Chrétien de Troyes was the foremost fanfictioneer of 12th century France, who, according to Wikipedia, ‘may have been from Troyes’ (which is kind of like saying that the American werewolf in Paris may have been from America, since ‘of Troyes’ is his name). Chrétien is perhaps most famous for his retelling of Arthurian legends an is accredited by many with the invention of the Lancelot character, and though many have claimed that Chrétien invented fan fiction, fans of Virgil are quite adamant that Chrétien was a little late to the fan fiction game to be called its father. Chrétien’s long poem The Knight With the Lion (Yvain) was, again according to Wikipedia, seen by many as the precursor to the novel, but when read in concert with his other Arthurian tales, it seems to be to be a precursor to surrealist Absurdism. More important that what genre the poem falls into, is its content (unless we are talking about Marshall Mcluhan, then the ‘medium is the message’). What makes Chrétien’s work so interesting is how it manages to speak to issues of gender equality and frames women as authority figures in a patriarchal society, while also incorporating some interesting ecocritical subtext into his narrative. It is perhaps anachronistic to project terms like feminist and ecocritical and especially Marxist onto such a work, but the work does lend itself to such readings.
It is the ecocritical reading that is perhaps most prominent, especially given that that title links the human realm and the natural realm. As is the case with almost any long work, there are a number of ecological metaphors that are employed in order to provide insight and understanding into the human realm. When Calogrenant, Yvain’s cousin, speaks to the manner in which Kay (who is a medieval douche bag) insults others, he says that just as “The dungheap will always smell, wasps will always sting and hornets buzz, and a cad will always slander and vex others” (297). He accepts Kay’s douchebaggery as an innate and natural phenomenon, which does not excuse it or make it commendable, but at the same time is not worth creating a conflict over since such a conflict will not resolve the issue. Yvain has a similar approach to Kay, who initiates a conflict with Yvain as well (this Kay is a real shit disturber and even slaps a maiden in The Story of the Grail), though Yvain does not respond because, as he notes with a mentality that sounds almost like a precursor to passive resistance, “it isn’t the man who delivers the first blow who starts the fight, but he who strikes back” (303). Being in a culture that revolves around violent conflict, Yvain recognizes that for others to understand this maxim, he must place it in a metaphor that others can understand: “I don’t want to behave like the mastiff who bristles and snarls when another dog shows his teeth” (303). This ecological metaphor helps to bring clarity to Yvain’s words and makes it easy for others to understand.
Such ecological metaphors are common, even in works that don’t consciously address ecological issues, but it is the relationship between the Yvain and the lion that serves to frame this as an ecocritical work. When the lion is first seen, he is in the jaws of a dragon (because dragons just suddenly appear out of nowhere in this story, and we aren’t talking dragons like Puff), and Yvain does some dragon slaying that would make Christian Bale and Matthew Mcconaughey jealous (yes, that is a Reign of Fire reference, which is actually a pretty good film that serves as an interesting metaphor for British and American policies on foreign affairs). After Yvain rescues the lion, the narrator encourages the reader to “Listen to how nobly and splendidly the lion acted”, noting that “it stood up upon its hind paws, bowed its head, joined its forepaws and extended them towards Yvain, in an act of total submission. Then it knelt down and its whole face was bathed in tears of humility” (337). Nature, in this instance, is a paradigm of nobility and gratitude, and the scenario demonstrates how when humanity takes care of nature, nature shall in turn take care of humanity. Twice, after rescuing the lion, the lion comes to Yvain’s rescue. The first instance is when Yvain is forced to take on three knights at once. When he begins to struggle, the lion rescues him, but the men injure the lion. “When… Yvain saw his lion wounded, the heart in his breast overflowed with wrath, and rightly so” (351). In this scenario, Yvain is filled with pain when nature is mistreated, demonstrating how humanity should have empathy for the natural realm and try to protect it. Yvain helps to nurse the lion back to health and in turn the lion rescues Yvain again when Yvain must fight a demon’s brood comprising of two sons (364). Through this symbiosis, Yvain learns that the well-being of the natural realm and humanity are interlink, and whilst many would likely have viewed the natural realm as subordinate to the human realm, Yvan challenges this: “[the lion] is mine, and I am his” (376). The relationship between humanity and nature, then, is one of mutual responsibility and ownership.
