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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

The opinion entertained of Chrestien


musical accompaniment of them.

It delights in nothing so much as in stripping one part of the shore of its belongings, and hurrying them off to heap upon another part. Chrestien de Troyes is one of the lucky personages who have benefited, not least and most recently, by this fancy. It is true that the actual works attributed to him have remained the same--his part of the shore has not been actually extended like part of that of the Humber. But it has had new riches, honours, and decorations heaped upon it till it has become, in the actual Spenserian language of another but somewhat similar passage (111. iv. 20), a "rich strond" indeed. Until a comparatively recent period, the opinion entertained of Chrestien, by most if not all competent students of him, was pretty uniform, and, though quite favourable, not extraordinarily high. He was recognised as a past-master of the verse _roman d'aventures_ in octosyllabic couplet, who probably took his heterogeneous materials wherever he found them; "did not invent much" (as Thackeray says of Smollett), but treated whatever he did treat in a singularly light and pleasant manner, not indeed free from the somewhat undistinguished fluency to which this "light and lewed" couplet, as Chaucer calls it, is liable, and showing no strong grasp either of character or of plot, but on the whole a very agreeable writer, and a quite capital example of the better class of _trouvere_, far above the _improvisatore_ on the one hand and the dull compiler on the other; but below, if not
quite so far below, the definitely poetic poet.

To an opinion something like this the present writer, who formed it long ago, not at second hand but from independent study of originals, and who has kept up and extended his acquaintance with Chrestien, still adheres.

Of late, however, as above suggested, "Chrestiens" have gone up in the market to a surprising extent. Some twenty years ago the late M. Gaston Paris[21] announced and, with all his distinguished ability and his great knowledge elaborately supported, his conclusions, that the great French prose Arthurian romances (which had hitherto been considered by the best authorities, including his own no less admirable father, M. Paulin Paris, slightly anterior to the poet of Troyes, and in all probability the source of part at least of his work) were posterior and probably derivative. Now this, of itself, would of course to some extent put up Chrestien's value. But it, and the necessary corollaries from it, as originality and so forth, by no means exhaust the additional honours and achievements which have been heaped upon Chrestien by M. Paris and by others who have followed, more or less accepted, and in some cases bettered his ascriptions. In the first and principal place, there has been a tendency, almost general, to dethrone Walter Map from his old position as the real begetter of the completed Arthurian romance, and to substitute the Troyan. Then, partly in support, but also to some extent, I think, independently of this immense ennoblement, discoveries have been made of gifts and graces in Chrestien himself, which had entirely escaped the eyes of so excellent a critic, so erudite a scholar, and so passionate a lover of Old French literature as the elder M. Paris, and which continue to be invisible to the far inferior gifts and knowledge, but if I may dare to say so, the equal good will and the not inconsiderable critical experience, of the present historian.

Now with large parts of this matter we have, fortunately enough, nothing to do, and the actual authorship of the great Arthurian conception, namely, the interweaving of the Graal story on the one hand and the loves of Lancelot and Guinevere on the other, with the Geoffrey of Monmouth matter, concerns us hardly at all. But some have gone even further than has been yet hinted in the exaltation of Chrestien. They have discovered in him--"him-by-himself-him"--as the author of his actual extant works and not as putative author of the real Arthuriad, not merely a pattern example of the court _trouvere_--as much as this, or nearly as much, has been admitted here--but almost the inventor of romance and even of something very like novel, a kind of mediaeval Scott-Bulwer-Meredith, equally great at adventure, fashion, and character-analysis; subject only, and that not much, to the limitations of the time. In fact, if I do not do some of these panegyrists injustice, we ought to have a fancy bust of Chrestien, with the titles of his works gracefully inscribed on the pedestal, as a frontispiece to this book, if not even a full-length statue, robed like a small St. Ursula, and like her in Memling's presentation at Bruges, sheltering in its ample folds the child-like figures of future French novelists and romancers, from the author of _Aucassin et Nicolette_ to M. Anatole France.


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