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. Read More