Theban themes and threads across 2000 years

The Ancient Greeks: Oedipus and his family

The Athenian tragedians of the 5th century BCE – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – wrote superb dramas about:

  1. the fates of King Oedipus of Thebes (the man who killed his father and married his mother, Jocasta) and his children, Antigone, Eteocles, Ismene and Polynices (Polyneices).
  2. the dynastic rivalry between the two sons, leading up to a disastrous war
  3. the unsuccessful attempts by their mother and sisters to reconcile the two brothers
  4. the intervention of the Athenian hero, Theseus, to ensure the decent burial of the warriors fallen in the war – at the earnest request of their grieving womenfolk.

In these plays, women are victims of strife and war – the ones who mourn openly, and the ones who insist upon the performance of the proper funeral rites for their menfolk.

In The Seven Against Thebes of Aeschylus, seven warriors (Polynices and his allies) arrive from Argos and lay siege to the city.  The city is saved, but both Eteocles (current ruler of Thebes) and his exiled brother Polynices are killed.

Sophocles wrote three plays about the fate of Thebes and Oedipus and his family.  Oedipus the King is perhaps the best known.  Oedipus shows his determination to discover the truth about his history.  By the time of Oedipus at Colonus, the war between  Polynices and Eteocles is about to begin: both sides ask Oedipus for his support – he refuses.  Antigone deals with the aftermath of the war.  The besiegers’ corpses have been left unburied outside Thebes, on the orders of Creon, now the sole ruler, in contravention of religious law.  Antigone defies Creon and (symbolically rather than thoroughly) covers the corpse of Polynices with soil.  Antigone and Creon debate the conflict between a man-made law and a higher law.

In the Phoenician Women of Euripides, Jocasta tries to reconcile the two brothers (her sons) but fails.  The war commences.  In the end, the two brothers fight a duel and kill each other.  Jocasta kills herself in grief.  Creon (now the ruler) expels Oedipus from the city – Antigone goes with him.  The body of Polynices remains unburied.

In the Suppliants of Euripides, set outside Thebes, after the war, the mothers of the fallen besiegers (abetted by their sons), Adrastus (King of Argos), and Theseus’s own mother, all beg Theseus to overcome Creon’s decree and to arrange the burial of the exposed warriors.  When negotiations with Creon fail, Theseus launches a successful attack, and the mourners’ wishes are fulfilled.

Later adaptations – Latin

In the 1st century CE, Seneca writes the tragedies, Oedipus, based on Sophocles’s model, and Phoenissae, based on the two plays by Euripides mentioned above.

Later in the 1st century CE, Statius wrote his epic, the Thebaid, influenced by Greek and Latin models.  Here, in contrast with the Greek plays, the conflict between Oedipus’s sons is inflamed by the direct intervention of supernatural figures – gods, a fury from hell, and the ghost of Oedipus’s own father.  Indeed, both sons of Oedipus, and their allies, are doomed, as Jupiter himself makes plain:

                 manet haec ab origine mundi
fixa dies bello, populique in proelia nati.  [Book III, lines 242f]

[This day has remained fixed for war, since the beginning of the world, and the peoples born for battles.]

The plot of the epic follows the thread of the Greek tradition, outlined above (points 1-4) – much elaborated, with vivid description of vehement speeches and violent acts.  No gruesome, revolting aspect is spared the reader.   (One incident – Tydeus’s gnawing the head of Melanippus [Book VIII] – is mentioned by Dante in Inferno, Canto XXXII.)

The aftermath of the war between the brothers is covered in Book XII.  Here, Argia, widow of Poynices, and Antigone, his sister, meet on the battlefield, where the fallen warriors’ corpses still lie.  The women now prepare the body of Polynices for his funeral – but when they place it on the still smouldering pyre of Eteocles, the latter’s body rejects it, to the extent that two separate fires break out from the pyre.  The other widows go to Athens and plead with Theseus for help.  Theseus accedes to their request, attacks Thebes, and kills Creon.  The exposed corpses have their funeral.

The characters act as if they are exercising free will, but in fact they are following their destiny.

(Statius appears in Dante’s Purgatorio, Cantos XXI and XXII.  Statius is ranked by Chaucer with Virgil, Ovid, Homer and Lucan, in Troilus and Criseyde, Book V; and he is listed among many great poets, in The House of Fame, Book III.)

Later adaptations – Western Europe

It was Latin literature, rather than Greek, that influenced the European vernacular literatures of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The anonymous 12th century Old French epic, Le Roman de Thèbes, is based on the Thebaid, but it is much influenced by contemporary methods of warfare and the Crusades.

