Transformation from Madness to Rehabilitation in Chretien de Troyes's Yvain: The Knight of the Lion.
The gradual replacement of the old heroic epic by the new genre of romance in the middle of the twelfth century France is significant in terms of marking the transition from the prioritisation of actions and words in epics to that of feelings and emotions in romances. Hence, instead of the larger-than-life heroes that are emblematic of their own societies, in the romances of Chretien we meet "real" characters with whom we can associate ourselves. In relation to that, Owen argues that Chretien's "physical portrayal of people seldom overstepped the conventional", yet "he did go further than most in the interior portrait" (x) Therefore, "we do meet real characters in his works, people we feel to be further removed from us in time than in humanity" (x) (emphasis mine). In this sense, as Duggan also asserts, the Arthurian romances "responded to a need for examining the subtleties of motivation in human conduct, nuances that could not be explored in the other great narrative genres of the period" (225). In the same vein, as a keen observer of life and a master of dialogue, Chretien was quite successful in portraying the conflicts, tensions and dilemmas that a character undergoes through his applying to various techniques such as "direct dialogue, monologues and interior debates in the style of Ovid" (Owen x). Moreover, Chretien was also good at cultivating various levels of ambiguity and irony; thus, his romances are marked by the presence of several meanings that are embedded into one another, thereby enabling the poet to investigate the complexities of human sentiments and motivations from a wider perspective.
Chretien's Yvain: The Knight of the Lion "probably composed around 1177, either shortly after or shortly before Lancelot", is considered to be one of the best examples of the poet's artistic effort (Duggan 206). According to Topsfield, it stands out as the "most 'complete' romance" of Chretien in terms of providing "a summa of the themes of the earlier works, love, knighthood, virtue, humility and charity" (176) (emphasis original). In comparison to Lancelot, Yvain is based on a more systematic narrative structure which is linked to a main setting, the Fountain at Brocilande; hence, the incidents in Yvain are much easier to follow as opposed to the diversity of the multiple episodes in Lancelot.
While it is possible to point out certain parallels between Yvain and the Celtic tradition such as "the figure of Morgan le Fay, [...] the lady of Noroison, whose name signifies 'black bird' and who may have been herself a manifestation of Morgan" (Duggan 212), as well as "[t]he fairy realm, the hospitable host, the giant herdsman, the madness consequent on forsaken love" (Nitze 1), still it is difficult to conclude that the poet based his work on a single, clearly defined source. Instead Chretien "demythologized and rationalized" the Celtic sources and in place of an "awareness of mythic meaning" he brought his own "concerns for courtliness, personal worth, and correctness of knightly behaviour" to the foreground (Duggan 215).
As for the structure of Yvain, there are various interpretations that consider the work as either bipartite--while the first section deals with the events leading to the marriage and estrangement of Yvain and Laudine, the rest recounts the events culminating in their reunion; or tripartite--that is the first part, again, dealing with the events leading to the marriage of Yvain and Laudine, followed by the second part where the crisis in their relationship comes to the surface and finally the adventures ending with the reconciliation of Yvain and his wife (Zaddy 523). Nevertheless, instead of applying to a somewhat mechanic methodology that allows a systematic interpretation of Yvain, considering the complexity of Yvain's character it may prove more helpful to analyse the work in the light of Yvain's moral rehabilitation into a better knight, friend, husband, lover, and in the wider perspective, a better person who is aware of his inadequacies and faults.
Within this framework it is also significant to pay attention to the gradual process of Yvain's transformation from madness to rehabilitation. This transformation does not happen overnight but follows various stages that are linked to one another. In this respect, it is possible to form an analogy between the Fountain--as a source of water it brings the idea of ongoing action to the foreground since it flows; moreover, it also holds a central place in the narrative structure of Yvain--and the regeneration process of Yvain's fragmented self through his quest into "becoming". This is the reason why it is difficult to make distinctions that compartmentalise the process of moral and ethical transformation of Yvain into different boxes that are strictly separated from one another. Correspondingly, in relation to Chretien's prioritisation of the process before the end-result, Owen argues that Chretien "was less interested [...] in proposing solutions or norms of conduct than in investigating a variety of problems and conditions involving love and knightly life" thus he "worked through situations, offering, but not insisting on, solutions" (xv). In other words, similar to the fluid nature inherent in the fountain/spring/water that cannot be contained, Chretien foregrounds the notion of "becoming" before that of "being", adding complexity and depth to Yvain. Thus, throughout the romance, we see Yvain struggling hard to shatter his fragmented perception that does not allow him to go beyond the frame.
