Arthurian Tradition and the Middle Dutch Torec
Kerth, Thomas, Arthuriana
This essay compares the stock situations in Torec with those found in earlier romances of Chrétien de Troyes and German romanciers in order to demonstrate that the author(s) of Torec was familiar with the topoi of the 'classical' Arthurian romances and exploited them. (TK)
Even the reader unfamiliar with Dutch literary tradition soon finds himself on familiar ground in Torec, one of the five Middle Dutch Arthurian romances that survive as interpolations between the Queeste vanden Grale [The quest for the Grail] and Arturs doet [The death of Arthur] in the Lancelot Compilation.1 This cycle, preserved in The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS 129 A 10, was compiled in Brabant between 1320 and 1325, and is the surviving second volume of a verse rendition of the French Lancelot-Grail prose cycle (1215-1235).2 J.D. Janssens speaks for many others when he summarizes, 'Middle Dutch Arthurian romance is strongly influenced by the work of Chrétien de Troyes and his immediate imitators,'3 for in addition to the 'new' knights and damsels, whose deeds form the plots of these episodic romances, one meets again the familiar characters associated with King Arthur's court in the earlier French and German romances: Artur himself, Genevre, Walewein (=Gawain), Ywain, Lanceloet, Percheval, Keye.4 There are, however, differences, innovations in these Dutch romances. Walewein, for example, is not the womanizer and object of female desire, as he is often portrayed in the other literary traditions,5 but instead, the epitome of chivalry, der aventuren vader [father of adventures]. Keye, if anything, is even more curmudgeonly and more treacherous than elsewhere, and Artur is a king who can be unjust and arbitrary, but is nevertheless admired and respected as a powerful warrior who can defeat all the knights of the Round Table in single combat.
While it goes without saying that the medieval poet was not obsessed with the concept of originality, all epigonal poets writing in the Arthurian tradition were (and are) faced with a dilemma: how to add new knights to the Arthurian pantheon or to tell new adventures about established knights without either being too imitative of the established tradition by simply recombining their elements or too innovative, thereby violating the conventions of the genre altogether. Bart Besamusca has written that Torec is 'highly exceptional in Arthurian literature,'6 and David F. Johnson and Geert Claassens caution that 'a reader expecting a traditional Arthurian romance will be disappointed...The story is not linked to the world of Arthurian romance in a conventional fashion.'7 The present study, however, intends to demonstrate that Torec is, at least in one respect, very much a conventional Arthurian romance, in that many traditional elements also found in the earlier Old French and Middle High German romances have been incorporated into the adventures of this decidedly Middle Dutch hero.
It must be noted, however, that in this regard the textual history of this romance presents several difficulties. The Torec of the Compilation is assumed to be an adaptation of an earlier Middle Dutch text, Toerecke, listed among the works of the famous Flemish poet and translator, Jacob van Maerlant (ca. 1235-90), in his Istory van Troyen [History of Troy (ca. 1264)],8 which, in turn, is presumed to be the translation of a French romance, now lost. That such a romance existed seems confirmed by a fourteenth-century catalogue of the books of Isabelle of Bavaria, wife of King Charles VI of France, which refers to a Torrez chevalier au cercle dor [Torrez, knight of the golden circlet]. This would place the source of the text eventually found in the Lancelot Compilation much closer in time to Chrétien and his 'immediate imitators' (Janssens) than the text one finds in the Compilation itself. Several scholars have attempted to analyze what belonged to the 'original' French romance, what van Maerlant may have added to it in his translation, and what the later compiler may have added or deleted. But since no trace of the Maerlant text and the presumed French source has survived, the version of Torec in the Compilation is a de facto Middle Dutch unicum, if not exactly an original, and any investigation of Arthurian parallels is forced to rely upon it. Added to this textual problem is the issue of the oral tradition, the excesses of which famously angered even Wace; therefore, no attempt is being made here to claim that the author of any of the presumed versions of Torec used any of the earlier texts as his direct source. Rather, we wish to explore generally how consistent the Compilation version of Torec is with the Arthurian tradition as found in the first and second generations of Arthurian romances, or with what might have just been 'in the air,' part of the oral tradition available to the French and German romanciers, as well as to the Middle Dutch author(s) of Torec.
