Yvain, Part 2: Lions and Knights and Ladies, Oh My!

In our previous adventures with Yvain, son of Morgan le Fay, he wrecked a forest, killed a knight, married the knight’s widow, royally screwed up his relationship with her, abandoned himself to despair in the wilderness, then got better. He’s a walking talking car crash. Where to next?

He’s back in a forest, which is a landscape that historically does not bode well for Yvain. This time he sees a lion under attack from a flame-breathing serpent, and decides to intervene on behalf of the lion, in doing so making himself a brand new bestie. Knight and lion travel onward, hunting and camping together, until they come to the spring and slab where Yvain began his adventures. He passes out from the emotion of the moment, landing on his sword; it cuts through his hauberk and nicks his neck. The lion, seeing the blood, believe Yvain to be dead and goes into a frenzy of grief that is reminiscent of Laudine’s ferocious mourning. The lion is suicidal with grief for Yvain; meanwhile, Yvain is suicidal over losing Laudine, and is lamenting over his mistakes aloud.

There is a chapel nearby, and a woman happens to be locked up inside it, with a front row seat to this psychological rollercoaster. When she greets Yvain, he asks who she is, and she calls herself ‘the most miserable person alive’, an answer which enrages him. Doesn’t she know only HE is allowed to be miserable? He proceeds to mansplain grief to her. She points out that he can go wherever he wants to deal with his feelings, while she is trapped inside the chapel, due to be burned tomorrow on a charge of treason. You might think this would give her an edge in the Unhappiness Olympics, but no, Yvain says that she is luckier than himself because she can yet be saved. The woman tells him that there only two men who love her enough to come to her rescue: Gawain and Yvain himself.

This is when Yvain connects the dots and realises he’s talking to Lunete.

Turns out Laudine held a grudge about Lunete’s match-making, and her seneschal took the opportunity to rid himself of Lunete and her clever schemes for good. With the court against her, Lunete declared that she would be defended in combat by one knight against three. She thought Gawain would come to her aid, but hey, do you remember how Meleagant captured Guinevere? And Gawain went after her? Yeah, so he’s busy chasing a lovesick Lancelot at the moment and has no idea Lunete’s even in trouble. Lunete has a pretty low opinion of Arthur after that screw-up, incidentally. Upon hearing her story, Yvain is fired up in her defence, dismissing Lunete’s concerns about the danger of the duel. He only requires her to keep his identity secret.

He goes to find himself proper lodgings and goes to a nearby castle. The people in the castle politely ask if maybe he could leave the lion outside? He flatly refuses. The people in the castle are torn between an unsettling joy at Yvain’s presence and loud unexplained wailing that makes Yvain himself look emotionally stable. This volatility is eventually explained – a giant named Harpin of the Mountain has demanded that the lord of the castle hand over his daughter. Harpin has been pillaging the lord’s lands, has killed two of his sons and is going to kill the other four tomorrow unless some challenger manages to defeat him. He doesn’t even want the lord’s daughter for himself, he intends to toss her to his servants for their amusement. The lord was hoping to appeal to Gawain – who is his brother-in-law! In this version, Gawain has a sister, I like that – but of course Gawain is currently out of reach, so all the problems he’d usually be travelling about resolving are turning into fatal crises.

Yvain explains his scheduling conflict. As long as the giant shows up before noon, he’s cool to fight, but he can’t risk abandoning Lunete. And of course, the giant does not show up the next morning! Yvain is leaving people in the lurch no matter what, and none of it is his fault, but the lord’s terrified daughter is literally begging him for her life in the name of her uncle. So Yvain delays. The giant at last appears, driving knights before him with a stake while a servant flogs them. He shouts to the lord of the castle to send out his daughter, to be raped by the giant’s followers. I am SO GLAD for the narrative inevitability of his coming to a nasty end.

Yvain and his lion ride out, and knight and giant hack at each other viciously. With the lion providing vital distraction, Yvain seizes his chance to run the giant through. GOOD ON YOU, YVAIN.  When the grateful family ask who they have to praise for their salvation, Yvain calls himself the Knight with the Lion. He doesn’t stop to rest from the battle, he has another appointment to keep, and he’s cut the timing about as close as he can – the pyre is lit when he arrives, Lunete tied up beside it. Yvain is distracted by the presence of Laudine, but also hears her ladies talking amongst themselves of how Lunete’s influence protected them, and sees Lunete herself on her knees, facing execution, and that sharpens his focus. The seneschal and his brothers are the knights set against Yvain and he gives them a chance to withdraw their accusations. The seneschal refuses, but insists Yvain fight alone, without the lion, even as the seneschal’s brother prepare for the fight.

