Revisiting Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain (11 December 2019)

Yvain image
[Image:  after BNF Français 343 Queste del Saint Graal / Tristan de Léonois; f 27v at
Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain (c. 1177), is often discussed as the perfect courtly romance – an archetypal expression of the young knight in search of land, love and aventure. It is often described as Chrétien’s ‘masterpiece’,[1] ‘one of the best constructed, most captivating tales in medieval literature’,[2] and has been long-considered ‘the perfect paradigm of romance’.[3] While Yvain was not the subject of later romance cycles in the manner of Lancelot, Tristan and Perceval, the appeal of his story seems to have been felt from the outset: it certainly proved influential on later writers, with translations and adaptations being made in France, Wales, England, Scandinavia and Germany – as late as the sixteenth century.

Yet despite its status as the archetypal single-hero romance, it remains a tremendously elusive text. Its combination of parody and sincerity, optimism and profound pessimism, its structural emphasis on replication and mischievous delight in oppositions, its sense of narrative urgency and frequent digressions into scholarly rhetorical asides, often seem to inflame a desire among some critics to resolve the text’s contradictions, and to find solutions to this problem-filled romance. And yet, as Tony Hunt writes:

It should be said at once that no such essay would come near to doing justice to Yvain if it were to offer firm, ostensibly authoritative conclusions about the work’s ‘meaning’ and function, for Chrétien’s ludic, theatrical, interrogatory tone makes it clear that almost everything in Yvain is debateable, deliberately so, and that it is a deeply paradoxical work, which tests its readers’ intelligence and alertness at every turn.[4]

Chrétien’s verse is sophisticated and highly literary – a powerful example and expression of that intense writerly renaissance of the second half of the twelfth century. That said, it is notably speech-like in its expression and, usually, language. It would have been read aloud very effectively.[5] The text’s concern with the marvellous, its surprising set pieces, and narrative are all likely to have inspired discussion and debate.

Though the subject of an enormous amount of scholarly speculation, little is knowable about Chrétien’s life. He was the author of five Arthurian romances – the first of their type. First, seemingly, came Erec et Enide, followed by Cliges, Lancelot and Yvain. Sometime later he wrote Perceval, the earliest extant – and likely first – story of the grail. In his prologue to Cliges he also claims to have written a number of other texts: translations from Ovid’s Commandments and the Art of Love, as well as the tales of Philomela and Pelops from the Metamorphoses, as well as the story of Mark and Iseut la Blonde. All these translations have been lost, save possibly the tale of Philomela; no trace of the Tristan survives, although echoes of that story are present throughout many of Chrétien’s extant Arthurian romances. Two short love lyrics are also attributed to him: ‘Amors tençon et bataille’ (‘Love, Strife and Battle’) and ‘D’Amors, qui m’a tolu a moi’ (Of Love, Who Took Me from Myself’), which demonstrate clear influence of the southern French troubadour poets. Troyes, from where Chrétien hailed, or at least worked, was a major mercantile centre, a crossroads amid the merchant roads of France, southeast of Paris. It was also the residence of the count and countess of Champagne, two of the most important cultural patrons of that age. Chrétien in his famous prologue to Lancelot – the companion piece to Yvain – ascribes the text’s matière and sens to Marie’s direction and patronage. Their court attracted numerous other writers, including Andreas Capellanus, author of The Art of Courtly Love, Conon de Béthun, Gautier d’Arras, Villehardouin and Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube. At some point, possibly following the death of the count of Champagne, Chrétien was connected to the court of Phillippe d’Alsace, Count of Flanders, to whom he dedicated his final, incomplete work, Perceval.

For the last MEMORI reading group of 2019, we’re reading Yvain in the prose translation made by William Kibler.[6] Like most of Chrétien’s romances, Yvain is roughly 7,000 lines in length (6,818 to be precise) and, like all of Chrétien’s extant romances, is written in octosyllabic rhyming couplets. Few would attempt to imitate the metre and rhyme in modern English – fewer would wish to read such an attempt.

Rob Gossedge


Topics for discussion

  • Chrétien’s romances are often discussed in terms of its structure of doubling (scenes, motifs, figures, episodes). What is the significance of such a structural focus – in terms of aesthetics, the readerly experience (and interpellation), social meaning, etc.?


  • What strikes you as interesting about the opening of Chrétien’s romance (up until Yvain sets forth)?


  • Examine the Calogrenant’s encounter giant herdsman (the giant churl): what is his significance – how does it relate to other non-aristocratic figures in the text (particularly the townspeople)


  • Is this a text about wish fulfilment?


  • Can the text be seen to shape the values of a new chivalric class? To what extent and in what ways can we read this text’s ideological practices


  • Make notes on what you find interesting in the theme of marriage as it is discussed in Yvain


  • What do you see as the significance of Lunete (and helpful maidens more generally) in the narrative?


  • Many have described Yvain as a problem romance (a text which has a thorny issue at its heart). What might be this central, governing issue and how is it resolved?


  • For those of you who have read Auerback’s Mimesis (and, particularly its chapter on Chrétien): to what extent do you find Auerbach’s reading of Yvain convincing? Is it a methodology you find worthwhile pursuing?


[1] Burton Raffel, ‘Translator’s Preface’, Yvain: the Knight of the Lion, trans. by Raffel (New Haven: Yale UP, 1987), p. xii.

[2] Ruth Harwood Cline, ‘Introduction’, Yvain; or, the Knight with the Lion, trans. by Cline (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1975), p. xii.

[3] Tony Hunt, ‘Le chevalier au lion : Yvain Lionheart’, in A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes, ed. by Lacy, Grimbert (Cambridge : Brewer, 2005), pp.156-68 (p. 156).

[4] Hunt, p. 157.

[5] How well the romances’ plots could have been followed aurally in the absence of the sorts of markers that traditionally anchor audiences to the story – for instance the protagonist of Perceval is not named for several thousand lines – remains (to me at least) a puzzle. Perhaps the court of Champagne were possessed of aural skills of comprehension that we can only begin to imagine.

[6] Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, trans. William W. Kibler, with Carleton W. Carroll (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), pp. 295-380.

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