Each year on January 1st, you’re likely to read here some
lame excuse why I didn’t read any classics during the past year. But in 2012, that’s over. No more excuses. Classics, here I come, I’m ready for you. All the more when those classics are as fun to read as Yvain, the Knight of the Lion.
Fun? I heard you scoff. No, I mean it. My son is full on in a Medieval knight phase and I’d better get documented on the subject, because when I told him the story of Yvain, the Knight with the Lion, he was mesmerized. And wanted to be told over and over again each fighting scene, just as a 12th century nobleman would.
Who would have guessed that I would have my private trobador moment, right in 2012?
Besides, who forgot to tell me that Middle Ages literature was readable? Why do I have dreadful memories of lit class of this period?
There isn’t much information about Chretien de Troyes (Christian from the town of Troyes), except that he wrote “novels” (more like fantasy epic tales) for the court of his patroness, Marie de Champagne, very much inspired by Arthurian myths and Celtic legends. Yvain is a knight from the King Arthur’s court, best friend of Gauvain (Gawain) and Lancelot. Queen Guinevere makes a cameo appearance too.
But basically it’s a long thwarted love story with many many fights at every corner. Or perhaps, it’s a classic tale of a foolish, irresponsible young man who has to grow up before he can win back the love of his life. Something we can still relate to today, minus the magic fountains, the castles, knights and armours.
Yvain decides to prove himself at a magical fountain where another knight was defeated. He wins the fight against the defender of the fountain only to fall in love with his widow. Complicated schemes together with the clever handmaid Lunette allow him to marry the princess (we learn only at the end that her name is Laudine), but soon after the wedding he leaves her to join the court and his mates. Laudine permits it, provided that Yvain will be back within one year. Guess what? he forgets the deadline and she… throws him out, or the middle ages equivalent of it. Yvain is crazy with despair and grief (even runs naked to the woods)… and after many adventures, he becomes wiser and decides to fight for the weak and against the villains.
There was plenty to enjoy in this tale. I was delighted by the ancient French language that was more colorful but still clear enough to me. I also loved that the female characters were plucky, especially the maid Lunette. Lady Laudine, too, had her say about who she shoud marry and what she should do about her estate. No weak, dilly-dallying creatures here, just basic, matter-of-fact decisions about your own fate.
Another maid made me laugh (yes, 12th century literature can make you laugh): after Yvain went crazy he sort of falls into a daze, naked in the forest, only fed with bread and water by an hermit. He’s recognized by a fair maiden who decides to use her mistress’ magical healing balm prepared by the sorceress Morgan. The mistress tells her to use only a little of the precious balm, but she instead pours the whole box of balm over Yvain (I recognized my own philosophy about medicine: if one pill helps, two will probably work twice as well) and pretends to her mistress that she has tripped and let the balm fall into a river. Then she goes back to Yvain who has recovered and she pretends that she has never even seen him. That’s my girl!
If you want to have a look over the original stuff, French National Library has a gorgeous digital edition full with plenty of images.