The French author Chrestien de Troyes (active 12th century) was one of the greatest medieval poets. His works include the earliest extant Arthurian romances.
Very little is known of the life of Chrestien de Troyes. His productive literary career extends from a little after the middle of the 12th century to about 1190. He was associated with the court of Marie de Champagne in or after 1164 and with that of Philippe d'Alsace, Comte de Flandres, sometime between 1168 and 1190. In 1190 Philippe left on the Third Crusade, and it is generally assumed that Chrestien died about the time of Philippe's departure. Chrestien's name and some traces of the dialect of Champagne in his works show that he was from northeastern France. Various hypotheses about Chrestien's life have been advanced, for example, he was a herald at arms, but they are not well founded.
Two lyric poems can be attributed to Chrestien, and four others have been dubiously ascribed to him. He translated Ovid's Art of Love and Cures of Love and wrote an adaptation of an episode from Ovid's Metamorphoses and a version of Tristan and Isolt; these four works have, however, been lost. Philomena, a short, tragic romance, survives. Another surviving romance, William of England, is partly didactic and partly adventurous, but the authorship of this poem has been disputed.
Erec and Enide, written about 1160, is the first of Chrestien's Arthurian romances which has survived. The hero marries the heroine fairly early in the romance, after which most of the story consists of demonstrations of prowess by which Erec proves himself free of uxoriousness. A tone of aristocratic refinement and of celebration of youthful joys and vigor runs throughout this work.
Cligès, composed about 1175, is at once Arthurian and Byzantine. It tells of Alexander, Prince of Constantinople, who goes to Britain to serve King Arthur. Alexander marries and returns to Constantinople with his wife and their son, Cligès. The second and longer part of this work consists of the dramatic love adventures of Cligès and Fenice.
Lancelot, or The Knight of the Cart, Chrestien's third major romance, was written for Marie de Champagne about 1179. The hero, Lancelot, goes in search of Queen Guenievre, who is being held captive. He meets a dwarf with a cart and is told to get into the cart if he wants to find the Queen. Although Lancelot hesitates to climb into this disgraceful conveyance, he finally does so. He then must overcome numerous obstacles, including the painful crossing of a sword bridge, before he finds the Queen. At last Lancelot kills the captor in combat and frees Guenievre. The theme of Lancelot is courtly love, which commits a knight to unlimited service to his lady. Therefore Lancelot's hesitation in climbing into the cart is a crime against courtly love and his long suffering is deserved. The last 988 lines of this romance were written by Godefroy de Leigny.
Yvain, or The Knight of the Lion, written about 1184, is a superb work. The hero, Yvain, marries Laudine, who grants him leave to engage in knightly activity. But he over-stays his time and is banished by Laudine. During his wanderings he saves a lion from a dragon. The lion then becomes Yvain's companion and saves his life on two occasions. Yvain performs many feats at arms, all of which are directed to the needs of others. Due to the efforts of his benefactress, Lunette, he is reunited with Laudine. In this work the hero becomes aware of his weaknesses and renounces self-interest completely. His acts become deeds of expiatory charity, and his new spirit of compassion redeems him before his wife and his peers.
Perceval, or The Story of the Grail, Chrestien's unfinished masterpiece, was begun for Philippe de Flandres before 1190. The hero, Perceval, is raised by his mother in a remote region, since she fears that, like his father and brothers, he will meet death as a knight. However, he sees knights by chance and, much to his mother's sorrow, determines to become a knight. Although received by King Arthur, he is actually knighted by Gournement de Goort. Later Perceval visits the Grail Castle but fails to ask the significant questions; he soon learns the importance of the questions he did not dare to ask. A number of episodes follow, intermixed with parallel adventures of Gauvain, and then at line 9234 Chrestien's poem abruptly ends.
In the course of over 55,000 additional lines, four continuators put their hands to bringing the story to a conclusion, but their efforts fall far short of the genius, and probably the intention, of Chrestien. Like the composer Richard Wagner, Chrestien undertook this highly spiritual theme for his last work: the character who plays the great fool is to evolve into the Grail hero.
Chrestien's works show courtly tastes, detailed psychological insight, an unusual ease in versification, which at times reaches lyric quality, and a narrative technique that was closely imitated for two generations.
The vast bibliography on Chrestien de Troyes is made up largely of French and German titles, of which the most concise short study is Jean Frappier, Chréstien de Troyes (1957), in French. The two most valuable studies in English are James Douglas Bruce, The Evolution of Arthurian Romance (2 vols., 1923), and Roger Sherman Loomis, Arthurian Tradition and Chréstien de Troyes (1949). Foster E. Guyer, Chréstien de Troyes: Inventor of the Modern Novel (1957), is useful. William W. Comfort's 1914 translation of Chrestien's romances is still the best in English; it does not, however, include Perceval, which was translated into modern French by Lucien Foulet in 1957.