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Le Roman de Perceforest

Haunted Landscapes

Human Encounters with the Environment in Perceforest
Brooke Heidenreich Findley
p. 185-199


Cet essai étudie la façon dont le paysage qui entoure les personnages de Perceforest forme leurs identités tout en commémorant leurs faits. Il met en évidence une variété de moments durant lesquels les environs inanimés semblent parler d’eux aux personnages, par le biais d’un monument ou d’un objet significatif situé dans un endroit spécifique. L’incongruité de se trouver devant un tableau immobile qui communique un message à propos d’un être humain rend ces rencontres surnaturelles : l’effet est celui d’un paysage « hanté ». Dans ce roman où l’anonymat, le changement de nom et la perte de soi sont des thèmes importants, de tels moments éclaircissent le problème central de l’identité, mais dévoilent aussi un rapport mystérieux entre le paysage et les êtres humains. Les personnages de Perceforest sont souvent dominés par leurs environs, tout en essayant de les dominer à leur tour.

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  • 1 I presented ideas related to this essay in two conference papers, « Disembodied Voices : Women’s Ar (...)
  • 2  Similarly, Huot has argued that « intertwined in [...] Perceforest are the twin themes of the conq (...)
  • 3  For another reading of Perceforest’s landscapes, see M. Szkilnik, « Des “blancs moutons pasturans (...)
  • 4  For the purposes of this essay, I use the term « environment » to refer to the ensemble of the mat (...)

1As a narrative of colonization, Perceforest may at first seem to be primarily concerned with power relationships between humans, refined Greek kings versus the by-turns rustic and sinister Trojan inhabitants of Britain whom they seek to conquer and civilize1. Underpinning Perceforest’s ideology of civilization, however, is an extended examination of the relationship between humans and the landscape that they inhabit2. Within Perceforest’s landscapes, two significant images recur : that of the road traversing the forest, and the monument fixed within it. This essay reads a few of Perceforest’s monuments as evidence of how humans in the romance both shape and are shaped by their environments, but grounds its discussion in an understanding of the romance’s central metaphor of the road3. Taking the term « landscape » in its largest sense, as referring to the material world that surrounds the characters, and that, in this romance, almost always bears the marks of human intervention, it examines the ways in which place and space interact with identity in Perceforest4.

  • 5  All citations of Perceforest are from the Gilles Roussineau edition, Geneva, Droz, 1987-2007, and (...)
  • 6  « eaue doit estre de commun » (I.i.141)

2Perceforest’s foundational act, through which he gains his name, is to « open the pathways of the forest » (I.i.149)5. This he does, not out of concern for the people who live there (his freeing of the oppressed forest women, while lionized after the fact, is essentially an accident), but in order to further a logging operation that will allow him to build a new palace (I.i.138). His battle with the forest’s ruler, the enchanter Darnant, similarly arises from a dispute about the proper use of natural resources : Perceforest, who has drunk from Darnant’s fountain without permission, argues that water should be common property6. Imposing a civilizing force on the landscape, often by tracing paths across it, remains a theme throughout the romance, while savagery is linked directly to the inability to travel. Thus, one of the obstacles that the Roman knight Ourseau encounters in his quest to recivilize the Britons is simply difficulty of movement, because the paths so crucial to civilization are gone : « se mist ou chemin sans tenir certaine voye, car les grans et anciens chemins estoient tant herbus et plains de ronsses et buissons qu’il n’y avoit quelque difference » (IV.i.660-61). Similarly, when Perceforest’s brother Gadiffer undertakes to civilize the inhabitants of his realm of Scotland, he receives an unexpected boon in the form of a forest fire, which cuts a wide swath connecting the new city he has founded to the rest of his realm (II.i.17). Far from regarding this as a disaster, Gadiffer takes it as a sign that the gods approve of his project and dubs the new thoroughfare « Chemin brulé » ; now that it is accessible by road, the city’s name is changed from « Sauvage » to « Royalville». Gadiffer’s excitement over his new road arises from his desire to save his subjects from the stultifying influence of remaining in the same place all their lives : « il vouloit que ceulx de la Ville Royalle aprinssent a aler hors de leurs lieux » (II.i.18, emphasis mine). As the story of the forest fire shows, in this desire to leave, to traverse the landscape freely, a narrative of environmental domination is already implicit.

