Le Chevalier au Lion, or The Knight With the Lion, is twelfth century medieval writer Chrétien de Troyes’ penning of a significantly older text depicting a knight’s journeys with a friendly and self-sacrificing lion. While classical Arthurian scholars assess the role of Yvain and his character role, the Lion’s importance is often neglected. In reality, the animal is a key element in the tale itself. The Lion in Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, or Le Chevalier au Lion, embodies characteristics such as loyalty, bravery, and humility, identifying him as a medieval Christlike figure and a symbolic ideal of perfection for Yvain.
While traveling through the countryside Yvain comes upon a fire-breathing serpent that has caught a lion by the tail. “Now the serpent is poisonous, and fire bursts forth from its mouth--- so full of wickedness is the creature” (de Troyes 29). Because of the evilness of the creature, and out of pity for the lion, Yvain kills the serpent; in the process of killing the snake, however, it is necessary that he cut off part of the lion’s tail that the snake has caught. Instead of being angry with Yvain for injuring him, the lion is eternally grateful for his deliverance, and from this point becomes Yvain’s faithful protector and companion. “And the lion walks close by his side, unwilling henceforth to part from him: he will always in future accompany him, eager to serve and protect him” (de Troyes 30). The Lion, while it should instinctively be concerned with its own agenda, puts its motives aside and displays loyalty to the man that frees him from the evil and imminently deadly serpent. The Lion’s initial loyalty merely sets the stage for his later impacts on Yvain.
Repeatedly bravery is displayed in the Lion’s camaraderie with Yvain. In one graphic example of the Lion’s bravery in the face of certain danger, he aids Yvain when the knight must fight three men for the honor of an innocent woman. At first, the Lion stays back, watching over his master. Then, when Yvain starts to lose the upper hand in the fight, the Lion enters the fray. He attacks one of the men so fiercely that “he makes the meshes fly from the hauberk like straw, and he drags [the man] down with such violence that he tears the soft flesh from him, shoulder and all down his side…He strips whatever he touches, so that the entrails lie exposed” (de Troyes 39). Though the Lion himself becomes injured as a result of his participation in the fight, he steadfastly defends his master and fights off the men that seek to harm Yvain, thus saving Yvain’s life.
Another important, desirable character trait of the Lion is his humility. Not only does he pledge his service to Yvain in aforementioned gratitude for Yvain’s saving of his life, he does so not in a magnanimous, grandiose display but in an unassuming, self-effacing demonstration of humility. “Bowing his face to the earth, with his fore-feet joined and stretched out toward [Yvain] …[the Lion] fell on his knees again, and all his face was wet with the tears of humanity” (Yvain 30).” Lions are often seen as fearful and wonderful creatures, dangerous and worthy of respect, and yet this creature humbles himself, groveling like a servant at the feet of one lesser than he.
Each of the aforementioned attributes marks the Lion as a creature far from ordinary. Another means of exploring the importance of these characteristics in relation to the Lion’s purpose in the tale is by exploring the role of lions in classical and contemporary texts of Yvain. Roman and pagan cultures considered the lion the “king of the beast,” a perfect and tremendous representation of strength. Lions have historically exhibited these qualities in literature and art. In one of Aesop’s best-known fables, for example, a mouse removes a painful thorn from the paw of an injured lion named Androcles, earning the mouse the lion’s gratitude and friendship (Holmes 105). This theme of the weaker aiding the purportedly stronger is found in Chrétien’s tale as well; in fact, Yvain seems to recycle the Androcles tale into Yvain’s rescue of the Lion from a fire-breathing serpent.
Other occurrences and actions by the characters in Yvain parallel happenings in Scripture. For example, shortly after Yvain and the Lion become friends, the Lion kills a deer and brings it to Yvain. Only after Yvain has had his fill of the venison does the lion eat. Then, as Yvain rests, the Lion keeps watch over his sleeping master. “While all night his master laid his head upon his shield to gain such rest as that afforded, the lion showed such intelligence that he kept awake” (de Troyes 30). Christ likewise provided food for his disciples, and kept watch while they slept in the Garden of Gethsemane. Later, through all of Yvain’s adventures to champion the defenseless, the Lion fights bravely beside his master, prepared to give his life in aiding his friend. This is a Biblical ideal, as John 15: 13 says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” The Lion consistently displays perfect, unselfish love for his friends, a classic Christian ideal.
Lastly, though the Lion is under self-proclaimed service to Yvain, Yvain comes to see the animal as an equal. When those whom he has helped ask for the name of their rescuer, Yvain consistently answers that he is “The Knight with the Lion.” Similar to a Crusade-like mentality that the battle is fought with the help of God, Yvain attributes his success to the aid of his Lion compatriot. This is not a surprise to the reader, as Yvain seems to assimilate many of the Lion’s virtuous qualities throughout his travels with the animal.