Il Teseida delle Nozze d’Emilia (the Story of Theseus and the Nuptials of Emilia) by Giovanni Boccaccio (14th century) shows the influence of Virgil’s Aeneid and Statius’s Thebaid.  Here, Book I deals with the war of Teseo (Theseus) against the Amazons and his marriage to their queen, Ipolita (Hippolyta); Book II deals with Theseus’s war against the Thebans, to ensure the burial of warriors killed in the Theban civil war, at the request of their widows.  (Compare Book XII of the Thebaid.)

Then there is a change of emphasis.  Books III-XII cover the rivalry between the Theban cousins Palemone and Arcita over the beautiful Emilia, sister of Ipolita.  The young cousins are Boccaccio’s creation.  They fight over a lady rather than a city.

Pagan gods reappear: Arcita is depicted as a protégé of the god Mars, Palamone of the goddess Venus, and Emilia of the virgin goddess Diana.

To resolve the dispute, Teseo arranges a combat between Arcita and Palamone.  The result is unexpected: it has features of the surprise elements or vicissitudes characteristic of romance.  Behind the scenes, the gods interfere in the process.  The humans have to make a “virtue of necessity”, as Teseo says:

                        far della necessitate

virtù, quando bisogna, è sapienza.     [Book XII, stanza 11]

[To make a virtue of necessity, when the need arises, is wisdom.]

Is Il Teseida an epic or a romance or a bit of both?   I think that, as regards medieval romance, the practice of chivalry can be combined with the pursuit of love (see, for example, Arthurian literature).

The Knight’s Tale (14th century) by Geoffrey Chaucer is a free adaptation of Boccaccio’s Il Teseida and is very much shorterIt concentrates on the rivalry between Palamon and Arcite, rather than the Amazonian and Theban wars.

In the Preface to his Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), John Dryden writes about what we know as The Knight’s Tale, as follows:

I prefer in our countryman, far above all his other stories, the noble poem of Palamon and Arcite, which is of the epic kind, and perhaps not much inferior to the Ilias [Iliad] or the Aeneis [Aeneid]: the story is more pleasing than either of them, the manners as perfect, the diction as poetical, the learning as deep and various, and the disposition as artful.

And indeed, Dryden includes his own somewhat free translation of The Knight’s Tale in The Fables.  Dryden overstates the case, but The Knight’s Tale is magnificent – as a romance rather than an epic.

The influence of the Theban stories can be seen too, both in Anelida and Arcite (which appears unfinished) and in Troilus and Criseyde (Chaucer’s longest integrated story). The story of The Thebaid is summarized, indeed, in a passage in Book V of the latter.  In Book II, Pandarus discovers Criseyde and her friends reading a book about Thebes – whether from The Thebaid or from Le Roman de Thèbes is open to interpretation.  (What happened to Thebes foreshadows what will happen to Troy itself – but the Trojans fail to see this.)

In The Siege of Thebes (15th century), John Lydgate offers an addition to the Canterbury Tales in the form of a prequel to The Knight’s Tale, from the story of Oedipus to the intervention of Theseus at the end of the Theban war.

As its Prologue acknowledges, The Two Noble Kinsmen (circa 1613), by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, has as its primary source The Knight’s Tale.

In the Prologue, the playwrights express doubt as to how their own achievement measures up to Chaucer’s:

To say truth, it were an endless thing,

And too ambitious, to aspire to him.

They make a good point (see below).

(Act One resembles Euripides’s Suppliants, whether by accident or design.)

The surprise ending of the play resembles that of the source literature.  The play can be classified as a tragi-comedy, as happy and unhappy outcomes are mingled.  (Fletcher wrote, or co-wrote, several tragi-comedies himself.)

The play’s weaknesses are pointed out by its editors.  In particular, is the cousins’ rivalry, over a lady they have barely spoken to, of much interest to the audiences and readers of today?  In the Introduction to the Penguin edition (1977), N W Bawcutt states:

The theme of the main plot – two young men so equally noble that a girl cannot choose between them – is not one of the basic human situations with which an audience can readily identify itself, and presents artistic problems that the dramatists do not always overcome.

Arcite and Palamon take themselves, and their professions of love, very seriously – too seriously, perhaps.  Chaucer, by comparison, shows his skill in his use of irony, which lends some distance between the narrator and his characters.  (This is also the case in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, where the reader gets to know the main characters well, but also is enabled to look at them from more than one angle and thus both to feel both sympathy with them and to take a critical attitude towards them.)

Much of the play is taken up by the serious story of the (unnamed) daughter of the jailer.   She falls in love with Palamon, herself.  She recognises the implications of her own lowly status:

 Why should I love this gentleman?  ‘Tis odds

He never will affect me; I am base,

My father the mean keeper of his prison,

And he a prince.  To marry him is hopeless;

To be his whore is witless.  Out upon’t!

