Érec et Énide is the second of Chrétien de Troyes’ five romance poems, completed late Twelfth Century AD (c AD 1170). It is one of the four completed works by Chrétien, the other three being Lancelot, or Le Chevalier de la Charrete (Lancelot, or The Knight of the Cart), Cligès, and Yvain, or Le Chevalier au Lion (Owain, or The Knight with the Lion). Erec and Enide tells the story of their marriage, as well as their journey to repair Erec’s reputation as a knight after he remains dormant for too long. Both John T Koch (in Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia) and Joseph John Duggan (in The Romances of Chrétien de Troyes) tell us that the poem consists of octosyllabic (eight syllabled) rhymed couplets in 6,878 lines of Old French, and is one of the earliest known Arthurian romances in any language, predated only by the Welsh prose narrative Culhwch ac Olwen.
The Full Story
Roughly the first quarter of Érec et Énide recounts the narrative of Erec, the son of Lac, and Erec’s marriage to Enide. She is a poverty-stricken daughter of a vavasour (vassal or tenant of a baron, one who held his tenancy under a baron, and who also had tenants under him) from Lalut. An unarmoured Erec is keeping Guinevere and her maiden company while other knights participate in a stag hunt near Cardigan when a strange knight, a maiden, and his dwarf approach the queen and treat her servant roughly. Queen Guinevere orders Erec to follow the knight, Yder, to a faraway place where Erec encounters and falls in love with Enide. He borrows a set of armour from the vavasour and goes with Enide to claim a sparrow-hawk that belongs to the most beautiful maiden in the town. Erec challenges and defeats Yder for the sparrow-hawk. They return to Enide’s father, who permits Erec and Enide to marry. Erec refuses to accept gifts of new clothes for Enide and takes her to Arthur’s court in her worn-out frock. Despite her appearance, the courtiers recognise Enide’s intrinsic nobleness and Queen Guinevere dresses Enide in one of her own lavishly embroidered gowns. Erec and Enide are married, and Erec wins a tournament before receiving permission to go forth with his wife.
The middle half of the poem begins at the point when rumours abound that Erec is disregarding his knightly responsibilities due to his intense love for Enide and desire to be with her. Eric overhears Enide crying and orders her to prepare for a trip to unknown lands. He commands her to be mute unless he speaks to her first, but she disobeys him to warn about being followed by two different groups of knights. On both occasions, Erec rebukes Enide before defeating the knights. When they remain overnight in a settlement, a count visits and threatens to kill Erec if Enide doesn’t have sex with the count. Enide alerts Erec the next morning and they take flight, but the count and a hundred knights pursue them. Enide interrupts her silence, yet again, to warn Erec. Erec defeats a seneschal and the count before he and Enide run away into the forest. While amongst the trees, Erec defeats and befriends Guivret the Short, an Irish lord with familial ties to Pembroke and Scotland. Erec and Enide continue to travel until they locate King Arthur’s men, but Erec refuses their cordial reception and continues travelling. Erec then rescues Cadof of Cabruel from two giants, but the fighting reopens Erec’s wounds and he collapses as if dead. Enide is then found by Count Oringle of Limors, who takes Erec (assumed dead) with him and attempts to marry Enide. Her distress is enough to revive Erec, who kills the count and forgives Enide for breaking her silence during their travels. Guivret learns of Erec’s supposed death and sends a thousand men to lay siege to the castle. He wishes to avenge Erec but doesn’t realise he is in combat with him until Enide steps in and stops Guivret, identifying Erec to him.
The final quarter of the poem adds an episode referred to as the “Joy of the Court”, in which Erec frees King Evrain’s nephew Maboagrain (Evrain being a corruption of the name Yvain/Owain, Maboagrain being Maboagrain le Géant de Bretagne) from an oath to his maiden lover that had prevented him from leaving the forest until defeated in combat. This leads to a grand celebration and Enide learns that the maiden is her cousin. Erec and Enide then journey to Nantes, where they are crowned King and Queen in an extravagantly described ceremonial occasion.
The Poem’s Varied Motifs
Érec et Énide shows the motifs of love and chivalry that Chrétien de Troyes continues in his later works. Tests and trails play an important role in character evolution and matrimonial faithfulness. According to Jerome Mandel in “The Ethical Context of Erec’s Character”, Erec’s testing of Enide is not condemned in the fictitious context of the story, especially when his behaviour is contrasted with some of the more wretchéd characters, such as Oringle of Limors. Nevertheless, Enide’s faithful disobedience of his command to silence saves Erec’s life. From the University of Georgia published “Introduction” to Erec and Enide, translator Ruth Harwood Cline tells us that another motif of the work is Christianity, as evidenced by the plot’s positioning around the Christian Calendar: the narrative begins on Easter day, Erec marries Enide at Pentecost, and Erec’s coronation happens at Christmas. Moreover, Erec is “killed” and then “resurrected” on a Sunday, a reference to the account of Jesus.