As Yvain and the Lion get closer to their literary destination, Yvain grows in his emotional journey as well. While in the beginning his aims are selfish and less than chivalrous in nature, as Yvain spends time with the Lion, the Christlike figure and therefore an ideal of perfection, Yvain himself undergoes a character renovation. Before Yvain has the companionship of the lion, he does not make the best choices in given situations. For example, he promises his wife that he will return to her in a year, and after the time has long past it crosses his mind that his homecoming is overdue. After the Lion’s entrance into the story, Yvain begins to act unselfishly, mirroring the actions of his constant companion. The Lion shows constant loyalty from the inception of his relationship with Yvain, and when Yvain comes to a castle and seeks lodging, he reciprocates the Lion’s loyalty; instead of taking the comfortable lodgings inside the castle while the Lion remains outside, Yvain refuses to rest there unless his Lion is likewise granted admittance. Yvain not only stands up for the Lion, but also vouches for the animal as a good being. “Either we shall both find shelter here or else I shall stay outside; he is as dear to me as I am myself…You need have no fear of him! For I shall keep him so well in hand that you may be quite confident (de Troyes 33). It is in this event that Yvain first reflects the changing of his nature from that akin to a flawed human to that of an unselfish ideal of perfection. With his lion companion, he rescues four knights from the possibility of death and their sister from certain violation and rape at the hands of Harpin the evil giant; Lunete from being burnt on a pyre for treason; maidens from enforced manual labor by two “hideous, black sons of the devil,” (de Troyes 48); and champions the disinherited younger sister of a deceased lord. Few, if any, of the situations in which Yvain champions the unfortunate are his responsibility, but he acts chivalrously and bravely as knights were expected to do, with the help and companionship of the lion. When the Lion is eventually injured while aiding Yvain, though the knight himself is injured, his concern is not for himself, but for his wounded ally.
In an article by Julian Harris entitled, "The Role of the Lion in Yvain,” published in PMLA in 1949, the author feels that scholars often pass over the Lion and analysis of his character for that of Yvain; those who discuss the Lion's role in the story merely seem to restrict their discussion of the Lion to its origin in relation to other tales. Harris states clearly his thesis: "Since Chrétien repeatedly said that he was concerned both with the "matière" (material) and the "sens" (sense) of his romances, and as he called Yvain the roman du Chevalier au Lion, it seems reasonable to examine the poem in some detail and try to see if he attached more significance to the lion than modern scholarship has pointed out."
According to the article, one "Arthurian scholar," Gaston Paris seemed to feel that the Lion's placement in the story was little more than a whim of Chrétien's, and is suggestive of the opinion that the medieval poet had no underlying rationale or symbolism in the Lion's character. In order to refute Paris' opinion and support his own theories Julian Harris proceeds to divide the poem into two halves: the initial conquest of Laudine and the loss and eventual regaining of her thereof. Superficially the article asserts that while during the first part Chrétien has an underlying motive for the events penned, the second half's events are related "merely for the pleasure of telling a tale" (Harris 1144). Upon further examination, however, the author contends that the acts in the second half of the de Troyes tale are not random. The purpose of the second half of Le Chevalier au Lion is to redeem Yvain's character after his desertion of his wife Laudine and subsequent breach of his oath to her; also, the latter part of the tale provides a means for Yvain to return to Laudine and earn back her favor, which he has lost. This not only provides the setup necessary to conclude the story but brings the story to a plausible resolution. Like a dissonant chord that has, at long last, been comfortably resolved, Yvain's conclusion satisfactorily presents the reader with an ending that is pleasant, and feasible, without utilizing literary license or improbabilities a la deus ex machina fashion. Also, the author notes that certain things are "obvious" about Chrétien's story.
