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Four Arthurian Romances by Chretien DeTroyes
Chretien De Troyes has had the peculiar fortune of becoming the best known of the old French poets to students of mediaeval literature, and of remaining practically unknown to any one else. The acquaintance of students with the work of Chretien has been made possible in academic circles by the admirable critical editions of his romances undertaken and carried to completion during the past thirty years by Professor Wendelin Foerster of Bonn. At the same time the want of public familiarity with Chretien's work is due to the almost complete lack of translations of his romances into the modern tongues. The man who, so far as we know, first recounted the romantic adventures of Arthur's knights, Gawain. Yvain, Erec, Lancelot, and Perceval, has been forgotten; whereas posterity has been kinder to his debtors, Wolfram yon Eschenbach, Malory, Lord Tennyson, and Richard Wagner. The present volume has grown out of the desire to place these romances of adventure before the reader of English in a prose version based directly upon the oldest form in which they exist.
Such extravagant claims for Chretien's art have been made in some quarters that one feels disinclined to give them even an echo here. The modem reader may form his own estimate of the poet's art, and that estimate will probably not be high. Monotony, lack of proportion, vain repetitions, insufficient motivation, wearisome subtleties, and threatened, if not actual, indelicacy are among the most salient defects which will arrest, and mayhap confound, the reader unfamiliar with mediaeval literary craft. No greater service can be performed by an editor in such a case than to prepare the reader to overlook these common faults, and to set before him the literary significance of this twelfth-century poet.
Chretien de Troyes wrote in Champagne during the third quarter of the twelfth century. Of his life we know neither the beginning nor the end, but we know that between 1160 and 1172 he lived, perhaps as herald-at-arms (according to Gaston Paris, based on "Lancelot" 5591-94) at Troyes, where was the court of his patroness, the Countess Marie de Champagne. She was the daughter of Louis VII, and of that famous Eleanor of Aquitaine, as she is called in English histories, who, coming from the South of France in 1137, first to Paris and later to England, may have had some share in the introduction of those ideals of courtesy and woman service which were soon to become the cult of European society. The Countess Marie, possessing her royal mother's tastes and gifts, made of her court a social experiment station, where these Provencal ideals of a perfect society were planted afresh in congenial soil. It appears from contemporary testimony that the authority of this celebrated feudal dame was weighty, and widely felt. The old city of Troyes, where she held her court, must be set down large in any map of literary history. For it was there that Chretien was led to write four romances which together form the most complete expression we possess from a single author of the ideals of French chivalry. These romances, written in eight-syllable rhyming couplets, treat respectively of Erec and Enide, Cliges, Yvain, and Lancelot. Another poem, "Perceval le Gallois", was composed about 1175 for Philip, Count of Flanders, to whom Chretien was attached during his last years. This last poem is not included in the present translation because of its extraordinary length of 32,000 verses, because Chretien wrote only the first 9000 verses, and because Miss Jessie L. Weston has given us an English version of Wolfram's wellknown "Parzival", which tells substantially the same story, though in a different spirit. To have included this poem, of which he wrote less than one-third, in the works of Chretien would have been unjust to him. It is true the romance of "Lancelot" was not completed by Chretien, we are told, but the poem is his in such large part that one would be over-scrupulous not to call it his. The other three poems mentioned are his entire. In addition, there are quite generally assigned to the poet two insignificant lyrics, the pious romance of "Guillaume d'Angleterre", and the elaboration of an episode from Ovid's "Metamorphoses" (vi., 426- 674) called "Philomena" by its recent editor (C. de Boer, Paris, 1909). All these are extant and accessible. But since "Guillaume d'Angleterre" and "Philomena" are not universally attributed to Chretien, and since they have nothing to do with the Arthurian material, it seems reasonable to limit the present enterprise to "Erec and Enide", "Cliges", "Yvain", and "Lancelot".
