Essay Following Guidelines #2

By Andrea Knutsen

On Chrétien de Troyes's Erec and Enide, The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot), and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon
November 15, 2001 Question #15

The First Three Parts, or Introductory Framing and Context

The multifaceted legend of King Arthur and his court has been approached in many different ways by many different people. In this essay I will examine two scenes from the legend and how two authors from different time periods approach them, as well as how their retelling of the scenes reflect their particular eras and purposes.

Chrétien de Troyes is thought of as the dominant figure in the development of French Arthurian romance. There is little known about him, except that he wrote in the latter half of the 12thcentury (I150-1200), and his patrons were Marie de Champagne and Philippe de Flandre. His confirmed works include five romances and two lyric poems about Arthur's court. Arthur himself is usually a minor character in the story. Chrétien is the first identifiable practitioner of the f'rench troubadour style; his works were written primarily to entertain the Royal Court. Chrétien's Erec and Enide and The Knight of the Cart were written in the medieval period.

According to Norris Lacy's Arthurian Handbook, originality was not an important factor in a successful medieval romance, but authority and tradition were highly valued. The French writers of the time, led by Chrétien, "combined traditional material and motifs with innovative themes and literary forms to forge what was known as the . . . "The Matter of Britain" (Arthurian Handbook, p. 68), a shared body of knowledge on the Arthurian legends. In addition, medieval writers were for the first time writing for an increasingly female audience -- meaning more focus on glamor, love, courtliness and magic (Handbook, p. 2), while still holding the interest of the masculine audience. Lastly, as the influence of Christianity spread throughout the land, Christian themes were frequently emphasized to the point of nearly wiping out references to the old religions.

Marion Zimmer Bradley, a decidedly modem writer of Arthurian legends, wrote in the latter half of the 20th century. Her works include three Arthurian novels, The Forest House, Lady of Avalon, and Mists of Avalon, as well as numerous other science fiction and fantasy novels. Influences on her as a writer of Arthurian legends include Sidney Lanier's Tales of King Arthur, James Frazer's The Golden Bough, and the works of Geoffrey Ashe. Bradley's works explore the major events of the Arthurian legends through the eyes of the prominent women, Morgaine, Igraine, Viviane, and Guinevere*, as well as emphasizing the conflict present in a society steeped in both Druidic/Pagan and Christian traditions. Diane Paxton says that she "had, indeed, found a new approach to the legend, one with particular relevance to the culture of the day" (Mists of Avalon, Reader's Guide).

Bradley's The Mists of Avalon was written in 1982. Modem literary traditions highly value individuality and originality. At the same time, since the legend has historical origins, a search for the "real"truth about what happened and what is myth is often a factor in modern retelling. The status of women has vastly improved from that of medieval times; this too affects the body of writing, allowing certain themes about the power and influence of women, to be explored in greater depth. Finally, with religious freedom of great importance in the modem world, the old religions (Druidic and Pagan), and the conflict between them and Christianity, increase their influence on the story.

Themes in Chrétien's Erec and Enide include the cost of either pure love or highest honors and the conflict between bravery/loyalty and obedience. In The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot), Chrétien deals with the conflict inherent between behavior demanded by chivalric loyalty and courtly love. In Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, themes include the strengths of familial (and non-romantic) love and its effect on the course of events, and the conflict between the subtly warring Christian and Pagan religions. All three stories share a theme of love, and what effect this has on the characters, each story emphasizing a different kind of love (wedded bliss, adulterous courtly love, and familial love). Chrétien and Bradley take a very different attitude towards these matters.

The Arthurian legends as a whole have been reinvented many times by many different people, and the origins of the story are now lost in antiquity. There is no single generally accepted plot line of the entire legend. Historically, the only accepted truth is from the Annals of Wales, where Arthur is mentioned in two entries, the first in approximately 518, when he carried the Cross into battle at Badon and the Britons were victorious, and the second, 18 years later, where we are told of "the strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and [Mordred] fell." Possibly Camlann refers to Camelot (Handbook, p. 279).

Chrétien's Erec and Enide tells of the relationship between a knight, Erec, and his wife, Enide. After their wedding, Erec, a knight of great renown, loses all interest in knighthood and only wishes to lie in bed with Enide, and begins to lose his status in the eyes of men. Upon hearing this from Enide, Erec forces the two of them alone, on a journey to regain his reputation. He mistreats her, but she persists in loving devotion and repeatedly saves them from imminent disaster. They both discover the strength of their love for each other and their devotion as a couple. Chrétien's The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot tells Lancelot's story, primarily focusing on Guinevere's abduction and his quest to rescue her. Lancelot's journeys serve to depict his inner psyche: a great knight is tom between his chivalric duty and love for his friend and king, Arthur, and his adulterous desire of the beautiful High Queen, Guinevere.