  • 7  As in the case of the perron merveilleux, the mysterious rock that, after several permutations, wi (...)

3Alongside its repeated use of the motif of road making as environmental control, the romance stages a second form of environmental transformation, this one evoking a more ambiguous power dynamic. Repeatedly, commemorative monuments referencing important episodes of the romance arise in the landscape. Inscriptions and tombs testify to events that happened in certain locations, and sometimes prophesy future developments7. When they come upon these objects, the romance characters become the first readers of fragments of what will become the narrative of Perceforest, inscribed upon the landscape itself and encountered repeatedly in different contexts. These monuments serve at one and the same time as geographical markers for the traveling characters, for whom they identify certain locations, and as textual markers for the readers, to whom they recall or foreshadow other episodes of the romance. While the function of roads is to increase mobility, the meaning of monuments is linked precisely to their immobility, their lasting association with a specific place.

4Some of the most unsettling of Perceforest’s monuments are those that embed moments of human identity-change within the landscape, questioning the boundaries between self and place, mobile and immobile. I now turn to a series of such monuments : the statue commemorating Perceforest’s victory over Darnant, the Temple de la Franche Garde memorializing the accomplishments of Lionel, the Pilier de l’Ours commemorating Estonné’s deeds in bear form, and finally a series of signs that aid Nerones in tracking her lover the Golden Knight. These monuments are markedly different from each other in terms of their creators : the first arises spontaneously (at least, its creator is not identified), the second two are the work of the Fairy Queen, and the last is a series of signs that occur accidentally within the landscape. Yet since the text consistently focuses on the moment of encounter rather than the moment of creation, such differences tend to be effaced by the similarities in the characters’ experiences of encountering these tableaux. One continuous theme is particularly striking : all of these monuments have the effect of transforming an individual into a place, and all do so by a means beyond the control of the individual in question. Those who come upon the monuments thus perceive their surroundings as manifestations of a powerful and often frightening force that not only records but shapes human identity. Such encounters punctuate the characters’ journeys, suggesting a contrast between their persistent traversing of the landscape and the landscape’s own fixing of their identities in time and space.


5The first individual to have his actions commemorated within a significant landscape is the title character of the romance, Perceforest himself ; the occasion is his signature act of « opening the paths of the forest ». After the newly crowned King Betis kills the enchanter Darnant and takes the name Perceforest that has been prophesied for him, a statue representing him and referencing his new name appears at the site of his deed. The landscape within which the statue arises – apparently spontaneously – raises questions about human presence and absence, individual control of spaces and spatial control of individuals. While Betis’ act triggers one of the main plotlines of the romance, setting up an ongoing struggle between his followers and Darnant’s for control of the forest, the place in which that act occurs asks what that control might really mean.

  • 8  On this scene, see also S. Huot, Postcolonial Fictions, p. 46. As she states, « Perceforest’s plea (...)

6Upon entering the forest for the first time, Betis discovers a mysterious landscape that would appear to have been created by human agency, although no human is in evidence8.

Lors regarde et voit la plus belle forest qu’il eust oncques veue, car elle estoit aussi onnye que une belle playne ne n’y avoit ne herbe ne buisson et les arbres qui y estoient estoient si haulx que la flesche du moindre avoit bien .LX. piez de long et estoient sy ordonneement plantez qu’a droicte ligne et avoit chacun arbre bien l’espace de dix destres. [...] Lors regardent avant et voient ung lorier dont les raims estoient nouris et vignetés tout autour. Et estoit sy grant que dessoubz le tour s’ombriassent .CC. chevaliers. Et avoit dessoubz preaulx et sieges ordonnez sy noblement que plus ne pouoit. [...] Lors entra le roy dedens les preaulx, sy regarda par tout et voit une tresbelle fontaine. Il descendy emprés et aussy firent ses escuiers, sy alerent boire a la fontaine. Quant ilz eurent beu, le roy regarde dessus ung pilier lez luy ung ymaige de laiton qui tenoit ung cor moult bel. Tantost prinst le roy le cor a manier pour la beaulté qu’il y veoit. L’ymaige ala incontinent sonner le cor sy hault que la forest en redentist. (I.i.139-40)

  • 9  « ses forestz ou nul n’osoit entrer », I.i.138.
  • 10  Betis’ changing perspective as he enters the forest constitutes an example of what Laura L. Howes (...)