What pushes are we wenches driven to

When fifteen once has found us!

 

[Act II, Scene 3, lines 1-7 (Penguin edition)]

The daughter’s love is unrequited; she becomes mad or distracted, somewhat like Ophelia in Hamlet.  However, she survivesShe plays an important role: unlike the main characters, she is not inhibited from frankly expressing sexual desire (see above).  She can be seen as more interesting and believable than the main plot characters, to present-day readers and playgoers.

Here, we have come a long way from the Greek dramas.  The latter have stood the test of time.  It is doubtful whether, on their own terms, they have ever been equalled, since.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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LESS MISERABLE in 2019 (have a go with Victor Hugo)

A visitor to our home last year said to us, in a conversation about literature, that she had no patience with long works (for example, novels) – she appreciated what is short and to the point.  (I paraphrase.)  Do the people of today have the time, or patience, to spend much of their precious leisure time to read long novels?

There are alternatives.  Firstly, there are television and film (movie) adaptations, which aim to convey the essence of the original and which require the actors to convey their feelings and thoughts through body language.  TV adaptations in serial form allow the adaptor wider scope to deal with a long, complicated story.

Secondly, there are audiobook and radio adaptations, in which actors read either the whole of a book or else an abbreviated version (the latter, particularly, in radio).  An example of the latter is the recent BBC Radio 4 series of Émile Zola’s ‘Rougon-Macquart’ cycle, set in the Second Empire of France.  This saves me from reading many or all of the twenty!  (I have read two better known ones – L’Assommoir and Germinal.)

I think that a case can be made that TV adaptations (in particular) of long “classic” novels are a valid re-interpretation of the originals.  (See, for example, the work of Andrew Davies in Britain.)

I admit that those who have read the book are bound to compare and contrast it with the subsequent film or TV series and may consider the book superior.  (I think, though, that the film of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee [1995] is better than the book.)  On the other hand, viewers of a competent adaptation may be inspired to go back and read the original, with profit.

Of course, there is a large industry of films and TV series, written to a screenplay, without reference to a book.  (Some screenplays are worth reading in their own right.)

Arguably, though, certain “classic” works – epics rather than novels – do not lend themselves easily to an adaptation that brings out their qualities, for example, those by Homer, Dante and Cervantes.  This might also be said about Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The key to the concept of adaptations for the screen is the focus on the literary genre of the novel.

What is a novel?  It is a story about a stable group of characters, set in a particular time and place.  The psychology of the characters is realistic – but some allowance may be made for caricature.  The social background, indeed, the nature of the society in which the characters live is delineated realistically – perhaps with explicit or implicit criticism.  The story has dramatic features, and there are twists and turns in the plot or plots.  Often, the thoughts of some of the characters are open to the writer and hence to the reader.

The novel has been a predominant and popular literary genre for the past few hundred years, throughout the world.

Successful novels contain enough drama, dialogue and conflict to lend themselves to screen adaptation.  Those set in the past are often called “costume dramas”.

Given the capacity permitted by the tv format, very long novels can be screened – even those like Tolstoy’s War and Peace (BBC, 2016) and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (BBC, 2019) – both adapted by Andrew Davies.  In my opinion, they measure up very well to the needs of 21st century audiences-cum-potential readers.  I am impressed by the tv Misérables. To me, both the story’s strengths and its weaknesses are revealed.  I feel less obliged than ever to read the book.  I am enjoying watching the tv series, to the extent that it makes me feel “less miserable”!

 

 

 

A Way with Words

A few years ago Jane and I, on holiday in Italy, based in Sirmione on Lake Garda, went on a day trip to Venice.  Among other things, I was keen to visit the Doge’s Palace, both because my parents had talked about it but also because Marcel Proust had written about it.  On the day, however, I found that it was possible only buy a composite ticket for four attractions: the price was high and time was short.  So we never got to see it.

 

Proust knew Venice well and he excels at evoking it.  His appreciation was stimulated by reading (and translating) John Ruskin’s writings on the city.

 

The passage below (in the original French and in English translation) comes from Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu, in particular, Du côté de chez Swann – the chapter, Un amour de Swann.  Here we see Charles Swann (friend of the first person narrator) arrive at a soirée, held by a friend, for the upper classes, in late 19th century Paris.  At this point, he commences his ascent of a magnificent staircase.  In his mind Swann compares it unfavourably with a narrow, smelly one in a poor apartment block, because this is where he sometimes meets his mistress (Odette). He cannot bring Odette to this high class soirée.  He misses her.