In the same vein, be it indirectly or not, Chretien tries to convey a message to his audience since he asks them to differentiate between illusion and reality which is made apparent through the contrast he develops by setting the world of Arthurian court against that of the lion and nature. Here it is also important to note that Chretien uses Calgrenant as his mouthpiece at the beginning of his work because as a poet Chretien is not overtly didactic in purpose. As the reporter of his past experiences in Brocelande forest, Calgrenant assumes the role of the narrator of his own story and recounts what has befallen on him. Yet, following the introduction of Yvain, the focus shifts to his adventures and there comes the Narrator, presenting the main body of the work itself. Though it is not possible to speak of the existence of two narrators in the strict sense of the word, still in this way Chretien implies at the multi-layered structure of his work, and thus enables his audience to have a closer look at the Arthurian court from within. By using Calgrenant as his indirect mouthpiece, the poet in fact gives a warning against taking everything at face value:
Give me your ears and mind! The spoken word is lost If your heart and mind can't hear it. [...] Words can come to ear Like blowing wind, and neither Stop nor remain, just passing, By, like fleeting time, If hearts and minds aren't awake,
Aren't ready and willing to receive them. (Chretien (1) 150-62)
What is also significant about Chretien's presentation of the Arthurian court is that he does not portray a "truly" chivalric world where the knights are mainly motivated by noble reasons. Even though the knights help each other, it is also worth remembering that Chretien is far more interested in the insinuated rather than the obvious. Correspondingly, Owen states that "[a]lthough [Chretien] presents us with some delightful portraits, [...] one feels that he enjoyed manipulating and toying with them" (xv). Thus, as Owen argues further, it is not always easy to understand "when he is keeping a straight face when the shadow of a smile is playing round his lips" (xvi). Hence, it is not surprising that Chretien portrays the Arthurian court as a place in which the knights are striving against one another to be able to attain fame, which is evident in the way Yvain departs days before King Arthur and his knights are able to set out on their journey to Brocelande forest to fight the lord of the Fountain, lest any other knight other than himself may avenge Calgrenant's shame. Reaching the forest, Yvain mortally wounds the lord of the Fountain, yet he chooses to follow the wounded lord escaping to his castle because Yvain does not want to return home without the proof that will convince the other knights in the Arthurian court of his victory. Obviously, Yvain's identity codes are deeply rooted in his chivalric self at this moment; therefore, he is not able to tolerate any signs of failure. Similar to Yvain's problematic position as a knightly figure, his interpretation of love is also problematic in that he cannot fulfil the demands of a true courtly lover. Put in a desperate position due to the death of her husband, Laudine is driven by the desire to protect her land and castle, so she accepts Yvain as her suitor and lord. Yvain, on the other hand, gets the hand of Laudine with the help of Lunette, as she is the one who convinces her lady to marry Yvain. At this stage Yvain has illusions about himself, and he is untutored in the art of love which is obvious in the way he philosophises about love but cannot put his mind and heart into it completely; otherwise, he would be able to keep the promise that he gave to Laudine.
"With you, so I think of nothing Else, so I surrender completely To you, so I love you more Than myself, so I'm ready to live Or die, exactly as you choose." "And would you dare defend My spring, defend it for me?" "Oh lady, against the world!" "Then know: we have come together". (Chretien 2028-35)
Hence it is not surprising that soon enough, only a week after their marriage, Yvain is convinced by the argument of Gawain who hints that now that Yvain is married he cannot meet the demands of knightly life: "'What?' said Gawain. 'There are men/Who aren't the men they were/Once they're married. Not you!'" (2485-86). Not having a true sense of identity and self-will, Yvain follows the impulse, and he exchanges the life of a married man with that of a knight by attending tournaments. As Sklute elaborates further "[i]n both there is something lacking in terms of sincerity. [...] As a medieval knight Yvain is motivated to gain honour by pride. [...] As a medieval lover, Yvain shows a shallowness and an emphasis on the wrong things" (142). Yvain is not able to comprehend that knighthood and marital obligations can go hand in hand because his reason and mind are both misguided at this point. He loses himself in the illusion that is offered by Arthur's world to such an extent that he is able to realise he has already exceeded the time limit put by his wife just before the appearance of the damsel sent by Laudine. He gets humiliated at his own court since the messenger rebukes and announces to Yvain that Laudine has dismissed him from her marriage, and she wants her ring back. It is significant that Chretien carries Yvain up to the highest position possible--since now he is able to hold court on his own account with Gawain--only to be able to cause his ultimate fall into the pit of nothingness in the end. As "a man of intellect rather than of high emotion" Chretien knew that the codes of the chivalric and courtly ethic were too ideal to be accomplished (Owen xv). Thus, "he flaunted the rich ideal, while constantly hinting that this was but a poet's dream" (xvi). This is the reason why, Chretien chooses to turn Yvain's ideal world upside down right at the moment in which Yvain feels himself the most resourceful. Paradoxically enough, "[i]n this extreme of self-pride Yvain comes to his senses" (Topsfield 183):
And such a storm broke In his skull that he lost his senses, And he tore at his skin and his clothes, And crossed meadows and fields, and left His squires and his men so uncertain That they had no idea where he was. (Chretien 2805-9)
Just as Yvain had left the Arthurian court without any notice so that he would be able kill the lord of the Fountain before the other knights find the opportunity to do so, he leaves his court again without leaving any trace behind. Nonetheless, this time he does not intend to add up to his sense of pride and dignity, but he casts away the norms and values of the court and takes the first step into stripping himself from the dictates of "his former self, his self-interest, his lack of true feelings and moral courage" (Topsfield 186).
