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.
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.)
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.
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.
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)