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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Of the abduction of Guinevere by Meleagraunce


some fifty years of more or less critical reading of novels of all ages and more than one or two languages, combined with nearly forty years reading of Chrestien himself and a passion for Old French, leave the present writer quite unable to rise to this beatific vision. But let us, before saying any more what Chrestien could or could not do, see, in the usual cold-blooded way, what he _did_.

[Sidenote: His unquestioned work.]

The works attributed to this very differently, though never unfavourably, estimated tale-teller--at least those which concern us--are _Percevale le Gallois_, _Le Chevalier a[22] la Charette_, _Le Chevalier au Lyon_, _Erec et Enide_, _Cliges_, and a much shorter _Guillaume d'Angleterre_. This last has nothing to do with the Conqueror (though the title has naturally deceived some), and is a semi-mystical romance of the group derived from the above-mentioned legend of St. Eustace, and represented in English by the beautiful story of _Sir Isumbras_. It is very doubtfully Chrestien's, and in any case very unlike his other work; but those who think him the Arthurian magician might make something of it, as being nearer the tone of the older Graal stories than the rest of his compositions, even _Percevale_ itself. Of these, all, except the _Charette_, deal with what may be called outliers of the Arthurian story. _Percevale_ is the longest, but its immense length required, by common confession,

several continuators;[23] the others have a rather uniform allowance of some six or seven thousand lines. _Cliges_ is one of the most "outside" of all, for the hero, though knighted by Arthur, is the disinherited heir of Constantinople, and the story is that of the recovery of his kingdom. _Erec_, as the second part of the title will truly suggest, though the first may disguise it, gives us the story of the first of Tennyson's original _Idylls_. The _Chevalier au Lyon_ is a delightful romance of the Gawain group, better represented by its English adaptation, _Ywain_, than any other French example. _Percevale_ and the _Charette_ touch closest on the central Arthurian story, and the latter has been the chief battlefield as to Chrestien's connection therewith, some even begging the question to the extent of adopting for it the title _Lancelot_.

[Sidenote: Comparison of the _Chevalier a la Charette_ and the prose _Lancelot_.]

The subject is the episode, well known to English readers from Malory, of the abduction of Guinevere by Meleagraunce, the son of King Bagdemagus; of the inability of all knights but Lancelot (who has been absent from Court in one of the lovers' quarrels) to rescue her; and of his undertaking the task, though hampered in various ways, one of the earliest of which compelled him to ride in a cart--a thing regarded, by one of the odd[24] conventions of chivalry, as disgraceful to a knight. Meleagraunce, though no coward, is treacherous and "felon," and all sorts of mishaps befall Lancelot before he is able for the second time to conquer his antagonist, and finally to take his over and over again forfeited life. But long before this he has arrived at the castle where Guinevere is imprisoned; and has been enabled to arrange a meeting with her at night, which is accomplished by wrenching out the bars of her window. The ill chances and _quiproquos_ which result from his having cut his hands in the proceeding (though the actual visit is not discovered), and the arts by which Meleagraunce ensnares the destined avenger for a time, lengthen out the story till, by the final contest, Meleagraunce goes to his own place and the Queen is restored to hers.

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