Cutting all his ties from social life and the ideals of the Arthurian court, Yvain starts to live like a madman or a savage deep in the forest where his only connection with the civilisation turns out to be a hermit who provides him bread and water. Reduced to the position of less than a human being, he experiences shame at its most extreme point in the woods, wandering without his clothes and losing his communication skills. Only then does he get the opportunity to regain his senses and to come back to his new self under construction. With the help of two damsels accompanied by the Lady of Noroison, and the magic ointment given by Morgan le Fay, Yvain recovers his mind and memory. In return, though it was not pushed on him, he fights Count Alier who has been ravaging the Lady of Norosion's town and starts rebuilding his reputation. Despite the fact that the Lady of Noroison asks for Yvain's hand in marriage, impelled by his quest to find his "true self" and to prove himself worthy of Laudine's love, he "rejects this society as he had rejected Arthur's world" (Topsfield 188).
Having taken the first step away from the fragmentary perception of his former self, Yvain comes across the battle between the lion and the serpent in the woods. Urged by pity, he decides to help the lion, although he is aware of the risk that it could attack him back once it is rescued. To his surprise, however, the lion surrenders himself to Yvain and starts following its redeemer wherever he goes. As the title of the romance The Knight of the Lion also confirms, the lion holds a central position in Chretien's work: "He represents the virtue which Yvain lacks and which he must possess in order to be regenerate" (Topsfield 189).
With the lion by his side, Yvain comes upon the Fountain again, and he experiences a sense of moral awareness. "He sees what he was and what he must become, and, with the stimulus of Lunette's plight motivating him, Yvain sets out upon a new phase of his life" (Sklute 175). At first, he cannot bear the burden of his guilty consciousness and faints on the spot, his sword slipping from its scabbard, cutting his skin and causing him to bleed. The lion takes his master to be dead and wants to kill himself. Recovering his consciousness just in time, Yvain hinders the lion's plan, but he finds himself in the midst of another self-despising session:
How can I stand here and see These things that belong to my wife? Why does my soul remain In this body, this miserable home? [...] Why do I spare myself? And haven't I seen this lion, Who felt such grief for me That he was ready to set my sword Against his chest and thrust it In? Should I be afraid Of death, who changed joy to sadness? (Chretien 3534-53)
Unlike the image of the self-centred, immature knight who is mainly motivated by his selfish desires, here we see the transformation taking its effect on Yvain. Now he is able to reflect on his mistakes and condemn his actions; therefore, he has a more realistic perspective of his self which stands in deep contrast to the illusionary image projected by his former self that is mainly shaped within the Arthurian court. Correspondingly, Sklute argues that "[h]enceforth he will be dedicated to helping others; henceforth he will be less concerned with courtly rhetoric, with vainglory, and more concerned with justice, right, dedication to a Christian ideal of knighthood: to help his fellow man" (175). Thus, from this point onwards we see Yvain fighting for the causes of other people, rescuing them from the desperate situations without waiting for any reward in return. In this way, Chretien implies that Yvain's former quest for glory was "too self-centred to merit public as well as domestic approval" (Owen xv); however, now that he has started to strip himself off the fragmentary perceptions, Yvain starts developing a new reputation/self under the name of the Knight of the Lion.