Parallel to Christ’s gift of grace to His followers, the Lion provides grace to Yvain, who needs absolution from his sins against his beloved. According to Süheyla Bayrav the lion is necessary as a means of purification for transgression against love, and ”what Chrétien meant to say can be comprehended only in the light of Christianity” (Frappier 209). The water at the fountain symbolizes baptism, and the glorious singing of the birds after the storm signal the opening of Heaven as another soul is welcomed into the family of God. But these are not the only indications of Christian influence. The article suggests that Yvain befriends the friendless and defends the defenseless to alleviate his guilty conscience for abandoning his wife Laudine and neglecting his services to his king. Because, in his grief over losing the favor of his wife, Yvain goes mad, he is completely “incapable of any moral action…even wanting to make amends” (Harris 1145). Harris suggests that though modern views on Orthodox Christianity would see this cure attributed to anything other than God as sacrilegious, medieval writers utilized the marriage of native, Christian, and Roman traditions without showing signs of fearing any spiritual implications (Battles 2). While running naked and wild in the forest, a kind hermit leaves bread and water for Yvain and prays for God to defend the madman. The author believes that the bread and water that sustains Yvain is representative of the Eucharist. Later, a maiden finds the incapacitated Yvain and, with the help of her mistress and a sorceress' magical salve, restores the man's sanity. Harris proposes that while the balm of Morgue la sage cured Yvain, it was only after Yvain had partaken of the bread and water of the hermit and the recluse had prayed for Yvain's deliverance. Also, the woman who applied the salve to Yvain did so invoking the help of God. In true medieval fashion, the resolution of a dire situation came from an amalgamation of sources: the God of the Christian tradition and the magic of the pagan tradition (Harris 1146). In a footnote on page 1146 of Harris’ article, one sees that while Chrétien de Troyes displays palpable Christian motifs in his other works, Le Chevalier au Lion by far surpasses the others in its invocation of God’s name, His favor, and His blessings.
While in the first part of the story, Laudine's maid Lunete is the savior figure, saving Yvain from certain death in Esclados’ castle, and also aiding him in winning the hand of Laudine, Esclados' widow. Harris discusses the "free gift of grace" without which man is "helpless," suggesting to one that in the second half of Le Chevalier au Lion the Lion is the savior figure; one could even say that the Lion is comparative to C.S. Lewis’ messiah figure, the lion Aslan, in The Chronicles of Narnia. Harris goes on to cite A.C.L. Brown's work, " Iwain: a study in the origins of Arthurian romance," saying, " In the latter part of the tale [Chrétien de Troyes] has inserted several conventional knightly combats to please the age of chivalry and has interwoven the favorite theme of the thankful lion" (Harris 1144).
This "favorite theme" is supported by various sources, many of which point to and support Harris' research. He proposes that the Lion in Chrétien de Troyes' Le Chevalier au Lion is an allegory of Jesus Christ, symbolizing grace. Initially, Julian Harris uses the behavior of the Lion as an example of the beast's representation of this savior. "The lion, thought by some to represent Christ or grace, more likely symbolizes Yvain's own perfected ideal of service and devotion" (Lacy 108). Where a classic lion, the "king of the beasts" demands fear and reverent awe, the Lion in de Troyes' Yvain acts humbly, kneeling like a servant at the feet of his rescuer. Likewise, in the Christian faith, in John 13, Jesus, the Son of God, likewise worthy of reverent awe and worship, kneels and washes His disciples' feet. "Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant...just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 26b, 28). In a French bestiary, "Les Bestiares," the lion's cubs are born dead, and the parent lion roars for three days to bring the cubs back to life (Harris 1148). Three days in the Christian faith is associated with three specific days in the church calendar, Good Friday, the following Saturday, and Easter Sunday, in which Jesus Christ of Nazareth died and was resurrected to life.
During the Middle Ages when medieval literature was being penned, compilations of tales and anecdotes about animals, called bestiaries, were popular. In one such anthology, called the Aberdeen Bestiary, the lion is described as "the mightiest of the beasts; he will quail at the approach of none" (McLaren 1). Later the bestiary reveals a parallels between Jesus Christ and a lion, which could explain some scholars' reasoning behind their theory that the lion in the tale represents Christ.
If a lion is pursued by hunters, it picks up their scent and obliterates the traces behind it with its tail. As a result, they cannot track it. Thus our Saviour, a spiritual lion, of the tribe of Judah, the root of Jesse, the son of David, concealed the traces of his love in heaven until, sent by his father, he descended into the womb of the Virgin Mary and redeemed mankind, which was lost (McLaren 7).
Other bestiaries parallel the Holy Trinity with the three-fold nature of the lion. First, lions conceal their tracks with their tails, representing the manner in which Jesus Christ "concealed his divinity, only revealing himself to his followers" (Medieval Bestiary: Lion 2). Lions sleep with their eyes open, which represents Christ's death; while he was "physically death after crucifixion" he remained "spiritually alive in his divine nature" (Medieval Bestiary: Lion 2). Lastly, as aforementioned the lion's roar awakening its cubs is illustrative of Jesus' resurrection after being dead three days. "The other natures of the lion are taken as examples of how people are to live. Just as the lion will not attack a prostrate man, will allow captive men to depart, and is not easily angered, people should be slow to anger and quick to forgive" (Medieval Bestiary: Lion 4).
