There must be a conspiracy against chivalric literature; otherwise, such excellent stories would be read more often. In particular, the general public holds the belief that these stories offer unrealistic portrayals of human nature and the same scenarios over and over again. (Perhaps that derives from people reading Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur all the way through.) Yes, knights are a brave lot and hungry for honor, but knights do not have to be brave and hungry for glory in the same manner. Yvain: The Knight of the Lion by Chrétien de Troyes shows how chivalric stories are not the uninventive tall tales people believe them to be.
Chrétien de Troyes has a deft touch when it comes to characterization. Our hero Sir Yvain is not only brave and chivalrous, but negligent, imprudent, and whimsical. One cannot help but be struck by the ludicrousness of Sir Yvain falling in love with the widow of the knight he slays in single combat. As she mourns at her husband’s grave, Yvain lies hidden and admires her beauty even as he laments the grief he produced in her. But, she cannot have felt for her husband that much: in less than a week, her confidante, Lunette, convinces the lady to marry Yvain, who acknowledges himself as her husband’s slayer, within a week! After the arrival of King Arthur’s court, Sir Gawain convinces Sir Yvain to neglect his lands and marriage for more than the year which his wife permitted him to be away. This leads to the couple’s estrangement, and Yvain going mad. The rest of the tale tells us of Sir Yvain’s adventures and attempts to win back the love of his wife.
That gives one an idea of how fallible the characters in this book are. Chrétien de Troyes may have the ideal of the perfect knight in his mind, but real knights are not so perfect. The foul mouthed Sir Kay also helps add much color to this story of knightly combats and monster slaying. Sir Yvain earns the nickname Knight of the Lion when he rescues a lion from a giant serpent. Thus begins a great partnership, as the lion is more than willing to even the odds for Yvain. Some of the lines and the robust, Catholic zeitgeist of the times make this book a unique experience as well. And so, I should highly recommend this work especially to people who have not yet explored medieval romances.