Failure and Reality at the Edges of Yvain, or The Knight with the Lion

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Le chevalier Calogrenant verse l’eau sur le perron de la fontaine merveilleuse et déclenche la tempête; il se retourne pour affronter le gardien, Esclados le Roux, sorti précipitamment de son château. 1433. Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The world of Yvain is no fairytale landscape: in it, princes die before the giant can be vanquished, the right hand man of the good king champions the wrong person, magic ointments come only in limited quantities, heroes need two-week recovery periods before battles, young damsels get sick and risk failing in their quests, and, though demons may be beaten, their masters are allowed to remain at large. That Yvain’s is not the world of the likes of Erec and Enide is hinted at from the very beginning of the romance, though Yvain is not aware of it himself. Chrétien does not choose the shame and failure of one of Arthur’s knights to serve as the action’s catalyst arbitrarily; rather it is the first (and one of the greatest) indicators of the type of world in which this story will take place. In the world of “The Knight with the Lion,” realism comes to the fore in ways which we haven’t encountered elsewhere in Chrétien de Troyes—particularly existential realisms, not simply the sort presented by the plight of the weavers at Dire Adventure.

In this tale, failure is not an abstract concept, but a real possibility. Death lurks ever-present at the story’s edges and the hero, though he is a force of nature, is not superhuman (as perhaps one might argue Erec is in the context of his tale and his world). Yvain, though, does not initially recognize that his world is not of a kind with Erec’s and that he himself is not superhuman. Yvain, as he listens to Calogrenant’s tale, never considers the implications of the fact that Calogrenant was beaten by Esclados; he only registers the opportunity for an adventure and a flexing of his chivalric muscles in publicly avenging his cousin’s shame. Indeed, Yvain is initially characterized by an unflagging belief in his own prowess and capabilities—his own inability to fail—which goes hand in hand with his misunderstanding of his world. It is this belief—this lack of self-knowledge—which renders Yvain’s failure to keep his word to Laudine such a shock to him, sending him spiraling into self-hatred and madness. Yet it is this very madness which proves the vehicle for the rehabilitation and correction of Yvain’s relation to his world as it retrains him in his interaction with the people around him and allows him to rebuild his sense of self.

As Yvain rides off under cover of night to seek the mysterious tempest-causing fountain of Calogrenant’s tale, his thoughts are not of noble revenge for his cousin’s shame, but of his own potential to win “either great shame or great honor” (303). At the risk of sounding uncharitable, it appears that Yvain’s talk of avenging his cousin is merely a pretext for seeking out adventure for adventure’s sake. After he first announces his attention to his fellows, he seems to forget that Calogrenant’s satisfaction is his motive, but rather laments simply that he will not be allowed to fight the battle should the whole court arrive at the stone at once (one can hardly help wondering why Yvain does not appeal to Arthur’s sense of noble justice and simply ask for the privilege of avenging his cousin—already, all thoughts excepting those of glory have gone from his head). Even once Yvain has defeated and mortally wounded Esclados, he pursues him all the way back to the castle, partially because he does not see himself as having yet fulfilled his promise to Calogrenant, but largely because “he recalled the insults that Sir Kay had flung his way” and worries that “no one would believe him at all if he did not bring back real proof” (306)—a petty motive hardly befitting one of Arthur’s knights. Yvain, in this exploit, comes dangerously close to the sort of adventure-seeking for its own sake which Chrétien later condemns with the character of the king of the Isle of Maidens, who, “like a true fool” in the words of one of the doomed maidens, “went seeking new ventures” (361) simply for their novelty and without proper noble motive or due consideration for consequence. It is no accident that Yvain himself will later liberate these maidens—victims of adventure for its own sake without consideration of the potential consequences.

It is this question of motive which proves the sharpest distinction between Yvain’s early exploits and those following his episode of madness. As in the case of the marvel of the fountain, Yvain’s only motive (or at least far and away his most important one) in all of his heroic actions preceding his madness is glory, a noble enough endeavor when coupled with something else, though not an ends in itself. Indeed, Yvain only leaves Laudine in order to compete in tournaments—an important aspect of his knightly training, but again, not ends in themselves, particularly considering that in so doing he is neglecting the duty of defending the castle and the fountain. That Yvain forgets his promise in the midst of so much action for its own sake rather than any larger purpose indicates the degree to which he appears to have lost sight of the larger importance of the knight to society, that is, his role as defender of the weak and upholder of justice. It is precisely these two things which are stressed by all of Yvain’s encounters following his madness—encounters which, significantly, he does not seek out, but which either seek him out or he happens upon accidentally. In the latter half of the story, Yvain becomes champion of the weak (ladies, old kings) and disenfranchised, fighting always with reason on his side.

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Yvain trouve Lunete emprisonnée dans une chapelle et part après avoir promis de la délivrer; Yvain se bat contre un géant, tandis qu’un nain frappe les prisonniers. 1433. BnF.

However, it is not simply motive which delineates Yvain’s behavior before and after his madness (though it is perhaps the most apparent indicator), but also his attitude towards these encounters and his world. Part of seeking adventure for its own sake or simply for the glory is, Chrétien emphasizes, a lack of understanding of or care for the potential consequences as well as an overblown sense of one’s own importance. The adventure-for-adventure’s-own-sake-knight’s disregard for consequences is best illustrated in the story of the king of the Isle of Maidens, who neglects his responsibility to his people in behaving as he does, never considering the consequences of his actions. Though Yvain’s faults are not nearly of the same magnitude, his inability to recognize the responsibility he owes Laudine and her people in the face of his preoccupation with adventure, glory, and jousting foreshadows his downfall— the failure which shocks him so drastically.

