Honor Over Love in Chrétien de Troyes’s “Erec and Enide” and “The Knight of the Cart,” and Through “Sir Torrent of Portingale”
Throughout the middle ages, “romance” was the genre that dominated the market. However, as time progressed, the genre of romance began to alter, essentially changing into something different altogether. This alteration in genre shifted to what the subject matter of the readers began to prefer. Herein, martial prowess and male-male homosocial relationships began to take precedence over the previously dominant theme of fin amors in courtly relationships. Chrétien de Troyes’s story, “Erec and Enide” observes the tale of the two lovers Erec and Enide, and focuses centrally on the knightly honor of Erec, as opposed to his love for Enide. In addition to “Erec and Enide,” Chrétien de Troyes’s tale “The Knight of the Cart,” is centered around Lancelot (who within the story is an unnamed knight), and his love for Queen Guinevere as he jumps through hoops to try and rescue her. Both Chrétien’s “Erec and Enide” and “The Knight of the Cart” act as cautionary tales for the medieval audience, and they both value a good balance between love and knightly duty. On the other hand, as time progresses and the genre of romance evolves, unknown author of “Sir Torrent of Portingale” showcases the martial prowess of Sir Torrent in killing multiple monsters, and engaging in numerous journeys. In “Sir Torrent of Portingale,” love and the tradition of fin arms are not as central to the story as in Chrétien’s romances, but rather, fighting and Torrent proving his worth to the court does. By shifting from an emphasis on love in male-female relationships, to that of honor in male-male homosocial relationships, both Chrétien and the author of “Sir Torrent of Portingale” reflect on the society of their time and the emphasis of honor and knighthood as opposed to male-female love.
In Chrétien’s “Erec and Enide,” Erec and Enide are happily married, until Erec realizes that his happiness in being with his wife has clouded his judgment and his knightly duties. Erec becomes viewed in a negative manner due to the fact that once he married Enide, he stopped fighting, which is seen as dishonorable in the eyes of the other men. Erec: Loved Enide with such love that he cared no more for feats of arms, nor did he attend tournaments. He had no desire to joust. His only wish was to lie beside his wife, whom he made his sweetheart and his mistress. Embracing her and kissing her occupied all his attention, and he longed for no other pleasure. This situation saddened his companions. Often among themselves they regretted his excessive love for her… The whole company of knights remarked on the great pity and shame that such a baron as he had been was not interested in bearing arms. (Chrétien 31). On the surface, Erec is incredibly happy to be married with Enide and he wishes for nothing else than to be by her side. However, since in the romances there is an emphasis on knightly honor over love, in order to prove to his male peers that Erec is still a masculine man, he has no other choice than to blame his wife from distracting him from his honorable duties, and immediately set out on a mission to prove himself once more to his male peers.
One of the most important aspects of this decision is that Erec essentially turns on his wife, he blames her for his neglect to his duties, and not his fellow men or the societal norms that say one has to fight in order to be relevant. This proves that male-male homosocial relationships and the concept of honor are much more important than love in the traditional sense, between a man and a woman. However, it is Enide who breaks down and tells her husband that he has been neglecting his duties, saying, “it is a great pity that you have set aside your arms. Your reputation has suffered from it. Last year all were accustomed to say that no finer or braver knight was known in the entire world… They accuse me, and that does hurt me,” (33). Even though Enide knows this will trouble him, and likely make him despise her, she still attempts to be a decent woman, and protect the reputation of her husband. Throughout the story, fighting is tied into the fragile construct of masculinity of the times. When Erec was ignoring his duties, and hunkering down with his wife, his actions in the eyes of other men were considered somewhat feminine, and to counteract this he had to venture out and get dirty and bloody fighting other men—which would essentially be the societal ideal for a man of the times. However, once Erec proved himself once again, all was hunky dory, and a balance between knightly honor and love was achieved.