 

Proust is famous (or infamous) for his long sentences.  He packs a lot into them.  The parentheses and subordinate clauses adorn and embellish the main line of thought.  Below I have used ellipses to indicate my omissions.  Complete sentences are complex and rich; but the disadvantage is that the reader can easily lose the main thread.

 

The references to art and sculpture here are typical of Proust’s writings (and virtually all the arts receive a mention in the course of À la recherché).

 

Here we go!

 

À quelque pas, un grand gaillard en livrée rêvait, comme ce guerrier purement décoratif qu’on voit dans les tableaux les plus tumultueux de Mantegna, songer, appuyé sur son bouclier, tandis qu’on se précipite et qu’on s’égorge à côté de lui….Et les mèches de ses cheveux roux crespelés par la nature, mais collés par brillantine, étaient traitées comme elles sont dans la sculpture grecque qu’étudiait sans cesse le peintre de Mantoue [Mantegna]….

 

D’autres encore, colossaux aussi, se tenaient sur les degrés d’un escalier monumental que leur presence decorative et leur immobilité marmorénne auraient pu nommer celui du Palais ducal: “l’Escalier des Géants” et dans lequel Swann engagea avec la tristesse de penser qu’Odette ne l’avait jamais gravi.  Ah! avec joie au contraire il eût grimpé les étages noir, malodorants et casse-cou de la petite couturière retiree, dans le “cinquième” de laquelle il aurait été si heureux de payer plus cher q’une avant-scène hebdomadaire à l’Opéra le droit de passer la soirée quand Odette y venait, et même les autres jours, pour pouvoir parler d’elle, vivre avec les gens qu’elle avait l’habitude n’était pas là et qui à cause de cela lui paraissaient recéler, de la vie de sa maîtresse, quelque chose de plus réel, de plus inaccessible et de plus mystérieux.

 

[Du Côté de chez Swann, Paris: folio classique (1987) pp 318f]

 

A few steps away, a sturdy fellow in livery mused motionless, statuesque, useless, like the purely decorative warrior one sees in the most tumultuous paintings by Mantegna, lost in thought, leaning on his shield, while others beside him rush forward and slaughter one another….And the locks of his red hair, crimped by nature but glued by brilliantine, were treated broadly as they are in the Greek sculpture which the painter from Mantua [Mantegna] studied so constantly….

 

Still others, also colossal, stood on the steps of a monumental staircase to which their decorative presence and marmoreal immobility might have induced one to give the same name as the one in the Ducal Palace – ‘Staircase of the Giants’ – and which Swann began to climb with the sad thought that Odette had never ascended it.  Oh, with what joy by contrast would he have gone up the dark, evil-smelling and rickety flights to the little retired dressmaker’s, in whose ‘fifth floor’ he would have been so happy to pay more than the price of a weekly stage-box at the Opéra for the right to spend the evening when Odette came there, and even on the other days, so as to be able to talk about her, live among the people she was in the habit of seeing when he was not there and who because of that seemed to harbour something, of his mistress’s life, that was more real, more inaccessible and more mysterious.

 

[Lydia Davis (tr) (2003), The Way by Swann’s, London: Penguin, pp 326f]

 

Here Ms Davis follows the French very closely; but “auraient pu nommer celui de” (literally, “could have named the one of”) is turned into the longer “might have induced one to give the same name as”.

 

Ms Davis describes the challenges of reading, and of translating, Proust in the introduction to her translation.  She is a firm admirer:

 

The style in which Proust wrote was essentially natural and unaffected, free from preciosity, archaism and self-conscious elegance….Yet at the same time, he used a wealth of metaphorical imagery, layer upon layer of comparisons, and had a tendency to fill a sentence to its utmost capacity…Proust felt that a long sentence contained a whole, complex thought.  [page xxx]

 

The short quotations above give an indication of Proust’s skill with words.  The whole scene at the soirée has a satirical flavour: the idiosyncrasies of the upper classes are exposed.  (But the tone changes when Swann becomes immersed in the music being performed, as it too brings Odette to mind – not very happily.)

 

 

 

 

Quests and questions in medieval epics: Peredur, Perceval, Parzival; Gwalchmai, Gauvain, Gawan

1 Below is a rough-and-ready table, which shows parallels and differences between the Welsh medieval tale, Peredur, the late 11th century epic by Chrétien de Troyes in French, and the German epic by Wolfram von Eschenbach (circa 1200).  Much is left out, eg regarding the respective styles of the writers.  (Fuller summaries can be found elsewhere.)

