporary society. For example, traditional American weddings involve the bride walking down the aisle with her father and then being transferred over to her future husband’s arm as they do their vows.

9)     Chivalry

In Erec and Enide, chivalry is again an important theme. On their travels, they meet many evil knights and their love becomes deeper with each tribulation. Loyalty is a theme that is connected to honor, and loyalty and honor are both part of the notion of what it means to be a chivalrous knight. For example, Erec continues to offer his knights supplies like clothing “fresh chargers to tourney and joust with, regardless of the cost” to keep up appearances (67). Appearances are also kept up at parties where King Arthur distributes gifts of “samite and ermine” mantles and “white sterlings” (DeTroyes 119). DeTroyes explains that King Arthur gives these gifts “because of his great love of Erec” and “because he was extremely noble” (122). Thus, honor, nobility, hospitality are shown to all relate to chivalry.

10) Feasting

Feasting and celebration also seem to be connected with chivalry and honor. Arthurian Romances describes the feasts and celebrations at great length, just as we have seen in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and even in Tristan. For example, DeTroye states that “many counts and kings, Normans, Bretons, Scotsmen, Irish. From England and from Cornwall there was a rich gathering of barons, for from Wales all the way to Anjou, in Maine or in Poitou, no important knight or noble lady of fine lineage was left; the best and the most noble of all were at the court at Nantes, for the king had summoned them all” (118). Furthermore, celebration is again related to notion of hospitality and the giving of gifts. For example, King Arthur gives attendees “horses and arms and money, clothes and costly silks of many kinds” (DeTroyes 122).

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Beroul’s Tristan

The Love Potion

The Love Potion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  The Wild as a Safe Place in Beroul’s Tristan

Nature plays an important role in Beroul’s Tristan. Eventually, Tristan escapes, rescues Yseut from the lepers, and they go in hiding in the Forest of Morrois. There, Tristan hunts for their food, and they live together happily in the wild. Perhaps, this notion of the wild as a safe place is a throwback to old pagan traditions. The castle is not safe for them (either of them) and the town is no longer safe for either of them either. The only place that remains safe for the lovers to love each other in peace is the wilds of the forest. It takes three years for the love potion to wear off. Thus, Tristan and Yseut live together in the wild for three years. Eventually, they return to civilization with the help of a hermit named Ogrin, who brokers a peace between Tristan and King Mark. The wild forest as a safe house also implies that the hermit, though he lives without certain luxuries like human contact, is actually at peace and in comfort in the wild.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

7)  Yseut’s Return to King Mark

In Beroul’s Tristan, it takes three years for the love potion to wear off. Tristan repents for betraying his uncle and Yseut wants to again become a queen. They rely on a hermit named Ogrin to broker peace between Tristan and King Mark and return for surrendering Yseut, and King Mark promises mercy. Before Yseut goes back to her husband, she asks Tristan to stick around to make sure that King Mark is treating her well. After Yseut returns to her husband, she continues to secretly see Tristan. She is again watched by the barons and discovered. So Yseut promises that “no man ever came between my thighs except the leper who carried me on his back across the ford and my husband, King Mark” (Beroul 142). The story seems to be full of trickery on Yseut and Tristan’s parts (but mostly on Yseut’s part). I wonder if this trickery is as a result of the notion that women are more trickster-like than men (i.e. more cunning).

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

8)    Tristan’s Return to Cornwall

After she is back in court, Yseut urges Tristan to leave Cornwall. They promise to love each other and he takes off “to seek venture in foreign lands” (Beroul 149). He meets another Yseut, Yseut of the White Hands, but continues to yearn for his Yseut, Yseut the Fair, back in Cornwall. Eventually, he decides that he will never see Yseut the Fair and marries Yseut of the White Hands. But he regrets the marriage and leaves her without consummating it. He goes back to see his Yseut, who reproaches him for his marriage, but eventually forgives him and renews their love. Tristan cannot stay in Cornwall for long and continues to long for his beloved. This back and forth between the lovers makes it obvious that while though the potion had worn off, it still has a significant residual effect. Tristan and Yseut are bound to each other and will continue to be through the end.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

9)   Tristan as a Trickster

Yseut is not the only trickster in the story. Tristan participates in plenty of disguises himself. At the end of the story, he returns to Cornwall, disguised as a fool and reminds Yseut of the many things that they did together. Her maid tries to convince her that the fool was indeed Tristan, but Yseut refuses to believe that, insisting that her Tristan would never say such awful things about her in public. Tristan realizes that Yseut no longer loves him and says that “once I had a lover, indeed, but it seems to me now that I have lost her” (Beroul 161). Tristan’s beloved dog, whom Yseut is caring for, immediately recognizes Tristan’s voice and goes to him. Finally, Yseut sees the ring and the dog’s reaction and realizes that she’s speaking to Tristan. These kinds of tricks are found throughout the story (they usually played them on the barons and King Mark) but here is the instance where Tristan plays a trick on Yseut.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

