Arthurian Romances

by Chretien de Troyes

Other authorsW. W. Comfort (Translator)
Paperback, 1982



Call number




Everyman's Library, Dent Dutton (1982), Edition: New edition, Paperback, 393 pages


The Knight of the Cart is the first telling of the adulterous relationship between Lancelot and Arthur's Queen Guinevere, and in The Knight with the Lion Yvain neglects his bride in his quest for greater glory. Erec and Enide explores a knight's conflict between love and honour, Cliges exalts the possibility of pure love outside marriage, while the haunting The Story of the Grail chronicles the legendary quest. Rich in symbolism, these evocative tales combine closely observed detail with fantastic adventure to create a compelling world that profoundly influenced Malory, and are the basis of the Arthurian legends we know today.

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
It is hard to believe that these Arthurian Romances were written in the latter part of the 12th century. They have been translated from the medieval French octosyllabic couplets into English prose and are alive with wonderful story telling, humour wit and some thought provoking views on love and honour. There are five tales presented in chronological order and Chretien's development of his major themes and his maturation as a writer can be tracked as one reads through them

Courtly love which started to flourish in the 12th century was based on four basic premise: humility, courtesy, adultery, and the religion of love. It went hand in glove with the concept of chivalry. Knights with their codes of honour were expected to follow the ideals of Courtly love in the romances at least and possibly in real courtly life. Chretien de Troyes was the earliest poet to use the King Arthur tales/histories as source material for his romances

1) Erec and Enide
A tale told in simple narrative style with a loose connection to King Arthur and the knights of the round table. Erec a knight of some worth and valour falls in love and marries Enide. He is so enchanted with married bliss that he neglects his duties to bear arms and his reputation as a knight. Enide must persuade him to get back on his horse and restore his flagging reputation. They ride out together seeking adventure and the story ends with Erec's triumph in the magic garden. This is a celebration of marital love with the underlying message that a knight must not neglect his duty and his honour. Enide says:

"The earth should truly swallow me up, since the very best of knights - the boldest and bravest, the most loyal, the most courteous that was ever count or king - has completely abandoned all chivalry because of me. Now I have truly shamed him; I should not have wished it for anything"

2) Cliges
There are two back to back stories here that celebrate love and fidelity. The first story features Alexandre's courtship and love of the marvellously named Soredamours. Chretien switches easily to a 1st person narrative as Soredamours explains:

"I have not been given the name of Soredamours for nothing.....I consider my name the best, since it begins with the colour with which gold is most in harmony. And the end of my name reminds me of Love for whoever calls me by my right name evokes loves tint within me. One half of my name guilds the other with the bright yellow hue of gold for Soredamours means "gilded over with love" Love has done me great honour in gilding this name upon me"

The second story is Soredamours son's (Cliges) love for the faithful Fernice. Chretien does not hesitate to step in to address the reader directly:

"So I wish to challenge the opinion that love can be found where there is no fear. Whoever wished to love must feel fear; if he does not he cannot love. But he must fear only the one he loves and be emboldened for her sake in all else"

I do not see any irony here as this is strictly in the tenets of courtly love. The story goes on to tell of Fernice' fidelity and constancy in her love for Cliges. Even under the most extreme torture she will not deny her love. Variations on this story have appeared frequently down the ages, but this gruesome tale is told particularly well by Chretien.

3) The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot)
Chretien now takes us into more familiar Arthurian legend territory. Gawain, Kay, and King Arthur himself all feature. It is the story of Lancelot's adulterous love for Arthur's queen Guinivere and as such is a complete break from the tales of fidelty that precede it. Chretien's introduction to the tale is deeply ironical; He says that he is writing it under the instructions of his sponsor; My Lady of Champagne:

"Certainly I am not one intent on flattering his lady. Will I say, 'As the polished gem eclipses the pearl and the sard, the countess eclipses queens'? Indeed not; I'll say nothing of the sort, though it is true in spite of me. I will say however that her command has more importance in this work than any thought or effort that I might put into it."

Lancelot is above all the Knight who gains his power and inspiration from the love of his Lady. He is at his fighting best, when he can see the object of his love (Guinevere). Chretien uses this tale to demonstrate the need for total subservience in courtly love. Guinevere tests Lancelot's love at a tournament by secretly ordering him to do his worst. Lancelot of course complies and takes a beating to prove his love. Chretien handles this part of the story superbly by introducing just the right amount of pathos and humour.