Torec begins not at the court of King Artur,9 and not even with the eponymous hero, but with his prehistory, one might even say his preprehistory, for it tells of the winning of Torec's grandmother, Mariole, by King Briant of the Red Island. Readers will know that Chrétien did not generally employ the pre-history as a means of introducing the knightly hero in his Arthurian romances; Erec, Yvain and Lancelot are already established members of his court when their adventures begin.10 Perceval, however, as is inherent in the structure of a Fair Unknown romance,11 begins with the hero's youth outside the court: his prehistory is revealed to him, and to the reader, by his mother in dialogue, although, as befits the genre, she does not reveal his name. It is only in Cligés that Chrétien experiments with the prehistory: he begins with the birth of the hero's father.
The German-language tradition shows a growing interest in the hero's prehistory. Hartmann von Aue, not surprisingly, follows Chrétien's structure in his translations of Erec (ca. 1180-90) and Yvain (ca. 1199-1205),12 but Wolfram von Eschenbach, who frees himself from Chrétien's model, devotes the first two books of his Parzival13 (ca. 1200-1210) to the exploits of the hero's father. The German treatments of the Tristan material also show some interest in the prehistory: Eilhart von Oberge's Tristran14 (ca. 1170) takes the reader in just a few lines (ll. 72-102) from the courtship of the hero's parents through his mother's death in childbirth; Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan,15 however, written some thirty years later, more or less at the same time as Parzival, expands this prehistory fiftyfold (ll. 243-1748). Similarly, Wirnt von Gravenberg's Wigalois16 (ca. 1204-10) recounts how the hero's father, Gawain, wins and unintentionally abandons his pregnant wife (ll. 388-1217). But while the writers of the German romances seem to be employing the prehistory as a way of establishing a hero's genetic destiny, the propensity to behave like or unlike his father, the author of Torec has a much more direct purpose: Torec's prehistory establishes both the motive and the goal of his quest.
While hunting in the woods, King Briant finds the maiden Mariole wearing a circlet, 'a crown...one of the best diadems / ever found in all the world' (Torec, ll. 14-16); she is sitting in a tree in the forest, where her father has placed her, so that the first man who rode by would claim her for his wife. This circlet, spoken of by Merlijn and sought in vain by the knights of the Round Table (ll. 44-49), is of great value, for its possessor will not 'lack for either wealth or honor' (l. 40). Mariole's association with the tree indicates her fairy origins,17 as does her circlet's ability to bestow wealth and honor upon her future husband. Later in the text Torec's great-uncle, Mariole's brother, is indeed revealed to be an elf. Although the Fairy Mistresses of folklore, and their associated trees and fountains, are not generally part of Chrétien's universe, with the possible exception of Yvain's Laudine, they do have their Arthurian precedents. Lanval meets just such a generous fairy mistress in Marie de France's Lanval (ll. 135-39),18 and Iblis, the third and final wife of Lancelot in Ulrich von Zatzikhoven's Lanzelet (ca. 1195-1200),19 has similar arboreal connections.
When the Knight of the Red Lion, Bruant vander Montangen, steals the circlet, the royal couple's happiness wanes: Queen Mariole fritters away their wealth in 'rejoicing and mirth' (l. 136), and King Briant dies within the year. Thereupon begins the tale of their daughter, Torec's mother, who is born following the death of the king. Mariole places her, unbaptized and thus unnamed, in a barrel that is cast into the sea, along with a letter that tells the history of the circlet and its theft. While the casting adrift of infants in vessels is a well-known motif in folklore-one need only think of Moses and the bulrushes-it is worthy of note that this act is usually motivated either by some explicit fear for the safety of the child or by a prophecy that the child will bring destruction upon the parents or upon the people as a whole. In De ortu Waluuanii, for example, baby Gawain, illegitimate son of Arthur's sister, Anna, and Loth of Norway, along with a document identifying him, is placed by his young mother in the care of foreign, seafaring merchants in order to save her honor; Gawain does not learn his name until he has proven his worthiness to King Arthur at the end of the work.20 In Torec, no explicit motive for the queen's behavior is offered. Perhaps one is merely meant to understand that Mariole is placing the fate of her fatherless daughter in the hands of God, who will see to her future. Without the letter, of course, Torec might have moved into the genre of a romance of the Fair Unknown; however, one element of the Fair Unknown does indeed obtain here: the unbaptized infant is nameless. When the barrel is discovered by Ydor, king of the land of the Baser River, he reads the letter and christens the child Tristoise, 'because she was born in sorrow' (l. 171). Here one cannot help but be reminded of the decision by Tristan's foster-father to name the orphaned boy thus, since 'triste' means 'sorrow' (Tristan, l. 1996).
