Cligès, by Chretien de Troyes

Here we have Chretien's second Arthurian tale, and once again I could see that many common tropes (habits?) of the Arthurian tradition have not yet quite gelled.  There is a town or two and the traditional storyline is not there yet.  This all makes it really interesting to read, since Chretien is creating much of the tradition as he writes.
Cligès proves himself at a tournament (in disguise, of course)

Cligès does not show up until at least halfway through the story.  It starts with his parents!  Alexander is the crown prince of Constantinople (which seems to be the capital city of Greece; we never hear of an empire, but Alexander and all his knights are called Greeks), and as a young man he sets off for Britain, for he knows that all the best knights are there and he is determined to be knighted by none other than Arthur himself.  Alexander joins Arthur's court and falls in love with one of the queen's maidens, and there is a very long description of both of their longings for each other.  At last they marry and have a son: Cligès.  They go back to Alexander's home, but his younger brother, thinking him dead, is now king.  He agrees to let Alexander rule in all but name, and to make Cligès his heir.

Felice fakes her death
Cligès, like his father, wishes to earn his knighthood in Britain.  His uncle, meanwhile, decides to break his promise and marry, so they all set out for the Saxons' country.  Uncle Alis' intended bride, Felice, and Cligès promptly fall in love but never admit it.  Felice, however, has no intention of being a second Iseult, and says so often.  She gets her nurse to make her a potion that will ensure that her husband never touches her, and never realizes the fact, so that she can save herself for Cligès.  After Cligès spends years at Arthur's court, they admit their love.  Felice fakes her death and goes to live in a fairy-tale tower, where Cligès can visit her.  They are discovered and fly for Britain, staying there until Alis dies and they can be properly married.

I thought it was interesting how Chretien consciously duplicates the Tristan and Iseult storyline, but makes this second Iseult a different person, which changes the whole thing.  Mind you Felice is still willing to live with Cligès while officially married to Alis, but I gather that since she was made to marry him and he was breaking his vow and she fixed it so he never touched her, it didn't quite count in their opinion. Or something.

I always enjoy how the Arthurian setting allows for a lot of fairy-tale magic.  Alexander and Cligès visit Arthur about 20 years apart, but that doesn't matter a bit; Gawain is as valorous as ever.  There is a tower full of wonderful secret cupboards and gardens that no one knows about in the middle of Constantinople--but of course no one lives in Constantinople except knights anyway.  Sure, Chretien talks about London and real places, but that doesn't matter.

I read Yvain just a couple of years ago, so I'm going to skip that and move on to Lancelot and the story of the cart. 


  1. Chretien de Troyes is the next on my Arthurian list and I already have him on my reader :) It's so exciting to see how tradition is formed!

  2. The time paradoxes were really funny! It's as if the Arthur's court never ages! :) But I like it that way. It's symbolic but kind of comforting :) The marriage potion is the best! I don't know why it's not used more often in stories!

  3. That potion would certainly be the perfect solution for many a maid married against her will! And yes, it is kind of comforting, isn't it. When it's Arthur's court, you really can go home again.


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