Fantasy Reads: `Yvain The Knight of the Lion’

This week, in a first for Fantasy Reads, I’m recommending a Graphic Novel. “Yvain The Knight of the Lion” has a text by American author M.T.Anderson based on a 12th century poem by Chrétien de Troyes and illustrations by Andrea Offermann, an artist based in Germany. This beautiful book has just been published by the Candlewick Press (2017). It isn’t cheap but “Yvain…” is the sort of book you will want to keep.

The story is set in the legendary reign of King Arthur. Two royal knights, Sir Yvain and Sir Gawain, are best friends who enjoy competing with each other. When another knight returns to Arthur’s court with a tale of being defeated by a mysterious warrior in the forest of Brocéliande, Yvain decides to see if he can do better. Anyone who pours water from a certain fountain in Brocéliande onto a magical weather-stone is promised an adventure. When Yvain tries it, he is challenged by an angry knight who claims that his dukedom has been flooded. After a mighty combat, Yvain kills this knight but is trapped in his enemy’s castle. He is protected there by the magic of a friendly damsel called Lunette. When Yvain falls in love with his enemy’s beautiful widow, Laudine, the Lady of the Fountain, Lunette even helps him to win her hand in marriage.

Is this the happy ending? No, because Yvain’s thirst for adventure leads him to neglect his marriage and his responsibilities. Rejection by Laudine, drives Yvain mad and exposes him to many perils. He encounters a serpent and a lion and must do battle with cruel knights, a huge monster, a pair of demons and his own best friend. Yvain fights to save a series of wronged women but can he ever win back the love of his wife?

The real forest of Brocéliande in Brittany is still a mysterious and magical place where it isn’t hard to imagine that you might come across a questing knight or an enchanter’s castle. The French author of the original poem, Chrétien de Troyes (c. 1130-1191) combined elements of Celtic myth with aspects of contemporary court life. There is an entertaining medieval Welsh version of the Yvain/Owein story – called The Lady of the Fountain – in the famous collection of tales known as “The Mabinogion” (See my post of November 2012).

The modern “Yvain The Knight of the Lion” is more complex than it seems at first glance. A narrator’s ambiguous words are recorded at the beginning and repeated at the end, by which time they have acquired a rather different meaning. Most of the story is told in dialogue, with the minimum of linking passages, but some vital action sequences only feature in the illustrations. This leaves gaps in the narrative which the reader has to fill in by interpreting the pictures. Stories within the story are shown on background textiles in scenes depicting the present rather than in separate “past happenings” boxes. So don’t think of “Yvain…” as a quick and easy read. It demands concentration and an eye for significant details.

However, at 129 richly illustrated pages, “Yvain..” is much shorter than most Arthurian epics you are likely to come across. I don’t think I had much success in persuading anyone to dip into Malory’s immensely long “Morte D’Arthur” (see my February 2016 post on “The Death of Arthur”) so I’m hoping that something briefer will tempt you. We all need to get into an Arthurian mood before Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur : Legend of the Sword” blockbuster hits cinemas this summer.  In “Yvain…”  Anderson has done an excellent job of compressing the complex original poem and modernizing its language. The dialogue is dynamic and the commentary thought-provoking.

Offerman’s illustrations have a contemporary feel even though they are packed with authentic early medieval details. At first I was disconcerted by the ugliness of most of the characters’ faces but I’m guessing this is a deliberate attempt to get away from the static beauty of medieval manuscripts. Yvain lives in a brutal society and Offerman is particularly good at depicting the shocking rhythms of violence and conveying extreme emotions such as Laudine’s furious grief and Yvain’s self-hatred. She has also chosen to use some symbols, such as a soaring hawk, which she knows have different meanings for medieval and modern people. Together Anderson and Offermann have produced a Graphic Novel which provides an excellent introduction to the morally ambiguous world of Arthurian legend.

Yvain may be a great fighter but he is far from a perfect knight. He is selfish and thoughtless, failing to notice that Lunette adores him and quickly betraying the trust of the noble Lady of the Fountain. Yvain is easily lured back by Gawain into a laddish life-style in which so-called knightly deeds are just a form of competitive sport. In his Author’s Note, Anderson explains that, “One of the things that drew me to this story is Chrétien’s searing, ironic treatment of the role of women in this highly masculine, honor-based, chivalric society.” For all the talk of courtly love, women are treated as prizes to be awarded to the strongest warriors and they cannot obtain justice without a man to fight for them. In origin, the Lady of the Fountain may have been a Celtic water goddess but by the medieval period she isn’t allowed to rule without masculine help even though she seems far more intelligent and honourable than Yvain. Clever and decisive Lunette nearly gets burned alive by men jealous of her influential role at court. This is a story full of threatened, imprisoned and ill-treated women but at least it gives them a defiant voice. Nor does it pretend that the answer to every woman’s woes is to marry a knight in shining armour. Quite the reverse. Anderson and Offermann’s retelling of the story of the Knight of the Lion and the Lady of the Fountain is simplified but not simple. Its words and images will linger in my memory. Until next time….


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Geraldine Pinch