4) The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)
This is Chretien at the height of his powers; it is a well told story with a beginning a middle and a successful conclusion. It would appear that Chretien himself was happy with his effort, because he says at the end:

Thus Chretien brings to a close his romance of the knight with the lion. I've not heard any more about it, and you'll not here any more unless one adds lies to it"

Chretien starts the tale by telling us that the courtly love of by gone ages which was valiant, generous and honourable has been abandoned. He therefore immediately sets a tension to his story of Yvain, who wins the love of Laudine by defeating her champion in combat. He pledges himself to Laudine but is anxious to prove himself further as a knight. She gives him a year to satisfy his need for adventures, but he overstays his time and when he eventually returns she casts him out. Yvain suffers a breakdown and goes native in the forest, during this period he is befriended by a lion who assists him when his reason returns and he once again sets off to prove himself as a knight. New feats of his power are soon becoming apparent and when he saves Laudine's lands from a usurper she finally welcomes him back. The story has everything you could want from a romance; love lost and then regained, help from a faithful ally, plenty of magic, and some lively combat scenes. For the first time in Chretien's tales worship of God plays some part in Yvain's success. Yvain himself explains:

"And if the truth be told, God himself takes on this cause of the righteous, and God and righteousness are as one and since they are on my side therefore, I have better companions than you and better supporters."

5) The story of the Grail (Perceval)
This is Chretien's most ambitious tale. He keeps two stories running in parallel that threaten to intersect. First there is Pereceval quest to become a knight. He has natural talent and his love of God enables him to become almost the perfect knight. Christianity features strongly in Perceval's development and Chretien slips in a paragraph explaining the story of Jesus. It is Perceval who sees both the holy grail and the lance that drips blood when he is in the castle of the Fisher King. However Perceval's failure to ask who the grail serves results in him being denied the opportunity to know what the grail is and its secrets remain closed to him. The second story features Gawain; a very different character. He never misses an opportunity to bed a damsel and he is tasked with a quest to find the blood tipped lance. Chretien moves between the two tales which will seemingly converge at some point, however it all ends suddenly in mid sentence. Chretien never got to finish this tale which may well have been his masterpiece. There is some fine writing here especially when Perceval's story is told. A sense of wonder proliferates not only with the sighting of the grail but also in passages such as this when Perceval spends a morning fascinated by some blood in the snow:

"When Perceval saw the disturbed snow where the goose had lain, with the blood still visible, he leaned against his lance to gaze at this sight for the blood mingled with the snow resembled the blush of his lady's face. He became lost in contemplation: the red tone of his Lady's cheeks in her white face were like the three drops of blood against the whiteness of the snow. As he gazed upon the sight, it pleased him so much it felt as though he were seeing the fresh colour of his fair Lady's face. Perceval mused upon the drops throughout the hours of dawn and spent so much time there that when the squires came out of their tents and saw him, they thought he was sleeping"

I love the translations of these romances. William W Kibler and Carleton W Carroll have avoided modern usage of the English Language to produce translations that have a timeless quality to them. These tales are some of the earliest stories written in the vernacular and to have the pleasure of enjoying them today seems like a special treat and in addition the authorial interventions by Chretien himself give this reader the feeling that he is speaking to us down the ages.
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LibraryThing member andreablythe
The verse written by 12th century poet Chrétien de Troyes represents the earliest of the Arturian romances as we recognize them today. These poems have been widely popular and have influenced the shape of every King Arthur and his Knights tales that came after. This translation of these five tales puts the verse into prose format.

"Erec and Enide" follows the story of the two title characters, starting with Erec's adventures and eventual winning of Enide's hand, followed by Erec and Enide riding off to wander the land in search of quests together.

"Cligés" is a more meandering tale, which begins with Alexandre of Greece's journey to King Arthur's court in order to win renown, and then his son Cliges' adventures and romance with his uncle's wife.

"The Knight of the Cart" is Lancelot's tale, in which the queen Guinevere is taken away by an evil knight. Lancelot pursues her and fights many adventure in his great love for her. It's an interesting one, because Lancelot is made to look foolish more than once in his love for her.

"The Knight with the Lion" is Yvain's tale and follows a similar format as the other in that a knight goes off to meet a great adventure. Along the way he wins the love of a maiden, who then casts him off when he fails to return when he's told to. He goes temporarily insane and has to fight many adventures before he can win her back.

"The Story of the Grail" is Perceval's quest, though it also includes much of Gawain's adventures. Perceval starts out as an idiotic ass, leaving a wake of damage on his way to becoming a knight. The grail has less of the Christian affiliations in this version and has to do with the Fisher King (not Arthur), who suffers from wounds that will not heal. There's a lance that bleeds from its tip, as well as the grail in association with the Fisher King. This tale was not finished by Troyes, but the translator gives a nice round up of the various continuations written by other poets of the time period, which begin to bring in the more heavy handed Christian elements.

