In Yvain (The Knight with the Lion), the namesake hero fights wicked knights, perverted giants, venomous snakes, devilish half-goblin children, and even a friend in disguise. In the midst of all these adventures, he manages to find true love, break her trust, struggle with sanity, depend upon the courtliness of strangers, and form a friendship with a courteous (and melodramatic) lion. These adventures begin and end with a mysterious spring. At this spring, there is a rock. Pour water on that rock, and the weather begins to rage. After which a knight comes galloping by to try and knock you off your horse.
Welcome to Camelot. To the world of Arthuriana.
Author Chrétien de Troyes has a great deal of life lessons to teach us through all this, and they have been compiled here with excerpts from the text. The story teaches that defending others is a much nobler quest than simply going out looking to prove your own glory (which was apparently fashionable at the time), and even implies that knights should spend more time with their wives and less time “hanging out with his bros.” What else can we learn about virtue and courtliness from The Knight with the Lion?
1. Be courtly above all else.
It’s neither courtly nor sensible to quarrel over a trifle.– Sir Kay
Even the quarrelsome Sir Kay knows better than to bicker over petty disagreements. Too bad he doesn’t follow his own advice; he quickly ends up disgraced in a joust, and right in front of King Arthur.
That’s another general tip to becoming courtly: never lose a battle. It will be to your eternal shame. Unless a fellow knight dares to defend your honor by challenging your victor (and beating him). (As it happens, this whole adventure begins because of some reckless boasting in front of the much-admired Queen Guinevere – with such an audience, what is his friend to do but boldly attempt to restore the fool’s honor in a ridiculous quest?)
2. . . . Even when you’re fighting your mortal enemy.
And they behaved with great gallantry in that they never struck or injured the horses at all, something they neither wished nor deigned to do; but they stayed mounted the whole time without ever setting foot to the ground, which made the combat all the more splendid.– Chrétien de Troyes
Courtliness should never be neglected, even if you are engaged in mortal combat. (Which apparently happens all the time.) The whole point of fighting this person is to prove your honor, after all, so you must be especially polite the whole time. You don’t just want to defeat your opponent; you also want to show off how amazing and noble you are.
3. Never lose heart.
There’s no valour in a man who fears too much, so I think you’re a worthy man not to be extremely terrified.– Lunette
In this scene, Yvain would understandably be extremely terrified; he has just mortally wounded a dastardly knight and is now trapped where loyal subjects can easily find him. Any moment, they will come searching for Yvain to slay him in vengeance. But Yvain is a true knight, and at least in this episode, he is courtly enough (or maybe still a little too hotheaded from the battle) to be perfectly undaunted.
4. Always be hospitable, even if you have your doubts about the guest.
But they are terrified of the lion they see coming with him and ask him, if he does not mind, to leave his lion at the gate lest it should savage or kill them.– The gatekeepers at the castle tormented by the Harpin of the Mountain
To the gatekeepers’ honor, they soon permit the lion inside, once Yvain assures them he has his pet under control.
That’s good and gracious hospitality for you, and one of many examples throughout the text by both men and women, of noble birth or otherwise. Other obligations of a host include: huge feasts, lodging for the night, provision of merry company even if you’re worried about a giant coming to slay your remaining sons tomorrow morning, and bathing your guest’s face and neck with your hands.
Well. At least in that last case, the gesture turned out to be a farce by a wicked family under a twice devilish curse.
5. Be your own biggest fan.
For it is futile to do good if one does not want people to know about it.– Chrétien de Troyes
In a world where knights are constantly going about looking for adventures (code for ‘a chance to prove how utterly awesome I am’), they must also seek out witnesses to their glorious triumphs. It is also acceptable to retain a token to prove their tale’s truth. Yvain tells all he rescues: “Tell them you were saved by The Knight with the Lion.” He’s also very distressed when a foe is buried before he has a chance to snag a scarf or something; how else will he prove his victory? Even Sir Kay jests:
I agree with the coward, who is quite justified in praising and boasting about himself, because he’ll not find anyone else to lie for him. If he doesn’t speak of it, who will?– Sir Kay
Do good things in the sight of others. Or else start your own rumors, if no one else is around to do that for you.
