Yvain & Gawain: men fighting for women should talk with each other

Like Yvain and Gawain, men knights fight, women watch

In Chrétien de Troyes’s late-twelfth-century Arthurian romance Yvain: The Knight with the Lion, two sisters disputed their inheritance. The older sister sought to keep everything from their deceased father. To settle their dispute, the sisters induced Yvain and Gawain to fight each other in deadly combat. Yvain and Gawain had no stake whatsoever in the sisters’ dispute. They were merely benighted knights serving women. Underscoring the folly of their combat, Yvain and Gawain seriously injured each other physically and then recognized each other as dear friends. They subsequently shifted to verbal combat, each seeking to declare himself defeated. The underlying cause of the debacle was men not talking with each other before fighting for women.

Just as did Lucretia at the founding of the Roman Republic and the choleric lover in the account of the Archpriest of Talavera, the older sister easily enlisted Gawain to fight for her. The older sister outraced the younger sister to King Arthur’s court. The sisters’ race to court emphasizes that the facts of the case, like in filing for ex parte domestic violence restraining orders, matters less than who shows up at court first. At King Arthur’s court, the older sister argued her case to the eminent knight Gawain. He apparently didn’t question or investigate her claims. He merely “bound himself to do as she wished.” In short, Gawain acted like the manlet Lancelot.

Yvain, on the other hand, agreed to fight for the younger sister in response to a pretty messenger-girl’s masterfully rhetorical speech. The girl rode for no more than a week on her quest to find Yvain for her lady. When she found him, she amalgamated her lady’s searching with her searching in her address to him:

My lord! I’ve sought you
All over. The fame you’ve earned
Has led me to hunt you, all wearily,
Over many, many countries.
I’ve sought you so long that, God
Be thanked, I’ve finally found you. [1]

A celebrity probably wouldn’t thank God for some crazed fan finally catching up with him. The messenger-girl told Yvain:

I come to you from a woman
Better than myself, nobler
And braver. And if you fail her,
It will be your fame that betrayed her,
For she has no one else to help.

The messenger-girl constructed an obligation upon Yvain merely from his fame. Yvain was likewise obliged to help all women. That’s an enormous burden that some men today imagine that they carry. The messenger-girl further elaborated:

This lady, deprived of her entire
Inheritance by her sister, hopes
To win her suit through you.

Her hopes imply Yvain’s responsibilities. To make that relation more palatable, the messenger-girl emphasized that Yvain is special:

You’re the only one she wants.
Nothing could ever persuade her
That anyone else could help.

The messenger-girl, a heartfelt friend to the lady, made a strong case for her:

You’ll win the love of this friendless,
Cheated woman, and vastly
Increase your renown, if you win her
Back what is rightfully hers!

Now tell me, please, if you dare
To come as she asks, or if
You’ll choose to say no and do nothing.

Given that appeal to fame and justice, with backing references to cowardice and laziness, what man wouldn’t respond favorably to a pretty girl that he didn’t know? To the girl’s guile, Yvain responded with ironic no’s and the earnest straight-forwardness of a woman-serving man:

“No,” he answered, “saying
No wins no man fame.
No more will I say no,
But follow you, sweet friend!
Gladly, wherever you please.
And if she for whom you’ve sought me
Truly needs me, have
No fear. Anything I’m able
To do for her, I’ll do.”

More enlightened knights would tell women to fight their own battles. They would simply say, “No.”

King Arthur did nothing stop Yvain and Gawin from brutally assaulting each other. Arthur was formally king of both women and men. He judged that “justice and right” favored the younger sister. Yet he merely begged the older sister to let her younger sister have what was rightfully hers.[2] After stating that Yvain agreed to fight for her because he pitied her and felt sorry for her, the younger sister declared:

“Surely,” she said, “it saddens me
That two knights the likes of these
Should fight because of us,
And because of so slight a quarrel.
But I can’t give up my rights;
My need is far too great.

She didn’t know Yvain. She didn’t even know his name.[3] She didn’t pity him enough not to have him fight for her.

And now they went at it for real.

