Chrétien created a group of stories known as Arthurian Romances in the twelfth century which constructed a wonderful guide for courtly romance in all its various forms, the good and the bad. What is even more interesting about the work is that it was written for a female audience, for which the most ideal courtly love is slightly different from the idea in books written for the male audience.
Courtly love is essentially the most proper way to commit adultery, and was essentially sanctioned by the educated of the time. During the twelfth century, arranged marriages were very common, as were affairs. However, the only real romanticized affairs were those that had courtly appeal, meaning they embraced the chivalric ideas of the time to create a dynamic and interesting love. The idea itself is manifested throughout the story in many variations, not all being the ideal version.
It is fact that many heroes (from any age) tend to have suicidal tendencies. The thin line between heroic and deranged seems to be blurred in fiction, which tends to glorify a gross risk to self. During the medieval period, this type of heroism was sanitized by courtly love. Knights with the excuse of doing it for “m’lady” were able to perform acts of violence or cowardice (The Knight of the Cart) with little regress, guilt, or shame.
The most ideal courtly love sanitized the actions completely and left no room for reproach. The story of Erec and Enide shows one of the non-ideal versions of courtly love: courtly love based around sexuality. After their marriage the author relates,
But Erec was so in love with her that he cared no more for arms, nor did he go to tournaments. […] he wanted to enjoy his wife’s company, and he made her his lady and his mistress. He turned all his attention to embracing and kissing her; he pursued no other delight. (67)
The purpose of courtly love is to create the absolute best knight, the most ideal knight. Yet Erec fell so in love with his wife, that he relinquished all arms, and no longer pursued anything that a knight should.
Erec becomes aware of this, and he is greatly shamed by the fact. To rectify his flaw, he takes to an extended adventuring campaign to reclaim his status. It is by these means that Chrétien suggests that knights should regain any glory lost, as it is also seen in The Knight with the Lion. During one of Erec’s final quests on this campaign, he undergoes the test named “The Joy of the Court” during which he comes face to face with the folly that commenced his campaign. Maboagrain is also plagued by sexual based courtly love, and is forced by his own oath to remain in the garden, plagued by unnatural violence. As Erec faces him, and defeats him, they both regain their honor and pursue a more ideal courtly love: one where his lady realizes that the knight loves her but allows for him to compete in courtly rituals in order to make him the ideal knight.
The story of Yvain illustrates yet another version of non-ideal courtly love. He defeats Lady Laudine’s husband, and suddenly desires her. While his reasons (at first) seem to be for love, we learn that it is actually what is known as “shadow love”. Shadow love is ambition for self glorification under the guise of love. Marrying such a woman as Laudine is a sizable accomplishment, in fact after Yvain defeats Sir Kay and unmasks himself, the king and company laugh and congratulate him on his accomplishment. The flaws in this type of love are all too obvious, and Yvain pays dearly for engaging in it, “He lived in the forest like a madman and a savage, […] until one day he was discovered sleeping in the forest by a lady and two damsels […]” (330-331).
Chrétien seems to suggest that because shadow love starts off with very little love, extra measures must be taken to cleanse this flaw and regain status. Yvain becomes mad with grief and shame, living out this insanity in the forest. The root of this madness is Laudine’s revocation of his courtly love by reclaiming the magic ring she gave him. Yvain is saved eventually and takes up the “penance questing” we are all familiar with now. During his adventuring he rescues a lion from a dragon, and the lion becomes his constant companion. Analyzing this companionship in the story, it can be reasoned that the lion is a manifestation of Yvain’s character. Essentially the lion represents this wild nature about Yvain, the part that we understand to be responsible for his shadow love. This part of him is truly separated from his other attitudes metaphorically represented by the small bit of the tail Yvain cuts off of the lion to save it, and called upon when in dire need.
In the story of The Knight of the Cart, Lancelot seems to suborn ideal courtly love from the start. His love for Guinevere is of the highest caliber and his quest to save her is one of the more impressive adventures of the book. Even with such an extreme devotion to Guinevere, there is still a flaw to be corrected. Lancelot hesitates two steps before climbing into a prisoner cart to find the queen, which she holds against him, “‘By delaying for two steps you showed your great unwillingness to climb into it. That, to tell the truth, is why I didn’t wish to see you or speak to you'” (262).
The flaw is that in the most ideal courtly love there should be no hesitation in what the lady asks, desires, or needs of the knight (in private or anonymously). Lancelot appropriately corrects this flaw in a way that is different than the normal questing penance we are used to. He does suffer internment at the hands of his foe, and later defeats him in combat, but the true test comes when the queen ask a knight (who’s identity she is originally unaware of) to “do his worst”. Lancelot performs the task to the utmost, at great peril to his health and great shame to his character. This penance indeed proves that he has attained the highest (almost nirvana like) variety of courtly love and his lady’s utmost respect and love.
Courtly love takes on many forms throughout the book, but true courtly love is not easily attained by most knights. The cost of that love is high, but a cost that Chrétien deems worthy of paying, and the love worthy of pursuit. By the end of each story the knight attains the ideal version of courtly love, but not without great risk to himself.
While the idea of courtly love has not carried down to modern literature and culture, some of the ideas have. One such idea is that of having to “prove yourself” worthy of the love you desire, a theme that reoccurs in literature of many genre’s and movements. The nobility behind the idea is alluring, and perhaps that is why it persists in our lives to this very day. The world wants to believe in the redeemably of humanity, that there are still good and deserving people out there, but the only way to prove your worth is still through some sort of test.