7Although Betis has been previously informed that no one dares enter the forest, he now finds it filled with signs of human intervention and control, yet paradoxically deserted9. The text follows Betis’ changing perspective as the landscape draws him in, leading him to focus on smaller and smaller aspects of his surroundings : first the precisely spaced trees, then the seats and lawns under the great laurel tree, and finally the fountain, pillar and image. Betis’ gaze thus follows a trajectory that progressively uncovers evidence of humans, leading up to his discovery of the human-like image10. The haunted nature of this landscape lies in the pointed absence of the very people whom the text suggests must have created it, crystallized by the observation that « two hundred knights » could sit in the empty seats under the laurel tree.

  • 11  As we later learn, the ladies of the forest use similar automata to give warning when someone is a (...)
  • 12  Yvain is a close comparandum to this scene : first Calogrenant and then Yvain rouse the guardian o (...)

8Betis’ journey culminates in an interaction with his mysterious surroundings : he drinks from the fountain and handles the statue. It is at this point that the image reveals itself to be an automaton. Its human-like reaction to being touched reaffirms the problem of unidentified agency within the objects that surround Betis : there is a ghost in the machine11. The automaton’s warning causes Darnant, guardian of the forest, to appear, completing Betis’ uncovering of the human presence within a deserted landscape. This presence, it now transpires, can itself be awakened by human intervention : Betis’ intrusion, his use of water, and his touch on the horn12. The name that has been prophesied for Betis, Perceforest, is thus peculiarly appropriate : it is his penetration into the forest, here depicted through his successive focus on increasingly detailed aspects of his surroundings, that allows him to root out the hidden agency within the mysterious tableau.

  • 13  « Ilz ne sceurent point qu’ilz s’embatirent sur le lieu ou Percheforest avoit premier jousté a Dar (...)
  • 14  On possible inspirations for this equestrian statue, see Roussineau, I.ii.1136-37.
  • 15  « ilz oent ung cor sonner » (I.i.175).
  • 16  On this scene, see also A. Berthelot, « La Grande Bretagne comme terre étrangère : le tourisme d’A (...)

9After Perceforest’s defeat of Darnant, the significant landscape analyzed above reappears in a different guise, one that now features Perceforest himself as a haunting presence / absence. Perceforest’s men go in search of him and, we are told, come upon the same location without realizing it13. None of the previous details is in evidence : laurel tree, fountain and automaton have vanished. Instead, they find an enigmatic monument : a pillar topped by an equestrian statue of a knight14. The statue on the pillar recalls the automaton on its pillar, although the ensemble is now many times larger : twenty steps winding around the pillar lead up to the statue, and Betis’ brother Gadiffer must climb them in order to look more closely at the mysterious image. Further emphasizing the statue’s similarity to the automaton, the sound of a horn blowing once again heralds the arrival of a guardian, this time a group of workmen bent on dismantling the monument15. The skirmish that ensues is an echo of Perceforest’s fight with Darnant, and has similar stakes. By choosing to defend the statue despite their total incomprehension of its significance, Perceforest’s men, like Perceforest himself, are asserting their right to control the landscape in which the workmen attempt to intervene16.

  • 17  Sebille explains the king’s new name to Alexander (I.i.185) ; Olive to Gadiffer and Le Tor (I.i.23 (...)

10What makes this scene particularly intriguing, however, is the fact that the monumental statue replacing the automaton is now meant to represent Betis-Perceforest himself. An inscription on the image reads : « cy endroit fut feru le premier coup de lance par chevalier estrange es forestz d’Angleterre, et fut de la main Percheforest, le bon roy d’Angleterre, sur Darnant l’enchanteur » (I.i.174). Confused by these words, the knights nonetheless seem to have an inkling of what they might signify : as one of them says, « se le roy [...] eust a nom Percheforest, je deisse que ce fust il » (I.i.174). The knights thus learn their first news of the missing king – whose changed name also means that he is no longer exactly the king whom they have lost – not from an individual, but from a part of the landscape that will henceforth give Perceforest his identity. The monument’s announcement of the king’s new name is precisely what renders it incomprehensible : the knights will not fully comprehend that Betis has been renamed Perceforest until they hear verbal explanations of his name and its significance, delivered by various ladies of the forest ; it will thus be only through human contact that the knights will understand the identity-change that interaction with the forest has wrought in a human17.

