Academic journal article Arthuriana

Gauvain and Gringalet: Comic Masculinities in Paien De Maisières

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Gauvain and Gringalet: Comic Masculinities in Paien De Maisières

Article excerpt

Two short romances about Gauvain, La Mule Sans Frein and Le Chevalier à l'Épée represent the hero as a comic figure. Reading between these texts and Chrétien's Conte du Graal reveals the degree to which the figure of the knight is queered by his relationship to horses and other animals. (MBM)

The two short tales known as Le Chevalier à l'Épée (The Knight With the Sword) and La Mule Sans Frein (The Mule Without a Bridle) may or may not be by the same author, but both exist in a clearly parodic relationship to the work of Chrétien de Troyes, a relationship that would be obvious even if the narrator of La Mule Sans Frein did not name himself Paien de Maisières, a hard name to take seriously. In the courtly world imagined by Chrétien, the problem at the center of the romance always concerns the relationships between men and women-can a good knight also be a good husband? Can an adulterous lover be a good knight? Must the knight choose between his brothers-in-arms and his lady? In these two narratives about Gauvain, however, the central relationship is neither that between knight and courtly lady nor between knight and boon companion, but rather between man and beast, between Gauvain and a mule, between Gauvain and a pair of greyhounds, or between Gauvain and his horse Gringalet. In what follows, I will look briefly at La Mule Sans Frein, and rather more closely at Le Chevalier a l'Épée, before turning to Chrétien's Conte du Graal in order to argue that in these tales, and indeed in the Arthurian tradition more broadly, neither the heterosexual nor the homosocial seems to work for Gauvain, and that what is leftover is not the homosexual, but in fact something queerer yet.1

The precise relationship between these two texts and Chrétien's work is unclear. In their edition, R.C. Johnston and D.D.R. Owen agree that the question of authorship may not be finally resolvable; they would like to imagine Chrétien himself as having composed the two poems in his spare time, but admit that 'if not the author, then Chrétien was the inspirer of our texts; and they develop further the particular line of burlesque [in regard to Gauvain] that he began.'2 Harry F. Williams rejects Chrétien's authorship entirely,3 while I am inclined to see both texts as the work of a single author, not Chrétien himself, but a tongue-in-cheek admirer and imitator. The texts survive in a single MS (Berne, Bibliothèque de la Ville 354) produced in a Burgundian workshop in the first part of the fourteenth century. In addition to the two Gauvain stories, Berne 354 contains a large number of fabliaux, some satires and religious poems; the Folie Tristan; a prose version of the Seven Sages of Rome and, significantly, Chrétien's Conte du Graal.4 This rather motley collection raises several questions: why include Chrétien's longest romance beside these shorter and more ecclectic narratives? Are the two tales about Gauvain more like romances, because they concern a member of Arthur's court? Or like fabliaux because of their comic content? Is their inclusion related to or even inspired by the presence of the Conte du Graal, in which Gauvain plays a central role? That the tales were popular is demonstrated by the number of later authors who drew upon them-not least, of course, the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The narrative of La Mule Sans Frein is reasonably straightforward, even if its implications are not. A damoisele arrives at Arthur's court riding a mule that she controls using only a halter and requests the help of a knight to regain her bridle, which has been wickedly taken away from her ('mauvaisement m'est toluz,' l. 80). Kay demands the quest, climbs onto the mule, and is carried away into a wilderness where he is terrified by lions, tigers, leopards, serpents, scorpions and so on, even though they bow out of respect to the mule. Finally, he comes to a river crossed only by a slender bridge of iron, where he gives up and runs for home. …

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