The notion of courtly love refers to the literary tradition of Middle Ages. Undoubtedly, heroes that experienced courtly love were brave knights who faced various barriers for love of beautiful ladies. Thus, romance Lancelot, as well as Tristan can be regarded as perfect representatives of refined love and knightly valor. Both male characters of Chretien de Troyes’ and Gottfried von Strassburg’s literary pieces are portrayed as perfect men and lovers. Thus, Lancelot provides the audience with the tale about the warrior of great power and courage who has experienced fin amor to queen Guinevere. In comparison, Tristan performs courtly love of brave knight and queen Isolde. At the same time, Chretien de Troyes and Gottfried von Strassburg ironically ridicule the concept of courtly love in both romances because knights’ praising of the beauty of their ladies and worship for their kindness destroy the idea of masculinity. Therefore, although Lancelot, as well as Tristan can be considered equally affirmative literary pieces of fin amor, the periodical hints of an entertained and even satirical narrator’s attitude toward the characters claim that they both are meant to be read as thoroughly ironic.
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While the central idea of refined love is humble service of the lover to his lady in order to succeed her mercy, the transformation that male character undergoes under influence of this love can be regarded as humorous reversal of social believes and values of the age. For instance, Lancelot is forced to suffer public shame and social ridicule traveling on a cart for convicts, “Offenders were punished / By being set in the cart” (Troyes & Raffel, 1997, 333-334). It should be noted that, Lancelot’s neglect of generally accepted social code provoked by courtly love is the depiction of Chretien de Troyes’ ironic attitude towards the refined love that compels men to go against society and their own beliefs. At the same time, such Lancelot’s abandonment of social believes is also ironical because it demonstrates ridiculous nature of values of the age. Moreover, driven by love, Lancelot often violates the code of honor accepted between the knights. Thus, Chretien’s protagonist is engaged in love affair with Arthur’s queen that can be observed as the biggest neglect of the code of conduct. In addition, the travel on a cart also serves as a clear example of Lancelot’s violation of the knights’ code. Compared to Lancelot, Tristan also goes against the code of honor. Thus, the knight’s refined love to queen Isolde forces them to adultery – faithfully serving king Mark, Tristan betrays the promise given by him to the king, and thus violets the code of honor. Moreover, Tristan breaks social order – the knight allows love, as well as physical passion to be over the code of conduct and the norms of feudal society. Therefore, although both Lancelot and Tristan forced by courtly love often eschew the demands of the code of conduct, as well as social norms of the age in order to demonstrate their loyalty towards their beloved ladies, these code and believes are ironically depicted by the authors of romances.
Furthermore, courtly love in romances Lancelot and Tristan is used to show the irony of portrayal of knights that instead of being representatives of strong masculine power display weakness of spirit. In Lancelot, the cognominal hero becomes greatly influenced by love he experiences towards the queen. Although Lancelot is a warrior, he does not seem to be discreet, determined, and focused on his soldiery because love to Guinevere has knocked the bottom out of him. Thus, Chretien’s protagonist tends to think more than act that becomes obvious in the scene of an attempted rape, where Lancelot hesitates whether to intervene or not. Moreover, the knight ponders between love and honor, but undoubtedly he leaps into the cart in order to save his beautiful lady. Thereby, it can be assumed that Lancelot might lose consciousness only from the thought of Guenevere. Indeed, the man notices a comb with a strand of the queen’s hair, and he almost falls down of the horse. Moreover, Lancelot’s mind is so captured by thoughts about Guinevere that he does not hear or see anything and anyone around him. Thus, Lancelot does not hear the challenge of another knight, which is forced to knock the man from the horse into a river in order to refresh his mind. In Tristan, although the protagonist falls in love with beautiful Isolde under the magic of the love potion, the male hero loses his masculinity serving the beautiful lady. Thus, courtly love changes Tristan’s perspective on life because he becomes intoxicated by its power – the hero no longer has his chivalrous force. Despite showing honor and nobility as it was required from the knights, Tristan passionately devotes himself to a lady and does not remain true to his duty to the king. Therefore, the power of courtly love over Lancelot and Tristan is extremely high – without it the knights risk losing their prowess.
In addition, romance Lancelot, as well as Tristan can be considered a deliberate irony at courtly love that intoxicates human mind and will.
A constant conflict between Lancelot’s reason and courtly love shacked his balance:
Reason, which warred
With Love, warned him to take care;
It taught and advised him never
To attempt anything likely
To bring him shame or reproach. (Troyes & Raffel, 1997, 364-368).
Moreover, the knight’s obsession with Guinevere forces him to make ill-considered deeds. Thus, while Lancelot’s mind is poisoned by courtly love to his lady, the life of the knight is on the stake – he does not only endanger to be killed by a fiery lance when he sleeps in an uncertain bed, but is also almost driven to suicide. In contrast, Tristan does not directly fall in love with Isolde – it is the love poison that intoxicates the knight’s reason. Moreover, at the end of Gottfried’s tale, the mind of Tristan becomes confused with multiple Isoldes (Gentry, 1988). It is quiet ironic, because the author of romance underlines that courtly love cannot be regarded as the most powerful feeling that overcomes all barriers while it cannot cope with confusion – the knight falls to recognize his “true love”. Thereby, although courtly love has destructive impact on the knight’s reason, it is also ridiculed to be the real love when one of the lovers, Tristan, does not distinguish between several Isoldes.
Both Lancelot and Tristan are entertaining and mysterious poems that underline enigmatic nature of curtly love. Although these Arthurian romances celebrate courtly love, they ironically establish Tristan and Lancelot apartness from a code of honor. Such values as respect, nobility, social norms, and the knight’s fidelity to the king are all neglected by the lovers who experience courtly love. Ironically, courtly love depicted in Lancelot and Tristan can be regarded as adestructive power of the social order because it exists outside the conventions of social believes of the age. It can be assumed that such ironical representation of courtly love involving the treason of a king that is a serious threat to the social hierarchy can be regarded as ridicule of society of Medieval age and akin of impulse for change. Therefore, Lancelot and Tristan are ironic literary pieces because they both portray courtly love, which being based on the adultery still claims to be the purest feeling in the world that neglects social and cultural values, and thus puts love above society.
- Gentry, F. (1988). Tristan and Isolde: Gottfried von Strassburg. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
- Troyes, C., & Raffel, B. (1997). Lancelot: The knight of the cart. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.