Throughout Chrétien’s “The Knight of the Cart,” Lancelot is completely consumed and driven by his romantic thoughts for Queen Guinevere. After Guinevere is captured, Lancelot vows to find her. At the beginning of his adventure, his horses die and he is forced to ride with a “miserable dwarf, ill-born and ill-bred,” in a shameful cart. First off, a knight without a horse is considered dishonorable, and then to ride in a card, which is described as a cart for Murderers and robbers, for those found guilty in trials by combat, for thieves who had stolen the property of others or seized it by force on the roads. The convicted criminal was placed in the cart and led through every street. Thus he had lost all honor. (174). Though Lancelot is more or less successful in all of his adventures, his love for Guinevere clouds his judgement. Herein, riding in the cart essentially brands Lancelot as a shameful criminal, and literally everyone around hears of this shameful and embarrassing event which taints Lancelot’s image. Lancelot becomes consumed by love, and therefore loses his chivalry or honor, and basically his identity as a knight/man along the way. A specific passage in which Lancelot’s loss of identity is showcased is when he is at the foot of the sword bridge: Like one powerless and defenseless against Love’s control, the knight of the cart fell into such thoughts that he lost thoughts of himself. He did not know if he was alive or dead, did not remember his own name, did not know whether he was armed or not, did not know where he was going or whence he was coming. He remembered nothing except one person, and for her he put everyone else out of mind. He thought so much about her alone that he heard, saw, understood nothing. (178-9). In addition to the fact that Lancelot has basically become a puppet under Guinevere’s control, one must also think that Lancelot is not the perfect poster child for chivalry or honor, because after all he is lusting after King Arthur’s wife. Lancelot is supposed to be loyal to King Arthur, yet, he seems to find his allegiance with Guinevere. Therefore, “The Knight of the Cart” becomes a cautionary tale to those who fall too deeply in love and ignore their knightly duties, similar to the takeaway from “Erec and Enide.”
As opposed to Chrétien’s romances, Sir Torrent from “Sir Torrent of Portingale” has a much more severe focus on the importance of martial prowess as opposed to male-female relationships. Though Torrent does have his love interest, Desonell, he essentially has no regard for her emotions, for example, one of the many times he leaves her to pursue battle: “Hys leve of Desonell he toke, / Sche wepte, all men myght rewe.” (Torrent 859-860). Herein, Desonell is clearly upset that Torrent is leaving her once again, yet, he values the fight and honor over her emotions. Torrent fights numerous monsters and giants, in the story, and martial prowess takes precedence over love. Therefore, male-male relationships are most important in the eyes of society of this time. In order to be a good and honorable man, one must prove to be good at fighting. As James Wade explains in his article, “Sir Torrent of Portingale: Introduction,” above all, “Sir Torrent is a warrior knight, and his tale is primarily a romance of battles,” (Wade). Instead of being motivated completely by love or honor, Torrent, as opposed to Erec or Lancelot, also seems to be heavily motivated by his God. Throughout the work, Torrent is constantly praying to God for safety and advice, one moment that particularly sticks out is when Torrent encounters the dragon he is to slay, he begs: Torrent knelyd on hys kne, To Jesu Cryst prayd he: “Lord, mykyll of myght, Syne I wase in meche care, Let me nevuyr owt of thys world far, Tyll I take order of knyght. Ase I ame falsely hether sent, Wyldsom weyes have I went, With fynds for to fyght. Now, Jesu, for Thy holy name, Ase I ame but man alone, Than be my helpe tonyght!” (Torrent 528-539). Herein, Torrent is essentially beginning God to keep him safe until he is granted knighthood. Instead of being concerned about Desonell in this moment of terror, Torrent is comforted by God and the potential status of knighthood that he hopes to be awarded—therefore he is valuing male-male homosocial relationships and honor over love.
Overall, though Chrétien’s “Erec and Enide,” and “The Knight of the Cart” there is an emphasis on a balance between love and knightly honor, with a bit of an underlying emphasis on knightly honor. However, in “Sir Torrent of Portingale,” there is a more prominent emphasis on martial prowess and God, over Torrent’s love for Desonell. This shift in the genre of romance implies that society of the time’s main focus was on honor as opposed to love.
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