Chrétien de Troyes

         Chrétien de Troyes is considered the greatest French poet and storyteller of the 12th century, who worked roughly from circa AD 1160 to 1185 . He is remembered for the poems Erec, Cliges, Le Chevalier de la Charette (Lancelot), Le Chevalier au Lion (Yvain) and Le Conte du Graal (Perceval).  His works are often adaptations or combinations of earlier sources, and are set at the court of King Arthur.  Although a skillful adapter, he was also an expert on courtly love, and an innovator because he coined the word graal (grail) and wrote the first quest for the grail.

            An example (Encyclopædia Britannica Online) of what's typically said about him: :

                Chrétien de Troyes (flourished 1165–80)

"French poet who is known as the author of five Arthurian romances: Erec, Cligès; Lancelot, ou Le Chevalier à la charrette; Yvain, ou Le Chevalier au lion; and Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal. The non-Arthurian tale Guillaume d'Angleterre, based on the legend of St. Eustace, may also have been written by Chrétien.

Little is known of Chrétien's life. He apparently frequented the court of Marie, comtesse de Champagne, and he may have visited England. His tales, written in the vernacular, followed the appearance in France of Wace's Roman de Brut (1155), a translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae, which introduced Britain and the Arthurian legend to continental Europe. Chrétien's romances were imitated almost immediately by other French poets and were translated and adapted frequently during the next few centuries as the romance continued to develop as a narrative form. Erec, for example, supplied some of the material for the 14th-century poem Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight.

Chrétien's romances combine separate adventures into a well-knit story. Erec is the tale of the submissive wife who proves her love for her husband by disobeying his commands; Cligès, that of the victim of a marriage made under constraint who feigns death and wakens to a new and happy life with her lover; Lancelot, an exaggerated but perhaps parodic treatment of the lover who is servile to the god of love and to his imperious mistress Guinevere, wife of his overlord Arthur; Yvain, a brilliant extravaganza, combining the theme of a widow's too hasty marriage to her husband's slayer with that of the new husband's fall from grace and final restoration to favor. Perceval, which Chrétien left unfinished, unites the religious theme of the Holy Grail with fantastic adventure.

Chrétien was the initiator of the sophisticated courtly romance. Deeply versed in contemporary rhetoric, he treated love casuistically and in a humorously detached fashion, bringing folklore themes and love situations together in an Arthurian world of adventure. Interest in his works, at first concentrated on their folklore sources, was diverted during the 20th century to their structure and narrative technique."

        If we begin our quest from the beginning, as promised, and with a totally open mind, we need to question even the most established "facts". So little is known about this celebrated poet that we must even question his name, because its symbolism has some relevance. 1. Did he chose a nom de plume to allude to the Christian Trinity? A clever idea if he was Jewish, as some scholars suggested in recent years. 2. Did he name himself after the lost city of Troy, fully aware of the ambiguities? We'll show below that he used ambiguities to challenge his audience. 3. But we can't dismiss entirely that he really was Chrétien from Troyes, a town near Paris at the river Seine. 

           Everything we know about Chrétien is taken from a few comments in his poems. And unfortunately, no original text of his final work, "Perceval" or "Conte du Graal", has survived. All manuscripts are copies, fragments, and copies from copies with scribal errors, textual inconsistencies, and variations due to regional dialects. Hence, we hardly know eight centuries later, which of the surviving manuscripts is closest to the original version.

            Nevertheless, some eminent scholars had the courage to set one hypothesis upon another until some sort of consensus could be reached:  Because several of his earlier poems were dedicated to Marie de Champagne, they concluded that Chrétien was attached to her court.  And because the poet appears to have died in the middle of his last work, his extreme praise of Philip of Alsace in the foreword is taken as evidence that he left Champagne and died at Philip's court in Flanders. . 

            One of these experts, Konrad Sandkühler , brought up some good arguments against this conclusion, but gave in to the academic "traditions" by refraining from exposing his peers as fools. But those of us who do not inhabit "ivory towers" can deal with these issues more freely.  It's kind of fun to see how these scholars had to build one hypothesis upon another, and how easily we can make this house of cards fall apart by pulling some of the lower cards!

