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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

The Breton knight Eliduc is passionately loved by Guilliadon


Under

the general title of the _Epopee courtoise_--the Epopee of Courtesy--may be grouped those romances which are either works of pure imagination or of uncertain origin, or which lead us back to Byzantine or to Celtic sources. They include some of the most beautiful and original poems of the Middle Ages. Appearing first about the opening of the twelfth century, later in date than the early _chansons de geste_, and contemporary with the courtly lyric poetry of love, they exhibit the chivalric spirit in a refined and graceful aspect; their marvels are not gross wonders, but often surprises of beauty; they are bright in colour, and varied in the play of life; the passions which they interpret, and especially the passion of love, are felt with an exquisite delicacy and a knowledge of the workings of the heart. They move lightly in their rhymed or assonanced verse; even when they passed into the form of prose they retained something of their charm. Breton harpers wandering through France and England made Celtic themes known through their _lais_; the fame of King Arthur was spread abroad by these singers and by the _History_ of Geoffrey of Monmouth. French poets welcomed the new matter of romance, infused into it their own chivalric spirit, made it a receptacle for their ideals of gallantry, courtesy, honour, grace, and added their own beautiful inventions. With the story of King Arthur was connected that of the sacred vessel--the graal--in which Joseph of Arimathea at the cross had received
the Saviour's blood. And thus the rude Breton _lais_ were elevated not only to a chivalric but to a religious purpose.

The romances of Tristan may certainly be named as of Celtic origin. About 1150 an Anglo-Norman poet, BEROUL, brought together the scattered narrative of his adventures in a romance, of which a large fragment remains. The secret loves of Tristan and Iseut, their woodland wanderings, their dangers and escapes, are related with fine imaginative sympathy; but in this version of the tale the fatal love-philtre operates only for a period of three years; Iseut, with Tristan's consent, returns to her husband, King Marc; and then a second passion is born in their hearts, a passion which is the offspring not of magic but of natural attraction, and at a critical moment of peril the fragment closes. About twenty years later (1170) the tale was again sung by an Anglo-Norman named THOMAS. Here--again in a fragment--we read of Tristan's marriage, a marriage only in name, to the white-handed Iseut of Brittany, his fidelity of heart to his one first love, his mortal wound and deep desire to see the Queen of Cornwall, the device of the white or black sails to announce the result of his entreaty that she should come, his deception, and the death of his true love upon her lover's corpse. Early in the thirteenth century was composed a long prose romance, often rehandled and expanded, upon the same subject, in which Iseut and Tristan meet at the last moment and die in a close embrace.

_Le Chevrefeuille_ (The Honeysuckle), one of several _lais_ by a twelfth-century poetess, MARIE, living in England, but a native of France, tells gracefully of an assignation of Tristan and Iseut, their meeting in the forest, and their sorrowful farewell. Marie de France wrote with an exquisite sense of the generosities and delicacy of the heart, and with a skill in narrative construction which was rare among the poets of her time. In _Les Deux Amants_, the manly pride of passion, which in a trial of strength declines the adventitious aid of a reviving potion, is rewarded by the union in death of the lover and his beloved. In _Yonec_ and in _Lanval_ tales of love and chivalry are made beautiful by lore of fairyland, in which the element of wonder is subdued to beauty. But the most admirable poem by Marie de France is unquestionably her _Eliduc_. The Breton knight Eliduc is passionately loved by Guilliadon, the only daughter of the old King of Exeter, on whose behalf he had waged battle. Her tokens of affection, girdle and ring, are received by Eliduc in silence; for, though her passion is returned, he has left in Brittany, unknown to Guilliadon, a faithful wife. Very beautiful is the self-transcending love of the wife, who restores her rival from seeming death, and herself retires into a convent. The lovers are wedded, and live in charity to the poor, but with a trouble at the heart for the wrong that they have done. In the end they part; Eliduc embraces the religious life, and the two loving women are united as sisters in the same abbey.


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