Yvain, Part 1: Vandalism, Murder and Other Romantic Ice-breakers

This one is not only running late, it’s a two-parter. Sorry everyone! I’m afraid my grasp on linear time isn’t what it was – emotionally, I’m still back in mid-July. This version of ‘Yvain: The Knight with the Lion’ comes from Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes, translated by D.D.R. Owen. Yvain is the son of notorious sorceress queen Morgan le Fay and the comparatively forgettable King Urien of Gorre, as well as nephew to King Arthur, cousin to Gawain and grandson to Igraine. I’m afraid I’m going to do what I always do and start off by talking about Arthurian ladies instead. According to Welsh mythology, Yvain/Owain married a woman named Penarwan, who was sister to Iseult, and both women were members of a very exclusive group called the Three Faithless Wives of Britain. It kind of sounds like a medieval rock band, don’t you think? Guinevere, incidentally, is described in the Welsh Triads as being more faithless than any of the three Faithless Wives, which I feel makes her lead singer.

This story is not about Penarwan. She does not even feature. Sorry again! It is instead about Yvain living up to all the drama llama potential that comes with being related to any of Igraine’s kids.

At the feast of Pentecost, Arthur leaves the celebrations early and is ‘detained by the queen’ – which sounds like a euphemism for sex – and accidentally falls asleep, which means he doesn’t return to his own party. Guinevere does not sleep. Instead she invites herself into a conversation that is taking place between the knights Dodinel, Sagremor, Gawain, Kay, our boy Yvain and a knight named Calogrenant, who is related to Yvain. I shall summarise Calogrenant’s role in this story as being as very hot and very unwise, because he has broken the tradition of telling ego-boosting stories about himself and is instead sharing an anecdote about personal failure. In front of KAY, of all people. Kay’s role in this story appears to be causing problems on purpose.

Nobody hears Guinevere approach except Calogrenant himself, who jumps up respectfully, and even this perfectly normal gesture ticks Kay off. “By God, Calogrenant, I see you’re very gallant and sprightly now, and indeed I’m delighted ou are the most courtly of us; and I know very well you think so, you’re so completely devoid of sense,” he sneers. “Really, Kay, I do believe you’d burst if you couldn’t empty yourself of the venom you are full of,” Guinevere remarks coolly. “You’re tiresome and churlish to insult your companions.” She sounds like a woman who has spent too much time in Kay’s general vicinity. Also, I love her. Guinevere’s character in both de Troyes and Malory comes across as a generous-hearted but prickly woman who does not suffer fools and that trait is in full force here as she shuts Kay down and asks Calogrenant to continue his tale.

Calogrenant comments with delightfully sardonic grace that Kay makes such a habit of insulting greater men than himself that it’s almost a backhanded compliment, but is understandably reluctant to say anything more. Guinevere insists on hearing the whole story, slapping Kay down again whenever he interjects.

So, seven years ago, Calogrenant was out on a quest when he ended up in the forest of Broceliande and stopped for the night at a wooden tower, where he was welcomed by a courtly vavasour and his beautiful, intellectual daughter. As he continued his travels the next day, he encountered a group of fighting bulls and a very large dark-skinned man apparently supervising them, holding a club. Calogrenant decided to man was very ugly and mentally classified him as a ‘creature’. This would not appear to be a hundred percent based on racism – the man is described as being an improbable seventeen feet tall, with an owl’s eyes and a boar’s teeth among other unusual physical features, and is wearing the bloody hides of two recently killed bulls – but it is a bad start and the man’s silent assessment of Calogrenant leads the knight to think he’s intellectually incapable of a conversation instead of, I don’t know, being disinterested or cautious or not inclined to chat to strangers. Calogrenant decides a reasonable opening remark to be, “Pray tell me if you are a good creature or not!” To which his new acquaintance replies, “I’m a man!” Calogrenant suspiciously asks what kind of man. “Such as you see; I’m never any different,” the man with the club replies, which is exactly the answer that question deserved so good on him.  

He explains that he looks after the animals of the wood and keeps them in this place, a task Calogrenant openly doubts anyone could do despite the fact there’s somebody standing right in front of him doing it. The man with the club then asks who Calogrenant is and what he’s looking for in the wood. Calogrenant announces that he is looking for an adventure to test his abilities. The man with the club tells him to follow a track past a spring that is ice cold but looks to be boiling, in the shade of a tree that keeps its leaves throughout the year. There is a slab beside the tree. If water from the spring is poured on the slab, it will cause a dreadful storm that will drive all the animals from the wood.

Calogrenant thinks this sounds like a great adventure. I think it sounds like ecological vandalism.

