Written between 1260 and 1268, this French verse romance is a mish-mash of all that had gone before it. The author complains in the introduction that men nowadays ‘pass their lives in sadness, without good, without honour, without generosity; in the households of kings and counts there is nothing but sad tales, none speak of happiness, sadness holds them in its school’ (lines 31–6). The author then laments the state of affairs in the Holy Land and that everything is going from bad to worse – and if one tried to tell of events there, firstly, it would take far too long and, secondly, one would incur the enmity of the relatives of those involved. ‘For in openly telling the truth there is only grief and torment; I could not tell a becoming tale of those who live today, if I wished to tell the truth. For that reason, I have conceived the wish to tell – so that I may not be taken to task – about the adventures of Britain’ (lines 81–88).
The romance of Claris and Laris is, then, a ‘becoming tale’ about the days before the current political and financial crises and based on the tales of Arthur popular before the current noble craze on tragic prose romances (such as the ‘Lancelot’, ‘La mort le Roi Artu’, ‘Le Roman de Tristan en prose’, and the Post-Vulgate sequel to the ‘Merlin’). It follows in the literary tradition of Chrestian de Troyes, who is mentioned by name in line 627, and is strictly moral. The author is quite happy to countenance romantic love, but disapproves of more than kissing between unmarried lovers – Lydoine, the married queen who is the subject of Claris’ affections, actually refuses the love of the young man who is pining away for love of her, and has to be talked into conceeding him her favour by her brother Laris, who has already promised Claris that his sister will give in to him. Even then she is so concerned not to dishonour her aged husband, the king of Gascony, that she allows Claris to do no more than kiss her. A similar arrangement is later agreed between Laris and his sweetheart Marine – who is not even married – until they are actually man and wife.
In view of the author’s strict notions of morality it is not surprising that the adulterous Lancelot is mentioned only once in the story – at line 7468, as an example of one who fought valiantly for the honour of his lady – and is compared unfavourably with Claris. Again, the adulterous lover Tristan and Lancelot’s extensive family are never mentioned at all. This writer is writing a story based on the much-loved verse tales of the previous century, and discounting as invalid all the ‘modern’ stories which have grown in popularity since. The major characters, apart from the hero and his best mate (Claris and Laris), are Chrestien’s heroes: Gauvain, Yvain and Kay. Arthur is a king of high renown and effective in his actions, who even wields a sword occansionally. It is notable that characters outstanding in the first continuation of Chrestien’s ‘Perceval’ are also outstanding in ‘Claris and Laris’ – further proof of the huge popularity of the first continuation, if any were needed.
The story is long – 30369 lines long – sometimes slow, sometimes clumsy, sometimes brief where the reader would like more detail. It is no great work of literature – it is, one might say, the ‘Coronation Street’ of Arthurian romances. However, like ‘Coronation Street’, it is addictive and difficult to leave. It should be read slowly, in half-hour chunks (like ‘Coronation Street’), and savoured. The imagination should be allowed to range wild to explore to the full the half-described situations produced by the author – for example, we are told that at the entrance to Broceliande Forest there is an arch, ten feet wide, inscribed with letters of gold describing all the things which are to be found in the forest – dangerous and difficult adventures, the Perilous Castle, the pleasurable orchard, the Lost Rock, wild boars fighting, flying vorpiz (the word list translates ‘foxes’ but probably these are flying serpents) bears, monkeys, lions, deer, hares, rabbits, leopards, and all sorts of wild beasts, not to mention the hideout of the Fays (lines 3290–3334). This arch is clearly a tourist information board – for all I know the first in literature. Yet our author does not dwell on it, nor even hint that the situation might be amusing! This ‘throwaway’ humour is found again and again in the story. In short, ‘Claris et Laris’ is largely spoof, or at least semi-spoof. Yet this is an author capable of deep feeling, very concerned about the international situation and the difficult military situation in the Middle East; this author is no fool. The obvious conclusion to draw is that ‘Claris et Laris’ is supposed a deliberate spoof, designed to raise a smile in tragic times.
Calogrenant is the ‘fall guy’ of medieval Arthurian Romance. After his fall in Chrestien de Troyes’ ‘Yvains’ his career goes rapidly downhill. He is unhorsed in ‘Meraugis de Portlesguez’, the ‘Lancelot’, and ‘Le Livre d’Artus’ (the last in the same situation as in ‘Yvains’). He is killed by Lionel in ‘La Queste del Saint Graal’ and the last continuation of the ‘Perceval’ while trying to protect Bohors. ‘Claris and Laris’ treats him more kindly than usual. He does at least receive a few words of praise, and, in the incident which follows, achieves the greatest successes of his career.