And they hacked so hard at the other’s
Neck, and nose-guard, and forehead,
And cheeks, that both were purple
And discolored, there under
The skin where the blood had clotted.
And their long coats of mail were torn,
And their shields so broken up
That both of them were wounded.
And they fought so hard, and so fiercely,
That both were panting and short
Of breath, as the battle went on.
Every jewel set
In their helmets was crushed to powder,
Smashed to bits, as the blows
Crashed on their heads, both of them
Stunned, their brains nearly beaten

Yvain and Gawain were like two fighting dogs on whom the sisters had placed bets and set at each other. Amid the brutal violence between the two men, the crowd exclaimed:

This is no game.
These two are fighting in earnest.
But how could they ever be paid
What they’re worth, and what they deserve?

A start would be to respect men’s human dignity and not treat men as tools for women. Courtiers vainly sought to arrange peace between the two sisters, the principals of the fight:

the older sister wanted
No part of any peace.
The younger one said she’d leave it
To the king, and accept his judgment,
Not quibbling whatever he decided,
But the older was so malicious
That even Queen Guinevere
And all the knights and the king
And the ladies and all the townsfolk
Began to favor the younger,
And went to the king, and begged him
To give her at least a third
Or a fourth of their father’s estate,
In spite of the older one’s claim,
And asked him to part the two knights,
Who had shown such wonderful courage.
What a shame it would be, they declared,
If either were seriously hurt
Or deprived of any honor.
But the king said that peace
Was not for him to establish;
The older sister spurned it,
For her spirit was mean.

Men rule societies with contempt for men’s lives and on behalf of women’s narrow interests.

The brutal violence ended through Yvain speaking to Gawain. With blood boiling out of their many wounds and running down their mail-coats, the knights separated to rest for awhile. Yvain spoke in a hoarse and feeble voice to the other knight:

Night approaches.
No one, I think, will blame
Or reproach us if darkness keeps us
Apart. And I will admit
That I fear and value you immensely.
Never in all my life
Have I fought so painful a battle,
Nor have I ever seen
A knight I so much wanted
To know. You know how to strike
Your blows, and you use them well.
No knight I’ve ever known
Can fight so punishingly. I had no
Desire to spend this day
Experiencing the blows you’ve given me.
You’ve half addled my head.

Gawain responded:

You’re no more exhausted and stunned
Than I am, and perhaps even less.
And if I knew you, knight,
I hope you’d not be displeased.
And indeed, if I’ve given you anything
You’ve paid me back in full,
Principal and interest too.
You were readier to pay me in kind
Than I was anxious to receive it.
But let that be as it will.
And since you’ve asked me to tell you
The name I go by, I’ll not
Keep it hidden. My name
Is Gawain, son of King Lot.

Yvain had said that he wanted to know the other knight. The other knight in turn spoke only his name. That was enough. Yvain knew Gawain well:

Wild with rage, he threw
his blood-covered sword to the ground,
And then his cracked and shattered
Shield after it, and dismounted
From his horse, and approaching on foot
He cried: “Dear God! What bad luck!
What kind of stupid mistake
Brought on this battle, neither
Of us knowing the other.
Had I known who you were, nothing
Could have made me fight with you. [4]

If men know each other, they are much less likely to fight with each other. Or at least less likely to fight with each other in seriously damaging ways. After they stopped mortally fighting, Yvain and Gawain began verbally jousting about who would claim defeat and give honor to the other. Finally showing some administrative skills, King Arthur then settled the sisters’ dispute by guile — “fairly and also in good faith.”[5]

Yvain and Gawain engaging in mortal combat to settle the sisters’ dispute indicates social devaluation of men’s lives. Earlier in the romance, a father agonized over choosing between his daughter being continually raped or four of his sons being killed.[6] Losing four persons’ lives is obviously worse than losing one person’s life. Agency — making the choice that causes terrible harm — complicates the choice. Yet gender is also relevant. In the U.S. today, about four men are killed through violence for every women so killed. The U.S. has special, billion-dollar programs addressing violence against women, while the much greater violence against men passes with scarcely any public notice.[7] Men need to talk with each other about violence against men. If men lack the courage to say no to fighting for women, they should just fight verbally to see which man can prevail in claiming self-defeat.

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain: The Knight with the Lion, ll. 5059-64, from Old French trans. Raffel (1987) p. 151. All subsequent quotes from Yvain are from id. cited by line number. The sisters’ father was Lord of Blackthorn. l. 4705.

