Arthurian Romances, by Chrétien de Troyes, Penguin Classics, $11.95, paperback. Tel: 800-253-6476.
The development of the King Arthur legend was marked by the addition of various characters and themes, not all of them by Welsh or English writers. The French poet Chrétien de Troye’s Arthurian Romances introduced the love affair of Queen Guinevere and Lancelot of the Lake, as well as the court at Camelot.
Chrétien, a poet at the court of the Count and Countess of Champagne, invented the ‘courtly romance’ and is recognized as the greatest romance author. He wrote his Arthurian stories in the latter half of the 12th century, at the suggestion of Marie de Champagne.
Arthurian Romances includes five tales–‘Eric and Enide’, ‘Cliges’, ‘The Knight with the Lion’, ‘The Knight of the Cart’, and ‘The Story of the Grail’. The last two of these were finished by another writer, Godefroi de Leigni.
‘The Knight of the Cart’ is of particular interest in that it deals primarily with one of Chrétien’s most important contributions to Arthurian lore–the character of Lancelot. In this romance, Chrétien tells the story of Queen Guinevere’s abduction by the evil knight, Meleagant, son of King Bademagu of Gorre.
Sir Kay, one of Arthur’s knights, offers to defend the Queen, but loses his contest with Meleagant and is whisked away to Gorre along with the Queen. Another of Arthur’s knights, Gawain, takes up the search for Kay and Guinevere, and meets an unnamed knight–later revealed as Lancelot–also seeking the Queen.
Many scholars believe that ‘The Knight with the Lion’ and ‘The Knight of the Cart’ are meant to be read concurrently as there are references in the first romance to events in the second. Many critics extol the ‘The Knight with the Lion’ as the most perfect of the romances. In it, Yvain realizes the folly of leaving his wife to search for his own personal glory and returns begging forgiveness; while Lancelot continues his affair with the Queen, not realizing how impure and corrupt his love is.
Chrétien de Troyes’ invention of the Arthurian romance allowed other authors to provide readers with enthralling and imaginative pieces of literature all built upon the legend of King Arthur.