The French author Chretien de Troyes (CDT) is the writer who gives us the illicit romance between Lancelot and Guinevere. He also gives us the first mention of the Holy Grail, along with the modern idea of the Arthurian story as composed chiefly of courtly love.
Three of CDT’s romances have parallels in the Welsh Mabinogion: specifically, the stories of “Erik and Eneed” “Evan, or the Knight with a Lion” and “Perceval, or the story of the Grail.” These stories correspond to the Mabinogion stories of Jeret and Eneed” “Owen, of the Countess of the Fountain” and “Parador, Son of Egrog.”
CDT was a skilled writer. He was highly educated and considered one of the greatest writers of medieval Europe. He essentially invented a new genre with his Arthurian tales. Called ‘Medieval Romances,” he called them Roma, or a book or a tale. Such Roma’s defining traits were characters from the nobility deals with love, chivalry, and other knightly virtues. Also, some magic. Of course, when I speak of romance it is not romance as we know it today, rather, medieval romance was focused wholly on knights performing great deeds to win the love of ladies, hence lots of adventure and magical dealings.
As was part and parcel for the time, CDT makes many references to those who supported his writings, as well as those who helped inspire the basic plot elements which he fused into the narrative. His tales are similarly structured; usually long, over seven thousand lines, each divided into two parts, with the second part almost twice as long as the first. Readers will often find important bits of information about the story in the exact center of the text. Moreover, CDT’s texts usually focus on one of Arthur’s knights, not Arthur himself who has been regulated to a supporting role in the narrative, as someone who has risen to such status as to allow the entire romance to take place and so must step aside and instruct and maintain the land which promulgates the romances.
Some important phrases to keep in mind, from least to most important: “The Fair Unknown,” “The Rash Boon,” and “The Custom of the Castle.” Each of these phrases has an important role to play in CDT’s Arthurian tales.
The story of Clege: story about the son of Constantinople. Only transiently Arthurian due to the ending events happening to transpire in King Arthur’s court.
The story of Erik and Eneed: the narrative is a debate about two positions; Erik is a great knight until he wins the love of his lady’s hand, but once he does he desires nothing more than to stay home and court her. Eneed, his love, enjoys it at first but eventually persuades him to return to questing. Ultimately, it is a debate on what kind of life someone should lead—comfort or action.
CDT’s stories are filled with an abundance of mysteries and quests early on. Evan, or the Story of the Knight and the Lion centers on a knight with a pet lion who stumbles upon a water basin and a stone. After pouring some water on the stone, a knight comes forth to challenge him to a duel. The newcomer knight accepts and defeats his challenger in the contest which allows him to also marry his love. Along the way, he also meets a quest maiden who gives him a magic ring. He also barely makes it through a gate whereas his horse is cut in two. This is the story of the ‘Custom of the Castle’ where customs of castles must be honored no matter how absurd they seem.
The story of ‘Perceval, or the story of the Grail’ is concerned with ‘The Fair Unknown.’ Perceval, raised alone in the forest, has no idea he is actually of royal blood, as his birth family was killed while engaged in knightly activities. The point of stories like this is to push the belief that nature trumps nurture—that one’s royal bloodline will always drive on to their true nature. The story proceeds when Perceval encounters a group of knights who train him. Eventually, after being trained and making some blunders which cause him to be more cautious, he finds himself in the castle of the Fisher King (or, the Maimed King). He remains polite and encounters a grail (in this story, however, it is not the Holy Grail, but rather, simply a magical food dish which refills itself with the eaters favorite food). The moral of this story is that had Perceval simply asked two questions concerning the Fisher king’s condition, then the maimed king would have been healed. But, as he is cautious after his mistakes, he holds his tongue and the king remains unhealed as the castle vanishes the next morning. It is important to note that the story here is left unfinished.
The story of ‘Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart” is odd for its presenting of adultery in a positive light. It focuses on an evil knight who challenges Arthur’s knights to single combat. One knight must meet him on the field of combat with Guinevere in tow. If Arthur’s knight wins, then the queen and Arthur’s kidnapped subjects will be freed, if Arthur’s knight is defeated, however, the queen goes home with the evil knight. This is the story which features the ‘Rash boon.’ Or, a promise hastily made that due to its haste, features a series of trials and errors which must be overcome in order for order to be restored. The story pans out as follows: the queen is kidnapped and Lancelot must rescue her. While traversing the vast distance to where she is being held captive, he works two horses to death and is forced to ride in a cart, a shameful act for a knight. But, before he gets in he hesitates for a moment. When he finally sneaks into the castle which the queen is being held, she is angry with Lancelot for not immediately accepting the ride in the cart. So, a series of quests and mild hijinks ensue in order to win back the queen’s affection and successfully sneak her out of the castle. The pro-adultery stance only happens due to the convoluted morality of the story which posits coerced affection and marriage, and an opposing set of values which allows the queen to redeem herself.
In terms of King Arthur’s knights themselves, the professor of this Great Course recommends assigning adjectives to each knight in order to remember their primary characteristic. So, for instance, Gawain is vengeful, Bedievere is loyal, Lancelot is chivalrous, Gareth is awesome, and Kay is grumpy.