10)    Tristan’s Tragic End

At the end of story, Tristan leaves Yseut one last time, returning to Brittany and his wife, Yseut of the White Hands. Helping a friend carry out a love affair with the wife of a neighboring night, Tristan and his friend are attacked. His friend is killed and Tristan is wounded.  Yseut of the White Hands nurses him, but is unable to cure him: “His greatest pain was beyond the skill of those physicians; it came from a poisoned wound, and he knew that only Yseut the Fair could cure it” (Beroul 164). This is another reference to destiny and the power of Yseut the Fair’s love. She is the only person who can cure him. Tristan sends a messenger to ask Yseut to come to him. If she agrees to come, the messenger is supposed to “bear white sails on his return; if not, black sails” (Beroul 164). But Tristan’s wife overhears his instructions, and, out of jealousy, lies to him. She says that the messenger is coming back with black sails. Grief stricken, Tristan dies. Tristan, the master of trickery, the person who perpetuated numerous tricks on King Mark to evade capture and continue his love affair is now tricked by his own wife.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

Beroul’s Tristan

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1)     Symmetry in Beroul’s Tristan

One of the earliest versions of the Tristan myth is Beroul’s 12th century story of The Romance of Tristan. This is the story of Tristan, nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, and his passionate love affair with the King’s wife Yseut. The couple falls madly in love after mistakenly drinking a potion and their illicit romance remains secret for many years. As the potion wears off, the lovers are found out and their story ends in tragedy. The story is characterized by its brutality and passion and Tristan and Yseut are portrayed as two people who are struggling against destiny (as symbolized by the potion). Tristan enters the world in tragedy. His father is dead and his mother, Blanchefleur, dies giving birth to him. Similarly, he also exits the world in tragedy. His life is marked by death at both ends and this shows a kind of symmetry in the story telling process.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

2)     Tristan’s First Heroic Act

Tristan is raised by a tutor, Governal, and in his early teens he leaves with Governal and comes to King Mark’s court in Cornwall. King Mark is Blanchefleur’s brother (his mother’s brother), but Tristan conceals this family connection in order to serve the King as an equal to other bachelor knights. In early demonstration of strength, Tristan kills Morholt, who comes and demands payment of a tribute owed to Ireland by the Cornish. The payment requires that a number of young men and girls are taken to Ireland as slaves. After being knighted by King Mark, he reveals his true identity, fights and Morholt. This is Tristan’s first chivalrous and heroic act.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

3)     Tragedy as Driving Force in Beroul’s Tristan

Tristan’s life begins with tragedy and tragedy also allows him to meet his love, Yseut. In the end, their lives will end with tragedy as well. Tragedy seems to be driving force in the story as a whole. The wounds that Tristan gets from Morholt lead him to Yseut. His wounds refuse to heal, and he insists on putting his trust in God and setting out alone in a boat without oars. After spending many days and nights at sea, he arrives in Ireland where the King’s daughter Yseut nurses him to health. In another feat of strength, Tristan again finds himself on the Irish coast where he is wounded by a dragon, and is again nursed back to health by Yseut. Cleaning his sword, she notices that the notch on the blade matches the splinter taken from Morholt’s skull and she realizes that Tristan was the one who had killed her uncle. There are two tragic life endangering events that lead Tristan to Yseut. These events show that destiny links these characters together, and this destiny is in play even before the potion even enters the story.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

4)     Potion as Destiny in Beroul’s Tristan

Beroul’s Tristan has a very representative notion of destiny. The concept of destiny is encapsulated in the potion. As they travel to Cornwall, Tristan and Yseut mistakenly drink the potion that is meant for her and King Mark. They become infatuated with one another and consummate their love. The potion commits them to their fate; it binds them to each other for “a lifetime of suffering and hardship,” eventually causing “their destruction and their death” (Beroul 44 – 45). But Tristan is bound to his duty for the King, and he delivers Yseut as promised. Here, Tristan is showing his commitment to chivalrous behavior. He is bound to the King with duty just as he is bound to Yseut with love (infused by the potion). This tension between duty and love is examined throughout the rest of the story.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

5)     Dwarf as a Villain in Beroul’s Tristan

Dwarfs were often used as villains in medieval literature, and Beroul’s Tristan is no exception. The barons in King Mark’s court are not oblivious to Tristan and Yseut’s relationship the way King Mark is and enlist Frocin the Dwarf to set a trap for them. The dwarf swears that he show King Mark that they are having an affair, and tells him to climb a tree and eavesdrop on them in the orchard. Tristan and Yseut arrive separately, but they both notice the King’s shadow. Angry with the barons and the dwarf, King Mark decides to never suspect Tristan and Yseut again, and allows them to use his bedchamber as much as they want. The dwarf again plays an instrumental part in uncovering their affair. Frocin sneaks into King Mark and Yseut’s chamber where Tristan is sleeping and spreads flour between the two beds so that footsteps between the two beds would be visible. Tristan, who was wounded in the leg by a large boar the night before, notices the flour and leaps onto the King’s bed while the King is out of the room. The wound opens up and bleeds onto the sheets. When he hears the King, Tristan leaps back to his bed and drops some blood in the flour. King Mark is satisfied with evidence of their betrayal and condemns them to death. If the barons are considered the villains of the story, the dwarf can then be seen as the head villain of the story (in that he facilitates the discovery of their affair).