He finds the spring and the tree. Hanging from its branches is a golden basin; the slab, meanwhile, is made from solid emerald, so it’s clear what has been attracting adventurers to this spot. Calogrenant pours water onto the slab and gets the forewarned storm: a horrifying burst of lightning, rain, snow and hail descending all at once. As it passes, Calogrenant looks up to find the pine tree covered in birds, singing like a choir. He is also accosted by a very loud and angry knight, who shouts that Calogrenant has driven him from his home with this godawful weather (I am paraphrasing) and that he’s going to pay for it. He beats Calogrenant hollow in the ensuing duel and departs with his horse, leaving Calogrenant to walk dispiritedly back to his host in the wooden tower. The vavasour cheerfully tells him that this happens to everyone who attempts this particular adventure.

Listening to this story, Yvain is fired up with the desire to avenge his cousin’s shame – read here, repeat the same mistakes and somehow produce a different result. Unfortunately for him, Arthur wakes up at this point and when Guinevere repeats the story to him, the king is so fascinated he wants to go and see the spring for himself, which means the entire court all want to go too. Realising that his chance at glory is likely to be taken by another knight, like Gawain (or worse, Kay) Yvain sneaks off to make his attempt first. He finds the wooden tower; he finds the track, he summons the storm and fights the enraged knight. It is a brutal fight. Igraine’s grandsons are good in an ugly fight, though, and Yvain gets the upper hand, bringing his sword down in a violent blow to the head that sends his panicked opponent fleeing back to the castle from whence he came. Yvain is hot on his heels, driven by the echoes of Kay’s mockery in his memory, not realising that the gate to the great hall is booby-trapped. He’s leaning well forward on his horse, which is the only reason he’s not chopped in half by the falling portcullis like the poor animal beneath him.

He is, however, trapped.

Luckily for him, he is discovered by a sympathetic and strategic young woman who immediately recognises him as Urien’s son and who does all the quick thinking required for surviving this situation. She produces a magic ring that will make him invisible to his enemies, and that’s good, because the other knight has died of his wounds and everyone else in the castle is out for BLOOD. They find the mangled remains of his horse and begin to hunt through the great hall. Yvain silently endures a beating as they try to flush out their enemy. Worse, the knight’s corpse is laid out in the hall and it’s still bleeding – which is not evidence that the knight is still alive, by the way, it apparently means that his killer is present in the room, which kicks off another frenzied search. Standing amidst this madness is the knight’s widow, a woman who is so beautiful that Yvain is distracted from his own mortal peril by concern at the sight of her wild, self-destructive grief.  

When the corpse is taken away for burial, Yvain watches from a window. These are his thoughts: that he has no proof of defeating the knight to throw in Kay’s face, and he has no shot with the beautiful widow who is currently tearing at her hair in wild misery. Yvain is more optimistic on that second point though, comforting himself with the thought that women are changeable so who even knows what the widow might do next?

Let’s pretend we can kick him in the shins through the page shall we? His own mother would.

The young woman who saved his life returns to check on him, clocks his lovestruck state and all but rolls her eyes. “Now let’s say no more about all that,” she says briskly and offers to lead him to safety. Yvain resists; he wants to leave when the streets are busy, which is so counter-intuitive that I don’t even know what to say. The young woman comes up with a new strategy. She goes to the widow, with whom she is in high favour, and essentially tells her cheer up, onward and upward, if one husband dies just get a new one. The widow doesn’t believe she could meet with a better knight than the man she just buried. Our Machiavellian girl points out that King Arthur himself is due to visit the spring himself soon enough (how DOES she know about that?) and who is going to defend the castle then, with its lord suddenly dead? It is the widow’s duty to find a replacement ASAP! “For indeed, as you well know,” the young woman says, “those knights of yours are not together worth a single chambermaid.”

Why has this girl not been given a NAME? She’s twice as interesting as Yvain already.

The widow dismisses her angrily but cannot stop thinking about the truth in her argument. The young woman returns, completely ignoring her mistress’s command, to rebuke her once again for wallowing in grief instead of getting on with her life. “Do you suppose that all noble qualities died with your husband?” the girl demands. “There are a hundred as good and a hundred better men still living throughout the world…When two knights have come together in armed combat and one has defeated the other, which do you think the more worthy? For my part, I give the honour to the victor.” The widow is of course furious with her, but after a night brooding over her duty to protect the spring, she has a list of questions about Yvain’s rank and lineage. She’s also concerned that it may look, well, kind of bad for a widow to be marrying the man who killed her husband.

