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  • Allusive Fonteinnes:Love as Trouble in La Mort le Roi Artu
  • David S. King

Scholars have long noted how the first half of the thirteenth-century French prose romance, La Mort le Roi Artu, parallels the narrative of Béroul’s twelfth-century verse Roman de Tristran.1 David F. Hult, in the preface to his recent edition and translation of the Mort Artu, indicates the resemblance as evidence that the prose romancer sought to glorify the adulterous love between Lancelot and Guenevere. Hult, like many other scholars, sees the final installment in the Lancelot-Grail cycle as turning away from the ascetic concerns of its immediate predecessor, La Queste del Saint Graal (63).2 But one must not mistake the secular focus of the characters in the Mort Artu for that of the author. The same portion of the romance that resembles Béroul’s poem makes a number of smaller scale allusions to other texts that suggest kinship with the spirit of the Queste. These allusions center on the image of the fonteinne (fountain or spring), first evoked in a description of Guenevere recalling the lovers’ initial meeting in the Prose Lancelot. Following that point, two springs appear in the narrative. Lancelot stops to rest by one when chased from court by Guenevere’s jealousy, and again by another when drawn back by peril she faces. Elements of these scenes allude to the Narcissus myth, as told in the twelfth-century Lai de Narcisse, and to Biblical verses that associate fountains with marital fidelity/infidelity and the water from such sources with knowledge of the divine. The scenes also recall Lancelot’s oneiric encounter with the sole fountain in the Queste, a vision underscoring the knight’s unworthiness. With these references in mind, we may understand Lancelot’s behavior at the springs in the Mort Artu as suggesting his obsession with worldly matters and his neglect of the spiritual. The allusions encourage the reader to think of adultery as a source of turmoil [End Page 453] rather than as an inspiration, a message in harmony with the Queste’s attitude toward carnal passion.

The description of the queen given in the opening folios of the Mort Artu recalls and recasts the one given on Lancelot’s and Guenevere’s initial meeting. In the Prose Lancelot, he steals furtive glances at her, losing interest in the beauty of all other women. The narrator endorses the young knight’s infatuation: “il n’avoit mie tort, se il ne prisoit envers la roine nule autre dame, car che fu la dame des dames et la fontaine de biauté. Mais s’il seust la grant valor qui en li estoit, encore l’esgardast il plus volentiers, car nule n’estoit, ne povre ne riche, de sa valor” (7: 274).3 The Mort Artu’s narrator, by contrast, tells us that: “la reïne estoit si bele que touz li monz s’en merveilloit, car a celui tens meïsmes qu’ele iert bien en l’aage de cinquante anz estoit ele si bele dame que en tout le monde ne trouvast l’en mie sa pareille, dont aucun chevalier distrent, por ce que sa biauté ne li failloit nule foiz, qu’ele estoit fonteinne de toutes biautez” (3-4).4 This narrator is less effusive in his praise. He attributes the fountain simile to others rather than vouch for its truth himself. The queen’s inner virtues merit no mention, and her beauty is a feature of this world, thereby hinting at the beauties of another world that escape the attention of those at court. What precedes the description motivates this inference. The narrator reminds us that “Lancelos se fust tenuz chastement par le conseill del preudome a qui il se fist confés quant il fu en la queste del Seint Graal et eüst del tout renoiee la reïne Guenievre” (3). We then learn of the hero’s surrender to temptation following the quest – “il rencheï el pechié de la reïne autresi comme il avoit fet autrefoiz” (3). Soon thereafter, Agravain denounces the lovers to the king. In this context, the allusion to the Prose Lancelot reads...


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