On Erec and Enide and The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot)by Chrétien de Troyes
April 6, 2001 Question #15
Chrétien de Troyes lived in the late twelfth century. He drew from contemporary myths, folklore, religious beliefs, and written texts to create the first or earliest full-flown Arthurian romances. It seems he also based much of his writings on his personal experience. He was associated with the French-speaking court of Marie de Champagne and integrated personal experience and what he saw going on in public into his writings. It is evident that he also intended his compositions to please the court and his patroness, and so his style and attitudes are also strongly influenced by his immediate situation and people he saw around him.
There are many themes in Chrétien's work which one can discuss. From these I have chosen several which had significant impact on me as I read this man's work. First is the manner in which he incorporates sex into his writing. Sexual activity was generally repressed or at least didn't go on in public and wasn't spoken of in the Christianized medieval period: society was surely more conservative to the point of prudishness than is reflected in Chrétien.
Second is the reverence in the texts for chivalry and knighthood. The author makes his characters paragons of male virtue, although they also are occasionally vulnerable and humble. Chrétien takes this a step further and makes the knights seemingly invincible -- they are presumably undefeatable on the battlefield. He also distinguishes their humanity as powerful attributes of his heroes, and focuses on emotional weaknesses. Erec's pride and Lancelot's emotional betrayals are traits that are as glorified and memorable as their physical heroism and chivalry which I originally thought should be of greater consequence to the reader.
The story of Erec and Enide tells of a love affair and marriage between a virtuous couple who are faced with inner and outward adversities, and through their response to their ordeal gain a mature relationship and love. The story focuses on their relationship: Erec abuses and mistreats his wife and then redeems himself when he discovers the depth of his love for Enide and that she is a loyal strong soulmate. The story of The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot) tells of Guinevere's abduction and Lancelot's relentless attempts to rescue and set her free. Theirs is an adulterous love: we have vignettes of imprisonment, loving making, valiant deeds, and Lancelot's humiliations. The story focuses on Lancelot, with Guinevere making up but one part of his ordeals. His reward is to bring her back to Arthur's court where they return to a hidden and somewhat antagonistic relationship.
Question #15: What patterns of sex and violence are depicted in the texts, and are they like patterns I am familiar with?
Chrétien depicts sex and violence in a direct and focused way. He considers physical attributes and attractive characters as central to the experience of sex and violence and makes them essential elements in his storytelling. Referring to King Arthur's court, Chrétien also emphasizes the importance of wealth and prestige: "So rich a one was never seen, for there was man good knights, brave and combative and fierce, and rich ladies and maidens, noble and beautiful daughters of Kings" (Erec and Enide, p. 37). This passage precedes Chrétien's description of Erec: "He was one of the round Table and had received great honor at court; as long as he had been there, no knight had been so highly praised, and he was so handsome that there was no need to seek a man of finer looks anywhere. He was very handsome and valiant and noble, and he was not yet twenty-five years old; never was any man of his youth so accomplished in knighthood" (p. 38). Erec is the epitome of all things wonderful and of course takes a wife to match his apparent perfection and "greatness". When Erec meets Enide, he is captivated by her magnificence: "The maiden was very beautiful, for nature in making her had turned all her attention to the task. Nature bears witness to this: never was such a beautiful creature seen in the whole world" (p. 42). This author is obsessed with this lady's comeliness: he describes her physical attributes for several paragraphs. At first I found his obsession with beauty unrealistic: physical perfection means nothing if the individual lacks personality, substance, character, humanness or empathy for others.
In The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot, Chrétien had the same attitudes, with the difference that he especially admired Lancelot and identified with him. Lancelot also differs from Erec in that in battle with all of the other knights, Lancelot obeys the commands of his mistress, Guinevere. What she says goes. This is not at all true of what happens between Erec and Enide: he often berates her and until the end of the story ignores what she says as irrelevant advice. Yet Guinevere commands Lancelot to lose again and again and to shame himself in public. The story here also centers on Lancelot's superior combat skills and he is depicted as the warrior's warrior: 'Truly he is worth a thousand of the likes of those on this field, since he has so vanquished and suprpassed all the knights in the world, that there now remains no one to oppose him" (The Knight of the Cart, p. 281). In comparison, Erec goes on his quest because others are beginning to despise him for giving up all his time to domestic and sexual life with Enide.
There are parallels between Chrétien's characterizations of Erec and Lancelot. They are both courageous, fare well in battle and are labelled virtuous all the time. This time from the first I found that Chrétien was more truthful: he does not intimate that the "good guy" always wins and that the heroic knight never faces personal weakness or a worthy adversary. Chrétien's strength and brilliance as a writer come out in his depictions of the male characters: he makes the focal point of the stories his knight's weaknesses. It was no surprize that these weaknesses revolved around sex and their relationship to women.