No need to worry, her frankly terrifying handmaiden has this in hand already. On her orders, the widow calls her knights together and asks who will defend the spring – the answer being, nobody, which will force them to give their approval when the widow announces her intentions to marry again. The girl tells the widow that she is sending to Arthur’s court for Yvain when she has him hidden away in the castle, being fitted for a handsome new outfit; meanwhile she tells Yvain that he has been discovered and must throw himself on the mercy of the hard-hearted widow. “I’m very willing to be in her prison!” Yvain declares eagerly. When brought into the presence of the lady in question, he is completely tongue-tied. After some prodding, he falls to his knees before the widow and surrenders completely to her will. The widow, after some consideration, informs him that she will not put him to death, and that they are ‘reconciled’. Reconciled here means, engaged, and they are married the same day.

It is at this point we are told the name of the widow. She is Laudine of Landuc, daughter of the Duke Laudunet.  

While Yvain is tripping into a relationship with an entire aeroplane’s worth of baggage, Arthur’s knights are continuing with their plan to visit the spring. Kay is loudly declaring Yvain to be a coward in his absence and Gawain is desperate for him to just shut up, which appears to be a very common sentiment. When Arthur summons the storm, it is Yvain who rides out to defend his lady’s castle, and is is Kay who goes forth to fight him.

Of course, no one recognises Yvain, despite multiple members of his own family being present. He knocks Kay clean out of the saddle and presents the horse, a symbol of his victory, to Arthur, along with his name. Arthur and Gawain are delighted by his adventures and the entire company go to lodge with Yvain, who sends word to his lady so that she can unroll the silk banners and carpets ahead of the king’s arrival. She’s very pleased at Yvain’s success.

We don’t care about that. You know why? Because Little Miss Puppet-Master finally has a name, Lunete. She strikes up a friendship with Gawain straight away, bonding over her schemes to save Yvain, which Gawain finds hilarious. De Troyes describes them as ‘the sun’ (Gawain) and ‘the moon’ (Lunete). Gawain pledges himself to Lunete’s service, while many of his friends are busy falling haplessly for the charming and elegant Laudine.

When the royal company prepare to depart a week later, Gawain urges Yvain to come with them so that he can maintain his reputation in combat – though Gawain freely admits that he’d be unlikely to follow his own advice, in Yvain’s shoes. Still, Yvain asks his lady’s leave to go. She consents, if he swears to return within the year. Should he be late, it’s all over.

I feel like that’s actually really reasonable? She literally just married the man. Yvain doesn’t want to stay that long away from her, but forsees problems with her limitation – being captured or injured is an occupational hazard that may unexpectedly delay him. Laudine has an answer for that. She presents Yvain with a ring. “No true, loyal lover can be held prisoner or lose any blood or suffer any harm provided that he wears and cherishes it and bears his love in mind,” she tells him. The newlyweds part with kisses, tears and promises.

Throughout the following year, Yvain does a solid job building up his reputation, but completely FAILS as a husband because he completely forgets to return in time. To drive home the point, Laudine sends a handmaiden to present greetings to Arthur and Gawain, and not to Yvain, ‘the disloyal traitor, liar and deceiver’. “Do you know how lovers behave?” the handmaiden asks icily. “They keep account of the time and season.” Laudine has sent instruction that Yvain is to return her ring and never return to her lands.

Does Yvain take it well? Ha, no, of course he doesn’t! He rips up his clothes and runs off into the wilderness to live on raw meat. This is a time-honoured way for knights to deal with their problems. He encounters a hermit who feeds him like a stray with offerings of bread. After some time, a group  of ladies passing through the forest come across him while he’s sleeping and are startled to recognise him as a lost prince. One of them applies an ointment created by Morgan le Fay herself, which is intended to clear the mind, and thoughtfully provides an appropriate set of clothes as well. Once Yvain is dressed and stumbling along in a state of bewilderment, she pretends to see him for the first time and leads him to the castle of her mistress. She also tosses the empty box of ointment in the river so her mistress will not realise she used every drop of it. I am here for all the scheming handmaidens in this story!

Yvain slowly recovers. One day the villainous Count Alier attacks the castle and Yvain charges out to meet him, driving the marauders away and taking the count as his captive. The swooning residents of the castle compare him to a lion. The lady of the castle wants him as her husband. Yvain refuses her offers and takes off alone.

Can he make peace with Laudine? Will he take more bad advice from Gawain? Most importantly, what is Lunete up to? Find out in Part 2: Lions and Knights and Ladies, Oh My!

2 thoughts on “Yvain, Part 1: Vandalism, Murder and Other Romantic Ice-breakers

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