Peredur Perceval Parzival (with book nos)
The story of P’s father.  1 & 2
P, from mother to court. P, from mother to court. P, from mother to court.  3
P meets tent maiden*. P meets tent maiden. P meets Jeschute.  3
Gwenhwyfar* insulted. Guinièvre insulted. Ginover splashed by kt.
P with uncle 1. P with Gornemant. P with Gurnemanz.  3
P + Condwiramurs.  4
With Uncle 2 Grail Castle Grail Castle  5
Bloody spear and head* King and Grail etc Anfortas and Grail etc  5
P asks no questions. P asks no questions. P asks no questions.  5
Meets foster-sister. Meets cousin. Meets Sigune  5
P in love. P loves Blanchefleur.
P defeats jealous knight. P defeats jealous knight. P defeats Orilus.  5
P  with Witches.
P lost in thought of maiden. P lost in thought about B. P lost in thought of C.  6
Angharad and P.
The Empress* and P.
———— ———— ———–
Ugly maiden reproves P.** Ugly maiden reproves P. Cundrie denounces P.  6
Gwalchmai’s adventure. Gauvain’s adventures. Gawan’s adventures – 7, 8
P with hermit. P with hermit uncle. P with Trevrizent.  9
P kills Witches***.
Gauvain’s adventures. Gawan’s exploits  10-13
Gawan et al wed.  14
P and half-brother.   15
P back with Cond.  15
P poses the Question.  16
Anfortas healed.  16
P > King , Cond > Queen.  16

*symbols of sovereignty?

**Should the challenge be about neglecting his wife, or neglecting revenge, or indeed both?

***Peredur achieves revenge for the harm done to his family.

2 The anonymous Peredur is written in prose and is very short, compared with the others.  Perceval has over 9,000 lines of verse.  Parzival is much longer, with over 24,000 lines.  It can be safely said that Parzival elaborates upon (and completes) Perceval, Wolfram’s only, or chief, source.  It can be proposed that Perceval expands upon Peredur or upon a common source, but that the French version may have influenced the Welsh manuscripts that have come down to us, especially in the latter part (cf the Question Test).

3 Perceval is unfinished.  There are medieval French language continuations, not discussed here.  Peredur displays up to three endings!  In other words, while the story is easy to follow at the outset, it is confused and confusing later on.  The ending given by the destruction of the Witches of Caer Loyw provides a fitting ending, if one assumes that the tale is fundamentally about revenge and the gaining of sovereignty over the tribe or clan.  Reconciliation with the hero’s wife (which one?) would parallel what happens in the similar and contemporary Geraint and Owain (Iarlles y Ffynnon).

4 About half of Perceval is devoted to the adventures of Gauvain.  The proportions are not so tilted in Parzival, but six books are allocated to Gawan, out of the sixteen.

5 Significant wounds in the Parzival story relate to intimate areas.  There is a strong hint that Anfortas has been wounded in the genitals, because of his illicit love affair, outside the Grail Order.  Clinschor the enchanter has been castrated, because of his adultery.  (I was expecting him to appear in person in the story, but he doesn’t.)

6 It is a characteristic of Parzival that all the participants are related – either by blood or (in the course of the narrative) by marriage.  Wolfram marries off all the principal unmarried characters.  (See, for example, Book 14.)  This is not a feature of the other versions.

7 Wolfram is very forgiving of characters that have done wrong.  He has good words to say about Keie, Orilus and Clamidê (oppressor of Condwirmarus).

8 On reading Peredur, one has no sense of an audience – with Perceval and Parzival one does.  Chrétien and Wolfram address their listeners (the latter, frequently), in asides.  Wolfram includes many references to his contemporaries, to places and to current events.

9 At one end of a spectrum, Peredur reflects old Celtic mythology, with its magic and shape-shifters.  At the other end, Wolfram creates his own mythology, loosely based upon the Templars: the Grail Order represents and serves the dual values and principles of Christianity and chivalry.  Clinschor’s powers of enchantment are portrayed in Parzival, but (to my mind) they are not well worked out.  There is no confrontation between Gawan and Clinschor, only the former’s survival of the assaults associated with the perilous bed (Book 11).  (Compare Perceval, lines 7676-7884.)

10 I haven’t mentioned the Grail!  The concept is adumbrated in Perceval and expanded upon, on a grand scale, by Wolfram.  It does not appear in Peredur, as is plainly evident.

11 Parzival can be regarded as a “bildungsroman” – the story of the education and development of the hero to full maturity and his taking on of adult responsibilities.

12 Finally, a personal opinion: I do not think it is fair that any of the main protagonists should be blamed for not asking the great question concerning the Grail (or its Welsh equivalent, the bloody severed head).  The advantage of this (non-)event is that it ensures the continuation of the story and provides the hero with obstacles to overcome and chances to prove himself.