The younger sister “traveled through many countries” in search of Yvain. ll. 4821-3. Then the younger sister became ill and “another young woman” (also referred to as a girl, e.g. l. 5813) carried on her quest. The account of the girl’s travel suggests that she spent two days riding to find Yvain. ll. 4832-5040. The return trip apparently took seven days. l. 5814.

Here’s an Old French text of Yvain. W.W. Comfort’s English translation (1914) is available online here and here. Jocelin of Furness’s twelfth-century Life of Kentigern is thought to have been a source for Chrétien’s Yvain.

Subsequent quotes above are from ll. 5072-6 (I come to you…), ll. 5077-9 (This lady…), ll. 5080-2 (You’re the only one…), ll. 5083-6, 5092-4 (You’ll win the love…), ll. 5095-103 (“No,” he answered…), ll. 5968-73 (“Surely,” she said…), ll. 6117, 6125-42 (And now they…), ll 6162-5 (This is no game…), ll. 6170-92 (The older sister…), ll. 6238-52 (Night approaches…), ll. 6253-67 (You’re no more exhausted…), ll. 6270-80 (Wild with rage…).

[2] Speaking of King Arthur, the narrator declares:

for he held
Her side {the younger sister’s side} of the quarrel, because
He respected justice and right.

ll. 5928-30. That wasn’t a difficult judgment. Before Yvain and Gawain fought, the younger sister stated that she sought nothing that was rightfully the older sister’s. The older sister responded:

“And I,” said the other, “want nothing
That’s yours, for that’s what you have
And will have. No preaching will do it,
For preaching will get you nothing.
May your sadness dry you to dust.

ll. 5960-6. The older sister subsequently declared:

Who listened to you would be stupid.
May I burn in the fires of hell
If I give you anything for your comfort!
The banks of the Seine will come
Together, and morning will be noon,
If I don’t make you do battle.”

ll. 5976-5982. Of course, she was making Yvain and Gawain do battle. On King Arthur begging the older sister, ll. 4787-9.

[3] The younger sister described Yvain as he:

Who for charity and noble generosity
Has put himself at my service,
Though he does not know me and I
Know neither his name nor him.

ll. 6987-90. Scholars have described Yvain’s action as “courtly.” Courtliness was a horrendous ideology that devalued and oppressed men.

[4] In the Iliad, Glaucus son of Hippolochus and Diomedes son of Tydeus met on the battlefield. Before attacking each other, they talked. They thus recognized that their grandfathers Bellerophon and Oeneus were good friends. Glaucus and Diomedes then swore friendship to each other and exchanged armor. Iliad 6.115-240. Chrétien de Troyes probably knew the story of Glaucus and Diomedes from a Latin source.

[5] With appreciation for the value of guile:

The king said he’d settle the quarrel
Fairly and also in good faith.

ll. 6382-3. King Arthur craftily induced the older sister to admit that she:

forcefully drove her sister
From her lands, and disinherited her
By force and evil intent

ll. 6385-7. Arthur then with a tactical ploy coerced the older sister to give back her younger sister’s inheritance. ll. 6405-46. Men are typically inferior to women in guile. The older sister was unusually obtuse.

Like King Arthur in this particular instance, the lion who became Yvain’s loyal friend acted with practical savvy to help Yvain. The story of a man winning the friendship of a lion by helping the lion was well known. Early versions were the story of Androcles in Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 5.14 and Aesop’s fable, “The lion and the shepherd.” Stories of this type are classified as Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 156. In Jerome’s Life of Paul, a lion helped to dig the grave for Paul.

[6] ll 3851-76. Harpin of the Mountain is the monster that offers the father the horrible choice. The father gives no indication of what his choice would be.

[7] Considering violence in Yvain, Ovens ignored gender and concluded:

Violence, in either its presence or its absence, is not the primary phenomenological category in Yvain, and neither (perhaps) is it in medieval literature in general. Violence – physical violence – functions instead as a representation, the sign of a deeper conflict between virtue and vice, the righteous and the repugnant, the divine and the devilish.

Ovens (2015) p. 76. Violence against men caused medieval men to have a much shorter life expectancy than medieval women’s life expectancy.

[image] Violent combat between Herr Walther von Klingen (f. 1240s–1280s) and another knight. Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, made between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 52r. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Ovens, Michael. 2015. “Violence and Transgression in Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion.” Parergon. 32 (1): 53-76.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1987. Chrétien de Troyes. Yvain, the Knight of the Lion. New Haven: Yale University Press.