It is largely the degree to which his failure to keep his word shocks him that indicates Yvain’s capacity for overestimating both himself and the world he inhabits. In the moments of his revelation and Laudine’s maiden’s accusation, Yvain is “stunned and words [fail] him” (330): he cannot fathom what he has done, that he was capable of breaking his word and failing so utterly. The violence which he directs at himself and which drives him to his madness is the direct result of his realization of his own weakness and the gap between his understanding of himself and the world and their actuality: “he hated nothing so much as himself and did not know whom to turn to for comfort now that he was the cause of his own death” (330).

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Lunete ôte du doigt d’Yvain la bague offerte par Laudine en gage d’amour, le roi Arthur assis à ses côtés; Yvain déchire ses vêtements et s’enfuit nu dans la forêt où il chasse le cerf. 1433. BnF.

That Yvaine figures his descent into madness as a “death” not only serves to underline the degree of his self-hatred, but to prefigure the way in which his madness will mark the death of his initial worldview and the birth of his second, and far more successful, one. Yvain’s madness is not static, but traces a trajectory from complete irrationality to the building up of his reason once more, the rebuilding of his relation to the world and to the people around him. As his madness begins, Yvain has only his five senses, symbolized by the five arrows he steals from the youth. He hunts animals and eats their raw flesh, no better than an animal himself, and even as he does so, “he did not remember anything he [has] done” (330)—he lives entirely in the moment, his past cut away, his mind robbed of all but the present and the capacity of his limbs. This, though, is only his state for ten of the forty or so lines (in our rendering) of his mad episode, for he soon encounters a hermit and is no longer solitary in his madness. Chrétien devotes the rest of the description of Yvain’s period of madness not to his psychological state (or lack thereof), but to his relation with the hermit and its progression from fearful charity to mutual exchange.

The elements of this progression are rendered in strikingly realistic detail, emphasizing the materiality of their situation: the poor quality of the mouldy, dry, sour bread kneaded with straw, the price of the poor flour that had gone into its making (not twenty shillings), the efforts of the old man to procure better flour. Where before all we knew was that Yvain hunted “wild animals” (330), Chrétien now specifies “stags and does” (331), bringing Yvain one step closer to his return to sanity and humanity in his choice of meat. It becomes clear, too, that Yvain has advanced beyond the initial stages of his madness, for even if he does not remember his past yet, his sense of time at least is being restored by his relation to the hermit and the sense of responsibility he takes on in deciding to hunt for him. Chrétien emphasizes Yvain’s reliability even in his madness for “not a day passed […] that he didn’t bring to the hermit’s door some wild game” (331)—a feat which would be impossible without an awareness of time and the beginnings of memory. This voluntary shouldering of undue responsibility while deprived of his memories and the majority of his reason is crucial on his journey away from his initial worldview which was so marked by his inability to recognize and accept the responsibilities he ought.

Thus that the hermit and Yvain’s relation, though it begins without the help of reason, driven only by Yvain’s basic hunger for bread and kindness of any kind, becomes a reasoned and mutually beneficial exchange by the power of the old man’s initial gesture of grace serves as a lesson in miniature—both to Yvain’s subconscious and the reader/listener—about the importance of generosity. The hermit does not ask Yvain to begin hunting for him (indeed, he prays that he will not return), but Yvain, even in his madness, does so, realizing that he cannot expect the old man’s grace to continue unthanked. In his turn, the hermit takes it upon himself (unasked) to skin Yvain’s kills and procure better flour for better bread. Thus, Yvain and the hermit reach an unverbalized agreement based in mutual charity and practicality which begins to restore Yvain to himself, allowing him to express his native capacity for charity and rationality, even without the help of his memories and reason. Yvain’s madness, even before it is magically cured, is in the process of curing itself as he rebuilds himself through connection with the world around him: both human connection and material connection, through his burgeoning awareness of the materiality and quality of the world he inhabits. In this initially tentative, but eventually strong relation formed between these two would-be world-renouncers, Chrétien presents a microcosmic version of the arc which will characterize Yvain’s redemption in the tale’s second act, during which he will steadily rebuild and refigure his relation to the world and those around him.

Ironically, then, it is only through the process of profound self-alienation in madness that Yvain can know himself and build the base which allows him to achieve his redemption. In order to learn the limits of his own capacity and those of the world around him, as well as the importance of accepting responsibility and acting based on reason and charity, Yvain must first fail so utterly that he loses entirely his sense of self. In “dying” into his madness, Yvain loses not himself, but his sense of who he is—the very thing which led to his destruction for he did not properly understand himself, nor his limits, nor the limitations of the world he inhabited. While he is mad and without sense of self, his true self, his character, is allowed to come to the fore and  construct a new basis of self-knowledge for him to take back into sanity—a basis of innate pragmatic reason and charity—without the interference of his overblown sense of self and misunderstanding of his limits. Self-knowledge—particularly of one’s limitations—is paramount, for a knight and for anyone who would be at home in the world they inhabit.

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