Thoughts: Yvain, le chevalier au lion, by Chrétien de Troyes, translated by Claude-Alan Chevallier

Well, with a name like that how can you not go on to translate arthuriana from Old French into New French? Shame about every search engine’s autocorrect though, which insists that you must be mistaken and looking for a chevalier, rather than poor Chevallier’s translation.

I always find it hard to really opine about books like this, because they’re so much written about and studied by people much cleverer than me. Luckily, Chevallier’s edition (and it is quite an old edition, found in one of those rambling secondhand bookshops you dream about) did a lot of the academic legwork for me. It’s clearly intended to get young people into the classics – there are comparisons to comic books, as in, these stories were the comic books of their day, and descriptions of the magic rings and vicious battles and whatnot which are very earnest and endearing.

He goes into the usual stuff – deeper into the backstory of what we know of the story of Yvain, the different versions and spin-offs, and how they’re different, the context of oral storytelling, how this manuscript is only a snapshot of a living document that would be being constantly tweaked and changed in response to the reactions of the audience. Chevallier also, however, gives a pretty superb run-down of the specific political situation at the time Yvain was being told, and the cheeky subversive messages Chrétien de Troyes was slipping into it. I really appreciated Chevallier’s essays, which is not something I think I’ve ever really thought about footnotes/forewords/etc. So take that as you will.

As for the story of Yvain itself, it was good! I’ve encountered Chrétien de Troyes before, my old nemesis, in a medieval French literature module at uni, reading Cligès, and we did not get along, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but honestly, he redeemed himself here. Yvain is held to be his greatest work, and I’m happy to concede it. The plot is surprisingly tight for a medieval epic, which often feel like random quests tacked onto each other, and all ties up at the end. The characters are all great (Yvain should definitely have got with Lunete though), and Yvain has a faithful lion companion. There is literally nothing not to love.

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