When Tristoise comes of age, she marries her foster-father and soon bears him a child. When she realizes she has given birth to a son, she laughs out loud; this is regarded as a great marvel, 'for in all her days / she had not laughed until now' (ll. 190-92). Here again one finds a parallel to Tristan, since Chrétien cites his inability to laugh as his descriptive characteristic: 'Et Tristanz qui onques ne rist' [Tristan who never laughed (Erec, l. 1695)]. Similarly, the nameless maiden at Arthur's court in Perceval (ll. 1034-48; also Parzival, 151.22, and in Heinrich von dem Türlin's Diu Crône,21 l. 2229) returns Perceval's greeting with a smile-he is still dressed like a rude bumpkin-then laughter. She had not laughed for six years (in Wolfram and Heinrich, she had never laughed-like Tristoise) because, as the court jester had prophesied, 'Ceste pucele ne rira / jusque tant que ele verra / celui qui de chevalerie / avra tote la seignorie' [This maiden will not laugh until she sees the man who will be supreme among knights (ll. 1057-60)]. In Torec King Ydor prophesies that Tristoise will laugh only twice more in her life: when Torec vows to avenge both his mother and his grandmother by retrieving the circlet, and when she finally beholds the circlet, a signal that Torec's quest has come to an end.
Within less than ten lines of narration their son, Torec, develops into a man who possesses all the requisite education and skills of a knight; he particularly excels at riding, which is, of course, a knight's defining skill: 'He could also ride better than / any man, anywhere' (ll. 212-13). His expert horsemanship distinguishes Torec from and shows his superiority to earlier Arthurian youths: the difficulty of learning horsemanship without the proper (male) role-models is a theme in both Lanzelet and Perceval. In the former, the hero has been brought up only by maidens and mermen, who cannot teach him to ride (ll. 486-539). Young Perceval, brought up in the forest by his mother, is also an unskilled rider (Perceval, ll. 1427-50; Parzival, 173.11-174.6). But Torec faces no such problems: he is trained in proper fashion, then knighted at age twenty by his own father, that is, not in the context of the Arthurian world.
After setting off on his quest for the circlet, Torec and a maiden he has rescued from seven robbers inquire about lodgings along the way; they are told that the only castle for miles around is Castle Fellon, 'the cruelest castle / in the world' (ll. 301-4). Whoever approaches it is attacked by twelve knights; if the twelve, however, can be defeated, they will become the vassals of the victor. The castle with an 'evil custom' (l. 362) is a standard feature of the Arthurian landscape, and the trait of understanding every warning as a challenge is something else Torec shares with the older generation of Arthurian knights. Yvain, for example, has the same reaction when he is warned by the townspeople against seeking shelter at the castle of Pesme Avanture (Yvain, ll. 5107-86; Iwein, ll. 6085-163). Erec reacts similarly when he is warned against the adventure of the Joy of the Court (Chrétien, Erec, ll. 5413-71; Hartmann, ll. 7894-8047), as does Lanzelet, when the pleas of his wife, Iblis, actually spur him on to undertake the adventure of the Audacious Kiss (Lanzelet, ll. 7817-87). When Gawain is warned by a ferryman about the strong defenses and other perils awaiting him in the enchanted castle known as the Rock of Chanpguin, he explicitly states he might be taken for a recreant knight and a coward if he did not enter the castle, once having learned of the danger there (Perceval, ll. 7622-25; Parzival, 558.8-11). The same is true for Gawain in Diu Crône, when such warnings make him even more determined to face danger: 'ze vorhtlÎchen meine / Möhte man mir daz wol zeln, / Solt ich nâch iwerm râte weln' [I might well be thought a coward were I to follow your counsel (ll. 15084-6)]. Torec, like his fellow heroes in the older romances, ignores the warning and makes straight for Castle Fellon, where he breaks the evil custom. He differs slightly from his predecessors, however, in that he accepts the twelve defeated knights as his vassals and, indeed, continues to collect additional vassals throughout the romance; the older heroes, with the exception of Wigalois, are not interested in vassals and fiefdoms for themselves, but rather normally send their vanquished foes to submit themselves to King Arthur or to the queen.