Bradley's The Mists of Avalon tells the extended story of King Arthur through the eyes of the women of the legend, primarily Morgaine, Arthur's half sister, often known as Morgan le Fay. From her childhood training as a priestess in Avalon through her adult years around the various courts of Britain and her quest to keep Britain under the rule of the Goddess, to her dying attempt to return to Avalon, Bradley traces the growth of Morgaine and her female counterparts in more detail than ever previously done.

The Literary Analysis: #13. Discuss the most interesting incidents in your texts. What made them interesting to you? If you feel you know enough about the authors' lives, how did their stories reflect their actual experiences? Point out parallels and show how each author changed the "real" story to suit his or her themes, or obsessions, or preoccupations, or genre.

The hunt for the White Stag as told by Chrétien is a rather minor although initiating scene early in Erec and Enide. It caught my attention because of the corresponding story in Bradley's The Mists of Avalon where we find a vastly differing and much extended retelling. In Erec and Enide, King Arthur announces "that he wanted to hunt the White Stag in order to revive the tradition" (Chrétien, p.37). As the tradition goes, the victor of the hunt bestows a kiss upon the most beautiful maiden of the court. Unarmed except for their bows and arrows, the King leads the knights into the forest. Erec meets the Queen and her attendant in the forest soon after, and offers to accompany her during the hunt. They are soon approached by a knight with a maiden and a dwarf. The dwarf whips the Queen's attendant and Erec when they attempt to speak to the knight, spurring Erec after the knight to defend his honor. When the Queen and her attendant arrive back at the castle, the hunters have returned, and King Arthur is the victor. Advised to wait to choose the most beautiftil maiden until Erec returns (for fear of disagreement among his men), he eventually bestows the kiss upon Enide, who returns with Erec after he wins her love defeating the evil knight. No further mention is made of the tradition to hunt the White Stag, and other than that Erec's success allows him to bestowupon Enide the honor of most beautiful maiden at court. The hunt seemed to have so little thematic importance in a story about the adjustments of love in marriage, I wondered why he included it at all.

Bradley's version of the hunt, however, takes on substantial importance in her imagination of the Arthurian legend. The hunt for the King Stag, as Bradley names him, is one part of a Pictish tradition known as the "king-making." Involving many Pagan rituals, it is designed to test the one chosen to be the next King. Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, and Taliesin, the Merlin, advisors to the court of Uther Pendragon (Arthur's father) and leaders in the old religion, agree to put Arthur to the test when Uther is dying. As King, Arthur must be able to rule the Picts and the others following the old religion, and the king-making will prove his worthiness and dedication to them. The ritual begins with the preparation of the virgin priestess of Avalon, Morgaine, to play the embodiment of the goddess as the Virgin Huntress. She is stripped naked and painted with blue dye, then cloaked and masked, she is led to a similarly prepared young man, except that on his head he wears the antlers of the last King Stag. She blesses him and the hunt, and he is sent off into the woods, alone and unarmed except for a knife, to find the deer, to run with them, and to defeat their King Stag. Upon his victory, the ritual continues with a feast of the flesh of the dead deer, and ends when the Virgin Huntress receives the King Stag as her consort. Morgaine and the young man enjoy a night of wild passion, only to awake in the morning and discover that he is Arthur, her half-brother. Morgaine, furious that Viviane would betray her, deserts Avalon, and Arthur vows to keep secret his incestuous experience in his rise as High King of Britain. Nine months later, at the court King Lot of Orkney and her aunt Morgause, Morgaine gives birth to their son, and Arthur's undoing, Mordred.

The story of Guinevere's abduction by Meleagant* and Lancelot's* quest to rescue her takes on somewhat of a reverse case in Chretien and Bradley's accounts. Bradley's story presents it as a brief occurrence, taking only a matter of days, however, events are much more vicious when it comes to Guinevere'x experienc eof them. Meleagant presents himself at Arthur's court as the Queen's half-brother, and wished Arthur to recognize his claim to the lands of the now dead King Leodegranz, Guinevere's father. Meleagant invites Guinevere to visit him at her former home in the summer country, and upon their arrival, kills or imprisons her escort, and locks her in a castle room. Meleagant beats and rapes her brutally, before Lancelot rushes to the scene to kill him before he rapes her again. Before they return to Camelot, Lancelot and Guinevere consecrate their love, and Guinevere vows to hide it no longer.