Despite being deeply engrossed in his own plight at the Fountain, the moment he hears the voice of a miserable woman, who turns out to be Lunette, imprisoned in the chapel and waiting for her death, Yvain quickly forgets about his own condition and sets up his mind to help her by fighting the steward and his two brothers who accuse Lunette of changing her lady's mind to marry Yvain. Making a promise to defend her, yet also bearing in mind that he cannot control everything, Yvain asks for God's help which is an important indication of his developing a humble character: "'But with God's help, and I trust / In Him, I'll dishonour the three of them'" (Chretien 3761-62). Even though it is a common medieval topos to ask of God's help, still it is intriguing to note that Chretien decides to use it towards the middle of his romance, that is, while Yvain's transformation is still under construction. Leaving the Fountain, Yvain finds himself before a castle where people's mood constantly changes from sadness to joy and vice versa. Soon enough Yvain learns that the people of the castle are afflicted by an evil giant called Harpin of the Mountain, who has taken all six of the lord's sons and have killed two of them before their father's eyes. Nonetheless, the giant's atrocities do not end here since now he wants the lord's daughter in exchange for the lives of the remaining four sons. Without letting the daughter and her mother throw themselves at his own feet, Yvain agrees to help them. However, at this point Yvain is well aware of the fact that he has to comply with the time limit as he is also to defend Lunette in the following day; hence, he makes his point clear: "'I've no need to ask for anything / Else, except that the giant / Come soon, so I won't break my promise'" (Chretien 3992-94). Here, we see that unlike the forgetful and careless attitude that Yvain exhibited by breaking his promise to his wife, for he did not return to her within the allotted time period, now the Knight of the Lion pays much attention to the promises he makes to people, and he is quite minute about his organization of time.
With the help of the lion Yvain defeats the giant and moves on to fight the three barons who want Lunette's death. Again, having accomplished his mission at the cost of receiving various wounds, Yvain worries less for himself than for his suffering lion. Moreover, despite the fact that he could have revealed his name and have added to his reputation, Yvain chooses to go on with his quest as he cannot rest up until the moment he is forgiven by his wife.
Though no one knew who he was, Not even the lady, who already Had his heart without knowing it. And she begged him to stay there for as long As it took for both lion and man To rest and recover. And he said: "Lady! It's out of the question. I could stay here unless My mistress pardoned me, forgave me, And forgot her anger and displeasure". (Chretien 4582-91)
Despite going through immense pain, Yvain fills his shield with moss and turns it into a soft bed. He lays the lion inside and carries him till they reach a safe spot where their wounds can be healed. Upon arriving at a location called Noire Espine, Yvain learns that the lord of the house has been attacked by death, and he has left everything to the inheritance of his two daughters. Unlike the adventures that Yvain has come across so far, this time there is not any giant, or a strong physical entity that he is expected to get hold of. This time he is to fight against injustice, because the elder daughter wants everything for herself, and she disregards the rights of her younger sister. While the elder one goes to the Arthurian court and asks for Gawain's help to fight for her unjust cause, the younger sister gets Yvain's help.
While Gawain accepts to defend the so-called rights of the oppressor, Yvain's motivation is much more considerate in its nature since he wants to help the younger sister who is in a more desperate condition. In other words, Yvain does not side with the strong but with the one that is in most need. In this way--through Gawain's choice to help the elder sister--Chretien contrasts the ideals of the Arthurian court with those of the Knight of the Lion who "will now be recognised as the symbol of prowess, courage and justice, the avenger of the weak, and especially of women" (Topsfield 199). Setting out to fight for the cause of the younger sister, Yvain passes by The Castle of Infinite Misfortune where he sees three hundred girls, all working hard in very difficult conditions: "So poor that they wore no sash,/And their dresses were torn at the breast/And out at the elbows, and their shifts/Were dirty around neck" (Chretien 5200-3). Two tyrants born of a woman and a demon subdue all of these girls, subjecting them to hunger, poverty and harsh working atmosphere. Moved by pity and also enraged at the injustice that they are exposed to, Yvain fights and defeats the two sons of the devil with the help of his lion again. According to Topsfield all these adventures and trials are an "atonement for his earlier neglect of Laudine" (199). Despite being unable to keep his promise and protect his wife, now as a transforming figure, Yvain is capable of rescuing three hundred damsels in distress while at the same time showing his intention to secure justice for the younger sister.
Finally, in the duel between Yvain and Gawain, the Knight of the Lion encounters his former self who is represented by his enemy-friend, because he is the one who is siding with the self-interest, indifference and injustice of the elder sister--epitomising the current tendency "to see Yvain's fault as pride" (Combellack 10). Not recognizing each other, Yvain and Gawain start fighting, and the combat ends only after they reveal their names. In knightly modesty neither of them wants to accept that he has defeated the other.
