Erec and Enide

Erec and Enide
   by Chrétien de Troyes
(ca. 1170)
   The first of five extant Arthurian ROMANCE poems by the French poet CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES, Erec and Enide is a sophisticated poetic narrative thought to be one of the earliest romances of Arthur in the courtly French tradition. (CULHWCH AND OLWEN, a Welsh Arthurian prose tale, is dated almost a century earlier but has little in common with the courtly French productions that influenced English and continental writers). The French poem is filled with elaborate and detailed descriptions of clothing, castles, characters, and jousts, with characters, in particular, described in superlatives (the noblest knight, the loveliest of ladies), as Chrétien writes for his aristocratic audience in a style we now associate with courtly romance. As in most Arthurian romances, the central character is not King ARTHUR, but a knight of the Arthurian court, yet in this case, the Arthurian knight unusually shares center stage with his wife. Indeed, Erec and Enide, like Chrétien’s other poetic romances, does far more than entertain the aristocracy and it is in the pairing of Erec and Enide that the poet, in keeping with the rhetorical injunction to entertain and to teach, provides a lesson in moderation and balance between individual and social responsibilities.
   The poem opens with Chrétien’s distinctive authorial address to his audience and the invocation of his own name as storyteller of this tale that “poets usually ruin.” Chrétien commonly begins his romances with an interjection of some sort in which his name and the story’s origins are announced, gestures that were fairly uncommon for a 12th-century poet. Having established his narrative claim, the poet launches into his tale with the now traditional romance setting of the Arthurian court. Erec is a knight of the Round Table and, as befits an Arthurian knight, excels at knightly jousts and games. However, once he is married to Enide, a lovely young woman he meets on a quest early in the romance, Erec leaves off knightly feats of arms and is content to spend his hours and days only with Enide. There is much grumbling among his fellow knights about Erec’s new lack of interest in knightly affairs, and it is Enide who tells him that the court thinks it is shameful that he has lost all interest in fighting and chivalry. The opinion of the court, which shapes the way one is perceived, is central to this and other courtly romances, and Enide pays dearly for being the bearer of bad tidings as Erec orders her to precede him as he sets out on horseback for adventures unknown. Erec prohibits Enide from speaking a word during their travels, but time and again when they are faced with some danger from a recreant knight or thieves or some other foe, Enide (who seems to see the dangers before Erec) disobeys Erec’s command and warns him of their danger. With each act of disobedience, Erec becomes increasingly enraged with Enide, even as he successfully deals with the dangers.
   In the course of their shared adventures, Erec is clearly testing Enide, but even as he repeatedly proves himself as a knight, his motivation for testing his wife is never expressed. The poet tells us what Enide is thinking throughout, often in highly rhetorical detail, but Erec remains a mystery and the poet’s handling of his characters invites the audience to supply their own interpretation of Erec’s actions. The lovers are finally reconciled when Erec almost dies, and we are assured that both have been tested and proved their love. In a manner of speaking, Enide’s disobedience proves her love, just as Erec’s testing his knightly prowess in a way that interferes with his marital obligations proves his love. In the final scenes, Erec and Enide are enthroned on identical thrones and crowned with identical crowns: Neither is higher nor more elaborately jeweled than the other. Having undergone shared adventures and having learned to balance marital with martial demands and personal desires with social responsibilities, the couple is now prepared to rule as king and queen.
   Even though Erec’s precise motivation for the testing of his wife is never quite clear, the outcome is more than clear. The romance represents immoderate behavior as a negative value, which threatens the social order even as it destroys personal relations. Both Erec and Enide need to find the balance between their public and their private responsibilities, and once they have they can participate as equals both in the bedroom and in the court. Chrétien recounts with great imaginative power concerns that were both literary and real in the 12th century. Romance, as a genre, focuses on the individual in conflict with his or her social and cultural environment; romance, as a mirror for reallife conflicts between personal and public duties, focuses on the resolutions available, as improbable as they may appear. In Erec and Enide we witness the conflict, the testing, and the resolution, in a poem that serves as a finely crafted, if fantastical, mirror for princes.
   Bibliography
   ■ Chrétien de Troyes. Erec and Enide. Translated by Burton Raffel. Afterword by Joseph J. Duggan. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.
   ■ Burgess, Glyn. Chrétien de Troyes, Erec and Enide. Critical Guides to French Texts 32. London: Grant and Cutler, 1984.
   ■ Kelly, Douglas. The Art of Medieval French Romance. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
   ■ Maddox, Donald. The Arthurian Romances of Chrétien de Troyes: Once and Future Fictions. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 12. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
   Elisa Narin van Court

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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