All three versions are a “good read” – in translation.  The original medieval texts require notes and glossaries to be understood.

Principal books consulted

Goetinck, G (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales

Goetinck, G W (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawg, Cardiff: University of Wales

Hatto, A T (1980), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Harmondsworth (Middlesex): Penguin

Hertz, W and Hofstaetter, W (1969), Parzival: eine Auswahl, Stuttgart: Reclam

Jones, G and Jones, T (1949), The Mabinogion, London: Dent (Everyman)

Jones, R M (Bobi) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant: Iarlles y Ffynnon, Peredur, Geraint, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

Mustard, H M and Passage, C E (1961), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, New York NY: Random House (Vintage)

Owen, D D R (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: Dent (Everyman)

Wright, J and Walsh, M O’C (1954), Middle High German Primer, London: Oxford University Press

Racism and sexism in three parallel medieval romances – ‘Peredur’, ‘Perceval’ and ‘Parzival’

Introduction

The Welsh Peredur (written down in the 14th century but of earlier composition), the French Perceval (11th century, by Chrétien de Troyes), and the German Parzival (circa 1200, by Wolfram von Eschenbach) – each can be called a “bildungsroman”, insofar as it traces the education, development and maturing of a young protagonist.

(Peredur starts very well, but the ending as we have it is confused; Perceval is unfinished; Parzival is very sophisticated.)

I wish to discuss two episodes about the hero, before he has gone out into the wider world, from the rural, isolated spot where his widowed mother is keeping him.

The lad and the knights

Early on, then, the young man suddenly comes across a posse of Arthurian knights.  The knights ask the hero for directions, and he asks them about their equipment. So their priorities are different.

(1) In the anonymous Welsh Peredur, when the eponymous hero meets three Arthurian knights, his questions are answered readily:

‘Say, friend,’ said Owein, has thou seen a knight go hereby today or yesterday?’  ‘I know not,’ he replied, ‘what a knight is.’  ‘Such a thing as I am,’ said Owein.  ‘Wert thou to tell me that which I would ask of thee, I in turn would tell thee that which thou dost ask.’  ‘I will, gladly,’ said Owein.’

[Peredur, tr G Jones & T Jones, p 184; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 118f]

(2) In the Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, however, some of the five knights (passing by) treat the hero differently, when he asks questions, and they complain that he is holding them up.  They comment on Perceval unfavourably:

“So help me God,” says their chief, “he’s a real ignoramus….” – “You may be perfectly certain, my lord, that the Welsh are by nature more stupid than grazing beasts; and this is one is just like a beast.”

[Perceval, tr D D R Owen, page 377]

Has the writer picked up discriminatory attitudes from the Norman French who were interacting with the Welsh in Britain at the time?

(3) Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (based here upon Perceval) reproduces this scenario, with variations.  Here, the hero delays four passer-by knights with his questions: three become impatient (while their leader is more sympathetic):

The foremost lost his temper at the sight of the boy in mid-path.  ‘This stupid Waleis [Welshman] is slowing us down.’  (The Waleis, I must tell you, share the same distinction as the Bavarians, but are even denser than Bavarian folk…)

[Parzival, tr A T Hatto, Book 3, p 72]

The lad and the maiden in the tent

The hero’s first encounter with a stranger, on his way to Arthur’s court, happens to be with a lady.  (Note that the hero recalls his mother’s advice and applies it, or misapplies it, here.)  The main thread of the three parallel stories is this: the hero enters a tent (or pavilion) and finds there a beautiful lady; he helps himself to food and drink, takes a ring from her finger, and kisses her.  But the details vary a lot.  I need to quote from the descriptions at some length.

(4) Note that, when Peredur reaches the pavilion, he has not eaten for “two days and two nights”.  I proceed:

The maiden made him welcome and greeted him….’ My mother,’ said Peredur, ‘bade me wherever I saw meat and drink, to take it.’  ‘Go then, chieftain,’ said she, ‘to the table.  And God’s welcome to thee.’ [Peredur takes half, only.] ‘My mother,’ said he, ‘bade me take a fair jewel wherever I might see it.’  ‘Take it then, friend,’ said she.  ‘’Tis not I will begrudge thee.’  Peredur took the ring, and went down on his knee and gave the maiden a kiss [on her hand?], and took his steed and departed thence.

[Peredur, tr Jones & Jones, pp 185f; emphasis added; cf White Book of Rhydderch, pp 120f]

Note how polite both parties are and how generous the lady is.  She is a good hostess and he is a good guest.

Given the mythological and magical elements underlying the story, it is possible that the lady has insight into Peredur’s destiny; and she may indeed be an Otherworld character (and herself an educator).

