The First Question That Must Be
The first question that must be asked when considering this statement is what we mean by the “triumph” or “failure” of the Arthurian court. One possible reading is that the Arthurian court upheld a system of values of how knights and ladies should behave, and whether the court was a failure or success depends on whether or not these values are upheld by members of the court in their interactions throughout Chrétien’s romances. These values differed between men and women, but there were some that overlapped.
For knights of the court, one of the main ‘chivalric’ qualities that was seen as desirable was “proesce” or being able to accomplish the physical feats that knights were expected to perform during their adventures, such as fighting other knights in individual combat or overcoming monsters/mythical creatures such as giants. Yvain asserts that is setting out to seek adventures in order to test his courage and prowess, “por esprover ma proesce et mon hardemant” (Yvain 360-1) and knights are often described as “preu” (e.g. Erec 2547), meaning that they have ‘proesce’. However, as Duggan points out, “Pröesce also, however, entails having the intelligence (sen) and the knowledge (savoir) to know when to exercise those skills, so Erec has wisdom (sagesce). He is faithful (leal) to his lord and ready, not just to be brave (vaillant) and to fight for him with boldness (hardement), but to give him sound advice in time of need, which is to say that he does what a good vassal should and so is endowed with vasselage.” This shows that being a ‘good’ or worthy knight was not just about the physical feats, but also about knowing how to give good advice and about behaving properly with good manners.
Having ascertained what the ‘chivalric virtues’ prized by the court might be, we must look at whether the characters are successful in adhering to them. The first knight I will look at is Erec. Erec clearly demonstrates physical prowess during the course if his adventures with Enide, he defeats Ydier and wins the sparrow-hawk for Enide, he defends himself against the eight knights who attack him on his journey through the forest with Enide, protects Enide from the two counts Oringle and Gaolain, defeats the king Guivret and is victorious in the challenge of the ‘Joy of the court’. However, after his marriage to Enide, Erec neglects his duties as a knight because he is so enraptured by his new wife, and as a result, his esteem in the eyes of the rest of the court is diminished. This appears to show a contradiction in the values of the court, as a knight is expected to perform great deeds of chivalry, while also being a good lover.
This opposing of responsibilities is also experienced by Yvain who is persuaded by Gauvain to leave his new wife and compete in tournaments for a year, and consequently forgets to return to his wife within the allotted year. The fact that Yvain breaks his word to his wife could be seen as a failure to obey the ‘moral code’ of the court, but since none of the other knights are known for breaking their word, and Yvain’s reaction of being so ashamed of what he has done that he is literally driven out of his mind, this appears to be a criticism of Yvain as an individual rather than of the court as a whole.
Chrétien also presents the virtues that were expected of a king. In lines ‘Erec and Enide’ Arthur speaks about his duties as the king in upholding the law and when administering justice (Erec lines 1789-1810). Arthur appears to adhere to these values when mediating the conflict between the two daughters of Noire Espine, as although he clearly sympathises with the cause younger daughter, and knows that her elder sister has cheated her and is clearly in the wrong: “bien savoit que la pucele tort avoit vers sa seror, trop desleal” (Yvain lines 5903-5905); he still follows the customs of the court and allows trial by combat to go ahead. Nevertheless, when the combat proves inconclusive he does take a more assertive stance and tricks the elder sister into admitting she has behaved maliciously by asking “Ou est, fet il, la dameisele qui sa seror a fors botée de sa terre, et deseritée par force et par male merci?” (Yvain lines 6378-6381).