The story so far: Laris has been captured by the Danes while fighting to protect King Urien’s castle, which was being attacked by the Danish king Tallas and his father Saladin (Tallas wants to marry Marine – Marine has refused him because he is a pagan and because she is in love with Laris). The Danes have retreated to Denmark, taking Laris with them. Laris is now imprisoned in King Tallas’ castle.
Arthur has sent thirty of his knights after Laris to rescue him. Of these, Agravain, King Caradoc, the Lait Hardi (Ugly-Bold), Lucan the Butler, Kay, Gales le Chaux (who he?), Gallegantins (cousin of Gauvain and Yvain) et alii have been detained by the Danes on the borders of Denmark; while Guerrehes and the Black Knight (who he?) have been imprisoned by King Tallas, with Laris. Meanwhile Claris, Gauvain, Yvain, Gaharies, Ydiers, Sagremor, the king of Northumberland, Mordred, the king with the gold circle (a mysterious character who turns up from time to time) and various others have assembled in a hermitage on the Danish border, gathering their forces to attack the castle where Agravain and company are held. During their journey to this hermitage, it was made obvious that Claris, Gauvain and Laris are the best knights in the world, as if we hadn’t already guessed. This is crucial for Calogrenant’s fortunes.
Now we must go back and tell how Kalogrenant kept to his road, as he came into the country of Denmark – which is long and wide enough – to seek for Laris. Kalogrenant travelled along deep in thought, seeking for Laris as best as he could, now going forwards and then back; so he rode like this a good fifteen days or two weeks, through valleys and lonely forests.
One day he came to a castle with a strong and beautiful wall, and rode in through the gate. The castle was enchanted so that whoever came into it became exactly like whatever he first saw. Meanwhile, here comes a courteous young lady, who was marvellously beautiful! Kalogrenant sees her coming – he has to become the same as her! Now hear the whole of it! Before he was a man and now he is a woman, except that his thinking and his strength did not change. He has already passed the major main road, he rides towards the ancient main hall at a great pace – Kalogrenant was no laggard – he dismounted at the main hall, by the stirrup. An attentive squire stabled his warhorse well. Kalogrenant went up the steps into the hall, but he his heart was full of shame because his armour was hanging off him. What bad luck! The wise and courteous girl whom he had met right at the entrance was not so big in the body as he was – for, in short, one seldom sees woman as big as man.
Kalogrenant went into the hall; his face was far from wan – no, he had marvellous colouring, fresh just like the young lady whom he had met at the gate. At once he noticed in the hall a knight, relaxing, and greeted him. The other returned his greeting like a worthy enough gentleman, and then said to him: ‘Welcome! I beg you not to take it badly if I call you young lady, because the case is such here that each man has to ressemble the first thing which he sees coming to meet him right at the gate. It’s tough luck; you will always look like a girl until you have found the three best lords of the world, as sure as it remains round.’
And when Kalogrenant heard him, he was very sorely grieved, because he would rather have liked it otherwise. If only it was time for him to be pacified! Two squires disarmed him, 4 girls led him out into a chamber alone, and there they dressed him in the way that a girl should be dressed. The lord had a robe of fine scarlet given to him, lined with ermine fur, very richly worked and with a good flare.
Kalogrenant took the robe and put it on swiftly – it suited him amazingly well. At that he went back down into the hall, the lord sat him next to him, and then spoke to him: ‘How are you, young lady?’ he asked. ‘I see you as a very beautiful young woman – I don’t know whether you’d be willing to love me.’
‘My lord, you ought not to insult me!’ said Kalogrenat quickly, ‘for I have gained some advantage here, in that now I may go everywhere in safety. Tomorrow I shall leave early to look for the courteous Laris; if I can see him and Claris, and Gauvain, I believe in truth that I shall be back in my former shape.’
So he stayed there that day. The following morning Kalogrenant mounted, without great fuss, on a rather magnificent palfrey, which the lord gave him – but Kalogrenant had paid him back well because, to be honest, he had left him his warhorse and his armour, which were good and reliable. So Kalogrenant went on his way, neither stopping nor waiting about. He came into Denmark, and took himself straight to the castle where Agravain was in prison, and at least seven knights with him. He was received and seen with great joy by those within, for they took him for a girl. Some of them asked him from where he came, and which country? He told them a great part of where he came from and of which land and that he was coming to look for Laris; and they showed him the prisoners and then afterwards asked him whether they were of the Round Table? And he told them no lies about them, but said that they certainly were and that they had a really big prize in them – so they ought to guard them well, for it could not be long before good King Arthur would come and ransom them all.