Another interesting feature of this particular adventure is Torec's treatment of the horses of his enemies. Traditionally, the mount of a defeated enemy becomes the prize of the victor; here, the narrator makes a point of the fact that Torec returns the horses to their riders, once he has defeated them (ll. 340, 352). Indeed, not keeping these prizes but returning them to their rightful owners is a sign of exceptional benevolence, and Torec has previously been described as 'the most generous man / that anyone had ever known in those days' (ll. 210-11); Torec will later give away some of the 100 horses he wins during Myduel's tournament (ll. 2744-2800). In the interlaced adventures of Melions the Proud, that knight displays a similar generosity with captured horses (ll. 1059-63). Such gestures are not necessarily typical of the earlier romances. Erec, for example, keeps for himself the horses of eight robbers who had previously attacked him, but does, however, return Kay's mount after having unhorsed him. The reason for his gesture lies not with Kay, but with the horse: it is Gringalet. Erec returns Gringalet to Kay out of respect for Gawain (Chrétien, Erec, ll. 2795-3089, 4055-76; Hartmann, ll. 3113-3439, 4784-4812). Lanzelet keeps the horses of Kay, Yvain, and the Margrave of the Lile, after the vesper tournament at Djofle (ll. 2907-67). The Knight of the Surcoat, Gawain, at first keeps the horses of Arthur and Kay, but he later sends them as a gift to Guinevere (De ortu Waluuanii, pp. 106-109); Gasozein de Dragoz surrenders to Arthur the horses he has won by defeating Kay, Gales, and Aumagwin at Noirespine, that they also might be returned to their rightful owners (Diu Crône, l. 5081). Torec's motive may be more practical: if these twelve knights are indeed to be his vassals, he would be unwise to humiliate them or diminish their knightly honor by stripping them of the symbol of their rank.
One is also reminded of Gawain when Torec first identifies himself: 'Ic hete Torec...Ydors sone vander Baser rivire' [My name is Torec, son of Ydor of the Baser River (ll. 368-69.)]. It is, of course, conventional that a defeated knight is required to give his name to the victor, although it is often a matter of pride for the defeated knight to learn the name of the knight who has bested him (e.g. Mabonagrin, in Chrétien's Erec, ll. 6006-19; Hartmann, ll. 9325-65). Gawain is the great exception to that convention: he is proud of his position at Arthur's court and rarely hesitates to volunteer his identity. Indeed, when Torec later meets Walewein for the first time and asks his name, the latter answers without the slightest hesitation: 'Ic beent, Walewein' [It is I, Walewein (l. 1966)]. Paul Märtens observed long ago that in the French Prose Lancelot, Gawain frequently states, 'My name I have never concealed; I am Gauvain, the nephew of Arthur.'22 This tradition is also found, for example, in Lanzelet, where Gawain (Walwein) declares, 'sô bin ich ein der man, / der sich iu nennet âne schame: / Wâlwein sô heizet mÎn name, / des küneges Artûs swester barn' [I am the one man who names himself to you without shame. Walwein is my name, the son of King Arthur's sister (ll. 2492-95)], and in Diu Crône, 'MÎn name ist unverswigen, / Wan ich mich sÎn nie geschamt: / Gâwein bin ich zewâre genant / Daz weiz diu werlt allesamt' [My name is no secret, for I have never been ashamed of it. I am called Gawein, as everybody knows (ll. 1762-65)].23 The statement, 'My name is Torec,' or a slight variation of it, becomes an often repeated leitmotif in the text (e.g., ll. 453, 555, 735, 1434, 1517, 2160, 3075), and by allowing Torec to echo Gawain's trademark statement, the narrator is tacitly asserting Torec's greatness, likening him to that 'father of adventures.'
