Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Why Should I Lengthen My Tale? - Chretien De Troys Arthurian Romances

(This is less a review than just simple commentary. I read the book in bits and pieces so never really got a deep enough attention flow to do anything I would call justice to it in terms of a real analysis.

I added line breaks to a lot of the quotes.)

I am reading through cloudy glass. 12th Century French verse translated to 21st Century English prose. The language, the time and the tongue give it a particular range of looping structures, delayed reveals and distinct constructions and arrangements of meaning.

These are then warped and planed away by the translation. So it is impossible for me to tell, for any particular artefact of writing, whether its is deliberate artifice, the common technique, an element of the language, simply a descriptor of the way things were actually done then, or an element of the transformation in language.

And it has the usual fascinating medieval textual complexities;

"Another key manuscript that once probably contained all of Chretien's romance, and which would have been the earliest and best copy of them, is the so-called Annonay Manuscript. Unfortunately it was cut apart to be used as filler for book-bindings in the eighteenth century..."

Which make it very hard to work out exactly who did what when. Even in the 'official' version, there are parts where Chretien stopped work and someone else completed it;

"My lords, if I were to tell any more, I would be going beyond my matter. Therefore I draw to a close: the romance is completely finished at the point. The clerk Godefroy de Lagny has put the final touches onThe Knight of the Cart; let no one blame him for completing Chretiens work, since he did it with the approval of Chretien, who began it.

He worked on the story from the point at which Lancelot was walled into the tower until the end. He has done only this much. He wishes to add nothing further, nor to omit anything, for this would harm the story."

And he died before completing the end of the final story.

So, unless I want to learn 12tch Century French or spend a year in university, I must take it as a whole. As what I read on the page.

I give you Chretain; as close as we can come to the 'inventor' of much of the Arthurian material. Or at least he was ripping off the better bards, in a better way.


The other Arthurian writer I know best. Even reading through the clouded glass, I suspect that in almost all the ways in which quality of writing is measured, Chretien is the better writer.

He's funnier I think, in a greater variety of ways. His characters are more sensitive in their expression and self-description. He has a more subtle tongue. Today I would call him a 'Literary writer', someone who had been through the University system and the literary presses, while I would think of Mallory as a chunky, popular genre writer.

Mallory may be the better storyteller, whatever that means, and he was more of a nerd. Chretien can barely bring himself to go through the huge lists of food (why should I lengthen my tale?) let alone the list of tournament winners.

I think Mallory felt more, but Chretain was better at describing the feelings he did have, and that others had. Try this piece of 12thC reverse psychology. The same events might take place in Mallory, but they would probably not be described thus;

"...'And yet don't declare that you would go forth to die for me on condition that I become your sweetheart, as that would be most unfortunate: you are not strong or old enough, I assure you , ever to hold your own in skirmish or battle against a knight so strong and tall, and so hardened by combat, as the one awaiting you out there.'

'This very day you shall see that it is so,' he said, 'for I'll go forth to fight with him. No words of yours can stop me.'

She pretended to discourage him by her words, though in fact she wished him to fight; but it often happens that one hides one's true desires when one sees someone who is keen to enact them, in order to increase his desire to fulfil them. And thus she acted cleverly, by discouraging him from doing the very thing that she had planted in his heart to do."

Its in Chretain that we discover a psychological reason for the cruelty and anger of the Malevolent Damsell. The same character, or a similar one, occurs in Mallory as a cruel-speaking quest-giver who tests her knight with bawdy and mocking speech.  This is all taken to be simply part of the quest she presents, or part of her character. In Chretain, she is depressed after the loss of her love to a violent Knight and is trying to commit suicide by chivalry;

"'Dear sir,' she said, 'listen now: I'd like to tell you, if you don't mind, why I've been so haughty towards all the knights of this earth who've tried to escort me. That knight - may God destroy him! - who spoke to you on the other shore, wasted his love on me. He loved me, but I hated him, because he caused me great pain by killing - I'll not hide it from you - the knight whose sweetheart I was. Then he thought he could honour me by persuading me to love him and attached myself to the knight whom you stole away from me today, though I never cared a whit for him.

But ever since death separated me from my first love, I've been behaving foolishly, and I've been so rude of tongue and so wicked and foolish that I never paid any heed to whom I was insulting. I did it deliberately, hoping to find someone with such a temper that I could make him angry and irate enough to cut me to pieces, for I've long wished to be dead. Good sir, punish me now so severely that no maiden who hears news of my punishment will ever again dare insult a knight."

