Yvain: The Knight of the Lion. Chrétien de Troyes (ca. 1177). Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

Yvain was probably the third of CHRÉTIEN DE
TROYES’s five extant ROMANCES, written sometime
before or after the author’s unfinished LANCELOT.
Unlike the more complex and morally ambivalent
CLIGÈS, in which Chrétien begins with a bibliography
of his works, followed by a diptych (or double)
structured romance of considerable thematic complexity,
the narrative and thematics of Yvain are
relatively straightforward, and the didactic elements
are accessible to modern and medieval audience
and reader alike. This is not to suggest that
Yvain is entirely without complexity or depth of
narrative and thematics; Chrétien was a masterful
poet and social commentator and all of his extant
romances testify to his deft handling of the balance
between entertainment and education—the two
elements required of all good literature. The clarity
of Yvain is one of its strengths and we see this both
in its clear narrative line and in the various tests
with which the protagonist is challenged. One of
the more popular of Chrétien’s romances, Yvain
was adapted into German, Norwegian, and
Swedish versions, and there is a 14th-century Middle
English romance, YWAIN AND GAWAIN, which is
a slightly revised version of the French romance.
Although critical conclusions may vary widely as
to the significance of various episodes, the didactic
elements are undeniable, and relevant to a medieval
aristocratic audience.
After an introduction in which the poet, having
set the scene in the fabled Arthurian court,
laments the lost days when “true” love flourished,
he proceeds to tell a story from those lost days,
from that past time of idealized love and idealized
knighthood. This kind of introduction is a convention
in its nostalgia for a time that never was,
and acts to set the scene for a romance in which
honor, loyalty, nobility, and true service to the god
of love reigned supreme. But it is important to
keep in mind that the idealized introduction often
functions as the template against which the action
of the romance unfolds. In Yvain, this is certainly
the case, and as we follow the story we are conscious
of the ways in which characters do or do not
fulfill the ideals set out in the introduction.
The romance literally begins in Arthur’s court
with a group of knights telling stories. One story in
particular catches the attention of the Arthurian
knight Yvain: a story in which the knight Calgrenant
tells of an elaborate adventure of a magic
fountain that raises a fantastic storm which, in its
turn, provokes a challenge from an unknown
knight whose property is damaged in the unearthly
storm. Calgrenant fails in the hand-tohand
battle, and thus is shamed. This is not the
normal fare of tales told by knights who usually
emphasize their prowess and success, and his
cousin,Yvain, vows to avenge his honor by seeking
out the adventure himself. Unfortunately the king
hears of the adventure and vows to go with all the
court to see the magic fountain and storm, and the
mysterious knight.When Yvain learns of this he
knows that the right of combat will fall to others
(in the knightly hierarchy Kay and Gawain are
above him), so he resolves to leave at night, in secret,
and pursue the adventure alone.
Not only does Yvain find the adventure but he
prevails in every way. He withstands the storm,
withstands the hand-to-hand combat, and kills the
knight. Unfortunately in killing the knight, Yvain
has followed him into his castle without a means
of escape. A young serving girl, Lunette, offers him
a ring to make him invisible, and so he survives the
vengeance of the dead knight’s men and, after a period
of time, succeeds in winning the heart and
hand of the dead knight’s widow, Laudine. All of
this action is prelude to the central substance of
the romance: the oft-told story of the tensions inherent
in balancing private and public, or marital
and martial endeavors. This theme had been explored
at length in Chrétien’s first romance, EREC
AND ENIDE, and the poet returns to it here in a
somewhat more complex form. After his marriage
to Laudine, Yvain is delighted with the arrival of
Arthur and the court, so delighted that he lets
Gawain talk him into leaving Laudine to pursue
knightly feats of arms and honor. Laudine gives
Yvain leave to depart on the condition that he will
return within the year. Of course the year passes in
a series of fabulous jousts in which Yvain prevails,
wins honor and acclaim, and becomes more than a
little prideful. He is repaid for this lack of knightly
courtesy when Lunette finds him to reclaim the
Lady Laudine’s ring because Yvain, in his pride and
success, has stayed away beyond the agreed-upon
year.When he realizes his uncourtly disregard for
Laudine, “such a storm broke / in his skull that he
lost his senses” (2,805); like Lancelot’s madness
over Guenevere, the love anger of Laudine “breaks”
Yvain and he wanders like a wild man in the forest.
Yvain is finally recognized and saved, and in this
second part of the romance, his redemption back
into the world of courtesy and honor takes the
form of a series of adventures in which women
need his help for various reasons. Accompanied
now by a lion, whose qualities of loyalty and selflessness
are both commentary on Yvain’s earlier
behavior and indications of the qualities he begins
to acquire, Yvain takes the name “The Knight of
the Lion” and in this guise provides true and disinterested
service to women in need. At tale’s end,
having learned lessons of right conduct, courtesy,
and the true balance between chivalric and marital
duties, Yvain is reconciled with Laudine and all
live happily ever after.
Critical commentary ranges widely over this
romance and its concerns: the balance between
public and private lives; the knightly ideal and
how it succeeds or falters in realistic settings; gender
issues as they are played out in the various female
characters, and most specifically in the subtle
psychology of the characters of Lunette and Laudine.
While Lunette is shown to be smart, calculating
(in the best sense), and a lively and
persuasive debater, the exploration of Laudine’s
interiority or consciousness continues the focus
on the interior lives of his characters that Chrétien
first explored in Erec and Enide. The romance is
rich in its comprehensive scope, and Chrétien
does not neglect social issues. The position of
women in his culture is thoroughly examined in
Yvain’s redemptive adventures, including an adventure
that leads to the liberation of women
forced to work in what we would consider “sweatshop”
conditions. The Celtic and mythic elements
upon which this romance is constructed are also a
fruitful area for commentary.
In some ways a coming-of-age tale, Yvain is notable
for its focus on courtly behavior, the nature of
love and fidelity, and the ways in which social relations
work. Less morally ambiguous than other
works by Chrétien, Yvain (under the cover of a
fashionable romance) offers a series of lessons and
models for his 12th-century audience that has
found a wide reception in many countries from the
medieval period into the modern.
Boase, Roger. The Origin and Meaning of Courtly
Love. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University
Press, 1977.
Chrétien de Troyes. Yvain: The Knight of the Lion.
Translated by Burton Raffel.With an afterword
by Joseph J. Duggan.New Haven, Conn.: Yale University
Press, 1987.
Duby, Georges. The Knight, the Lady, and the Priest:
The Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval
France. Translated by Barbara Bray. New York:
Pantheon Books, 1983.
Frappier, Jean. Etude sur “Yvain ou le Chevalier au
lion.” Paris: Société d’Edition d’Enseignement
Supérieur, 1969.
Gantz, Jeffrey, trans. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Harmondsworth,
U.K..: Penguin Books, 1981.
Kelly, Douglas. The Art of Medieval Romance. Madison:
University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
Maddox, Donald. The Arthurian Romances of Chrétien
de Troyes: Once and Future Fictions. Cambridge
Studies in Medieval Literature, 12.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Elisa Narin van Court