The Problematic Aspects Of The Knightly Code

Of Honor In Erec And Enide Essay, Research Paper

The Problematic Aspects of the Knightly Code of Honor in Erec and Enide

The medieval institution of knighthood lived and died by a code of chivalry that included courage, honor, loyalty, and consideration for others. The influences of Christianity and courtly love expanded the code of chivalry to include religious piety as well as refined social grace and manners. But despite the respectable nature of all it stood for, this knightly code of honor was depicted as having many problematic aspects in Chretien de Troyes’ Erec and Enide. These problems stemmed from a knight’s sense of pride, a feeling of obligation to avenge the wronged, and the eternal search for adventure and honor.

The story begins with King Arthur’s wish to revive the custom of the hunt for the white stag. The custom is such that, whoever kills the white stag, has the right to kiss the most beautiful maiden at court. This is complicated by the fact that there are at least five hundred beautiful young ladies in attendance whose knights would be greatly angered and insulted if the one that they served was not chosen as the loveliest of all. This could obviously cause many fights between the knights since their maiden’s beauty helped to distinguish them amongst themselves. Pride goes hand in hand with knighthood, and in this situation much pride would be hurt, and possibly cause rifts between friends as well as lovers.

It was during this hunt, that Erec son of Lac accompanies Queen Guinevere and her maid in waiting into the forest. A horrible dwarf in service of a knight lashes the lady in waiting for no reason at all. The queen asks Erec to approach the knight as a favor to her. Erec tries, but he too is lashed by the dwarf, and because “folly is not valor” and he feared the knight would kill him, he returns to the queen (Chretien 4). He then tells her “I will avenge my disgrace or else increase it” (Chretien 4). With that, he takes leave in search of the rude knight. This scene shows a knight’s need for vengeance. He feels as if he has been humiliated and will die for the principle of it all.

Erec follows the knight into a town where he meets a vavasor and his family, who invite him to lodge with them. Erec questions the vavasor as to why there are so many knights in town. The vavasor tells Erec all about the custom of the sparrowhawk. “If there is a knight bold enough to claim the honor and title of the most beautiful on behalf of his beloved, then he will bid her take the sparrowhawk from the perch in front of everyone as long as no one else dares interfere” (Chretien 8). The custom of the sparrowhawk is actually quite degrading to women. They are treated as mere objects in this contest, intended only to further the knight’s renown. It just so happens that the knight Erec is after gets the sparrowhawk every year, and this sets up their fight perfectly. He finds the vavasor’s daughter to be quite beautiful. “In creating her, Nature had expended all her effort” (Chretien 6). The next day, Erec fights the knight and wins the sparrowhawk for Enide. He is avenged and has regained his dignity.

Erec takes Enide to King Arthur’s court where he marries her in splendid fashion. They are very happy together and “Erec loved Enide with such love that he cared no more for feats of arms, nor did he attend tournaments. He had no desire to joust” (Chretien 31). It is this intense love for his wife and loss of interest in fighting that causes all of Erec’s companions to despise his marriage to Enide. People begin to talk about Erec and this hurts Enide greatly. One night he hears her lamenting and when she finally tells him why, Erec gets insulted. His pride is hurt, and he therefore decides that he must prove his manhood to Enide as well as himself. They embark on a journey in search of adventure and Enide is forbidden to speak, in order for Erec to test her love for him.

This becomes a problem when Enide spots three thieves in the distance, who are planning to overtake them. “If we are not winners here, we are shameless and lost to honor and incredibly unlucky” (Chretien 36). It is hard to see how it is possibly honorable to rob others, especially when it is three to one. Enide tells him of their impending danger and gets reproached. Erec tells her that he will deal with her later and beats the men in a joust. He is now one step closer to regaining his renown.

Erec and Enide encounter another band of thieves and once again Enide cannot control herself from warning Erec. He is angered with Enide, but fights the thieves one by one and beats them all. Erec exhibits great courage in fighting all those knights singlehandedly, but it is this need to exhibit courage that gets him into trouble constantly. He is proving himself while putting his life in danger. Knighthood called for this, and it was better to die with valor than to live life as a coward.