Yvain is not messing around. He knocks the seneschal unconscious and keeps the other two at bay, and things look good for him for a little while – but then the seneschal recovers enough to rejoin the fight and the battle turns against Yvain. This is when the lion decides, screw these human rules! It lunges into the fray, ignoring Yvain’s commands. The knights turn on the lion; seeing his pet under attack, Yvain finds the strength to overcome all three and they are forced to surrender.

Lunete is acquitted. Laudine has the defeated trio burned on the pyre instead, which is – wow, her version of justice is brutal – and reconciles with her handmaiden, then presses Lunete’s unnamed defender to stay and rest. He refuses, saying he cannot stay until his mistress forgives him, and instead of giving his real name, calls himself the Knight with the Lion again. He departs, carrying his injured lion. He takes lodging in the first house he comes to, which is fortunately home to sisters who are skilled at healing. They care for Yvain and his lion until both are well enough to leave.

While Yvain is recovering, the lord of Noire Espine is dying. After his death, the elder of his two daughters claims his full estate, leaving her sister completely without inheritance. The younger sister determines she will get help from Arthur’s court so the elder hastens to get there first and manages to convince Gawain to take up her cause. Yeah, he’s back now! He asks her to keep their arrangement a secret, or he will not fight for her. When the sister arrives at court and asks for his support, he gently turns her away, so she goes direct to the king. He’s sympathetic to her plight. He allows her forty days to find a champion to take on the matter, which – look, sending random men to hack at each other with pointy sticks is no way to establish legal precedents. Having failed to recruit Gawain, the younger sister seeks out the Knight with the Lion, who has a reputation for defending desperate women.

The sister and her network of friends search far and wide. A maiden who has taken up her cause travels into bad weather and takes lodging at the castle of the family Yvain saved. They direct her to the road Yvain took and she hears the story of how he just defeated three knights. The maiden asks Lunete if she knows where Yvain can be found, and Lunete sends her as far as she can. Coming to the house where Yvain is resting, the maiden is told he literally just left, and she gallops in pursuit. At last she comes upon her quarry. She explains her quest to him, and he accepts her friend’s cause.

On their way back to where the disinherited sister is staying, they enter the fortified town of Pesme Avanture, where everyone seems determined to drive them away. Yvain calls them depraved, but an elderly lady explains to him that the castle of Pesme Avanture is no lodging place for honourable people and it will turn out badly for Yvain if he goes there. So obviously he goes there. Knights are like cats, naturally contrary.

The woman was 100% right though. The castle is a sweatshop. Hundreds of girls are trapped in the great hall, filthy and half-starved even as they sew with the finest fabrics. When a horrified Yvain demands to know what all this means, one of the captives tells him the whole sorry story. The castle is under the control of two brothers, half-human and half-goblin, who met the eighteen-year-old King of the Isle of Maidens in battle and the king lost. In order to save his life, the king swore to send thirty girls to serve the brothers for each year of their lives, or until they were defeated in combat. The girls are forced to sew constantly to make their masters rich, and watch in despair as their would-be champions die one after another. This sure reads as a very pointed criticism of exploitative employment, good on you Chrétien.

As Yvain ventures further into the castle, he finds a beautiful garden and a scene of familial bliss that is rendered obscene by its context. A lord is seated with his lady, listening to their beautiful teenage daughter read aloud. All three welcome Yvain and his companions, showing them every courtesy, but in the morning the lord confesses that he is forced to keep to the brothers’ ‘custom’ and will not allow Yvain to leave – not that Yvain has the least intention of leaving. If Yvain loses the coming battle, he dies. If he wins, he will have the lord’s daughter as his wife. Neither appeals to him.

He rides forth to face the brothers, who are described as ‘hideous and black’. Once again it is unclear if this is racism or intended as an indicator of their supernatural origins, but my money would be on option C, that it’s a combination of both. The brothers, for all their power, refuse to fight with the lion on the field, and Yvain locks the poor beast up before beginning the battle. This is a mistake! He is hard-pressed and beginning to fail when the lion busts out to defend him and the battle is won, with one brother killed and the other very seriously wounded, begging for mercy.

The lord of the castle, who I firmly believe was benefiting from the entire arrangement, proclaims himself delighted by Yvain’s victory and offers up his daughter. Yvain is all, thanks but no thanks, I will take the three hundred prisoners please. The lord is very offended, but Yvain stands firm and the girls are all set free to go where they wish. Maybe they will overthrow their rubbish monarch; I bet Lunete would have a few ideas on how to go about that. Yvain and the maiden, who has been floating about in a state of narrative limbo during the time in the castle, head off to find the disinherited sister and deal with her problems.

