King Arthur and his Knights

Portrait of a Poet

Tales of chivalry, adventure and romance in verse are now more popular than the old heroic poems such as the Song of Roland. Not composed for dramatic recitation, these new stories of valour and love for fair ladies involve the legends of Tristan, King Arthur and his Knights, the marvels of the Celtic world. Chretien of TroyesThey are intended to grip the imagination, telling of courtly love where love itself is a religious passion, ennobling, ever increasing and unfulfilled.

The poet Chretien of Troyes (pictured right) wrote many such romances in verse and though not the originator of Arthurian romance, he is considered its adoptive father. Chretien was fortunate to work for three patrons of distinction: Prince Philip of Alsace, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie of Champagne.

Marie of Champagne set up a cultural centre at Troyes modelled on that of her mother's at Poitiers and Chretien was her most famous protege. Of all the romance writers, Chretien of Troyes rates among the best.

Queen Eleanor's Influence

In 1137, the beautiful 15 years old Eleanor of Aquitaine came to Paris as the Queen of France, imbued with the ideas of a cultured society where courtesy prevailed. She determined her court would be the gayest, most splendid in Christendom, and most importantly, show respect for ladies. She introduced music and poetry: troubadours with their Provencal verse from the South and trouveres with their love poems from the North.

One of the poets named Chretien, born in Troyes the capital town of Champagne, was an admirer of the Queen - just one of many. Chretien had studied Latin, poring over his favourite authors, Ovid, Virgil and Horace that fired his ambition to write elegant rhymic verse. His stories in verse were of love and sentimental adventure where bright armour sparkled in the sunlight, people wore silk and satin, ermine and sable, and cloth was made of gold.

He wrote long stirring tales of knights battling and being killed in tournaments amid clouds of dust while fair maidens watched in admiration. He filled his romance stories with love, fantasy, bravery and chivalry. His inspiration came from stories of Celtic origin: the Welsh author, Geoffrey of Monmouth, originated the tales of King Arthur, his court, his knights and Queen Guinevere, but it was Chretien who turned them into romantic verse, extolling a code of chivalry, courtesy and respect for ladies.

The stories usually depict the hero going off to a distant land to fight his way through dangerous adventures and be rewarded for his valour with the love of a fair lady. The legends of King Arthur and his knights are tales of entertaining fantastic adventure, able to transport the reader from boredom to exciting joy. Love and the power of love are the golden threads that run through Chretien's tales.

Nobody before had written of a lady's charms, of how she felt and thought. Each of his tales included different sexual relationships: blind passion, faltering marriages, extra marital passions, adultery and a true meeting of hearts. The tales combined love with adventure and chivalry, though charity was always depicted as the greatest virtue.

He wrote of a world not as it really was, harsh and precarious, but as he would like to have it - courtly and romantic. He represented the chivalric ideal and society as he would like to see it with delicate manners, generosity and honour. His world was a poet's dream.

Chretien dedicated his story of Lancelot to his patron, Marie, Countess of Champagne.He wrote: 'This lady surpasses all others who are alive; just as the South wind that blows in May or April is more lovely than any other wind.'

Marie had inherited a taste for culture and sophistication from her mother and a love of poetry from her great-grandfather William IX, Duke of Aquitaine - the first known troubadour. Without Chretien of Troyes we might never of heard of the chivalric court of King Arthur and his heroic knights, never have thrilled to stirring tales of adventure, bravery, love and courtesy. And we would have been the poorer.

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