Torec learns from the aforementioned Melions that Bruant vander Montangen holds the secret to the object of his quest, the golden circlet, in his impenetrable castle, which is guarded night and day by two lions and two giants. The rather unlikely feature, that northern European landmarks are guarded by lions, also has a long tradition in the Arthurian romance. The far end of the Sword Bridge, across which Lancelot must pass in order to enter the land of Gorre and rescue Guinevere, is guarded by two lions or leopards (Lancelot, ll. 3046-135). In the Queste del Saint Graal, Lancelot encounters two lions guarding the tomb of his grandfather in the Perilous Forest, and another two guarding the gate of Castle Corbenic.24 Lanzelet must also battle two lions, as well as a giant and the wicked Lord Linier, in order to break the evil custom of Castle Limors (ll. 1725-50), and Gawain must defeat a lion as he tries to essay the adventure of the Wondrous Bed (Perceval, ll. 7849-7870; Parzival, 571.1-30). Gawain also defeats two lions and two dragons in the castle of the magician Gansguoter (Diu Crône, ll. 13230-303).25
As Torec prepares himself for battle against Bruant, he augments his knightly weapons, the sword and the lance, with a bow and arrows, weapons normally suitable for hunting but not for honorable combat; this may be explained by that fact that Torec's first opponents will be the lions and giants who guard his castle. Torec, however, soon abandons the bow in favor of proper, knightly arms: he slays the first giant with an arrow through the heart, but finishes off the second with his lance; the two lions are dispatched with lance and sword. This is consistent with the practice one finds in the older Arthurian texts, where the negative associations of the bow and arrow in combat are quite apparent (Yvain, ll. 2816-28; Iwein, ll. 3260-82; Parzival, 117.30-118.6; Lanzelet, ll. 8720-6). Gottfried lists the bow and crossbow as wÎcwer 'weapons of war,' but his Tristan only uses the crossbow for hunting (ll. 8754-5, 17252).
Torec enters the castle and finds Bruant sitting at the chessboard. Chess or the chessboard is often mentioned in Arthurian romances (e.g., Erec, ll. 357, 1712, Cligés, l. 2357, and Lancelot, l. 1646; Tristan, ll. 2214-31; Lanzelet, l. 4107; Wigalois, l. 10582; Diu Crône, ll. 643f, 29230-52). In a humorous twist, Gawain uses a chessboard as a shield, and the damsel he is courting hurls chessmen as missiles in Perceval (ll. 5896-6006; Parzival, 408.19-409.4; and in a similar episode in Diu Crône, ll. 18796-875). In Middle Dutch romance, chess games are often interpreted as an erotic contest between knight and damsel, which the damsel invariably loses.26 Here, however, the chessboard may be meant as a signal of Bruant's deceptive cunning: he subsequently wounds Torec with a poisoned sword. Bruant reveals to Torec what the reader already knows; namely, that the circlet is in the hands of Bruant's sister-in-law, Miraude-whose name is actually revealed only much later in the romance (l. 3231)-'the most beautiful woman in the world' (ll. 634-37).
Upon hearing of the excellence of this woman, who has vowed that she will never again take a husband unless he can unhorse all of the knights of the Round Table, Torec, in turn, vows that she and no other woman shall be his wife. In doing so, Torec's behavior is well within the courtly-and, to be sure, the pre-courtly-tradition of the Bridal Quest. Two parallels come immediately to mind. After hearing her beauty and grace praised by his nephew, Tristan, King Mark of Cornwall resolves to woo the Irish princess, Isolde (Tristan, ll. 8466-526). In Eilhart's earlier German version, a swallow enters the window of his hall carrying a golden hair in his beak, and Mark vows to marry only the maiden to whom that strand of hair belongs, here hoping that the task of finding her is impossible (Tristrant, 1381-1418). Similarly, Lanzelet vows to win the hand of Iblis, having only been told of her beauty by an abbot with whom he lodges for the night (Lanzelet, ll. 3870-928), and Gawain falls in love with Queen Amurfine von der Serre, of whom he essentially knows nothing but her name (Diu Crône, ll. 7796-9115).27
The events related in chapter five concerning Mabile of Montesclaer, a 'most beautiful' damsel, may well contain a direct