Love's Ruses and Traps in Late Arthurian Literature: A Reading of Pierre Sala's Tristan et Lancelot

Article excerpt

Reconsidering from a surprisingly modern perspective the relationships among the great Arthurian knights, Pierre Sala's Tristan et Lancelot reflects the crisis in values characteristic of late medieval literature. (AC)

Long absent from common reference works, the work of Pierre Sala (1457- 1529) is the subject of revived interest today. The change is undoubtedly motivated by a renewal of our perspectives on literary history, based on the entirely natural desire to explore the margins of the canon-of what we have been taught to consider as 'literarily correct.' This about-face invites us to dust off an engaging figure who may seem to be the perfect example of an 'untimely' writer (unzeitgemäss, Nietzche would say)-from two points of view: on the one hand, he seems anachronistic in his own era; on the other, he forces us to revise our preconceptions about the evolution of medieval literature.

An author of Arthurian romances at a time when-or so it is believed-not much more was being done than reprinting old epic poems;1 a contemporary of the Grands Rhétoriqueurs [Great Rhetoricians] who was apparently even more reactionary than they were; a compatriot of Maurice Scève, Louise Labé, and the first important editors of the French Renaissance; a leading citizen from the provinces who was passionate about antiquities of all sorts (Roman as well as French, an eclecticism that would no longer be possible at the end of the sixteenth century), Pierre Sala does not belong to any school or clearly identifiable movement. Apparently resistant to Gutenberg's invention (this is not the least 'anachronistic' aspect of his personality), Sala never entrusted his manuscripts to printers, and it is only in the twentieth century that his work began to be edited: much remains to be done.2

Moreover, his literary activity came to fruition late in life: at first a servant in the royal house, he started by writing compilations, then he adapted fables before launching into the strange enterprise of rewriting in the same octosyllabic meter a romance by Chrétien de Troyes composed three centuries earlier, Le Chevalier au Lion (1522)3-at a time when, for the overwhelming majority of his contemporaries, the old verse romance had already sunk into oblivion. A few years before his death (between 1525 and 1529), he finished his career by composing an Arthurian prose romance which, although a direct descendent of the great thirteenth-century summas, nevertheless makes an extremely original contribution to the continuation of the adventures of both Tristan and Lancelot. A labor of old age, his Tristan et Lancelot can thus seem to be the work of an entire lifetime, for which all his earlier texts might be considered as simple preparation. In this process, a particular place must be reserved for the stage devoted to the Chevalier au Lion, our author's first leap into truly novelistic writing, a sort of experimental gallop that takes the form of a rewriting at moments so servile that one can well imagine the paradoxes it raises being glossed by Borges.4 Yet it offers at other times shifts that, though often nearly imperceptible, lay out in exemplary fashion the ideological evolution of knighthood between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries.

Had he died at the age of sixty, Pierre Sala would only have left the literary reputation of a 'polygraph' who had not truly found his way. But with his last romance everything changes. The best way to show the originality of this text is to consider the vagaries undergone by the title over the course of the twentieth century. The work was first published by Droz in 1985 under the simple title of Tristan.5 Its editor, Lynette Muir, seems to have found the idea that this is a version of the Tristan and Iseut story so obvious that in the index of characters the term 'passim' is placed after the names of Tristanand Iseut! While this indication is justified for Tristan, who is certainly present in 70% to 80% of the book's pages, it is fallacious for Iseut, who only appears in 15% to 20% of the narrative. …