So Kalogrenant had nothing to trouble him that night; the next day he left and headed straight towards the castle where Laris was in prison. It was still not yet midday when he came to the hall; he took himself straight towards the gate, went in freely, and dismounted from his palfrey within the main stronghold. He went up the steps into the main hall without great fuss, and there found King Tallas, who was holding Laris in prison in the hall – he had been put in irons – Guerrehes was next to him, and the Black Knight held himself beside them. But they were extremely depressed – above all, Laris lamented, repeatedly mourning over Marine with the perfect complexion. Here comes Kalogrenant, who at once greeted King Tallas honestly, and the others freely!
And when King Tallas – who knew enough about speaking – saw him, he asked him where he came from and what need led him there? Kalogrenant, applying his words well, replied at that: ‘Tallas, I am the messenger of King Arthur, the courteous and wise; he instructs you – (what should I conceal?) that you send him back his knights who were taken treacherously; deliver them from your prison! And if you don’t do this, I assure you by straight truth, that, if he can hold you or take you, the whole world won’t be able to defend you from being hanged on high; have you heard these words clearly?’
When King Tallas heard this, he nearly burst with rage. Then he replied to the messenger: ‘Girl, you are not at all wise to threaten me like this! You yourself know for certain that I could certainly do harm to you tonight as I liked; but because you are a lady, you will have no evil from this case – but if you were a knight, you would never escape from me. By the faith I owe my father’s soul, this would be an evil day’s work for you! Get out of here, get on your way, I cannot bear to see you any longer!’
At that Kalogrenant left – it was his opinion that he had stayed too long; since he had seen Laris, he understood well in his heart that if he could find Claris and Gauvain the business would be well finished with. Kalogrenant left the castle on his swift palfrey; he travelled and rode so far that he came very close to the hermitage where Gauvain and the others were, waiting for their companions.
Mordred got on his horse, and went through the wood, amusing himself to relax. He noticed Kalogrenant coming, riding like a young lady; Mordred, who revelled in daring, went at a great speed towards him, no laggard in riding; he greeted Kalogrenant as one would a young lady, and then said: ‘Girl, tell me, whereabouts do you come from? By the great faith which you owe me, let us amuse ourselves a little! Now, don’t contradict me, because your refusal could quickly turn to anger, you may be sure! And the more you refuse me, you can be sure, the more you’ll arouse me!’
Kalogrenant replied, ‘Good sir, if you please, you could speak better! It is not right to use force against me, you will do too great a villany.’
Mordred replied: ‘God save me, whatever you say will help you little!’ At that he turned towards Kalogrenant – it was his opinion that he had hung about too long. Kalogrenant saw him coming and then could not hold himself back any longer: he threw his leg astride the horse [for he had been riding seated sideways on his horse, as women do] and said that Mordred would never have a share in him, if he had anything do with it. Mordred came up to him very ruthlessly and threw his arms around his waist; and Kalogrenant entangled him tightly in his own arms; they came most firmly together, and embraced each other very firmly, so that they both fell to the ground. Kalogrenant got up first – he was unarmed, and so hardly hurt – he went to Mordred’s horse, and without hesitation jumped on to it, and rode off through the wood – it was his opinion that he had stayed too long. He rode so far through the scrub that he came to the hermitage where the other lords were; and when they saw Mordred’s horse, they very quickly became aware of it: Gauvain saw it first. ‘My lords,’ he said, ‘look! That horse which you see there is in truth my brother’s; this lady must have found it just now in the forest.’ At that here comes Kalogrenant, without hanging about! When he saw Claris and Gauvain, he laughed with great joy, for he came back into his own shape. Now he is dressed the wrong way about, for he is dressed like a girl, so the first thing he needs is a new robe, like a knight’s. Kalogrenant greeted the companions most nobly; when the lords saw him, they immediately asked him why he was dressed like that. And he told them the whole truth, as the man should who knew the truth about where Laris lay imprisoned; and then he began to tell them how Mordred had wanted to rape him, when he came to embrace him. At that he quickly undressed himself, and redressed in other clothes.
Now here comes Mordred returning, riding on the palfrey which Kalogrenant had ridden! When Gauvain noticed that he was coming, without hesitation he went towards him and asked him what had become of his horse? And Mordred told him that, Lord God help him, some bloke whom he had fought had taken it from him. Gauvain heard him, and began to laugh: ‘By God, lad, you lie! You are always eager to do as much evil as you are able: so it certainly should turn out badly for you.’ At that they dropped the subject. It was night, so they ate and drank and then went to bed until it began to get light the next day. But we shall leave them here and tell you about Erec, who was looking for Laris at a great speed.