I am taking a brief look at the tale of an Arthurian knight – brave, uxorious and stubborn – and his faithful, long-suffering wife – in two versions, medieval Welsh and medieval French, respectively.
We are talking here (a) about Geraint fab Erbin (editor R Jones’s title) or Gereint son of Erbin (translators Jones & Jones’s title) and (b) about the Ėrec et Ėnide of Chrétien de Troyes. Geraint = Ėrec; Enid = Ėnide.
The verse account composed by Chrétien de Troyes dates to the late 12th century. The Welsh version manuscripts date to the 14th century. They form part of the collection of prose stories published together, nowadays, as the “Mabinogion”. We do not know whether these two works are derived from a lost common source or whether Ėrec et Ėnide was the principal source for the “Mabinogion” tale (perhaps together with oral traditions in Wales).
The main thrust of both versions is similar. Chrétien’s is much longer and more elaborate. The Welsh one is compact and does not waste words in making its impact.
It would be tedious to compare both versions, point by point. I would like to examine the rival literary merits of a climactic episode that appears in them both.
First, the theme: it is that of the hero who first wins a lady to wife, then risks her loss through his uncaring behaviour, and finally, after many trials and tribulations, is reconciled with her (largely thanks to faithfulness and patience on her part).
Secondly, the story, in brief. The story can be divided into four parts. Part 4 is like an appendix or epilogue.
1 The hero is a knight who enjoys adventure and who wins his battles. This part culminates in his wooing of Enid/Ėnide and marrying her.
[R Jones edition of the Welsh, pages 97-119; Jones & Jones translation, pages 229-246; Chrétien, lines 27-2262.]
2 The hero goes to see his father – an example of filial piety.
[R Jones, pp 119-125; Jones & Jones, pp 246-250; Chrétien, pp 2263-2472.]
3 The hero withdraws from social life and tournaments, preferring to spend all his time with his wife. This draws adverse comments by those who know him; and the heroine is upset. When she lets slip her worry about her husband’s diminished reputation, he launches on a series of dangerous adventures, taking her with him. Over time, the expense of energy and loss of blood through wounds received take their toll on his health. After coming close to death, the hero sees sense and appreciates the care his wife has for him, and they are reconciled.
[R Jones, pp 125-151; Jones & Jones, pp 250-270; Chrétien, lines 2473-5366.]
4 The hero engages in a final adventure, the details of which need not concern us here. (Chrétien’s account is very long; the Welsh version is very short.)
[R Jones, pp 151-156; Jones & Jones, pp 270-273; Chrétien, lines 5367-6958.]
I now turn to a climactic point in the story, towards the end of Part 3. I invite the reader to choose which account is more effective in its artistry – the Welsh or the French.
Exhausted by his fights with giants, and appearing to be dead or dying, Geraint has been laid down in the hall of Earl Limwris, with his wife Enid and the earl himself nearby. The earl tries to persuade Enid to abandon Geraint and to live with him, and in the meantime to accept his food and drink. As she refuses him, he gives her a “box on the ear”. This is what happens next, in the Welsh version:
[Enid] gave a great sharp-piercing shriek, and made outcry far greater then than before, and it came into her mind that were Gereint alive she would not be boxed on the ear so. With that Gereint came to himself at the echoing of her shriek, and he rose up into a sitting posture and found his sword in the hollow of his shield, and hastened to where the earl was and struck him a keen-forceful, venomous-painful might impetuous blow on the crown of his head, so that he was cloven, and so that the table stayed the sword. Everyone then left the table and fled out. And it was not fear of the living man that was greatest upon them, but the sight of the dead man rising up to slay them. And then Gereint looked on Enid and a double grief came over him: the one to see how Enid had lost her colour and her mien, and the other was that he knew her to be in the right. ‘Lady,’ said he, ‘dost thou know where our horses are?’ ‘I know,’ said she, ‘where thine own went, but I know not where went the other. To yonder house thy horse went.’ He then came to the house and fetched out his horse, and raised Enid up from the ground and set her between him and the saddlebow. And away he went.
[Jones & Jones, page 269; cf R Jones, pages 149f]
And the couple make good their escape.
We see here that Geraint’s priority is not to comfort Enid immediately but to organise their escape – and indeed, Enid is practical too, telling Geraint where his horse can be found. Note that the solid basis of their relationship is revealed by their prompt actions and their few, apposite words. (Contrast Chrétien’s treatment of the matter, below.)
In the French, the context is similar. The Count of Limors wants to take Ėnide for himself. He orders her to eat and drink, and, as she refuses, he strikes her, twice:
In the middle of these arguments and disputes, Erec recovered consciousness like a man waking from sleep. It was no wonder if he was startled to see the people around him; but when he heard his wife’s voice, he was troubled and filled with grief. Getting down from the dais, he quickly draws the sword. Anger and his love for his wife give him courage. He runs over to where he sees her and strikes the count on the head, beating out his brains and knocking in his forehead without any word or challenge, so that his blood and brains go flying. The knights leap up from the tables, all thinking this is a devil come in here amongst them….
[Owen, lines 4851ff, page 64]
The hero’s change of behaviour is marked by the passage that commences thus:
The count was slain at his meal. Then Erec, carrying his wife away, embraces and kisses and comforts her.
[Owen, lines 4914ff, page 65]
And Ėrec adds soothing words but (remarkably) fails to accept all the blame for their situation, as shown by this sentence:
“And if you’ve ever spoken ill to me, you have my forgiveness and pardon for both the offence and what you said.”
How dare he say this? He adds insult to injury!
In my opinion, Chrétien’s description is bland, whereas the Welsh version is lively. The latter also conveys more pathos, as the feelings of Enid and Geraint, respectively, are vividly conveyed. The account of the escape of Ėrec and Ėnide is long and drawn out, as a look at the full text reveals, whereas that of Geraint and Enid is short and to the point.
I would argue, both on the basis of this episode and on my reading of both versions of the whole tale, that the Welsh version, though much shorter than the French, is the superior of the two.
Indeed, Geraint can be seen as following (on a smaller scale) the pattern of Homer’s Achilles in the Iliad, insofar as (first) he exhibits petulance when his pride is hurt and (secondly) he repents and changes his course when he is moved by grief. In accordance with this approach, the Welsh tale can be taken as a mini-epic. But on another view, the story has a heroine – Enid – rather than a hero! Seen in this way, the tale is a romance.
Jones, G and Jones, T (1949) (translators), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent & Sons (Everyman).
Jones, R M (Bobi) (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion.
Owen, D D R (1987) (translator), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: J M Dent (Everyman).