6. Always follow your heart.
“I’d be delighted to see you come back out of there without suffering too much shame. But that would be impossible.” – “Lady,” says he, “may God reward you for that! But my foolish heart draws me in there, and I shall follow the dictates of my heart.”– The lady at Pesme Avanture and Sir Yvain
The lady at Pesme Avanture tries to warn Yvain of the dangers he will face at this particular castle, but Yvain has come to be known as the knight “who devotes his efforts to aiding women in need of help.” And so, when he stumbles upon a town cursed by two demons with a castle enslaving hundreds of women in a 12th-century sweat shop, he must follow his heart and attempt to free them, whatever the danger. Even if that means pausing his other adventure for another damsel who has requested his assistance in ensuring her inheritance.
In Yvain’s defense, his adventures here are not meddlesome, not self-seeking like the braggadocious attemps we’ve also seen. No, Sir Yvain is sought after by distressed damsels and hapless lords.
The less noble Sir Calogrenant does not have this luxury, and so seeks adventures of a more self-interested nature.
‘And what would you want to find?’ – ‘Some adventure, to put my prowess and courage to the proof. Now I beg and inquire and ask of you to give me advice regarding some adventure or marvel, if you know of any.’
‘You’ll not get any of that,’ says he. ‘I don’t know anything about ‘adventure’ and never heard tell of it.’– Sir Calogrenant and the churl
Is it any wonder that Calogrenant ends defeated and disgraced in a joust? He is not only shamed, but loses a horse. The victor goes trotting off, leading Calogrenant’s steed along with him.
I, at a loss to know what to do, remained brooding and indignant.– Sir Calogrenant
7. Do absolutely any stupid thing for love.
Of all the many winding plotlines of Yvain, one stands out above the rest. Yvain and Laudine are happily married early in the tale, but Yvain breaks a promise to her. Of course, this means she must scorn and reject him. Yvain first goes mad in grief, then runs around in a sort of penance, fighting peoples’ giants and devils and belligerent big sisters. In none of this can he be happy, however, so he eventually decides to try again to make amends with his beloved.
So he returns to the place that started it all, at the spring. It was at this spring that he first poured water on the stone slab, causing the weather to rage. It was here he slayed the wicked knight who first defended it. It was the spring of Laudine’s kingdom, and when he slayed her first knight, she needed a new one for its defense. Yvain stepped in to take that role, but after his broken promise, she had hated him and cast him out, leaving the spring undefended.
So he decided to leave the court on his own and go on the warpath to her spring, where he would cause such lightning, wind and rain that she would of necessity be compelled to make peace with him, or he would never stop the commotion at the spring, with the wind and the rain.– Chrétien de Troyes
If that doesn’t get a girl’s attention, I don’t know what will. And it works. Well, kind of. At least, Laudine is reminded she needs a knight to defend the damned place. And who better than her husband Yvain, who has since gained a reputation throughout the land as the mysterious Knight with the Lion?
Oh yes, that’s another good step towards courtliness. Set out to make a name for yourself that is so great, every knight/lady in the land would be honored to take your hand in marriage. Just remember that after marriage you are required to continue proving your courtliness (instead of falling into the uxorious pitfall of Enide’s Erec.)
8. Defend the noble, slay the venomous.
Midway through the poem, Yvain finds a great serpent and a great lion locked in a mortal battle.
Yvain . . . debates in his mind which of the two he will help. Then he says he will go to the aid of the lion, since one should do nothing but harm to any venomous, treacherous creature, and the serpent is venomous and so full of evil that fire is spurting from its mouth.– Chrétien de Troyes
When Yvain first rescues the lion, it is from a venomous, fire-breathing snake. The lion is the epitome of nobility, and thanks Yvain with a humble bow of gratitude, never leaving his side as companion and protector. The snake is venomous, spitting hate. By defending what is noble and good, Yvain gains a friend and a reputation. But first, he must slay a dragon.
Yvain (The Knight with the Lion) has a little bit of everything – Gruesome battles. Romances threaded with love and hate. Comedy that mocks the excessiveness of cultural ideals (chivalry and romance not excluded). There’s even a fire-breathing dragon and a pet lion to follow you around like a Labrador. It has something for everyone, and you can be certain: a read of it will be no small waste of your time.
I read the Everyman version translated from Old French by D. D. R. Owen (1991).