"No, I." "No, I," they kept saying, Both so noble and generous That they passed the victory and the crown Back and forth, neither of them Willing to accept it, each of them Trying as hard as he could To convince the king and the court That he was the one who'd been beaten. (Chretien 6357-64)
Yvain and Gawain cannot win over each other; however, it is the justice that wins at the end since the sisters can share the inheritance equally now. Furthermore, by fighting for the cause of a person in need and being able to suppress the demands of a knight who has the tendency to put his fame before anything else, which has caused Yvain to "neglect his duty to his newly married wife as her lover and servant in love, for feat of arms" (Combellack 10), Yvain gets purified from the misdeeds of his former self. Having proven himself to be selfless, humble, brave and noble Yvain is now ready to confront Laudine and to ask for her forgiveness without any further need to embellish his words. Finally, he goes to the Fountain once again and incurs the storm only to be able to enjoy the happiness that will follow, with all his devotion and sincerity.
To conclude, it can be said that through his transformation into a true friend, husband, knight and lover Yvain finally achieves a balance in his life. As Sklute also posits Yvain "has realized that a noble man can be humble, that a powerful man can be meek, and that a husband's sovereignty can arise from his submission" (187). In other words, Yvain succeeds in shattering the fragmented perception of the world that is represented by the Arthurian court, and he replaces it with a unifying perspective that does not give precedence to any single label or definition, which is signified by nature and the lion. Hence, Chretien's intention in his work is "to show not that true knights cannot be lovers and husbands, but that selfish and immature individuals can be neither knights nor lovers, even though they may have the power to display prowess and the verbal sophistication to express sentiment" (143). In this respect, Yvain: The Knight of the Lion has the capacity to address the problems of the individual on a universal scale which is not bound by time and space, and it presents an in-depth analysis of human nature. The originality of Chretien's work is, therefore, rooted in his ability to develop a comprehensive outlook that is not overtly didactic since he is more interested in "becoming" than in "being"; in process than in the end-result; in emotions rather than the prescribed codes that dictate how those emotions should be lived. Hence, through presenting a detailed analysis of Yvain's transformation from an Arthurian knight to a madman in the forest, only to be able to show how he has achieved rehabilitating himself into the Knight of the Lion in the end, this article has attempted to show the way in which Chretien's Yvain: The Knight of the Lion presents a detailed reading and questioning of the so-called ideals of the Arthurian court.
Chretien, de Troyes. Yvain: The Knight of the Lion. Trans. Burton Raffel. London: Yale UP, 1987.
Combellack, C. R. B. "Yvain's Guilt". Studies in Philology 68.1 (1971): 10-25. JSTOR. Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.
Duggan, Joseph J. "Afterword". Yvain: The Knight of the Lion. Trans. Burton Raffel. London: Yale UP, 1987. 205-226.
Hasselmann-Schomelke, Beate. The Evolution of Arthurian Romance. Trans. Margaret and Roger Middleton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Nitze, William A. "A New Source of Yvain". Modern Philology 3.2 (1905): 267-280. JSTOR. Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.
Owen, D. D. R. "Introduction". Arthurian Romances. New York: Everyman's Library, 1976. vii-xvi.
Sklute, Larry Martin. The Ethical Structure of Courtly Romance: Chretien de Troyes' Yvain and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. PhD Dissertation. Indiana University. Ann Arbor: ProQuest/UMI, 1967. ProQuest. Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.
Topsfield, L. T. A Study of the Arthurian Romances. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.
Zaddy, Z. P. "The Structure of Chretien's Yvain". The Modern Language Review 65.3 (1970): 523-540. JSTOR. Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.
Secil Erkoc received her BA (2010) from the Department of Western Languages and Literatures at Bogazici University. She had her MA degree (2013) in English Language and Literature Department at Istanbul University, with her dissertation entitled "Deconstruction of the Self in Aldous Huxley's Island and John Fowles' The Magus." During her Master studies she worked as a Research Assistant at Istanbul University, and then at Hacettepe University where she started her PhD studies in the Department of English Language and Literature in 2014. Since October 2018, she has been working as a Research Assistant in the Department of Western Languages and Literatures at Inonu University. Her research interests include Contemporary Nature Poetry, Ecological Posthumanism, the English Novel and Comparative Literature. E-mail: email@example.com
(1) As the modern version of Chretien's Yvain: The Knight of the Lion (1177), Burton Raffel's translation (1987) is used; however, for the in-text citations the credit will be given to Chretien himself.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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