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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

The Chevalier de la Charrette


Wace,

in his romance of the _Brut_ (1155), which renders into verse the _Historia_ of Geoffrey of Monmouth, makes the earliest mention of the Round Table. Whether the Arthurian legends be of Celtic or of French origin--and the former seems probable--the French romances of King Arthur owe but the crude material to Celtic sources; they may be said to begin with CHRETIEN DE TROYES, whose lost poem on Tristan was composed about 1160. Between that date and 1175 he wrote his _Erec et Enide_ (a tale known to us through Tennyson's idyll of Geraint and Enid, derived from the Welsh _Mabinogion_), _Cliges_, _Le Chevalier de la Charrette_, _Le Chevalier au Lion_, and _Perceval_. In _Cliges_ the maidenhood of his beloved Fenice, wedded in form to the Emperor of Constantinople, is guarded by a magic potion; like Romeo's Juliet, she sleeps in apparent death, but, happier than Juliet, she recovers from her trance to fly with her lover to the court of Arthur. The _Chevalier de la Charrette_, at first unknown by name, is discovered to be Lancelot, who, losing his horse, has condescended, in order that he may obtain sight of Queen Guenievre, and in passionate disregard of the conventions of knighthood, to seat himself in a cart which a dwarf is leading. After gallant adventures on the Queen's behalf, her indignant resentment of his unknightly conduct, estrangement, and rumours of death, he is at length restored to her favour.[6] While _Perceval_ was still unfinished, Chretien de Troyes died. It was continued
by other poets, and through this romance the quest of the holy graal became a portion of the Arthurian cycle. A _Perceval_ by ROBERT DE BORON, who wrote in the early part of the thirteenth century, has been lost; but a prose redaction of the romance exists, which closes with the death of King Arthur. The great _Lancelot_ in prose--a vast compilation--(about 1220) reduces the various adventures of its hero and of other knights of the King to their definitive form; and here the achievement of the graal is assigned, not to Perceval, but to the saintly knight Sir Galaad; Arthur is slain in combat with the revolter Mordret; and Lancelot and the Queen enter into the life of religion. Passion and piety are alike celebrated; the rude Celtic legends have been sanctified. The earlier history of the sacred vase was traced by Robert de Boron in his _Joseph d'Arimathie_ (or the _Saint-Graal_), soon to be rehandled and developed in prose; and he it was who, in his _Merlin_--also presently converted into prose--on suggestions derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth, brought the great enchanter into Arthurian romance. By the middle of the thirteenth century the cycle had received its full development. Towards the middle of the fourteenth century, in _Perceforest_, an attempt was made to connect the legend of Alexander the Great with that of King Arthur.

[Footnote 6: Chretien de Troyes is the first poet to tell of the love of Lancelot for the Queen.]

Beside the so-called Breton romances, the _Epopee courtoise_ may be taken to include many poems of Greek, of Byzantine, or of uncertain origin, such as the _Roman de la Violette_, the tale of a wronged wife, having much in common with that novel of Boccaccio with which Shakespeare's _Cymbeline_ is connected, the _Floire et Blanchefleur_; the _Partenopeus de Blois_, a kind of "Cupid and Psyche" story, with the parts of the lovers transposed, and others. In the early years of the thirteenth century the prose romance rivalled in popularity the romance in verse. The exquisite _chante-fable_ of _Aucassin et Nicolette_, of the twelfth century, is partly in prose, partly in assonanced _laisses_ of seven-syllable verse. It is a story of the victory of love: the heir of Count Garin of Beaucaire is enamoured of a beautiful maiden of unknown birth, purchased from the Saracens, who proves to be daughter of the King of Carthage, and in the end the lovers are united. In one remarkable passage unusual sympathy is shown with the hard lot of the peasant, whose trials and sufferings are contrasted with the lighter troubles of the aristocratic class.


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