In the next scene Erec and Enide meet a count that falls in lust with Enide and plans to take her against her will. When Enide refuses the count threatens her by saying “Right or wrong, I shall have your lord slain before your eyes” (Chretien 43). She replies by telling him that he “would be guilty of despicable treachery” (Chretien 43). It is clear here that this count has no sense of honor and he serves to contrast Erec. Part of the knightly code of honor is to avoid deception and this man obviously has no problem being deceitful. Enide warns Erec and they escape, but not without wounding the count first.

Next, Erec approaches a crying maiden and she tells him that her lover was taken prisoner by two giants. He tells her “either I shall be taken prisoner along with him, return him, freed, to you” (Cretien 55). This scene exemplifies chivalry and it’s typical maidens in distress. Knights are the protectors of the innocent and they always avenge the wronged. He kills the giants and saves the maiden’s lover. Erec keeps his word of honor by risking his own life for someone else’s.

Through much trial and tribulation, Enide finally proves to Erec how much she really loves him. “I have tested you in all ways. Now you have nothing more to fear, for now I love you more than ever” (Chretien 61). Enide learns the importance of speech and of silence, and realizes how immature she really was for caring about what people said about her and Erec. Erec learns what love really means.

The story concludes with the Joy of the Court. This also shows the problematic aspect of chivalry: the endless search for adventure and renown. Upon entering the town of Brandigan, Erec hears about the Joy of the Court. When he finally tells King Evrain that he seeks it, the king replies “if you succeed with joy, you will have won greater honor than any man has ever won” (Chretien 70). The whole town laments at Erec’s wish and people everywhere beg him not to seek “the joy”. Erec does not listen, his passions very much aflame at the prospect of this knew adventure, and he goes into the garden anyway. In the garden he finds a beautiful woman siting on a bed and a huge knight ready to defend her. Of course Erec and the knight fight and Erec comes out the victor.

The knight was King Evrain’s nephew, Maboagrain, and the woman sitting on the bed was Enide’s cousin. The woman had made Maboagrain promise to stay in the garden with her forever, until another knight could defeat him in combat. Maboagrain tells Erec “it was right for me to stay rather than break my promise, which I never should have given” (Chretien 75). This statement shows the power of a knight’s word of honor. Although he really did not want to stay in the garden, he loved this woman, and had made a promise to her he had to keep. “From the moment I understood the will of the person I held dearest of all, I had to give the appearance and expression that nothing displeased me, for had she noticed she would have taken back her heart” (Chretien 75). The problem with keeping one’s word in this scene is that Maboagrain was miserable and stuck within a garden for years before he was able to get out. When all is considered the knight could have allowed himself to be defeated and therefore he would be released from the promise. “And I would have acted disloyally had I not done everything in my power to defeat all those I could. What a base deed it would have been to make such an escape” (Chretien 76). That would have been cheating to a knight, so Maboagrain stayed imprisoned until Erec came and won the Joy of the Court.

Enide spoke of Erec to her cousin “no longer has he need to prove his valor and excellence. No one among his age has his renown and I do not believe he has an equal” (Chretien 78). Erec has finally proven himself and has won everyone’s respect. He returns home with Enide and they are crowned. He is now a king, the greatest honor imaginable.

The story of Erec and Enide shows the problems involved with chivalry. The knights found in this romance show an excessive pride that is hurt rather easily. They feel that they need to prove themselves constantly through tournaments as well as battles. This occurs with Erec when he hears his wife lamenting at the beginning. In reality he could have stayed with her and not cared what others were saying, but he was stubborn and wounded, and felt he needed to show everyone how valiant he still was. Vengeance was widely used and accepted as well, and everything can be seen as disrespectful and in need of avenging. This is what got Erec into trouble in the first place. The search for adventure can also be seen as problematic, because he could have very well lost his life to Maboagrain. Gaining honor is a competition that all knights are involved in. They will risk their lives, and get into many troubles along the way, as can be seen with Erec.

Chretien de Troyes’ romance Erec and Enide depicts the code of chivalry to be quite problematic to its’ characters. In their attempt to be the most renowned, these knights risk their lives as well as their self-esteem continuously. Erec tested his own courage as well as Enide’s love for him, and although it was chivalry that got him into many troubles in the first place, Erec came out the victor in the end, and he was all the more renowned for it.


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