Masculine identity in Arthurian narratives is often rooted in their relationship with women, and though women are often signifiers that validate masculinity, as Geraldine Heng, argues in “Enchanted Ground: The Feminine Subtext in Malory”, in The Knight With the Lion, women are the ones who seem to have the autonomy and whose identity is defined through a masculine signifier. Yvain supplicates himself to every woman he meets, most notably Laudine, the lady of Landuc, whose husband he kills (but that’s alright, she gets over that and marries Yvain). Upon seeing Laudine, Yvain states: “I am destined to be in her power from this time” (312). Yvain, far from being the authority, willingly makes himself a servant to Laudine. Laudine does not need a man to frame her strength, and even though her husband is killed, on the day he is buried, only hours after he was killed, she ceases her mourning, stating that “it’s not proper that such a high-born lady should persist in her mourning for so long” (315). Her grief is subsided so that she might show her strength. Her authority over her domain requires to be strengthened by a man so that she might have a knight to defend her territory, and so she agrees to marry Yvain, stating the she “will make him [her] husband and lord of [her] land” (317). She is careful to use possessive pronouns in this instance. She is not Yvain’s wife, but rather, he is her husband and whatever authority he has is decided upon by her. When another maiden needs to be rescued from a giant, and damsel needs to be rescued from execution order on a false accusation of treason, Yvain yields his own autonomy to act on their behalf. The maiden’s chastity is preserved through masculine action, just as the damsel’s innocence is determined by Yvain’s battle. These women find that their identities are validated through masculine action. Unlike in Chrétien’s The Story of the Grail and The Knight of the Cart, where masculine identity is defined by women whose virtue and bodies are transformed into signifiers of victory, in The Knight With the Lion, it is the masculine whose actions become signifiers that validate feminine identity. This is most apparent in one of the final sequences where Yvain and Gawain, though they are the medieval equivalent of BFFs, must do battle because each has agreed to represent one of two sisters who have to settle an argument about their inheritance. Chrétien writes that the two sisters “argued until nothing remained to be said. Then the knights were led to the middle of the courtyard” (370). The knights lives are then put on the line, each representing one of the sisters on the field, and the sister who is represented by the winning knight is awarded the argument. The issue is that Yvain does not wish to fight Gawain and Gawain does not wish to fight Yvain, but their autonomy is usurped by the feminine realm. This reading can be problematic in the context of other Arthurian narrative by Chrétien, but there does seem to be an almost matriarchal approach to this narrative that lends itself to a feminist, or at least a protofeminist reading.
One of the key issues with the process by which feminine identity is represented through masculine action is that it endorses a ‘might is right’ mentality. There is no question about ethics and morality. In the case of the two sisters whom Yvain and Gawain represent, the law clearly states that the elder sister in in the wrong, but a battle is done anyways. The mightier knight will win the argument for the sister he represents. This absence of morality and reason is present when Laudine’s servant speaks to her about the merits of Yvain: “when two armed knights come together in battle, which one do you think is worth more, when the one had defeated the other? As for me, I would give the prize to the winner” (317). Laudine’s servant does not provide context to the battle. There is no mention as to how the two fought, or why they were fighting. Laudine is expected to make a judgement based only on who won a physical battle. As a result, “the knight, whom [Laudine] had condemned, she now truly pardoned as a matter of right and by force of argument” (316). Yvain is ‘right by force’, not by reason and Laudine concedes that Yvain has “done no wrong to [her]; nor did [he] wrong [her husband], for had [her husband] been able he would have killed” Yvain (317). There are passages throughout Chrétien’s Arthurian works that feature knights proclaiming that it is God who decides such battles, and therefore there is a belief that divine intervention ensures the morally righteous person wins in combat. This is consistent with The Knight With the Lion, as Yvain frames his strength through divine intervention. When, for instance, Yvain is about to do battle with the men who accused the damsel of treason, he tells them that “God and Righteousness are as one” and tells them that “since they are on [his] side, therefore, [he has] better companions than [they], and better supporters” (350). Chrétien, though, doesn’t seem to blindly accept this, though, as he does ask questions that reflect on the nature of such battles, such as he does when Yvain and Gawain do battle: “whom will the one who receives the worst of the blows have to blame?” (371) Though these knights believe in divine intervention, Chrétien’s rhetorical question seems to suggest that they themselves are to blame for whatever violence befalls them.
The power that is linked with the ‘right is might’ mentality is further challenged by Chrétien, who employs a seemingly Marxist argument against an early form of capitalism. One region is ruled by a despot who essentially forces his people into slavery. Some maidens who Yvain comes across are doing fine needle work, and one explains their situation to Yvain: “you can be sure that there’s not one of us whose work doesn’t bring in twenty shillings… enough to make a duke wealthy! Yet here we are in poverty, while he for whom we labour grows rich from our work. We stay awake much of the night and all day long to earn his profit, for he has threatened us with torture if we rest” (361). The scenario seems to be a construction of what might fairly be called a medieval sweatshop where the distribution of wealth generated from the work is grossly disproportionate. Chrétien links this ‘wealth gap’ with primogeniture and other practices related to inheritance. When an elder sister seeks to keep her younger sister from gaining access to an inheritance, a conflict arises. The laws of primogeniture varied throughout medieval England, but in some cases women could secure an inheritance, but the situation detailed by Chrétien articulates, much as John Oliver did in a brilliant satirical piece on the current wealth gap, that one’s income is essentially a lottery determined by your birth. Chrétien portrays Yvain as an ideal leader because he refuses to take authority over others. When one man tells his daughter to kneel before Zod Yvain, she refuses such supplication, asking that “God never let [him] see that day” when a woman would have “to fall at [his] feet for any reason”, and then asks God to “keep [him] from ever being so filled with pride so as to allow [others] to fall at [his] feet”, stating that he would feel ashamed (344). Such humility, though, is not present in many of the poem’s antagonists, and though Yvain manages to correct many situation, much suffering is endured. Clearly Chrétien takes issue with both the distribution of power and the distribution of wealth and positions himself as a tutor to Marx.
