Eric and Enid
by Chrétien de Troyes
translated by William Wister Comfort
A prose adaptation of Chrétien’s four completed Arthurian romances, this book is highly readable, capturing the romance — in all senses of that word — of Chrétien’s work. Now, Comfort seems, to judge from his introduction, to have been most interested in, or saw Chrétien as most interested in, just that; the pleasing narrative, the excitement and adventure. In the past century, though (for these translations are now a century old), I have the sense that scholarship has re-examined these works, with more of an eye for social aspects and thematic coherency. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, some scholars are now calling Chrétien the inventor of the modern novel.
That last seems a bit of a stretch to me, but I do find that this book hints at psychological acuity in the stories that doesn’t always entirely come across in Comfort’s words. I don't know if that’s a function of the translation or not. I do know that the stories all broke down very nicely into a tripartite structure. And that the theme of love seems to bind the stories internally, as well as each to each (some of them, notably Yvain and Lancelot, link up on a plot level as well).
The stories themselves are excellent, as you might expect. They twist and turn, and develop in intriguing ways. There’s a wealth of imagination here, as well, and coming near the beginning of the Arthurian tradition, some things happen that you don’t expect. More to the point, there’s a feel to these stories, in Comfort’s translation, that’s quite evocative. The details of dress and heraldry are described precisely; it seems logical to presume that they contain a wealth of meaning or references that are missed by modern audiences. Or, at least, by me.
When you read works from centuries past, especially eight centuries past, you have to be aware that writers and storytellers had different conventions, and different ideas of what they were doing and how they were doing it. Certainly some aspects of narrative are consistent across human experience. But perhaps fewer than you’d think. So Comfort translated Chrétien with his own expectations in place; reading these works now, trying to be more open to different conventions, it’s tempting to try to guess at what the translator missed. But that’s ultimately pointless. The texts are the texts. Take them for what they are, and draw from them what you will. Chrétien’s tales have lasted this long; they’ll last some while further, and be reinterpreted in each age to come.