Chrétien de Troyes: Life and Work
he old city of Troyes must feature prominently in any map of literary history. For it was there that Chrétien de Troyes was inspired 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, are tales of knighthood, bravery and courtly-love. They treat respectively of Erec and Enide, Cligés, Yvain, and Lancelot. The poem "Guillaume d'Angleterre" has been attributed to him by some scholars, although many find this doubtful. A list of works in "Cligés" mentions a romance "Du roi Marc et d'Iseut la Blonde", of which no trace remains. Another poem, Le Roman de Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal, was begun in about 1175 for Philip, Count of Flanders, to whom Chrétien was attached during his last years. It was left unfinished at his death after he had written more than 9000 lines.
he unfinished poem Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal is generally considered to be the "definitive" Grail Romance. It is accompanied by four Continuations by other writers, so called because these books continue the story left incomplete by Chrétien. Although he
cannot have been the first poet to write about the mystical Grail Castle, the quester and the Fisher King, his Perceval is the earliest written account of the Grail
Quest to have survived. Unless, as Jessie L. Weston asserted, the First Continuation to Perceval, a story about Gawain, existed in some
form already. The inconsistencies between this Continuation and the poem left unfinished by Chrétien can leave no doubt that it is an entirely separate story about a search for the Holy Grail; including
the second visit of King Arthur's nephew Gauvain (Gawain) to the Grail Castle. R.S. Loomis commented that, in the Continuation,
ontemporary poets (in the last two decades of the twelfth century) writing about the Grail included Robert de Boron, although he wrote only about the history of the Grail and not about the Quest. For Boron the Grail is the cup of the Last-Supper, while for Chrétien it is wondrous but not explicitly holy. Then for Wolfram it became a magical stone. There can be no doubt that Wolfram's main source, for his poem Parzival (ca.1205), was Chrétien's romance or that he also used other, related material, probably in Old French: his naming of characters suggests a French source other that Perceval. The existence of other Grail stories, some of them now lost, is suggested by Wolfram's claim to have found the story in a book. For example, Wolfram, in his retelling of the story, gives the name Anfortas to the Fisher King and it has been suggested that the name derives from the Old French "enfertez". Similarly, Parzival's wife he renames as Condwiramurs, which is plausibly derived from the Old French "conduire amours". A few characters are given names by Wolfram although they (or their equivalents) were not named in the Perceval. It is possible that Wolfram invented these names but more likely that he found them in another book, not by Chrétien, that told the story of Perceval. So by 1200 there was a growing literature about the quest for the Holy Grail, of which only a few poems have survived.
t is widely although not universally accepted that Chrétien de Troyes based some of his poetic writings on Celtic sources (the so-called Matter of Brittany) one such candidate being the story of Peredur, a version of which would be incorporated into
the collection of Welsh legends known as the Mabinogion2; alternatively, Welsh and Breton tales provided material
used in both romances. This would explain Chrétien's
hrétien's story, which later authors would follow to a lesser or greater extent, is about a youth who had a sheltered upbringing. After the deaths of his father and brothers, his mother took him to her castle in the Welsh forest and there brought him up in ignorance of war and weaponry. After the boy has met a group of knights who were passing through the forest, he leaves his mother, who dies of a broken heart. Perceval goes out into the world and naively tries to follow his mother's advice, which only causes trouble for himself and others. He goes to Arthur's court and asks to be knighted but there he is only laughed at. He meets an old knight called Gornemant who gives him a rudimentary education in the use of weapons and the code of chivalry. Gornemant advises the boy not to ask too many questions. Perceval wanders in search of knightly adventure: he rescues a damsel in distress and falls in love with her, his Blancheflor. Then his wandering takes Perceval to an encounter with the Fisher King, who invites him into the Grail Castle: where he witnesses a strange procession in which a boy carries a spear that bleeds, while a maiden carries a shining Grail. The boy, recalling his teacher's advice, does not ask for any of this to be explained and he fails to ask the Question that would have healed the wounds of the infirm king. The king gives Perceval a sword which his cousin later tells him will break at a crucial moment. It is not mentioned again by Chrétien de Troyes but in Gerbert's Continuation we can read that Perceval shatters the sword at the gates of the Earthly Paradise. As a result of his failure to ask the Question, the land becomes a Waste Land. (In versions of the Grail story in which Gawain is the quester, the land is already wasted before the quester arrives at the Grail Castle and so his failure fails to heal both the wounded king and the land.) Chrétien does not provide the names of Perceval's parents (these and other names were later added by Wolfram von Eschenbach in his retelling) but he does say that the Fisher King is Perceval's maternal uncle. According to Boron in his Joseph of Arimathea the father of Perceval was called Alain Gros, the son of Bron the Rich Fisher.
erceval meets his cousin (who is unnamed in this story but who will become Sigûne in Wolfram's poem). She explains that he failed at the Grail Castle and that it was because of the boy's sin against his mother, who died of grief at his departure. This implies that Perceval's lack of concern for his mother and his lack of compassion for the Fisher King are related, at least in the opinion of his cousin. As he rode to the court of Arthur there was a curious incident (also retold by Wolfram) in which Perceval falls into a trance while contemplating three drops of blood in the snow, which make him think of his beloved. After other knights have failed to do so, Gawain breaks the trance and accompanies Perceval to Arthur's court. There he is abused by the messenger of the Grail, the Loathly Damsel, for failing to ask the healing question. Another knight arrives with a complaint against Gawain and so both he and Perceval depart from the court, each on his own quest. In subsequent chapters the poem tells alternately of the adventures of these very different knights. Gawain demonstrates his courage and courtesy, while Perceval is growing in chivalric honour but lacks spiritual awareness. He meets five knights who criticize him for wearing armour and bearing weapons on Good Friday. They direct him to a hermit (who turns out to be Perceval's uncle) to begin his spiritual instruction. Only when Perceval has achieved a balance between chivalric and spiritual values will he be able to complete his quest. But the poem breaks off before Perceval can return to the Grail Castle, where we assume that he will ask the question(s) and so heal the Fisher King and perhaps his land too.
hrétien's influence extends well beyond the literature of the middle ages. The characters and their exploits that were introduced by Chrétien in his poetic romances were further developed variously by German authors, such as Hartmann von Aue and Wolfram von Eschenbach, and by the compilers of later prose romances, including the Vulgate cycle. From "The Franklin's Tale" in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and even to Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King, the Arthurian tradition that was initiated by Chrétien de Troyes has been a thread of European literature.
Chrétien's Arthurian Romances
Discussions and References
A Chrétien Bibliography
There is a vast literature concerning Chrétien de Troyes. Here are a few selected titles.
Footnote 1: R.S. Loomis, Objections to the celtic origin of the «Matière de Bretagne», Romania, 1958.
Footnote 2: The romance of Peredur is not a branch of the Mabinogion: but it appears in the same manuscripts as the Mabinogion proper.