Professor Foerster, basing his remark upon the best knowledge we possess of an obscure matter, has called "Erec and Enide" the oldest Arthurian romance extant. It is not possible to dispute this significant claim, but let us make it a little more intelligible. Scholarship has shown that from the early Middle Ages popular tradition was rife in Britain and Brittany. The existence of these traditions common to the Brythonic peoples was called to the attention of the literary world by William of Malmesbury ("Gesta regum Anglorum") and Geoffrey of Monmouth ("Historia regum Britanniae") in their Latin histories about 1125 and 1137 respectively, and by the Anglo-Norman poet Wace immediately afterward. Scholars have waged war over the theories of transmission of the so-called Arthurian material during the centuries which elapsed between the time of the fabled chieftain's activity in 500 A.D. and his appearance as a great literary personage in the twelfth century. Documents are lacking for the dark ages of popular tradition before the Norman Conquest, and the theorists may work their will. But Arthur and his knights, as we see them in the earliest French romances, have little in common with their Celtic prototypes, as we dimly catch sight of them in Irish, Welsh, and Breton legend. Chretien belonged to a generation of French poets who look over a great mass of Celtic folk-lore they imperfectly understood, and made of what, of course, it had never been before: the vehicle to carry a rich freight of chivalric customs and ideals. As an ideal of social conduct, the code of chivalry never touched the middle and lower classes, but it was the religion of the aristocracy and of the twelfth-century "honnete homme". Never was literature in any age closer to the ideals of a social class. So true is this that it is difficult to determine whether social practices called forth the literature, or whether, as in the case of the seventeenth-century pastoral romance in France, it is truer to say that literature suggested to society its ideals. Be that as it may, it is proper to observe that the French romances of adventure portray late mediaeval aristocracy as it fain would be. For the glaring inconsistencies between the reality and the ideal, one may turn to the chronicles of the period. Yet, even history tells of many an ugly sin rebuked and of many a gallant deed performed because of the courteous ideals of chivalry. The debt of our own social code to this literature of courtesy and frequent self-sacrifice is perfectly manifest.
What Chretien's immediate and specific source was for his romances is of deep interest to the student. Unfortunately, he has left us in doubt. He speaks in the vaguest way of the materials he used. There is no evidence that he had any Celtic written source. We are thus thrown back upon Latin or French literary originals which are lost, or upon current continental lore going back to a Celtic source. This very difficult problem is as yet unsolved in the case of Chretien, as it is in the case of the Anglo-Norman Beroul, who wrote of Tristan about 1150. The material evidently was at hand and Chretien appropriated it, without much understanding of its primitive spirit, but appreciating it as a setting for the ideal society dreamed of but not realised in his own day. Add to this literary perspicacity, a good foundation in classic fable, a modicum of ecclesiastical doctrine, a remarkable facility in phrase, figure, and rhyme and we have the foundations for Chretien's art as we shall find it upon closer examination.
A French narrative poet of the twelfth century had three categories of subject-matter from which to choose: legends connected with the history of France ("matiere de France"), legends connected with Arthur and other Celtic heroes ("matiere de Bretagne"), and stories culled from the history or mythology of Greece and Rome, current in Latin and French translations ("matiere de Rome la grant"). Chretien tells us in "Cliges" that his first essays as a poet were the translations into French of certain parts of Ovid's most popular works: the "Metamorphoses", the "Ars Amatoria", and perhaps the "Remedia Amoris". But he appears early to have chosen as his special field the stories of Celtic origin dealing with Arthur, the Round Table, and other features of Celtic folk-lore. Not only was he alive to the literary interest of this material when rationalised to suit the taste of French readers; his is further the credit of having given to somewhat crude folk-lore that polish and elegance which is peculiarly French, and which is inseparably associated with the Arthurtan legends in all modern literature. Though Beroul, and perhaps other poets, had previously based romantic poems upon individual Celtic heroes like Tristan, nevertheless to Chretien, so far as we can see, is due the considerable honour of having constituted Arthur's court as a literary centre and rallying- point for an innumerable company of knights and ladies engaged in a never-ending series of amorous adventures and dangerous quests. Rather than unqualifiedly attribute to Chretien this important literary convention, one should bear in mind that all his poems imply familiarity on the part of his readers with the heroes of the court of which he speaks. One would suppose that other stories, told before his versions, were current. Some critics would go so far as to maintain that Chretien came toward the close, rather than at the beginning, of a school of French writers of Arthurian romances. But, if so, we do not possess these earlier versions, and for lack of rivals Chretien may be hailed as an innovator in the current schools of poetry.