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

Magical and Supernatural Beings in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

So-called Church fathers altar (Kirchenväteral...

So-called Church fathers altar (Kirchenväteraltar), outside of the right wing, lower scene: Saint Augustine and the devil—according to other sources: Saint Wolfgang and the devil (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Magic in the story portrayed as if it is part of everyday life. Gawain battles dragons and wolves and we as readers quickly forget that only one of those creatures is real. Green Knight is the main magical being. He loses his head, picks it up and expects Gawain to keep his word. Playing the beheading game must be a lot less scary if you know you cannot be killed. The people in the room, even though they are shocked at first, assume it is magic and witchcraft. Later in the story, Merlin and his magical powers are introduced just as nonchalantly as all the other magical powers throughout the story. In a way, this poem reminds me of  contemporary magical realism literature in which magic is just part of everyday life and no one pays much attention to it.

Anonymous.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Translated by Bernard O’DonoghueNew York: Penguin Books, 2007.

Honor in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

English: "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight...

English: “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, from the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, honor and chivalry are somewhat related concepts. Chivalry appears to be something of a social, public concept while honor is something of a private and personal concept. Gawain is bound both by social and private pressures. Social pressures and customs require him to maintain the esteem of King Arthur’s court and therefore keep his word and act in a chivalrous manner while he travels. Private pressures require him to keep his word and act in a polite, valiant, and honorable manner to maintain his personal honor. Gawain’s honor is tested right from the beginning of the poem. He gives his word in the beheading game and intends to keep it even though it is obvious that the Green Knight tricked him (he did not die when Gawain beheaded him). Gawain continues to keep his word even though his journey is lonely and dangerous.  “He [Gawain] rode far from friends, a forsaken man, scaling many cliffs in country unknown” and “had death struggles with dragons, did battles with wolves” (48). His persistence is an illustration of his honor.

Anonymous.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Translated by Bernard O’DonoghueNew York: Penguin Books, 2007.

Chivalry and Heroism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, chivalry is very important. For example, when Gawain rises from the table during the feast, Gawain is respectful and courteous: “let me rise from this bench and stand with you there, to move from this table without giving offence, if there’s no objection from my lady the queen, I’ll take over for you before all the court” (33-34).  While Gawain is the epitome of a chivalrous hero, King Arthur and the Green Knight also exhibit respect for chivalrous deeds. For example, when the Green Knight first arrives, Arthur introduces himself and invites him to join them. “Sir knight, you are certainly welcome. I am head of this house: Arthur is my name. Please deign to dismount and dwell with us till you impart your purpose, at a proper time” (30). Furthermore, in addition to acting chivalrously, chivalry is also mentioned directly. In response to Arthur’s offer, the Green Knight states: “But my intention was not to tarry in the turreted hall. But as your reputation, royal sir, is raised up so high, and your castle and cavaliers are accounted the best… The most warlike, the worthiest the world has bred, most valiant to vie with in the virile contests, and as chivalry is shown here, so I am assured…” (30). It is King Arthur’s fame and the chivalry of his court that has brought the Green Knight to his door. He notes this fact in his statement, “at this time, I tell you, that [chivalry] has attracted me here.”

Anonymous.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Translated by Bernard O’DonoghueNew York: Penguin Books, 2007.

Time in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain

Sir Gawain (Photo credit: GoShows)

The story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, spans a year. It appears to be a relatively odd time period. Instead of containing a number of the past events over many years, the poem itself contains something of a preamble and the main story. The events that take place in the preamble consist of the beheading game and the promise that Gawain makes to go to the Green Chapel. After the preamble, the main crux of the story takes place a year later, during Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel. This time that divides Gawain and the Green Knight’s two meetings appears to be unusual in length for a medieval story. However, if the story is understood as something of a Christmas story then the year appears to be less unusual. In other words, a year has to pass in order for the later events in the story to take place around Christmas.

Gawain travels to the Chapel passing through seasons, and these seasons are representative of a year of life on earth. The changing seasons also change Gawain’s outlook on the world. At first, he is happy to participate in the games, but throughout the year his mood changes with the seasons. Thus the days and months that he waits, take a toll on his demeanor and approach to his endeavor.

Anonymous.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Translated by Bernard O’DonoghueNew York: Penguin Books, 2007.