Thursday, 28 May 2009

Arthur, le roi

I think it's ironic and intriguing that, working as I am on my French Literature reading project, I've just read a set of romances which deal with subject matter central to England's national mythology.

The introduction to the Penguin edition of Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian Romances indicates that, in fact, "Chretien de Troyes was the inventor of Arthurian literature as we know it" (p. 1). Indeed, Chretien was responsible not only for the form - the combination of courtly manners and love, and tests and displays of physical violence - but also for many of the elements now considered integral to Arthurian tales: for example, "He was the first to speak of Queen Guinevere's affair with Lancelot of the Lake, the first to mention Camelot, and the first to write of the adventures of the Grail" (p. 1).

Apparently, Chretien spent time in England and was thus familiar with English history and literature, which may explain how he became interested in the story of Arthur and his knights via Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (p. 6). How his works remained on people's radars as prose romance replaced poetry (which Chretien wrote) in popular esteem was via Thomas Malory, who ensured that Arthur remained central to literary production in Britain even as stories about him were eventually almost entirely forgotten in France (p. 22).

So, extremely fascinating history aside, I found Chretien's romances, as literature, to be generally incredibly good reads. I say generally, because I absolutely loved the first four (Erec and Enide, Cliges, The Knight of the Cart, and The Knight with the Lion - especially The Knight with the Lion) but found the final romance, The Story of the Grail, to be irritating and unpleasant to immerse myself in.

The first four romances had everything: i.e., plot and style, as well as fascinating meditations on the inherent impossibility of behaving courteously to everyone all the time (for more, see Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which also features a talking severed head!), how courtly social ties become almost mystical in their power to determine people's behaviour, and the ability to help me pass a lot of time at work enjoyably when I don't feel like earning my pay.

But The Story of the Grail was really disappointing, and not just because it's incomplete; I can't blame Chretien for that, given that he likely didn't finish it because he died. It was disappointing because Perceval is stupid, rude, and generally unlikable - and yet he's somehow lauded by other characters as a very courteous knight and ladies want to sleep with him, insufferable idiot that he is.

It was disappointing because structurally, it didn't make sense. Three quarters of the way through, the narrator began focusing all his attention on Gawain, and he and Perceval had barely spoken to one another. Did I mention that Perceval was a twat? Anyway, it was somewhat souring to end a fantastically good collection with this wankerish character (pictured below).

Almost as satisfying as Chretien's first four stories was the way in which a customer in the shop responded one day when she saw me reading Arthurian Romances. Having walked around the store with her friend being loud and exuberant about a book she was about to start reading - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - she walked by my desk and asked me what I was reading. I showed her the cover and she positively roared, "AAAAAAAHH! I thought that's what you were reading! BEST BOOK EVER!!!!" and then left. People have approved of my reading choices before but I think never with so much loud or unpolished enthusiasm; it was kind of nice.


Yuri... said...

I'm sorry the book ended on such a sour note - but have to agree with the major points awarded for the talking severed head. I have yet to come across one, but often finish a long read and muse to myself: "That was a good tale, but really could really have used a talking severed head to round things out a little..."

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

So I've only read The Knight of the Lion, which is wonderful. It's good to hear that I should read more Chretien (up to a point).

As a strange addendum to your first paragraph, Chretien very quickly became immensely popular in German-speaking states, so a substantial portion of the secular German literature from the High Middle Ages consists of translations and imitations of Chretien's French tales of English history.

The big winner is Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, which completes Chretien's grail story and solves (well, addresses) the problems you mention by making everything really, really weird.

Bookphilia said...

Amateur Reader: I've found a copy of the German Parzival lying it a good read? Or just incomprehensible? Because I like my weirdo writing also to be good writing.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Sorry - long delay in my answer. Yes, Wolfram's Parzival will be worth your time, or at least parts of it will. I remember some dull stretches, but there are also some scenes that are truly unique. It's not just warmed-over Chretien, and the strangeness creates its own (more or less) coherent world.