And this medieval/chivlaric view of the importance and nobility of shame (its Kay that slaps the girl, I think the only example of violence towards women in the book);

"... he gave her the message that she most wished to hear, for she still suffered from the slap upon her cheek. She had recovered fully from the pain of the slap but she had not overcome or forgotten the insult, for only a coward overlooks it when he is shamed or insulted: pain passes and shame endures in a sturdy and healthy man, but cools and dies in the coward."

And of course, Chretien likes Gawain, who he puts in everything, and Mallory likes the slut Lancelot, and is a big fan of extra-marital affairs while Chretien certainly seems not to be, he dumps the story part way through.

"Many believe that he abandoned The Knight of the Cart becasue he was dissatisfied with the subject matter, which may have been imposed on him by his patroness, Marie de Champagne.."

In fact, in the following, Lancelot is really magnificently dumb as a post. In this story Lancelot has already had multiple conflicts with the villain Meleagant, a scheming cunning fellow who has sworn revenge. Lancelot and his crew are on their way somewhere, having received a mysterious message;

"They rode for several days from dawn to dusk until they were about to league from the Underwater Bridge. But before they could get near enough to see the bridge, a dwarf came forth to meet them. He was riding a huge hunter and brandishing a whip to encourage and urge on his steed. Promptly he inquired, as he had been ordered: 'Which one of you is Lancelot? Don't hide him from me, I am one of your party. You must tell me in perfect confidence, becasue it is for your profit that I ask.'

Lancelot spoke for himself, saying; 'I am he whom you are seeking.'

'Ah, Lancelot! Brave knight! Quit these men and place your faith in me. Come along with me alone, for I wish to take you to a very wonderful place. Let no one watch which way you go. Have them wait at this spot, for we shall return shortly.'

Suspecting no deceit, Lancelot ordered his companions to remain behind, and he himself followed the dwarf, who was betraying him. His men, awaiting him there, could wait for ever becasue those who have captured him and who hold him prisoner have no intention of returning him.

His men were so distressed at his failure to return that they did not know what to do. They all agreed that the dwarf had deceived them, and they were very upset, but felt it would be folly to seek after him."

Mallory bursts occasionally into his own tale in torrents and declamations, Chreatien is always there, the curtain never falls too closely or too tightly to occlude his presence. Lists are shortened, the truth is asserted ("I do not lie when I say...")


As always the curse of adventure fiction runs true and, largely, the secondary characters and villains are sharper, more distinct and more lively than the heroes.

In particular is the Damsel Lunette, who manipulates for good ends in the story of Yvain and the Lion, producing a magic ring with this engaging description or simile of what we would today envisage as simple invisibility or camouflage, but which feels conceptually different;

"Then she gave him the little ring and told him that its effect was like that of bark on wood, which covers it so it cannot be seen. The ring must be worn with the stone clasped within the palm; then whoever is wearing the ring on his finger need have no fear of anything, for no one no matter how wide open his eyes could ever see him, any more than he could see the wood with the bark growing over it."

Lunette is one of the few brunettes in the story (or any chivalric story) and she says, does and encounters more than many. Praised for her cleverness and subtle tongue as much for her beauty (another rarity). I do feel, or hope, that she was based on a real person.

The Queen-obsessed villain Melegeant is much less of a cuck than the pathetic poisoner of Mallory. In an elegant dramatic situation, his father is the king, and a good man who loves his son, but Meleagant himself is utterly super evil in proto-Shakespearean kind;

"'You may say what you like, but I'm not bothered by anything you've said. I don't have the cowardly heart of a hermit or do-gooder of almsgiver, nor do I care for honour that requires me to give him what I most love. His task won't be so easily and quickly accomplished and will turn out quite differently than you and he think.

Even if you aid him against me, we'll not make peace with him. If you and all your men offer him safe conduct, what do I care? None of this causes me to lose heart. in fact, it pleases me greatly, so help me God, that he has no one to fear but myself. Nor do I ask you to do anything for me that might be interpreted as disloyalty or treason. Be a gentleman as long as you please, but let me be cruel!'"

