- The Epigraph to John Fowles's The Collector
With each new work by John Fowles has come a rereading of his previous works and a reassessing of certain motifs. Publication of The Ebony Tower in 1974, for example, with its epigraph from Crétien de Troyes' Yvain and its translation of Marie de France's Eliduc prompted an outpouring of essays on the medieval backgrounds and textures of the earlier and later novels and perhaps full recognition of the implications of Fowles's comment in one of his earliest interviews that "it is only very naif critics who think that one's influences must be contemporary. In the noösphere there are no dates; only sympathies, admirations, allergies, loathings" ("I Write" 17). Rimgalia Salys explored the medieval contexts and catalogued a number of allusions before concluding that "in his juxtaposing of medieval and modern, [Fowles] postulates a complex analogy—first between medieval and modern art and, finally, between medieval and modern life" (11). [End Page 568] Building on the earlier work of Constance B. Hieatt, Judith Rice Rothschild, Ishrat Lindblad, Carol M. Bauman, and others, Janet E. Lewis and Barry N. Olshen have recently provided the fullest and in many ways the most perceptive appraisal of the medieval motifs, concluding that their continuing presence demonstrates that Fowles "is . . . a man closely attuned to the subject matter, manipulation of plot and character, fantasy, and adventure perfected by writers of courtly poems and stories" (3).
Conspicuously absent from the discussions to date, however, is recognition of, appreciation of, and understanding of the epigraph to The Collector—"que fors eus ne le sot riens nee" (4)—drawn from La Chatelaine de Vergi, an anonymous 956-line metrical romance of the thirteenth century and judged by Albert Pauphilet to be "un des plus parfaits du Moyen Age" (347). (It might be noted in passing that many American readers have failed to notice the novel's epigraph largely because it has been placed in the middle of the copyright information in the Dell paperback.)
La Chatelaine de Vergi at first bears little obvious relationship to The Collector. Popular from its composition until well into the eighteenth century, the poem, in the hands of a less able writer, could have been no more than an interesting variation on the Joseph and Potiphar's wife story couched in terms of courtly love and courtly honor. By adding a fourth character and by baring the psychology of two of the characters, however, the anonymous author achieved a romance which led Froissart to place its heroine in the Garden of Love and to rank "her love with the sad loves of Tristram and Isoud" (Brandin 3-4).
Briefly, La Chatelaine de Vergi tells the story of a Knight and the Lady of Vergi in the court of the Duke of Burgundy. Quite in keeping with the so-called rules of courtly love, the Lady grants the Knight her love on condition "that whensoever he should discover unto another their love, on that day would he lose her love, and the gift which she had made to him of herself" (Brandin 20). Conceiving a love for the Knight, the Duchess of Burgundy offers her love to him and, when spurned, tells the Duke that the Knight has betrayed the honor of the court by making untoward advances. Confronting his Knight, the Duke threatens to banish him from the court "as a perjured man" (29). Caught in the double bind of love owed the Lady and honor owed the Duke, the Knight unwillingly breaks his oath, revealing the object of his true love. The Duke swears that he "would let [his] teeth be pulled out one by one" (31) before revealing the secret; however, when he tells his wife that he believes the Knight's denials and not her charges, the Duchess, "filled with evil longing" (42), pouts and cunningly extracts the story of the love affair from her weak-willed husband. Indeed, her cunning and her husband's vacillations contrasted with the true loves of the Knight and Lady provide much of the power of the story. Having betrayed his oath to his Knight, the Duke...