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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Erec et Enide

In my last post I referred briefly to the medieval courtly romance "Erec et Enide," which I read this past year. I had intended to write a response to it on this blog some time ago, but never got around to doing so. Since I've brought it up, I might as well describe it in somewhat more detail, for those who were mystified by my brief reference to it yesterday.

Erec, the hero of the poem, is a young knight in King Arthur's court who becomes romantically involved with a poor (but "well-born") young woman, Enide, in the course of avenging an insult to Queen Guenevere. After defeating an arrogant knight in a tournament, Erec brings Enide back to the court and they are married. They have a rapturous wedding night and are clearly besotted with each other in every respect. Chretien emphasizes their complete equality, in social rank, in good looks, and in character. Their married life appears to be off to a good start--but their wedded bliss itself becomes a problem, because Erec has no further desire to do noble deeds and maintain his status as a valiant knight. This means that his vassals (he's a prince) don't win any glory (or booty) either, and they become restive. Enide realizes that she has ruined Erec's career, and she blames herself. Erec overhears her and becomes angry. (Chretien doesn't explain exactly why he is angry with her. Tennyson, in the Idylls of the King, has Erec--actually called Geraint in Tennyson's version--misunderstand Enide's words as a confession that she is in love with someone else. This is more plausible as a reason for his anger, but it is rather contrived and less psychologically subtle than Chretien's more mysterious version. I think it makes sense psychologically that Erec would make Enide the scapegoat for his own obsession with her, and that he would be provoked to do so by her obvious distress. He's sacrificed his career for her, so from his point of view the least she can do is be grateful. Footnote 27 of the online edition to which I've linked from the title of this post agrees with my interpretation, noting that the "jealousy" interpretation is found in the Mabinogion's version of the story. Since the hero of that version is called Geraint, that would seem to have been Tennyson's model, so I'm wrong in blaming Tennyson for what I find a less interesting spin on Erec's treatment of his wife.)

Erec rides off with Enide (much to her relief--she thinks he's going to abandon her at first) into the forest to have knightly adventures. Much of the rest of the poem consists of the usual knight-errant stuff--Erec fights off various marauding knights, evil giants, etc. But throughout these adventures, Enide repeatedly saves the day by warning Erec of approaching danger (against his explicit orders). This of course further wounds his pride--the point of the exercise is for him to demonstrate that marriage has not lessened his prowess in any way, and being dependent on his wife's scouting abilities spoils the whole thing.

At one point, Erec and Enide find hospitality with an apparently friendly count, who becomes enamored of Enide and offers to marry her and make her the lady of all his domains. Enide, of course, rejects his advances, even though he's being much nicer to her than Erec. The count then threatens to kill Erec if she doesn't give in to him, so Enide pretends to agree to his advances, asking him to come back later and overpower Erec. Then she warns Erec of the count's plans and they ride off together. The count comes after them with a large army, and once again Enide disobeys her husband and warns him that they are being pursued. Erec kills the count's foremost warrior and knocks the count off his horse, wounding him badly. The count comes to his senses (morally speaking) at this point, and praises Enide's cunning as well as her honor: "The lady who outwitted me is very honourable, prudent, and courteous."

Erec doesn't repent quite so quickly--it takes several more adventures before he can bring himself to "forgive" Enide for her criticism of him (i.e., her lament that she was causing him to lose his knightly honor). At the same time, he promises to return their relationship to that of lover and lady, in which the lady gives commands (in contrast to his imperious, indeed tyrannical behavior to her throughout their adventures): "From this time on for evermore, I offer myself to do your will just as I used to do before." Erec and Enide's trials thus end with Enide's complete triumph. Through her modest and loyal behavior, but also through her quick wits and her willingness to disobey her "lord" when necessary for his own good (though always with great reluctance), she has regained Erec's favor and put both him and her various would-be suitors to shame.

The poem doesn't end here. Erec and Enide have one final adventure, the "Joy of the Court." On his way back to King Arthur, they come to a castle where a knight named Mabonagrain waits in a garden with a beautiful lady. The knight challenges all who come into the garden to single combat, and up to this point he has defeated them all, killing them and putting their heads on poles. Erec, of course, defeats Mabonagrain after a suitably ferocious duel (bringing about the "Joy of the Court"). It turns out that the lady is a cousin of Enide's, who has made her lover promise to stay with her in the garden and kill every knight who came against him until a knight came who was able to defeat him. Mabonagrain and his lady have had a clandestine relationship--rather than asking for social sanction for their love they eloped from her father's court. Enide, in contrast, pointedly describes her relationship with Erec as a respectable courtship having the full approval of her family: "Fair cousin, he married me in such a way that my father knew all about it, and my mother was greatly pleased. All our relatives knew it and rejoiced over it, as they should do. Even the Count [Enide's uncle and the other woman's father] was glad. For he is so good a knight that better cannot be found, and he does not need to prove his honour and knighthood, and he is of very gentle birth: I do not think that any can be his equal. He loves me much, and I love him more, and our love cannot be greater. Never yet could I withhold my love from him, nor should I do so. For is not my lord the son of a king? For did he not take me when I was poor and naked? Through him has such honour come to me that never was any such vouchsafed to a poor helpless girl."

Mabonagrain and his lady are a foil to Erec and Enide. Their enclosed garden, complete with the rotting heads of good knights, is an image of romantic love turned in on itself, destructive both to the lovers and to their society (hence the rapturous "Joy" that follows Erec's defeat of Mabonagrain). "Erec and Enide" is a story about the social ramifications of erotic love. Erec's winning of Enide is only the beginning--the real conflict in the story is not between Erec and his various opponents in battle but between the couple's romantic relationship and Erec's social duties as a knight and a prince. Erec and Enide are model lovers because they are able to achieve happiness with each other without being false to their social duties.

If I've given the impression that Chretien is Jane Austen in chain mail, it's because that's the impression I received from reading the poem. I didn't expect it to read quite so much like a nineteenth-century novel. The experience has, I'm afraid, destroyed my already sagging confidence in the accuracy of Lewis's _Allegory of Love_ as an interpretation of medieval romance literature, and it's vastly increased my appreciation for the sophistication and wisdom of medieval culture.


SecretAgentMan said...

Thanks, this was new to me and I enjoyed it.

I've sometimes thought it would be interesting to hear a lively and knowledgeable debate:

"Resolved: Life was happier in the Middle Ages than today."

Isaac said...

What a great story. I feel my poverty of literate knowledge when introduced to such wonderful works that I previously knew nothing about.

thoughtspot said...

Interesting. I've just been reading Les Miserables and find in Victor Hugo a very powerful argument for progress--that it is needed, that it happens, that there really is something called "growth" from one century to the next. I wonder if this is any more romanticized or naive than to think life in the Middle Ages was better. I would never underestimate modern problems--but can't help feeling we really have come somewhere universal suffrage, public education, and the fact that we don't have to go around hacking at people with swords to impress a lady fair.

Anonymous said...

Hello! I found your blog because I looked up your name, because I'm a student of Dr. Craig Farmer. He mentioned you in class today.

Anonymous said...

How much more of Chr├ętien de Troyes work have you read? Of the pieces presented, very few of them present women, or the relationship between man and woman in so positive a light. The expectations of courtly love put a man's desires below a woman's, but frequently when reading between the lines it is the women who end Chr├ętiens novels with the blame.