Erec and Enide
Nature bears witness that never was so exquisite a creature seen in the whole world. I tell you truly that the hair of the blonde Iseut did not shine so fair. . . Her brow and face were more pure and white than the lily. Her features were tinted with a fresh rosy hue wondrously painted by Nature upon the whiteness. Her eyes shone with such radiance that they seemed like two stars. Erec, p. 6
He could not look at her enough. The more he gazes, the more she pleases him. He cannot help kissing her. He delights in drawing close and keeping his eyes fixed on her. His gaze lingers over her fair hair, her laughing eyes and pure brow, her nose, face and mouth; and he is touched to the heart by a great tenderness. Erec, p. 20
The two passages from Chretien de Troyes’ Erec and Enide familiarize scholars of medieval literature with a new literary trend of the 12th century: the infusing of love in heroic epics. Knights in literature were coming to view women in an elevated light— as prized ladies they should aspire to gain by committing great deeds. These selections from the first part of Erec and Enide are prime examples of fictional knights’ idolization of women.
Erec and Enide’s first five pages move quickly. De Troyes introduces several characters right at the beginning, including: King Arthur, Queen Guenevere, Sir Gawain, Erec, a dwarf, and Yder. The plot progresses from King Arthur and Gawain’s debate about whether or not to hunt the white stag; to the actual event of hunting; to Erec and the queen spotting the rude knight and his dwarf; to the dwarf attacking Erec; to Erec deciding to follow the knight; to Erec discovering the vavasour’s dwelling— all in the first five pages. Yet after five pages of nonstop character development and plot progression, the action comes to a screeching halt in order for de Troyes to describe the vavasour’s poorly-dressed yet stunningly beautiful daughter on page 6. The space allotted for the maiden’s description is enormous; it spans almost half a page. By introducing the vavasour’s daughter with this amount of detail on page 6, de Troyes slows down the speed of story progression and practically gives readers a still-frame of the girl in all her splendor.
The large block of description and consequential slowing of action are especially noticeable because, up to page 6, the story has moved quickly and with sparse description. This marked deceleration emphasizes the maiden’s importance. It is as if the entire story has been rushed just to get to this part, where the narrator can devote the due amount of attention to deifying this girl: “Nature bears witness that never was so exquisite a creature seen in the whole world.” In a single sentence, the narrator has no less than ranked the maiden as being in league of her own; no woman before her was as extraordinarily beautiful as her. It is the narrator and not Erec that says so, which adds some power to the claim. Erec and Enide’s narrator is omniscient, and is therefore an all-knowing guide and truthful guide to this story’s readers. If Erec compliments the girl, it is opinion, but if the narrator does so, readers can take it for fact.
The narrator reaffirms the maiden’s glory by elevating her above another character of Arthurian legend: “the hair of the blonde Iseut did not shine so fair.” This idea of shining locks gives readers the sense that the maiden is above Iseut because of her purity; she has been a faithful Christian, so her halo adds a heavenly sheen to her hair. Although the idea that her shining hair represents her purity may seem suspect with only this much evidence, all doubts that the vavasour’s daughter is a symbol for purity are expelled in the sentences that come next: “Her brow and face were more pure and white than the lily. Her features were tinted with a fresh rosy hue wondrously painted by Nature upon the whiteness. Her eyes shone with such radiance that they seemed like two stars.” Here the narrator explicitly uses the word “pure” to illustrate the girl’s face. One can see that the narrator uses the common color symbolism of the era; it establishes the words “white” and “pure” as synonyms by using them together to describe her complexion: “pure and white.” In order to ensure that readers would agree that the maiden is not merely white and ghostlike but actually beautiful, the narrator comments on the girl’s “rosy red” features, but makes sure to return to the “pure and white” symbolism by comparing her eyes to stars. The “shining” quality to her is also repeated by the image of her eyes as radiant stars. Thus, nearly everything about her is white and shining. In the space of a few sentences, de Troyes captures the Medieval conception of beauty and purity in a woman.
The second passage takes place after Erec wins the girl and begins admiring her. The narrator reuses many of the same ideas and descriptions as the first. Again the moment is a half-page long pause in the action, and again the narrator names her brow, face, and eyes as features of hers that please Erec. Just in case readers forgot that the maiden was a model of perfection, the word “pure” reappears when describing her brow. The repetition of these elements reemphasizes the girl’s beauty and purity. At this point, readers been absolutely beaten over the head with the knowledge of her perfection. The purpose of this constant reemphasis may be to catch the notice of the even the story’s most casual readers. The maiden’s splendor is unmistakable to anyone reading the story because the idea is repeated and emphasized so frequently that it cannot be overlooked.
Nevertheless, for this narrator, the reminder of the girl’s beautiful facial features is still not enough. De Troyes adds a new element to glorify the vavasour’s daughter: Erec’s gaze. The narrator uses the word twice in this passage: “The more he gazes, the more she pleases him,” and “His gaze lingers over her fair hair.” Because the word “gaze” connotes pleasure and admiration, one can understand that this is one of Erec’s ways of rewarding himself for felling the evildoer. He committed great deeds, so he grants himself the pleasure of staring fixedly at his prized lady. As the passage suggests, the more he looks at the girl, the more elated he feels to have won the perfect spouse with his bravery. As if using two forms of the word “gaze” weren’t enough, the narrator also uses the verb “look” and the phrase “keeping his eyes fixed on her.” Erec’s obsessive, unending stare elevates this girl above all others in the story. It is important that de Troyes writes about Erec’s gaze because it proves that it is not just the narrator who is awestruck. Erec himself is amazed at her beauty and purity as well, and is fully devoted to serving her. His worship of the maiden makes him a quintessential knight of the romantic/heroic epic tradition and a great example of the new 12th century trend in literature.
De Troyes, Chrétien. Arthurian Romances, Trans. D.D.R. Owen. London: Everyman, 1987.