As progressive Chrétien might be when it comes to issues of the environment, gender equality and the distribution of wealth, he is far less progressive when it comes to instances of perceived race and ableism. As happens in almost all of his Arthurian poems, a dwarf makes a cameo, and as is often the case with Chrétien, the dwarf is demonized: “a dwarf, ugly as a puffed-up toad, had tied the horses’ tails together and was walking beside the four of them; he was beating them constantly with a six-knotted whip to show how brave he was” (346). This dwarf is more Warwick Davis in Leprechaun than Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones or Threshold (which was actually a pretty decent show). What is especially problematic is that the unnamed dwarf is also depicted abusing animals, which in the context of Chrétien’s ecocritical reading vilifies the dwarf even more. The dwarf’s appearance is made more problematic he offers nothing to the narrative. This vilification of ‘otherness’ and framing of people as ‘ugly when their bodies don’t conform to conventional types is as problematic as Chrétien’s presentation of race. When Calogrenant is sharing his narrative, he describes a peasant by suggesting that he resembled “a Moor, ugly and hideous in the extreme” (298), again vilifying otherness, in this case an otherness based on perceived race. When Yvain arrived in the area, the narrator notes that Yvain “was eager… to see this peasant, who was so stout, tall, hideous, and deformed, and as black as a smith” (303). This reinforces how the character is defined by his appearance and not the content of his character. The affiliation that Chrétien encourages between perceived race and villainy is reinforced when Yvain must battle the brood of a demon, who are described as “two black and hideous demon’s sons” (364). These presentations of otherness seem counterintuitive to much of the work, but at the same time, given that virtue is linked with beauty in maidens and knights alike, it is also consistent: such is the duality of man.
As is the case with most of Chrétien’s stories, the narrative boarders on the surreal and absurd at times. There is, as mentioned, the obligatory appearance of an evil dwarf, and giants, and the sons of demons and such, and there seems to be a nonchalance about running into a dragon at one point. “Oh, and then there was a venomous dragon with a lion in his mouth.” The lion being sure to bow and such after being rescued is priceless, but even more hilarious is when Yvain tries to enter a town with the lion and the men at the gate say he cannot bring the lion in. Yvain replies: “Say no more about it… for I’ll not enter without it! Either we will both be given lodgings, or I shall remain out here, for I love it as much as myself. Yet you needn’t be afraid of it, for I shall watch over it so well that you can feel quite safe.” (342). ‘I love it as much as I love myself’? It sounds like Yvain might need a refreshed on Leviticus 18:23. What is even funnier is that once Yvain insists the lion won’t eat anybody, the men at the gate are cool with him. Then there is the medieval version of HeadOn. When Yvain goes ‘crazy’, some maidens who need his help find him and provide an ointment to cure his insanity, but the maiden applying it is told to only apply the ointment to Yvain’s head because that is the only place where he is ill. Rubbing oil on a person’s forehead was apparently the equivalent of antipsychotic drugs, applied much like the headache cure HeadOn, whose famous tagline was: ‘HeadOn’: Apply directly to the forehead; ‘HeadOn’: Apply directly to the forehead; ‘HeadOn’: Apply directly to the forehead.
The reading can be a little dry, and the translation I had was written in prose instead of the poetic verse that the material was written in, but for those who are interest in medieval literature or Arthurian legend, this is definitely something you want to pick up. It is more plot driven than character driven, and the narrative seems to have a little ADHD since it tends to make extremely abrupt shifts. It is basically something I would expect to read from a writing workshop that took acid and agree each person would write one page and then let the person next to them continue the narrative, with the first person writing the last page, but that is not to say it is not without its merits or is not entertaining, and there are a number of theoretical readings that can be applied. And I’ll take Chrétien of Malory any day of the week.
If you are interest in Arthurian narratives, feel free to check out my posts on The Knight of the Cart and The Story of the Grail, as well as my long essay ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lancelot: Transcending Feminine Signification Through Arthurian Legend’. And for those of you who love medieval literature, I also haves posts on Piers Plowman and Roman de la Rose. To get updates on my latest posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler. And now, I leave you with my favorite quotes from The Knight With the Lion:
Pleasures grow sweeter when delayed. (327)
Hunger is a sauce the blends well and is suited to all foods. (331)
Love is wholly blind and Hatred likewise can see nothing. (370)
You’ll never hear anything more unless one adds lies to it. (380)
Chrétien de Troyes. The Knight With the Lion (Yvain). From Arthurian Romances. Trans. Carleton W. Carroll. Penguin, New York. 1991. Print.