The 'good father, bad son' situation seems like a really handy problem solver for both storytellers and game runners where you need a villain in a stable kingdom but can't keep inventing new ones or having them overturned - the bad guy is the Kings son, who he loves.

The Maiden with the Small Sleeves is the only depiction I can think of of a child in historical Arthuriana - and a really distinct and likeable personality;

"While the ladies were conversing the knights rode out, and Tiebaut's elder daughter, who was the cause of the tournament, had climbed to the top of the tower. With her was her younger sister, who dressed herself in such elegant sleeves that she was called The Maiden with the Small Sleeves, and this name was embroidered along her sleeves. With Tiebaut's two daughters, all the ladies and maidens had climbed to the top of the towers, and the tournament was just now assembling in front of the castle.

But there was no knight as handsome as Meliant de Liz, according to he sweetheart's words to the ladies all around her: 'My ladies, truly no knight I've ever seen has pleased me more than Meliant de Liz - why should I like to you about this? Is it not a comfort and delight to behold such a splendid knight? So handsome a knight cannot help but sit well in his saddle and wield his lance and shield with the best.'

But her sister, who was seated beside her, said that there was a more handsome knight. her elder sister became angry and rose to strike her; but the ladies pulled her away and restrained her and kept her from hitting her sister, which made her most upset."


"And Gawain said: 'My good sir, is she your daughter then?'

'Yes, but don't pay any attention to what she says,' said the lord. 'She's a child - a silly, foolish thing.'


But my lord Gawain replied: 'Sir, as God is my helper, she has spoken well for such a little girl and I'll not refuse her request. Rather, since it pleases her, I'll be her knight for a while tomorrow.'

'I thank you, dear sir!' she said, so happy that she bowed right down to his feet.

Then they parted without saying anything more. The lord carried his daughter before him on his palfrey's neck and asked her what had been the cause of this quarrel; and she told him the truth from beginning to end, saying 'Sir, I was very upset becasue my sister kept insisting that Meliant de Liz was the best and most handsome of all, yet in the meadow below I had seen this knight and I couldn't keep myself from replying to her and saying that I had seen one more handsome than Meliant.

And becasue of that my sister called me a silly brat and pulled my hair - a curse upon anyone who enjoyed that! I'd let both my tresses be cut off at the back of my neck, though it would destroy my beauty, if only I could be sure that tomorrow morning in the combat my knight would defeat Meliant de Liz. That would put an end to his praises that the lady mys sister keeps singing!"

Kay is strongly distinct and much more viscerally unpleasent than in other tales I've read;

"Kay strode to the centre of the hall without his mantle, holding in his right hand a staff; he had a cap of fine cloth over his blonde hair, which had been plaited into a braid - there was no more handsome knight in the world, but his beauty and prowess were spoiled by his evil tongue.

His cloak was of a colourful and expensive silken material; he wore an embroidered belt whose buckle and links were all of gold - I recall it well, for the story bears witness to it. Everyone stepped aside as he strode into the hall; they all feared his evil words and malicious tongue and made way for him: a man is a fool not to fear public slander, whether it is spoken in jest or earnest. Everyone within the hall was so afraid of Kay's malicious words that no one spoke to him."

A vituperative, unpleasant, crappy misogynist viper-tongued scumbag, and, like the Meleagant situation, the fact that Arthur can't/won't fire him, makes him a really good generator for stories and quests.


There is a lot of the heart as an object/metaphor. Leaving, lending, buying, selling, hearts through eyes, hearts in letters, hearts given and not given. Love himself is a near-invisible character.

Here is love in the story 'Cliges', acting very much as 'Cupid', the villainous shit stirrer from the Faerie Queene several hundred years later, here combined with Chretain breaking into one of his nearly-modernist soliloquies as Alexander talks to himself and his words and sentences run and compact in a very non-chivalric way while this complex metaphor gets extended and extended and deepened;

" 'But no bruise or cut appears, and still you complain? Are you not mistaken? No indeed, for he has wounded me so deeply that he has shot his arrow straight into my heart and has not pulled it out again.

How could he have shot through your body when there is no sign of a wound? Tell me this, I'd like to know! Through where did he shoot you? Through my eye. Through your eye? Did he not put it out? He did not hurt my eye at all, but I have a great pain in my heart. Now tell me how the arrow passed through your eye without wounding or putting it out. If the arrow entered through your eye, why is the heart in your breast suffering and the eye not suffering, though it took the initial blow?