Some random thoughts, in no particular order:
1. The storytelling skill gets better with each subsequent story, which makes me think that "Eric and Enide" was written first and Troyes skill improved with each story he told (though I can't be sure of that). The last three tales are the best in the book, and "The Knight with the Lion" is probably my favorite.

2. There's a lot of redundancy. Characters will say one thing, repeat it in a slightly different order, then repeat it a third time, just to make sure you really know that they mean what they say. Also, the plot lines repeat fairly often and by the end of the book it's easy to tell exactly how each battle will turn out with the knights on equal footing, landing many great blows, and the blood flowing and so on. This repetition can make things kind of tedious.

3. The people in this era apparently believed that a fight could prove guilt or innocence. If you're accused of treason or a crime, welp, facts don't matter as long you have the best knight to fight for you. The winner is proved right, because God would only let the right one win. Uh-huh.

4. People were also rather obsessed with beauty. Beauty = good. Ugliness = evil. All the heroes are the most handsome of knights and draw the eye of every spectator to them. All the good maidens are beautiful and fair.

5. Arthur is kind of a fool. The most obvious demonstration of this is in "Eric and Enide," in which it essentially goes:
Arthur: I want to do this thing, because it would be sooooo coool.
Gawain: That's a very bad idea, because something bad will happen.
Arthur: You're right, but I'm going to do the thing anyway, because I'm the king and the king should do whatever he wants.
*does the thing*
Gawain: I told you if you did the thing something bad would happen.
Arthur: I know. Now tell me how to fix it.

6. Kay is interesting in that he starts out noble and well loved in "Eric and Enide" but gradually becomes more of an ass by the time "The Story of the Grail" rolls around, when he's called evil tongued and rude and worse and yet they still love him. I would have booted him to the curb.

7. As much as maidens and women are almost never given names and act as objects for the knights to win, they also have a surprising amount of autonomy and strength. Women are often found hanging out alone in the woods and it's not uncommon for a girl to take up a horse and ride over hill and dale in search of a knight to help her, essentially having her own form adventure. Many of the women also own their own lands and rule their own castles. However, when women have power over men, their demands tend to be rather arbitrary and often have to do with keep the man by her side. In the end, the demands seem not to be so much about her as they seem to be about setting up an adventure for some guy.

8. Morgan le Fay, sister to Arthur and always a favorite of mine, appears only in passing in these stories. But when she does, she is presented in a positive light, as a powerful healer and known for creating the best tinctures and good potions. Apparently, it's not until later versions that she begins to play the part of the evil traitor.

9. The people are ridiculously prone to emotion. When saddened, they pull their hair, scratch their faces, threatened suicide, faint from sorrow and boredom, but all that can turn around in an instant to beaming dancing joy. A knight leaving darkens the skies and is an end to all good feeling; his return that very night is a cause for feasting and celebration. I'm surprised everyone survived these massive shifts and fits of emotion without keeling over.

10. Oh, I have lots more thoughts about this and that, but this list is already long, so I'll just leave off here.
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LibraryThing member bhowell
the inventer of Arthurian literature as we know it, writing in the 2nd half of the 12th century
LibraryThing member RogueBelle
Classic chivalric romance -- the genesis of so many of our modern notions of King Arthur's court, and of the Middle Ages. Highly recommended for students of either Arthurian lit or medieval literature.
LibraryThing member VivalaErin
Chretien had a serious gift, and with it he gifted us with the rules of chivalry that we still know. He created the rules of courtly love, and the story of Lancelot takes up a large portion of this book. The romances are beautifully written, fun, and surprisingly relevant. This translation is pretty easy to read, but you can still feel Chretien's tone and style.… (more)
LibraryThing member MMWiseheart
Aside from all the mentioning of "the Joy", I really liked reading Arthurian Romances. I'd have to say that the story of Erec and Enide is by far my favorite. It deals with the principle of chivalry. Erec is a very chivalrous knight who quests for love of his queen and for love of his lady. Once he and Enide, his lady, are married, he gives up jousts and questing to stay by her side. Enide is afraid that he will loose his renown and urges him to go. Erec does indeed go questing again, but he takes Enide along with him. In the end, his chivalry is greater as is his love for Enide. I wasn't nearly as fond of the other stories, as they made most of the characters in them seem ridiculous. They are, however, very entertaining.… (more)


Original language


Original publication date

1170 - 1190

Physical description

393 p.; 20 inches


0460016989 / 9780460016988

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