PhD Defense Chloé Vondenhoff: The Mediation of Emotive Scripts

Yvain rescues the lion (Garrett MS 125 fol. 37r, c. 1295). Source: Wikimedia
Yvain rescues the lion (Garrett MS 125 fol. 37r, c. 1295). Source: Wikimedia

King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are among the most famous characters in medieval literature. Through book, film and stage adaptations, they have become part of our collective memory. Within different genres and in a variety of media, the Arthurian characters and themes find resonance with new audiences time and time again. PhD candidate Chloé Vondenhoff has gone back to the source of these Arthurian stories. She found that this adaptation process was already taking place in the Middle Ages. The literature scholar will receive her PhD from Utrecht University on 11 June 2021.

The starting point of her study is late twelfth-century France, where the popularity of the chivalric novel began with five Arthurian novels by Chrétien de Troyes.

Chrétien de Troyes

Vondenhoff: "Chrétien de Troyes may be regarded as the founding father of the Arthurian legend as we know it today. He served as a source of inspiration for a large number of novelists at home and abroad and his literary influence is considerable. His stories were innovative and have become the epitome of the courtly novel as a genre. He put the psyche and emotions of his characters at the centre of his works, which, moreover, were written in the vernacular. In that sense, he was the first European novelist."

Een miniatuur die een scène afbeeldt uit Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion, waarin Ywain en Gauwain met elkaar vechten.
Miniature of the battle between Ywain and Gawain. Book in possession of the Princeton University Library.

Yvain or the knight with the lion

One story enjoyed exceptional popularity in a European context: that of 'Yvain ou le chevalier au lion' ('Yvain or the knight with the lion'), written between 1170 and 1190. It was soon translated into several vernacular languages. Between the early thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the Middle High German 'Iwein' appeared, the Old Norse 'Ívens saga', the Old Swedish 'Hærra Ivan', and the Middle English 'Ywain and Gawain'. For her research, Vondenhoff studied all these texts in their original language.

Display of emotions

"Within this comparison, I looked specifically at the representation of emotions. By comparing different versions of one and the same knight story, the (socio-)culturally determined conventions and preferences for the representation of emotions of the various literary traditions are illuminated. This way, we get a better idea of how the story of the lion knight was adapted for a foreign-speaking and culturally diverse audience. Because most of the texts have been translated word for word, it is noticeable when something has been adapted. The most striking result I found was between the French and Norwegian versions of the story."

By comparing different versions of one and the same knight story, the (socio-)culturally determined conventions and preferences for the representation of emotions of the various literary traditions are illuminated. This way, we get a better idea of how the story of the lion knight was adapted for a foreign-speaking and culturally diverse audience.

Were emotions lost in translation?

Typical for the French tradition in which Chrétien de Troyes writes is the explicit expression of emotions, shown in (for our standard) extremely expressive behaviour or lyrical imagery. In the Norwegian-Icelandic version of the story, this was noticeably less/weakened. "The translator clearly preferred an implicit and subdued representation of emotions. Judging from the saga works of the same period, it is often assumed that there was little or no place for emotion in Scandinavian literature. However, this is not the case. The emotions are certainly present, but in contrast to the French source, packaged in subtle (behavioural) representations. The translator thus acts as a mediator between the cultural conventions for the representation of emotions of the translated and the translating tradition," Vondenhoff explains.

Loudly weeping courtiers

Vondenhoff looked at three forms of literary emotion: the inner emotional world of characters, their emotional expressions in speech and gesture, and the presence and function of group emotion. "A good example of the difference in the depiction of emotion can be seen in the episode in which the lord of Landuc dies in a duel and his lady and her entire entourage pass through the castle in mourning procession. In the French text, this grief is depicted quite intensely and explicitly. The widow cries out, tears her clothes and pulls out her hair. The courtiers, too, wander through the castle weeping loudly in search of the culprit. In the German version of the story written by Hartmann von Aue, emotions also play an important role. The scene can even be found in a series of wall paintings from the thirteenth century in a castle of a German noble house (in present-day South Tyrol, see image).

Detail uit één van de Iwein muurschilderingen van Kasteel Rodenegg, Zuid-Tirol, vroege dertiende eeuw. Al wenend afgebeeld zijn Laudîne en haar gevolg die om de dood van hun burchtheer rouwen.
Detail from one of the Iwein murals from Rodenegg Castle, South Tyrol, early 13th century. Depicted weeping are Laudîne and her retinue mourning the death of their lord. Photo, courtesy of Prof. Jozef Janssens.

Less explicit mourning in Norwegian translation

In the Norwegian translation, you can see that this mourning is much less explicit. The male entourage does cry, which is quite unusual in Norwegian texts, but the grief is not embodied: they do not pull their hair or pick at their clothes. Less emotion, but already more than is conventional for the saga genre. So you can see that there is an adaptation process going on. Although the mourning elements of the passage have been carried over into the Norwegian translation, the way in which this grief is depicted (the narrative method) has been adapted, presumably so that the emotive message better matches the expectations and preferences (the emotional framework) of the Norwegian saga audience."

Praise from men or women

In addition, this example underlines the importance and function of group emotion in the Romantic tradition, a recent topic of interest in emotion studies. What is special about Chrétien's texts is the way in which 'the communal feeling' is addressed. Vondenhoff: "The knight goes on an adventure and comes across an obstacle that must be overcome. In the 'Yvain' story, these deeds are almost always witnessed and evaluated by the community (the court, the townspeople, or subgroups within it) who either confirm the knight's heroic status, or conversely, question it. As readers, we see what happens through the eyes of the spectator whose reactions we can mirror. What was noticeable was that in the various translations, the identity of these so-called mirror characters was changed several times. The social status of the spectator characters and the normative behaviour of male and female characters are played with. I found that in the French text, praise came more often from male characters, while in the Norwegian texts it was often women. In the Norse traditions, it is more common that heroic status was emphasised and affirmed by female characters."

The Green Knight

For Vondenhoff, the research is finished, but Arthurian stories will always live on. It is precisely because they appeal so well to our emotions that Arthurian themes and characters continue to capture our imagination time and time again. So, when you look at films like 'Wizards: Tales of Arcadia'(2020), 'Arthur & Merlin: Knights of Camelot'(2020) or the forthcoming film 'The Green Knight' (2021), remember that these are born out of an old tradition in which stories are adapted over and over again to appeal to new audiences.

The Green Knight

Trailer of the film 'The Green Knight' that will be released this year.
Start date and time
End date and time
Online via StarLeaf
PhD candidate
Chloé Vondenhoff
The Mediation of Emotive Scripts: A Cross-Cultural Study of Poetic Imagery, Gestures, and Emotion in Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain and its Medieval Translations
PhD supervisor(s)
Prof. A.A.M. Besamusca
Prof. S. Rikhardsdottir
Dr F.P.C. Brandsma
More information
Full text via Utrecht University Repository