Chrétien's version of events in The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot) focuses more on Lancelot's long drawn out quest to rescue Guinevere. Meleagant approaches King Arthur's court to inform them that he holds prisoner numerous knights, ladies and maidens of Arthur's court. He demands to fight with a knight from Arthur's court for the Queen - if Meleagant loses, he will release the Queen and all his prisoners. If he wins, he keeps the prisoners as well as the Queen. Kay, a seneschal of Arthur, tricks the King into letting him take on this duel. After he and the Queen have left for Meleagant's lands, where the duel is to occur, Gawain and many other knights from Arthur's court follow them in the hope of defeating Meleagant. Gawain, far ahead of the others, comes upon Lancelot, also in search of the Queen. Lancelot travels far and wide to find her, facing many trials and battles along the way. When he reaches the land where Guinevere is imprisoned, he is met by King Bademagu, Meleagant's father, and is offered healing and fresh arms. King Bademagu wishes Meleagant to turn Guinevere over to Lancelot but Meleagant refuses, and insists on fighting for her. Lancelot defeats Meleagant in battle, but offers him mercy as Guinevere wishes. She, who has been kindly kept in King Bademagu's lands, arranges a midnight tryst with Lancelot, where they consecrate their love. Lancelot does not kill Meleagant for several more years.

The differences between Chrétien's and Bradley's stories and perspectives are striking, and upon examination, are better understood with respect to their particular eras and purposes. Chrétien's hunt for the White Stag eliminates the Pagan aspects of the tradition Bradley mentions, probably in part due to the disapproval of the old religions during his heavily Christian medieval period. Insofar as he could Chrétien would Christianize his material. He is also concerned with the ideal behavior of a knight and how this conflicts with reality. Bradley's version emphasizes the role of the woman, as the Virgin Huntress and the Goddess, that Chrétien may have left. Women lacked any status which gave them real power at the time and the court milieu demanded a more frivolous and secular treatment of the themes of love and numinousness. Bradley is intent to show us the betrayal and abuse Morgaine suffers at the hands of her beloved aunt, another woman in power. Also, Bradley was able to take more conscious liberties with her work than Chrétien; he wrote to entertain the court with a familiar story which he justified by saying he copied them from books or was told to sing them to please his patroness. Chrétien may have felt he had access to accurate source material (that has since been lost), and thus would have had to remain true to the widely accepted story of the time. Bradley, on the other hand, had access to a huge selection of material written on the legends, most of it being as she realised fictional or conjecture. Therefore, she felt able to take her own liberties with the story.

On the matter of Guinevere's abduction, the brutal rape and herrescue, Bradley leaves out all of Lancelot's adventures to focus on Guinevere, possibly in part because they contradict with earlier information she gives about Lancelot. She also condenses the story into a matter of three days' time. She is interested in women's experience of love and power. She emphasizes the familial claim between Guinevere and eleagant, and the trust it builds in Guinevere that allows her to be kidnaped. Familial ties are often stressed in Bradley's book, perhaps to emphasize how people abuse them. Such an exploration of the family and the abuse it can lead to for individuals would probably not have been publicly acceptable in Chrétien's time -- nor thought about. The last thing Bradley emphasizes that is missing in 's version is Meleagant's brutal treatment of Guinevere. Chrétien's story states that Guinevere was served and honored well by King Bademagu while she was in his care, but in Bradley, Meleagant brutally beats and rapes her. Perhaps Bradley writes of this to draw attention to the plight of some women in modem times, and Chrétien may have left it out of his story because such acts were widely known but taboo to speak of, particularly by a court entertainer.

It is enlightening to look at the two very different stories in the light of the gender of the author, their eras and their purposes in writing. Chrétien de Troyes was writing to entertain the court with familiar story in a heavily Christian time. He may have been working with limited but what he thought was more accurate source material and felt he was justified in writing what he did when he stuck to the book. Marion Zimmer Bradley, on the other hand, was purposefully writing her story from new perspective. Feminism and paganism were more widely accepted and she may have had more source material but it was less accurate (stories dramatized, truth clouded with fiction).

The themes each author emphasizes clearly come from their backgrounds and their purpose in writing about the Arthurian legends. My delight in reading and my respect for each author has only increased by examining the stories side by side.


*Bradley's spellings of names often differ from Chrétien's. Guinevere is Gwenhwyfar in Bradley, Meleagant is Meleagrant, and Lancelot is Lancelet. To ease understanding, I have solely used Chretien's spellings throughout this essay. References

Ashe, Geoffrey and Norris J. Lacy with Debra N. Mancoff. The Arthurian Handbook. New York: Garland, 1997.

Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Ballantine, 1982.

Chrétien de Troyes. Arthurian Romances, trans. W. Kibler and C. W. Carroll. London and New York: Penguin, 1991. Home
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