"Chretien De Troyes has had the peculiar fortune of becoming the best known of the old French poets to students of medieval literature, and of remaining practically unknown to anyone else." So begins the introduction to my old Everyman's edition of Chretien De Troyes' Arthurian Romances. Judge for yourself if it is true. Since I think it is true with possible exceptions (myself being one exception), a little background is called for.
Almost nothing is known of Chretien except that he was from the French town of Troyes (or wrote at Troyes, or in some other way was connected to Troyes) and that he lived during the 12th. century. His subject is the Arthurian legends, of course, of which he is the first writer we have of "the matter of Britain." Although he is the first known writer, the theme was already old and Mr. De Troyes (er, Mr. Chretien?) assumes his reader is familiar with the subject.
The subject, despite the name, has little to do with king Arthur. His court is a sort of ideal or inner circle that everyone wants to imitate or be a part of. Chivalry and knight errantry being prerequisites for membership, everyone takes to horse and sets off on a perilous quest. Among the many knights going hither and thither, Chretien follows the adventures of four: Erec, Cliges, Yvain, and Lancelot. Each character has an independent book titled after its respective hero.
To try and explain the plot of each book would just make me more confused than I already am. Besides, in many places the "plot" is just a sequences of adventures strung together. The Cliges and Erec were totally new to me and I am unaware of other versions (but there probably are some). The Lancelot, on the other hand, I thought I know a little about, but aside from the name and an infatuation with Guinever, the story could have been completely new, so unsimiliar was it to anything I had previously read about him.
No post is complete without a quote from C.S.Lewis (yes, Lewis is the only reason I know who Chretien De Troyes is). According to Lewis, Chretien "was one of the first explorers of the human heart, and is therefore rightly to be numbered among the fathers of the novel of sentiment" (29).
Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love: a Study in Medieval Tradition. Oxford University Press. 1968