by Chrétien de Troyes
(ca. 1176–77)
   The ROMANCE of Cligès is thought to be the second of CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES’s extant romances because the author begins the poem with “The poet who wrote of Erec / And Enide” (“Cil qui fist d’Erec et d’Enide”) (1–2), and refers to works he has translated (including Ovid’s Art of Love), but does not mention his three other romances (YVAIN, LANCELOT, and PERCEVAL). The patron for Cligès, like the patron for the earlier EREC AND ENIDE, may have been a member of the Plantagenet family, and the poem was most likely presented to a courtly audience in expectation of a reward. Unlike Erec and Enide, with its various and related chivalric romance adventures centered around the titular couple, Cligès is a complexly structured romance in which the character of the title does not even appear until line 2365; the first third of the almost 7,000-line poem is concerned with the story of Cligès’s parents, Alexander and Sordamour. In this first part of the romance, Alexander, the son of the emperor of Greece, travels to King ARTHUR’s fabled court in Britain to “better understand honor” (86) and win fame and renown.
   The first section of the romance engages to the full the literary convention of a knight seeking arms and adventure and finding love. In this case the love interest is the queen’s companion, the beautiful Sordamour, who had always “laughed at love” (443), until she sees Alexander. After pages of love laments and feats of arms, the lovers are joined and Sordamour gives birth to a son, Cligès. The narrative then employs a device to connect the two plots: Upon the death of Alexander’s father (the emperor of Greece), Alis, the younger brother of Alexander, takes the title of emperor (he is told that his brother has died in a shipwreck).When Alexander hears of this he sets out for Greece where, rather than openly challenge his brother for the throne, for the sake of peace comes to an agreement with him whereby Alexander rules the country but Alis retains the crown and the title of emperor. Alexander is not entirely happy with this arrangement and makes Alis promise that he will never marry and that in time both title and crown will go to Alexander’s son, Cligès. Through this compromise peace is achieved.
   Years pass (in a few poetic lines), and on his deathbed Alexander tells his now grown son that to discover his worth and be tested in courage and virtue, he must go to King Arthur’s court. Alexander and Sordamour are quickly dispatched into death’s arms, and the story now turns to Alis, who is persuaded by evil barons to break his promise to his brother and marry the daughter of the German emperor. Unfortunately for Alis, he takes Cligès with him to claim his bride in Germany where Fenice (Alis’s intended) and Cligès fall in love at first sight. Fenice and Alis marry, but with the aid of a potion,Alis only dreams that the marriage is consummated. After pages of expressive and extensive love laments, punctuated with feats of arms, Cligès and Fenice declare their love for one another and plan the means by which they can be together. If this begins to sound familiar, it should, because the romance of TRISTAN AND ISOLDE is inscribed into this romance both literally and thematically. And if the reader does not immediately recognize the parallels, the poet draws attention to the romances’ shared issues with the lovers, and particularly Fenice, repeatedly claiming that the love of Tristan and Isolde is what their love is not. Indeed, the poet repeatedly offers his romance as the antithesis or anti-Tristan and Isolde story. The reasoning behind this authorial claim seems to be that while Tristan and Isolde commit adultery against Isolde’s husband, King Mark, the lovers in Cligès do not commit adultery because Fenice’s marriage to Alis has never been consummated, and that the lovers are justified in their actions (whatever they may be) because Alis broke his promise to his brother. This justification may seem somewhat spurious (Tristan and Isolde, after all, fall in love only after mistakenly drinking a love potion), and the very insistence that this love is not the immoral love of Tristan and Isolde acts more to emphasize the similarities than to make clear moral distinctions.And, like their romance counterparts, the lovers do manage to escape Fenice’s husband and enjoy an idyllic interlude before they are discovered. After they flee to Britain, news comes that Alis has died and the lovers return to Greece to claim the scepter and orb. Nonetheless, the happily-ever-after conclusion does not extend past the reign of Cligès and Fenice: In the concluding lines the poet tells us that from that time forward the empresses are kept locked away because of Fenice’s deceit and tricks, and that no uncastrated men are admitted to their seclusion.
   Cligès may be Chrétien’s most enigmatic romance. While the diptych structure of two stories of paired lovers becomes popular in 13th-century romances, the structure itself is based on the Tristan and Isolde story. This structural influence, coupled with the constant refrain in the second part of the diptych that they are not Tristan and Isolde, suggests a tripart or triptych structure in which the Tristan and Isolde romance is the necessary background to the two central narratives. As such, and given the narrative’s insistent moral condemnation of the adulterous affair of Tristan and Isolde, the narrative seems overwhelmingly concerned with complexly confused issues of morality and immorality. This narrative division, so evident in the structure of the poem, is paralleled in the thematics of the poem with its excess and literalization of conceits from PETRARCH; its focus on the bodily, material aspects of what are more commonly romance figures and metaphors (arrows through eyes, two hearts becoming one, etc.); and in the poem’s insistence upon the fragmentation of bodies, which occurs both during the love laments and during the battle scenes, which are some of the most violent (dismemberment, beheadings, etc.) in Chrétien’s works. The romance of Cligès is disturbing in its details and thematically complicated; in turn parodic and didactic, moralistic and indulgent, the romance invites a full range of critical responses, which are becoming increasingly important to the study of Chrétien de Troyes’s works. In common with other romances, Cligès promotes ideals of right kingship, the importance of legitimate inheritance, and the liberal conduct of the “true” knight. Nonetheless, the moral problems with which the romance is concerned and its seeming inability to reconcile the varied models of adultery and deceit leave the reader with more questions than answers, with moral uncertainties and the failure of perfect resolution.
   ■ Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès. Translated by Burton Raffel. With an afterword by Joseph Duggan. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.
   ■ ———. Sir Cleges. Edited by Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, in The Middle English Breton Lays, TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, Medieval Institute Publications, 1995, 367–408.
   ■ Duby, Georges. The Knight, the Lady, and the Priest: The Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France. Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.
   ■ Freeman, Michelle A. The Poetics of Translatio Studii and Conjointure: Chrétien de Troyes’s Cligès. French Forum Monographs 12. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum, 1979.
   ■ Haidu, Peter. Aesthetic Distance in Chrétien de Troyes: Irony and Comedy in Cligès and Perceval. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1968.
   ■ Kelly, Douglas. Medieval French Romance. Twayne’s World Authors Series 838. New York: Twayne, 1993.
   ■ Noble, Peter S. Love and Marriage in Chrétien de Troyes. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1982.
   ■ Polak, Lucie. Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès. Critical Guides to French Texts 23. London: Grant and Cutler, 1982.
   Elisa Narin van Court

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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