The elder sister is already feeling triumphant. Not only has she signed up Gawain to fight for her – though in disguise, which implies he knows her cause is dodgy and is doing this anyway – her sister’s champion has yet to even show up. Arthur has taken an active dislike to her by this point and Guinevere is squarely on the younger sister’s side. When the younger sister does arrive, she seeks reconciliation once again and is denied. Yvain and Gawain do not recognise one another as they face off, smashing into each other without a word. The battle goes on for hours with no sign of either gaining the upper hand. As night falls, the combatants are forced to rest. Both knights are wary and wondering, no longer wanting this fight. Yvain is the first to speak, so hoarse that at first Gawain doesn’t recognise his voice; once they finally know one another, the battle is well and truly over. Yvain is determined to surrender to Gawain. Gawain is determined to surrender to Yvain. They take their conflicting stories to Arthur, who seizes the opportunity to actually make a decision. He commands that the elder sister hand over a fair share of her father’s inheritance to her sister, and when she proves reluctant, he threatens to accept Gawain’s word on his defeat. It’s amazing how quickly the elder sister changes her mind after that.

Yvain and Gawain catch up on recent adventures, with Gawain learning of how Yvain defended his sister and her family. Both knights are in poor shape after their long battle and need some time to recover. The lion comes running to Yvain through the crowd and Yvain cannot understand why other people are being so weird about his charming pet.  

Yvain then takes all his character development as a defender of women and chucks it all in the air like CONFETTI because as soon as he’s recovered he returns to the spring, hell-bent on raising storms until Laudine takes him back. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, YVAIN?  

Laudine’s town is on the verge of falling apart. She’s panicked, turning as usual to Lunete for advice. Lunete suggests she send for the Knight with the Lion, but warns that he will only come to their aid if Laudine vows to help the knight’s cause with his lady. Laudine, unaware that she’s the lady in question, gives her word and Lunete rides out to the spring, where Yvain greets her fondly. Lunete leads him back to Laudine and Yvain falls at her feet. Laudine feels trapped, as well she might! Tellingly, she describes Yvain as ‘a man who neither loves nor respects me’. Yvain does what he can to change her mind on this point, promising to never again wrong her in any way, and he’s allowed back into her life. This seems more like a starting point for true reconciliation than a happy ending – but Lunete is happy, and that undoubtedly means everything went as she planned it.

When I read legends like this I like to try and knit them together into one cohesive story, even when they are clearly a dozen alternate universes in a trenchcoat, and Yvain is a GIFT on that score. I love that Meleagant’s actions have knock-on effects on other people’s lives outside of the immediate circle of Arthur’s court, because of COURSE they do! I love that Yvain is healed by his mother’s ointment, though neither of them ever seem to learn about that; it is a beautiful complexity that a woman who sends so much venom into the world also created something that could heal, and by whatever strange roads, it made its way to her own son. Also, we can all agree that the Orkney brothers have a thing for women who are smarter and meaner than they are, right? The Gawain who immediately clicks with Lunete feels like the same man who fell for Ragnelle. The Guinevere who cuts down Kay’s bullying feels like the same woman who welcomed Enid to court with open arms. And the Yvain who is so desperate to prove himself, who takes Lunete’s magic and manipulation in stride, he feels like Morgan le Fay’s son.

I bet she would love the lion.

2 thoughts on “Yvain, Part 2: Lions and Knights and Ladies, Oh My!

  1. I LOVE THIS STORY SO MUCH. The lion truly is the star of the show. And I would marry Lunete if I could? She is SO awesome.

    I like Chretien’s stories a lot (except for like…Cliges, I thought that one was weird). I like his characterization, especially what he does with the female characters. Lunete and Guinevere are amazing, and they make up for what he did with Enide for me. I also appreciate him giving Igraine a happy ending in his grail story? I support happy endings for Igraine. Anyway, I’m not saying Chretien is a feminist or anything, lol, but I love his female characters and I think he gives them more depth than other writers of his time would have.

    • I completely agree, Chretien has really consistent complex characterisation, which makes his versions a real pleasure to read. Igraine deserves ALL the happiness, unicorns and rainbows if she wants them, and Chretien’s Guinevere feels like a person – dutiful, sharp-tongued, heartfelt. I love the idea of her meeting Lunete.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s