I can give you the answer to that: the eye itself is not concerned with feelings and can do nothing on its own; rather, it is the mirror of the heart, and the fire that inflames the heart passes through this mirror without damaging or breaking it. For is the heart in ones breast not like the flaming candle within a lantern? If you remove the candle, no light will shine forth; but as long as the candle burns the lantern is not dark and the flame shining within does not harm or destroy it.

It is the same with a pane of glass: no matter how thick or solid, the sun's rays pass through without breaking it; yet no matter how bright the glass, it will not help you to see unless some brighter light strikes its surface. Know that the eyes are like the glass and the lantern, for through the eyes comes the light by which the heart sees itself and the outside world, whatever it may be."

And a similar passage about love and despair by Yvain who has screwed up in Knightly fashion and lost his love. Ive put line breaks at every period so you can see clearly how it works;

"'Why does the wretch who's destroyed his own happiness not kill himself? he asked.

'Why do I, wretch that I am, not kill myself?

How can I stay here and behold my lady's possessions?

Why does my soul remain in my body?

What good is a soul in such a sad body?

If it had flown away, it would not be suffering so.

It is fitting that I despise and blame myself greatly, as indeed I do.

He who through his own fault loses his happiness and his comfort should feel a mortal hatred for himself.

Truly he should hate himself and seek to end his life.

And what keeps me from killing myself now when no-one is watching?

Have I not observed this lion so disconsolate just now on my behalf that it was determined to run my sword through its breast?

And so should I, whose joy has changed to grief, fear, death?

Happiness and all comfort have abandoned me.

I'll say no more, because no-one could speak of this; I've posed a foolish question.

Of all joys, the greatest was the one assured to me; yet it lasted such a little while!

And the man who loses such joy by his own mistake has no right to good fortune!'"

Read like that its a little like a tweet-stream

At another point in the story he faces a classic chivalric fuckup situation. His wife dumps him and the knighly self-image implodes, as it does in Mallory, but here in deep, internal closeup;

"Yvain could not answer her, for he was stunned and words failed him. The damsel stepped forward and pulled the ring from his finger; then she commended to God the king and all the others, except the man whom she left in great anguish.

And his anguish grew constantly, for everything he saw added to his grief and everything he heard troubled him; he wanted to flee entirely alone to a land to wild that no-one could follow or find him, and where no man or woman alive could hear any more news of him than if he had gone into perdition.

He hated nothing so much as himself and did no know whom to turn to for comfort now that he was the cause of his own death. But he would rather lose his mind than fail to take revenge upon himself, who had ruined his own happiness."


The objects themselves are sometimes encrusted with detail and para-story, exactly like in The FQ. Here is the very-Gygaxian Bed of Marvels;

"In the middle of the hall was a a bed, in which there was not a speck of wood, for everything was gold except for the cords alone, which were entirely of silver. I am not lying about the bed, for at each point where the cords crossed there hung a little bell; over the bed was spread a large embroidered samit cover. To each of the bedposts was affixed a carbuncle, which cast as much light as four brightly burning candles. The bed's legs were carved figures of little dogs with grimacing jowls, and the dogs were set on four wheels which rolled so easily that you could push the bed with one finger and roll it all the way across the room. To tell the truth, the bed was so unusual that none like it had ever been made for count or king, nor ever would be."

Here is a proto-Spencerian deep-dive into the figures woven on a magnificent robe;

"Four faries had created it with great skill and great mastery. one of them portrayed Geometry, how she examines and measures the extent of the earth and the sky so that nothing is omitted, and then the bottom and the top, and then the breadth and the length, and then ow she carefully recons the breadth of the ocean, and thus measures the whole world. This work was the first fairys contribution.

And the second put here effort into portraying Arithmetic, taking pains to show clearly how she accurately numbers the days and hours of time, and the water of the sea drop by drop, and then all the grains of sand and the stars in sequence, and how many leaves are in a wood: she tells the truth of all these. No number ever deceived her and she will never lie about anything, for it is her wish to give it her detailed attention. Such was the work of Arithmetic.

And the third work was that of Music, with which all pleasures harmonize: song and descant, and sounds of strings, harp, rote, and vielle. This work was good and beautiful, for before her lay all the instruments and delights.