Ruth Cline goes on to tell us that in the 12th Century AD, conventional love stories tended to have an unmarried heroine, or else one married to a man other than the hero. This was a sort of unapproachable, chaste courtly love. Nevertheless, in Érec et Énide, Chrétien addressed the less conventionally romantic idea of love within marriage. Erec and Enide marry before a quarter of the tale is through, and their marriage and its consequences are the catalysts for the adventures that constitute the remainder of the poem. According to Lynn Tarte Ramey, in Romantic Review (November 1993), gender also plays an important role. Enide is noteworthy for being very beautiful, as Erec asks to bring her along so that she can recover the sparrow-hawk toward the beginning of the tale. Enide is forthright despite Erec’s direction for her to stay silent. There is a debate between scholars about whether Érec et Énide is meant to be an optimistic portraiture of women or whether Enide’s free speech should be seen as either good or bad. Erec criticises and threatens Enide for warning him of danger, but it is Enide’s refusal to stay silent that awakens Erec, which ends the fighting between Erec and Guivret when Erec is weakened. Erec’s masculinity is the rationality for he and Enide to travel in the first place: his inaction causes many to theorise that Enide has somehow weakened him, making Erec an object of derision.
Chrétien de Troyes’ Role in Arthuriana and the Poem’s Popularity
Lynn Ramey goes on to tell us that Chrétien de Troyes played a primary role in the formation of Arthurian romance. Érec et Énide has numerous common aspects of Arthurian romance, such as Arthurian characters, chivalric quest, and women (or love) as a motivator to action. While it is not the first narrative to utilise conventions of the Arthurian characters and environment, Chrétien de Troyes is credited with the creation of the Arthurian romance genre by establishing anticipation with his contemporary audience based on its preceding knowledge of the subject matter. In Chrétien’s work, Enide is noteworthy for being the only woman named in a title.
According to Ruth Cline, Érec et Énide was popular in its day. The poem was translated into several other languages, notably German in Hartmann von Aue’s Erec and Welsh in Geraint ac Enid (Geraint and Enid), one of the Three Welsh Romances included in the Mabinogion (Mabinogi). Many authors explicitly acknowledge their debt to Chrétien, while others, such as the anonymous author of Hunbaut (13th Century AD), betray their influence by the suspiciously emphatic assurance that they are not plagiarising. However, these tales are not always precisely true to Chrétien’s original poem, such as in Geraint ac Enid, in which Geraint (unlike Erec) suspects Enid of infidelity.
Sources and Versions of the Poem, and its Comparison to other Stories
Érec et Énide is currently extant in seven manuscripts and assorted fragments. A prose version was made in the 15th Century AD. The first modern edition, by Immanuel Bekker, dates from 1856. The second is an edition by Wendelin Foerster from 1890. Joseph Wittig, in “The Aeneas-Dido Allusion in Chrétien’s Erec et Enide” (Comparative Literature, 1970), has compared aspects of the story to that of Dido, Queen of Carthage and Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid. Enide does not lose her lover nor commit suicide, but many links can be shown between Erec’s bit-by-bit maturing process throughout the tale and Aeneas’ kindred development.
Érec et Énide is the second of Chrétien de Troyes’ five romance poems, one of the four completed works. The poem tells the story of Erec and Enide’s marriage, as well as their journey to repair Erec’s reputation as a knight. It is one of the earliest known Arthurian romances, predated only by the Welsh Culhwch ac Olwen. Érec et Énide displays the motifs of love and chivalry, tests and trails, Christianity, the romantic idea of love within marriage, and gender. The poem has many of the common elements of Arthurian romance, such as Arthurian characters, the chivalric quest, and women or love as a catalyst to action. Érec et Énide was popular in its day and was translated into several other languages, notably German and Welsh. Aspects of the story have been compared to that of Dido, Queen of Carthage and Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid. Even though Enide does not lose her lover nor commit suicide, many links can be shown between Erec’s maturing process throughout the tale and Aeneas’ similar development. Érec et Énide is indeed an intriguing poem with interlocking motifs, characters, and situations.