In her study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends, G Goetinck states:

The meeting of Peredur with the Tent Maiden is one of the first episodes in which the hero is helped and guided by the power of the Otherworld whilst he is being trained.  It is also a version of the meeting between the hero and Sovereignty….

[Goetinck, p 140]

(5) In Perceval, there are no indications of a mythological aspect to the lady, and the situation is quite different:

On the bed [in the tent], all alone, lay a young girl fast asleep….She woke with a start….The girl trembles with fear on account of the youth, who to her seems crazy….”Be on your way, lad!” she says.  “Be off, before my lover sees you.” – “By my head, I’ll kiss you first, whoever it may upset,” says the youth, “because my mother told me to!” – “I’ll certainly never kiss you if I can help it,” says the maiden. “Be off…!

Perceval is much stronger than the lady: he kisses her seven times [presumably on her mouth]; and he pulls her ring (“set with a brilliant emerald”) from her finger, and puts it on his own.  She bursts into tears.  He adds insult to injury:

“Bless you, maiden.  Now I’ll be off well rewarded – and it’s much nicer kissing you than any chambermaid in all my mother’s house, for there’s nothing bitter about your mouth!”

[Perceval, tr Owen, pp 383f]

Perceval takes food and drink, without asking permission, and departs, leaving the young woman still weeping.

Perceval, then, is cruel and unfeeling and not at all chivalric.  He does not treat the young lady as his equal.  He totally misapplies his mother’s advice about how to treat women.  His immaturity does not excuse his behaviour.  He gets off to a bad start in his career as a knight.

Perhaps the status of this lady reflects the low status of women in France, at the time, compared to the rights accorded to them in the Wales of the early Middle Ages (cf the laws attributed to Hywel Dda).  From the remarks made by the lady in Perceval, it is clear that she relies on her male friend to defend her; and for her it is unfortunate that he is temporarily absent.

(6) Parzival is like Perceval, at this point in the story.  (The lady is named Jeschute and she is a duchess.)  The account is long and circumstantial. It reflects badly upon the hero.  I quote a salient passage:

The lady wailed loudly.  He paid no attention to what she said but forced her mouth to his.  Wasting no time, he crushed her breast to his, duchess or no, and also took a ring.  On her shift he saw a brooch and roughly tore it off.  The lady was armed as women are: but to her his strength was an army’s.  Nevertheless there was quite a tussle of it.

[Parzival, tr Hatto, Book 3, p 77]

Conclusion

The fundamental theme of the three romances is the education of the hero concerning love, chivalry and government.  Evidently, Perceval and Parzival have a very long way to go before they can be regarded as educated!  Peredur, however, has already mastered basic courtesy.  The nature of his encounter with the lady is appropriate to the development of the overall story.  Perceval and Parzival’s behaviour, by contrast, is characterised by the use of brute force, so that they come across as villains rather than heroes, at least for the interim.

The Welsh story is shorter and more concise than the continental ones.  On the surface it is unsophisticated, in comparison with its continental analogues.  But it has beauties and subtleties of its of its own; and in some respects it deserves to be seen as more appealing than the other two.

References

Jones, G and Jones, T (translators) (1949), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

Goetinck, G (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Goetinck, G W (editor) (1976), Historia Peredur vab Efrawc, Cardiff: University of Wales

Hatto, A T (1980), Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

Owen, D D R (translator) (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

See also:

Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lion, the Lady and the Lackadaisical Lover

Introduction

I am working my way through the five romances attributed to the French poet, Chrétien de Troyes (late 12th century) – albeit in translation, as medieval French is quite different from the present-day language, and difficult.

Arguably, Chrétien’s Yvain, le chevalier au lion, is his best or one of his best.  It has twists and turns, conflicts that are resolved, psychological interest, ethical dilemmas, and a happy ending.  (Perceval [which I’ll read last] is important, partly because of the first mention, there, of the Grail; but it is unfinished.)

For its part, Wales has inherited its own tale (or romance) – Iarlles y Ffynnon = the Lady (or Countess) of the Fountain. The hero is Owain.  Germany has Iwein, by Hartmann von Aue.  Hartmann’s version of the tale is based on Chrétien’s and (like his) is in verse.

The anonymous Welsh tale is similar to the others as regards the main plot, but it differs in details.

The Fountain of the title may be regarded as symbolising eternity and fertility and (here) sovereignty.  To defend the Fountain against all-comers is to defend the domain of the ruler.

Principals

The male hero – Owain/Ivain/Iwein – marries the noble widow (the Lady of the Fountain, called Laudine by Chrétien), after he has killed her husband in one-to-one combat.  (By marrying her he takes on the responsibility of defending her territory.)  He leaves her, by returning to Arthur’s court and failing to come back to her at the agreed time.  This is a dereliction of duty.