The fourth one, whose work was next, accomplished a most excellenttask, for she represented the best of the arts: she concerned herself with Astronomy, who makes so many wonders and seeks counsel from the stars, moon, and sun. Nowhere else does she take counsel about what she must do; these advise her very well about whatever she asks of them, and whatever was and will be they enable her to know with certainty, without lying or deceit."

This work was portrayed in the cloth from which Erec's robe was made, fashined and woven with golden thread. The fur lining that was sewn into it was from strange beasts that have completely blonde heads and necks as black as mulberries and backs that are bright red on top, with black bellies and indigo tails. Such beasts are born in India, and are called _berbiolettes_, they eat nothing but spices, cinnameon, and fresh clove. What should I tell you of the mantle? It was very rich and fine and handsome. There were four stones on the fasteners. on one side were two chrysolites and on the other two amethysts, which were set in gold."

* "Berbioletes have recently been plausibly identified by GLy Burgess and John Curry (1989) as the multicoloured douc langur monkey of the Asian subcontinent."

This list of translator-vexing probably-imaginary luxury fruits reminds me more of artpunk Hipster D&D where you just throw in some shit to be weird;

"After the meal the two stayed a long while in conversation. As squires were preparing the beds, baskets of all the finest fruits were served them: dates, figs and nutmeg, cloves and pomegranates, and electuaries for dessert, with Alexandrian gingerbread, pliris and arcoticum, resontif* and stomaticum. Afterwards they drak many a drink, sweet wine without honey or pepper, good mulberry wine and clear syrup.

* This list of exoctic delecacies, consisting of unusual words and evoking unkown luxuries, presented copyists with almost insurmountable problems, and no two manuscripts present identical lists."

This is my final and favourite part, from the Knight with the Lion; a knight called Calogrant tells Arthur and Guienevere his story and it reads almost like a description of the mind, or of the nature of understanding, thrown into the sold-yet-metaphorical language of the middle ages. I'll break it up a little;

"'Lend me your hearts and ears, for words that are not understood by the heart are lost completely.

There are those who hear something without understanding it, yet praise it; they have only the faculty of hearing, since the heart does not comprehend it.

The word comes to the ears like whistling wind, but doesn't stop or linger there; instead it quickly leaves if the heart is not alert enough to be ready to grasp it.

However, if the heart can take and enclose and retain the word when it hears it, then the ears are the path and channel through which the voice reaches the heart; and the voice, which enters through the ears, is received within the breast by the heart.

So he who would hear me now must surrender heart and ears to me for I do not wish to speak of a dream, or a fable, or a lie, which many others have served you; instead I shall tell you what I have seen myself."


  1. This is an interesting post, thanks for sharing! I've been wanting to get into the Arthurian Legends for forever, but have struggled with where to even begin. Right now I have T.H. White's "Once and Future King" collection, this collection of Arthurian stories including the Malory stuff (, and Jack Vance' Lyonesse on a kindle wishlist, but again, I just don't know where to start :/...

    1. I read Chretian (but not Malory) for Uni. I wasn't a huge fan at the time, but when Patrick started doing his Mallory posts, I went back and found a lot to appreciate.

    2. Mate, you bought waaay too much stuff to begin with. You know if you get a huge block you'll ever read it. (Though I did exactly the same thing, still slowly working my way through the last big Arthuriana buying spree.)

      If you want something quick, good and readable, Bernard Cornwells Pendragon books are nice. And there are only three.

  2. I really like the authorial voice, all the "No guys this is totally real!" bits make it feel like a relative telling me a story after work.
    I also find the Alexander and Yvain bits really striking. They are both so sympathetic and introspective in a way that seems so at odds with their nature as knightly heroes, but even more so with their roles as characters in a story written by a person of the 12 century. It's kind of eye opening to see this sort of exploration of feeling given space, and being treated with such care. Changes my perspective of the time.
    The one thing that does not surprise me is the almost itemized detail of the objects. This is one of the few things from D&D that always came across as true to the periods it was trying to mimic. Those people loved detail, few items were so plain as our modern sensibility has come to appreciate. No person of means went out without an outfit that would be considered loud and obnoxious with its decoration and embroidery today. Their scabbards were painted and embossed with flowers, their chamber-pots were carved or painted with imagery or prayers, their household furniture often had tiny engravings and carvings that required skilled craftsmanship and had minute details hidden within them. These people loved their stuff, the only thing they loved more was showing it off.