So, as fellow medievalists, you may well scratch your heads at this post and wonder, “Why is she telling us this? We already know!” But I’ve had not one, but two, fellow writers make the same comment within a matter of days regarding an unpublished novel of mine I’ve asked them to critique. “The King Arthur legend started with Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. I don’t think your heroine would know anything about King Arthur.”
Well, I’ve been obliged to gently point out to them that they are wrong. The true originator of the Arthurian tradition that we have become familiar with was a medieval poet named Chrétien de Troyes who lived in 12th Century France. Although Chrétien undoubtedly drew on even earlier sources, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, it was Chrétien who fashioned these tales into the courtly romances that we know today and to whom we first owe such now classic Arthurian themes as Lancelot’s love affair with Guinevere, and the quest for the Holy Grail. In the romances of Chrétien we also meet Kay, Gawain, Perceval, Sagremor the Unruly (couldn’t resist sharing that one!), and of course, King Arthur himself. He even refers to an apparently lost work based on King Mark and Isolde the Blonde in his introduction to his poem, Cligés.
If you aren’t familiar with Chrétien de Troyes, you are missing a treat. You can read a simple biography of his life and works on Wikipedia. You can find seemingly endless versions of his romances on Amazon, including a free Kindle version. For the purposes of my own research, I have greatly relied on the Penguin Classics edition, Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances. It includes an extensive introduction detailing what we know about Chrétien’s life and career, descriptions of his works, and his influence on romantic literature in general. Also a glossary of medieval terms, helpful notes on each romance, and a very nice select bibliography. (Oh, yes, it also contains five of Chrétien’s romances, so don’t fall into the trap of buying each tale individually unless you absolutely want to.)
Just for the record, Chrétien de Troyes wasn’t the only 12th Century French poet telling tales of King Arthur. The poetess, Marie de France, draws a rather unflattering portrait of Queen Guinevere in her lai, Lanval. Several of Marie’s poems make an appearance in my medieval romance, Loyalty’s Web. Her works are also easily found on Amazon (again, including a free Kindle version). The version I relied on was The Lais of Marie de France, translated and introduced by Robert Hanning & Joan Ferrante. This volume has an excellent introduction (important if you’re a writer researching Marie and/or her works for a novel) and I quite like the little commentary that follows each of the individual poems.
So the next time someone looks down their nose at you and tells you your medieval character couldn’t possibly know anything about King Arthur, you arch your eyebrows in surprise and reply, “Are you honestly telling me you’ve never heard of Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France?”