Note the custom that dictates (apparently) that a woman rules the Fountain country, and that she chooses a husband as a helpmate.  Does this reflect a matriarchal tradition?

Apart from Laudine/the Countess herself, there is another important and active lady, namely, Luned/Lunete.  She gives counsel to her mistress, who relies on her, as she is very practical and sensible. It is she who advises the Lady to accept the necessity of having a strong husband and hence to marry the hero, as he has already proved himself in combat.  It is she too that brings the couple together.  (With Chrétien, she is the female messenger who challenges Yvain, at Arthur’s court, over his desertion.)  She is blamed, however, by the Lady’s retinue, when the couple become estranged, and she is threatened with death by them.

Luned/Lunete is vividly portrayed, and she is perhaps the most colourful character in the tale.

The male protagonist has numerous adventures, while he is separated from his wife.  He rescues a lion that is being attacked by a serpent (or dragon), and thereafter is accompanied by him on his adventures, and helped in his fights.  Hence, in the French version, Yvain is known as the ‘knight with the lion’.

What exactly does the lion mean, here?  Lions commonly symbolise authority, strength, confidence and courage.  This lion also represents gratitude, friendship and loyalty.  Perhaps he offers an example to the hero of correct behaviour.

Another colourful character is the forester who directs questing knights to the Fountain of the story.  In The Lady of the Fountain, he is a black (black-haired) giant, with one eye and one foot: he carries an iron club, with which he exercises power over the many animals that graze around him.  He appears to be an Otherworld creature – a sun god, come down from pre-Christian mythology.  (The one eye represents the sun.)  It is possible that he is a storm god too, if he is responsible for the ensuing storm at the Fountain.

The continental versions retain the giant’s function but differ considerably in the nature and scope of their description of this figure, and his mythological aspects are diminished.  This “churl” (“vilain”) is said to be misshapen but also to have “a head larger than that of a pack-horse or any other beast” and “great mossy ears like an elephant’s, heavy eyebrows and a flat face with owl’s eyes and a nose like a cat’s, a mouth split like a wolf’s, [and] the sharp yellow teeth of a wild boar”.   [Yvain, tr Owen, pp 284f]  And Hartmann’s description is similar and includes comparisons with animals.

(In this respect, compare the ugly female messenger who challenges the hero of Peredur, Chrétien’s Perceval and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, respectively.  In Peredur, the maiden is described as misshapen, but there are no references to animals, whereas in the continental analogues there are several comparisons to them, as there are in Yvain.)

Stylistic features

Chrétien includes a subplot: Yvain and his friend Gawain fight on opposite sides as champions for two sisters.  Chrétien says, in a long passage, that the two knights love each other, but when they are fighting on opposite sides, they hate each other.  Love and Hatred become allegorical characters.  The Welsh version has none of this.

There are shared magical elements, notably, a ring that confers invisibility and a panacea-like ointment, and the raising of a mighty storm by the pouring of water on to the slab at the Fountain.

There are polarities and mirror images in the basic story.  The hero is rescued by Luned/Lunete from certain death; and in turn he rescues her from execution, later on.  The Lady’s hatred for the hero, as the killer of her husband, turns to acceptance of him (love for him, in Yvain), then to hatred of him (in Yvain, at least), and finally to reconciliation.

Conclusion

I am inclined to believe that the French version represents an enlargement upon the Welsh, rather than that the Welsh version is a summary of the French.  The Welsh account is concise and always to-the-point.  The French version is much longer and far more elaborate and much more rhetorical than the Welsh.  Chrétien addresses his audience directly, from time to time; he includes long dialogues between characters.

Both versions of the story are attractive and have literary merit.  The simpler, more direct, concentrated Welsh version stands up well, against Chrétien’s, in my view.

Principal sources

Jones, G and Jones, T (translators) (1949), The Mabinogion, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

Wright, J and Walshe, M O’C (1954), Middle High German Primer, 5th edition, Oxford: OUP

Jones, R M (editor) (1960), Y Tair Rhamant, Aberystwyth: Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion

Lagarde, A and Michard, L (1964), Collections Textes et Littérature, I, Moyen Age, Paris: Bardas

Goetinck, G W (1975), Peredur: A Study of Welsh Traditions in the Grail Legends, Cardiff: University of Wales Press

Owen, D D R (translator) (1987), Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, London: J M Dent (Everyman)

 

 

 

 

 

Look to the Lady – a medieval tale

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.

The Welsh:

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.”

[Owen, ibid]

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.

References

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).