            Most scholars fail to consider sufficiently that Marie was the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and represented the enlightened and cultured South of France. Philip, on the other hand, came from the somber, orthodox, and intolerant North, where heretics were being severely persecuted. It is also well established that Philip proposed marriage to Marie during several visits to Champagne, and that his pressing courtship was refused each time (Sandkühler, Frappier, et al). This could be seen as the first contradiction of the scholarly consensus: It is difficult to accept that Marie sacrificed the most famous poet of France to get rid of an unwanted suitor, quasi as consolation price, or that the poet left on his own free will for the inhospitable north to live out his golden years. 

            There is a third alternative, which would be even more tragic: Count Philip had him killed. This suggestion may seem a bit risqué and is something you'll have to decide for yourself at the end of your gatekeeper's challenges. The poem ends very abruptly, during preparations for a battle, and before Perceval can return to correct his failure at the grail castle. The work was continued by several colleagues, including Gerbert, who mentions his sudden death. The continuations triple the size of the work and are often strikingly inconsistent with the original concept. We would have never known what the French master had in mind, had not Wolfram's brilliant "second opinion" survived the times. Not only does he capture the intentions of Chrétien and brings the adventure to its rightful end, but he raises the grail mystery to even higher levels with his additions and expansions. And even more important: His version survived in the original form. But the greatest break-through that we owe Wolfram is that Chrétien, who is celebrated for his fictitious romances about courtly love, was the first poet to write a roman a cléf or Schlüsselroman.

            For the purpose of our interactive search, we need to ask why the scholarly consensus has never solved any of the riddles?  Why would the poet betray his elegant style and so grossly overdo the praise of count Philip? Why was the count's book never found, which Chrétien identifies clearly as his source? Why would he attribute a famous quote from St. John wrongly to St. Paul, and even insist he had read it there himself? And why would he describe the grail as a golden platter and not as a vessel from the Last Supper ? It is a historical fact that Philip's father was given a cup from the Holy Land, which was celebrated as the original and displayed at Bruegge. A great insult, unless the count agreed that the grail could be reduced to a platter. Obviously, too many questions remain unsolved and we can only conclude that no one seems to grasp what the poet was talking about. 

            However, if we take a new approach and give Chrétien the credit he deserves, that he was a brilliant master and a sophisticated word-smith, the meaning of his entire prologue reverses and everything orthodox becomes heretic. Our new understanding of his dualism will make our eminent scholars look like fools, because all open questions answer themselves. We'll even find Philip's long-lost book, and the hidden sens and matière of the poem that eluded Frappier. Through two simple, overlooked word plays, we may even crack Chrétien's code to identify the grail region with the historical models of the main characters in the "Perceval", including King Arthur. You might want to start with the leading experts of the past hundred years, which are Wendelin Foerster (1844-1915), Alfons Hilka (1877-1939), William A. Nitze (1876-1957), Jean Frappier (1900-1974), and William Roach (1907-1993).

            Our search for the solution is both, extremely difficult and very simple. It is difficult, especially for scholars, to pretend that we are as ignorant and stupid as young Perceval,  and very simple, because Graal is the key.  If we honestly forget everything we know, we can only look at what's there: We are forced to ask why Chrétien would tease us with an etymological word play? Was he merely juggling with empty words, or did he have a purpose?

            Consequently, we'll try to follow the Graal to the source of the mystery. En route, we might discover that the works of Wolfram and Robert remain consistent and complementary to Chrétien in every aspect, including his esoteric concept of the grail.  The shocking results will raise more questions than can be answered! That Wolfram, for example, who understood Chrétien's better than anyone, even used etymology to conceal his own identity. Heavy stuff! Therefore, please sharpen your wits and get ready to attack the first riddle!

           

            Note: Check riddles, if you haven't done so yet!

 

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