The season was spring, trees
Were sprouting leaves, meadows
Were green, every morning
Birds sang in their own
Sweet language, and the world was joyful.
And the son of the widowed lady
Living alone in the Barren
Forest rose, and quickly
Saddled his hunting horse . . .
In these lines we are introduced to the hero of Chrétien de Troyes's last romance, written late in the 12th century. He is a youth brought up in the forest, without any knowledge of his high lineage, knighthood, the basic rules of polite behaviour, or his own name. It is so common in romances, as in fairy tales, to have the characters defined only by their status or their attributes, that the anonymity does not worry us; it feels like an intrusion into the story to attach a name to either the princess or the frog. But Chrétien's withholding of the names of his heroes is both intentional and strategic, and if there is any quibble to be had with this newly completed set of translations by Burton Raffel, it is that he announces the hero's name so large and loudly on the title pages. It's all right for two of the romances, Erec and Enide and Cligès; but elsewhere, it's not how Chrétien works.
LRB 25 November 1999 | PDF Download