Introduction

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Author: W. W. Comfort
Editor: Jelena O. Krstovic
Date: 1993
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,527 words

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[In the excerpt below, Comfort appraises the literary significance of Chrétien's romances in the context of Arthurian legend and medieval narrative poetry as a whole.]

Chrétien de Troyes has had the peculiar fortune of becoming the best known of the old French poets to students of mediaval literature, and of remaining practically unknown to any one else. The acquaintance of students with the work of Chrétien 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 Chrétien'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 von Eschenbach, Malory, Lord Tennyson, and Richard Wagner.... (p. v)

Such extravagant claims for Chrétien's art have been made in some quarters that one feels disinclined to give them even an echo here. The modern 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 mediaval literary craft. No greater service can be performed ... 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.

Chrétien 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 Provençal 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 Chrétien was led to write four romances which together form the most complete expression we possess from a single author of the ideals...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420020658