In my continued journey down the path of Harold Bloom's list of books in the Western Canon, I recently read Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain, The Knight of the Lion (ca. 1177) -- a 12th century Arthurian Romance, translated by Burton Raffel. I had been putting off reading this book for a bit, mostly because I'm not that keen on tales of knights and ladies and I thought a 6818 line poem written in the 12th century might be a little dull. Well, Chrétien de Troyes may have restored my faith in chivalry (it might help that there are no dragons in this), and Raffel's translation is exceedingly readable and crisp.
This romance tells the tale of Yvain, a young and unproven knight at King Arthur's court. One of his fellow knights is defeated next to an enchanted spring near a chapel deep in the woods -- hanging over the spring is a basin, and next to the spring is a rock, and if you pour some water from the basin onto the rock, you will cause an impressive and scary storm. After the storm subsides, you will see some awesome birds, but a big and powerful knight will come and chew you out for storming all over his forest and castle. It was that knight that shamed Yvain's friend, and the entire court decides to head out to the magic spring to avenge him. Yvain knows that if he goes with everyone else, the jerky knight Kay will win the honor of fighting the knight, so he sneaks out ahead and finds the spring himself. After fatally wounding the knight, he chases him back to his castle and finds himself trapped behind the gates (in a really awesome way) and dependent upon the help of Lunette, a lady at the court and the main advisor to the soon-to-be-widowed lady of the house.
Through a convoluted and entertaining series of events, the wise Lunette arranges for her mistress to forgive and marry the smitten Yvain, who stupidly messes up and loses the love of his wife. This makes him go insane, rebound thanks to some carefully applied potions, befriend a lion, and regain his reputation.
I don't want to give too much away (although the plot is so rich and the characters so varied that I could tell you everything and it would still be worth reading), but needless to say there are a lot of knightly adventures, chivalrous quests, and moral lessons in this romance. It is amazing to read something written over 800 years ago that still seems so fresh and with characters (including female characters) who have flaws and motivations that don't seem that different from people today.
The translator purposefully discards the original meter and rhyme of the Old French version, which would be nearly impossible to recreate in English, at least in any readable way, and instead gives us a metered but unrhymed modern English translation that (as far as I know) retains the tone and metaphors of the original. This edition also includes a well-written afterward by Joseph J. Duggan that puts the book into its cultural context, gives biographical information on Chrétien de Troyes, and discusses his many known and probable inspirations and sources for the romance.
[You will have to buy or borrow the Raffel translation, if you want to read it, but there is a perfectly suitable, although slightly more archaic translation by W.W. Comfort available in the public domain.]