Lancelot's vulnerablity was very simple: he is in love with his king's wife. He is thus torn between his heart, his love for Guinevere, and his loyalty to his liege-lord, Arthur. Chrétien's knights who are paragons of virtue, strength and fidelity are all depicted as strong and fearless warriors, yet as ruled by their sexual passions. But Lancelot is willing to give up every value and every connection he has to be with this woman in bed: "Now Lancelot had every wish: the queen willingly sought his company and affection, as he held her in his arms, and she held him in hers. Her love play seemed so gentle and good to him, both her kisses and caresses, that in truth the two of them felt a joy and wonder the equal of which has never been heard or known. But I shall let it remain a secret forever ... Lancelot had great joy and pleasure all that night" (pp. 264-265). Lancelot is not Chrétien's only figure to be portrayed as a far from perfect specimen: we see knights and ladies with flaws throughout all his romances, but Erec's original flaw or mistake which brings on his quest is similar to Lancelot's behavior when it comes to Guinevere. They both are too strongly overcome by their sexual entanglement with a woman.
Erec is a gifted knight, talented and admired, much like Lancelot. He is also very much in love with Enide who is his wife. Like Lancelot and Guinevere, Erec and Enide really express their love through physical love-making. This is how they are described when they first come together: "That night they fully made up for what they had so long deferred. When they were left alone in the room, they paid homage to tach member. The eyes, which channel love and send the message to the heart, renewed themselves with looking for warever they saw greatly pleased them ... The love beween the two of them made the maiden more bold; she was not afraid of anything ... Before she arose again, she had lost the name of maiden; in the morning she was a new lady (p. 63). Later we know they have overcome their differences when they retire from the public scene and read another similar passage.
The problem for Erec, though, was when he married, he is transformed from a valiant knight to a negligent one: he becomes too tender, too romantic, too uninvolved with anyone or anything but love-making with Enide. He stops sparring; he stops protecting others. His attention is wholly lavished on Enide. He loses his edge; his fierceness. He does manage to have a lot of sex, but he begins to be seen as weak. People observe him and gossip about him as a fallen knight. His reaction is an extreme retaliation against Enide as well as himself. He goes off to war not caring whom he battles or if he even survives. He resorts to treating this beloved wife harshly. He is risking his life, his wife, his relationship, his position in court to prove some point.
I asked himself if Erec's strength as a knight and honor as a nobleman was worth this price? a broken marriage? severe wounds? terrible ordeals? He ignores his wife's and everyone else's pleas to rest and to return to court. He insists on doing just as he wishes: he wants to perform endlessly superlatively heroic acts. But at what price? Is chivalry and bravery really worth hurting those who love you most? I do not believe that they are, and I believe that Erec and Lancelot are both self-serving. Yet at the same time they are victims of their circumstances, creatures of the society they live in. Lancelot is hurt because he is torn between his desire to do what is right and his desire to obey Guinevere and have her sexually. He is also torn by conflicts over what she asks him to do in order to get her and his knowledge that what he is doing is wrong. He is also a victim of cricumstance in that the woman he loves is already married. Erec seems less of a victim than Lancelot: he goes soft from living "the good easy life" at home with his wife; when she tries to discuss this with him, he flies off into a rage. He acts out of price and hurt, and seems to refuse to acknowledge any pangs of conscience until it is almost too late.
I also noticed that Erec and and Lancelot experienced pain and anguish when they engaged in lovemaking with willing partners. For example, when Erec and Enide are reunited sex is described this way: "Now she was embraced and kissed; now she had everything she wished; now she had her joy and delight. They lay together in one bed, and embraced and kissed each other; nothing else pleased them as much. They had endured so much pain and trouble, he for her and she for him that now they had done their penance. They vied in finding ways of pleasing each other" (Erec and Enide, p. 101). This lovemaking is richer because the couple remembers their pain and trouble. In The Knight of the Cart, the pain and trouble is endlessly made part of what happens all the time. When Lancelot wants to get to Guinevere, many times he must do something which causes him "great pain and distress, wounding his hands, knees, and feet" (The Knight of the Cart, p. 246); to reach Guinevere's bed, he has to tear apart bars on her window and his hands bleed all over the place: this bleeding leads to people discovering someone has been in bed with her and causes him to have to defend her honor in a tournament where he is in effect lying about her.
How does all of this relate to modern times and my own experiences? Well, the stories made me contemplate about what I have seen and do a lot of thinking. Usually, I read a book for the story and come away from a firm grasp about what the author is trying to say from the story. It was not quite this way with these Romances. It was not until I started reading the actual passages carefully, paid attention to them and reflected about them that I came to some conclusions. Upon this second review, I realized the passion in which the author composed these stories. Chrétien had inserted himself into them. He was a passionate man and the biographical accounts of him do not serve him well.
I first thought that Chrétien's characters were just modern-day equivalents of horny teenagers. However, they were making sexual encounters a profound and meaningful activity -- what it is supposed to be: an expression of love. I realized as I was reading Chrétien and composing this journal-essay that he was not devaluing sex the way people today do: sex is being revered for its real purpose which is love and intimacy between two willing partners. At first I had challenged Chrétien. I initially faulted him for his seeming obsession with the physical world, with physical pleasures, with the lady's beauty and with richness and prestige. But these are symbols that stand for things that are meaningful in romance and in life.
So, in sum, Chrétien is a powerful storyteller whose mastery of characterization, symbol and story transcended his era. He was able to do this because he injected his own experience into stories, characters, and values that were pre-moulded for him. We need to think more about what he must have been as an individual. I also think I have proved that his stories present human nature truthfully.