And now let us consider the faults which a modern reader will not be slow to detect in Chretien's style. Most of his salient faults are common to all mediaeval narrative literature. They may be ascribed to the extraordinary leisure of the class for whom it was composed--a class which was always ready to read an old story told again, and which would tolerate any description, however detailed. The pastimes of this class of readers were jousting, hunting, and making love. Hence the preponderance of these matters in the literature of its leisure hours. No detail of the joust or hunt was unfamiliar or unwelcome to these readers; no subtle arguments concerning the art of love were too abstruse to delight a generation steeped in amorous casuistry and allegories. And if some scenes seem to us indelicate, yet after comparison with other authors of his times, Chretien must be let off with a light sentence. It is certain he intended to avoid what was indecent, as did the writers of narrative poetry in general. To appreciate fully the chaste treatment of Chretien one must know some other forms of mediaeval literature, such as the fabliaux, farces, and morality plays, in which courtesy imposed no restraint. For our poet's lack of sense of proportion, and for his carelessness in the proper motivation of many episodes, no apology can be made. He is not always guilty; some episodes betoken poetic mastery. But a poet acquainted, as he was, with some first-class Latin poetry, and who had made a business of his art, ought to have handled his material more intelligently, even in the twelfth century. The emphasis is not always laid with discrimination, nor is his yarn always kept free of tangles in the spinning.
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- which completely satisfied me that the common accounts
- was to move from Pittsburg, under Col. Daniel Broadhead;
- and gunpowder. The latter article was required for a very
- of established reputation, such as Gordon, Ramsey, Thacher,
- to a rude, uncultured race, his vices were no greater than
- represented that Burgoyne had entered Albany in triumph,
- He strove to peer about him, but the feeble ray of the
- to keep their families in captivity. These Women and children
- at a pretended meeting of the sachems of the confederacy,
- that if Brant would come to Cherry Valley they would change
- He divided his small following into two parties, entrusting
- forts, nor the prisons of the white men. In place of artillery
- said he. He prevailed upon the Indians to leave, after
- captivity. Brant had left one large house unburned. Into
- the steps again, finding himself now nearly up to his armpits
- take no means of redress, the British, following the customs
- of Lake Ontario, where he lived in great splendor. Here
- assault on the fort, while the garrison dared make no sally,
- tables, and lifting Helen Cumberly, carried her half-way
- horrid transactions of Wyoming. Misled by history, or rather
- They then designated Red Jacket as their speaker, and he
- wore a short black silk petticoat, with a tunic of the
- was the especial pride and joy of My Dear and Meriem. The
- in justice to Red Jacket and his brave comrades, had been
- saw an Indian very near, and involuntarily raised his rake
- fifteen hundred bearing trees. Nor was this unusually large.
- before. For what was he waiting, or for whom? He heard
- he acted, deny the charge. Many even asserted that he was
- The Indians swept into the settlement from different directions,
- message to the Mohawks, demanding satisfaction for the
- at our arrival, and said one to the other, “This is the
- with musketry, he was intimidated by a threat that the
- Following is a part of the letter written by Campbell to
- any craft larger than an Indian canoe. While waiting for
- might have noticed the reduced numbers of his following.
- without much order or precaution, planned an ambush, which
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- It seems that the husbands of these two women had been
- bivouacked near us. They had no shelter during the rain.
- yet lost his influence, were opposed to a break between
- where their interest is equal, they still cannot sign a
- From all accounts, the first missionaries sent among the
- event in this quiet retired corner of the world; and nearly
- most eminent gentlemen in New York. Several years afterward,
- his people, who, among the Iroquois, were permitted to
- for we now consider that we stand upright before you and
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- against the enemy. Among the Tory spies recently captured