Arthurian scholar Julian Harris notes that in medieval literature, bestiaries were memorized and well known among the people. This means that ideas about the symbolic meanings of animals would have been widespread. “It is impossible that [Chrétien] would have been unaware of the symbolic significance commonly attached to the lion and the serpent in the Middle Ages; and it is scarcely conceivable that a poet would disregard symbolism which was at the same time apt and easily comprehensible to his audience” (Harris 1148). Concisely put, in medieval literature, snakes were henchmen and representations of Satan. In Genesis, when the serpent led Eve into temptation, and ultimately the human race was condemned to death, God denounced the snake and cursed it, damning it to a life of vileness and “enmity” (Genesis 3:15). Because medieval people were familiar with the Biblical tale of the Fall of Man found in Genesis, they would have seen serpents as depictions of wickedness. Therefore, the struggle between a lion and a serpent would have been symbolic of a battle between good and evil.
In addition to the Lion's role as the Christ-figure in the poem, his entrance also marks a distinct point in the story. Once the lady of Noroison and her maid heal Yvain and he meets the lion, Yvain's actions are henceforth honorable and unselfish. With his lion companion, he rescues countless underdogs from fates worse than, or equal to, death. Few, if any, of the situations in which Yvain champions the unfortunate are his responsibility, but he acts chivalrously and bravely as knights were expected to do, with the help and companionship of the lion. The lion's entrance into the storyline marks the resumption of Yvain's quest after his hiatus as a madman.
Other theories for the Lion's presence fall within the realm of psychology. For example, in the Jungian school of thought, founded by Carl Jung, a famous psychologist, "the Self is often symbolized by an animal, representing our instinctive nature and its connectedness with one's surroundings" (Jung 220). According to this theory, this idea of Self, or identity, being represented in literature and art by animals is utilized in Le Chevalier au Lion. After Yvain takes off his clothing and runs naked into the woods, in his madness he loses his identity. Shortly after he regains his senses, he meets the lion, and with the animal's help, he regains his identity as a warrior. Those who subscribe to this rationale believe that when Yvain takes up company with the lion, he is resuming his identity where he had left it before his mental breakdown. There is a present quest archetype: the archetype itself is the Self within Yvain's psyche and the manifestation of said archetype is in an animal form as the Lion.
Regardless of counter theories to Julian Harris' speculations, it is feasible and probable that Chrétien de Troyes' induction of the Lion as a benevolent and title character was anything but random. Medieval views about the world, allegorical and moral leanings, and literature certainly influenced his penning of the tale of Yvain. After reviewing various sources of various media, it is able to be concluded that the Lion in Le Chevalier au Lion, at its deepest and most pure point, a representation of and allusion to Jesus Christ. De Troyes uses the Lion not merely as an attention-getter, but as a means to mirror a protagonist. Yvain’s travels with the Lion display and eventually reflect the humility, bravery, and loyalty of the animal’s actions. Consequently, an ideal of perfection is portrayed by the Lion and Yvain and paralleled to the perfect example of Jesus Christ, after whom the Lion is modeled. Through the use of certain benevolent and virtuous qualities of the Lion, de Troyes illustrates his own views regarding acceptable and desirous behavior, interaction between mankind, and what underlying elements of allegory are necessary for a life lesson in civility.
Battles, Dominique. "Medieval Literature and Beowulf." Hanover College. Lynn Center for Fine
Arts, Hanover. 19 January 2005.
Frappier, Jean. Chrétien de Troyes: The Man and His Work. 2nd ed. Athens: Ohio University
Harris, Julian. "The Role of the Lion in Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain." PMLA 64 (1949). 07 Mar
Hoerber, Robert G., ed. The Holy Bible, New International Version. 3rd ed. Saint Louis:
International Bible Society, 1984.
Holmes, Urban Tigner. Chrétien de Troyes. 1st ed. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970.
Jung, Carl G. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell Publishing, 1964.
Lacy, Norris J., ed. The Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1986.
McLaren, Colin. "Text for the Lion." The Aberdeen Bestiary On-line. 1995. Aberdeen University.
04 Feb. 2005 .
"Medieval Bestiary: Lion." The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages. 20 March 2005.
Trinity College, Cambridge. 20 Mar. 2005 .
Middle Ages. 20 March 2005. Trinity College, Cambridge. 20 Mar. 2005
Wilson, Elizabeth A. Bibles and Bestiaries. 1st ed. Italy: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1994.
Wright, Thomas. "The Bestiary of Philippe de Thaon." The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the
Middle Ages. 20 March 2005. Trinity College, Cambridge. 20 Mar. 2005 .