  • 18  The text refers to the monument’s creation only obliquely : « on avoit fait ung pilier de pierre a (...)

11At the same time as Betis-Perceforest’s deed changes his identity, then, it also changes the site on which it is done, with the result that his statue replaces the automaton, that his is the new phantom-like presence haunting an apparently deserted landscape. The monument signals not only that Perceforest’s new identity has passed into history, but that a part of the individual who was Betis has become an object fixed within the enchanted forest. The statue’s human form raises the double question of the king’s absence, and the absence of the monument’s missing creator, whom the text never identifies18. The monument’s spontaneous appearance thus complicates the very question that incites Perceforest and his followers to fight in the first place, that of human control over the landscape. Should we read this statue as a sign of Perceforest’s domination of the forest, or of his entry into it as yet another human-like object ?

12Further emphasizing the statue’s unsettling ability to both shape and reflect the king’s identity is its brief reappearance in the second part of the romance. After falling into an incapacitating depression following the death of Alexander, Perceforest comes upon the statue and finds that the shield it holds is inverted and its eyes blindfolded (II.i.226). His reaction is not to ask why and how the statue has been transformed, but to doubt his own identity, even his very existence. Knowing that an inverted shield signifies the death of its owner, he asks himself, « comment, n’es tu mie le roy d’Angleterre ? Dont vient ce que on t’a cy figuré pour mort ?» (II.i.226). Seeing his death figured via the statue that commemorates his defining deed, the king is able to envision only two possibilities: either he is not king (he is not who the statue says he is after all), or he is dead. Not only does the statue change to reflect the state of its human subject, its mute testimony in turn changes Perceforest’s behavior, leading him to deny his identity repeatedly in the pages that follow.


  • 19  Similarly, Szkilnik shows that the Fairy Queen’s role as a creator of artistic tableaux is similar (...)

13As the changing fortunes of the statue of Perceforest suggest, landscape plays a role in identity-change, while identity-change in turn leaves a mark on the landscape. If Perceforest’s men’s confusion hints at the disorientation that results from such a melding together of human and monument, the disturbing and alienating nature of the process emerges even more fully from episodes involving two of the knights of Perceforest’s court, Lionel and Estonné. Both experience a loss of identity that ultimately results in the transformation of an aspect of their histories into a commemorative space. The knights’ encounters with the resulting monuments to themselves raise questions about the location of identity, and the individual’s powerlessness faced with a mysteriously powerful set of surroundings. Unlike the statue of Perceforest, the monuments to Lionel and Estonné are not anonymous, but are created by Lidoire, the « fairy queen » of Scotland. However, both heroes experience Lidoire’s creations as having a mysterious agency of their own, one that functions most effectively in the absence of their creator. Arguably, in these episodes Lidoire adapts for her own purposes a role that, elsewhere in the romance, is seen as arising directly from the landscape19.

14The « Temple de la Franche Garde », a monument to Lionel’s heroic exploits, originates as a response to an attempted identity theft. Lionel has accomplished a series of deeds that will win him the right to meet Blanche, the young woman he loves, and has accumulated trophies that prove his achievements : the head of the Golden-haired giant, a serpent’s claws, and a tame lion cub. When a knight who wants to impersonate Lionel steals these trophies from him, the hero loses all proof of his identity – his name in itself means nothing, since, like many of Perceforest’s heroes, he has been carefully guarding his anonymity until he establishes his reputation. Blanche’s mother Queen Lidoire saves the situation, but does so in a way that ensures her control over Lionel’s heroic identity : she recovers the trophies and houses them in a temple that can only be entered by the doer of the deeds it commemorates.

15The temple functions as an architectural body for the anonymous hero to inhabit, a denotative space that repels all imposters. However, Lionel’s experience of entering the temple, far from being an act of penetration and conquest, turns out to be both puzzling and disturbing because of the peculiar loss of self that it entails. First, to his amazement, he sees the walls of the temple filled with paintings that depict how the trophies housed there were won, openly displaying aspects of his past that he has hitherto kept secret.

Quant Lyonnel eut bien regardee l’ystoire qui sy richement et si au vif estoit pointuree, il eut trop grant merveille comment tous les fais pouoient estre sceuz, car plusieurs en y avoit dont nul ne sçavoit parler fors luy et Clamidés [Lionel’s squire]. (II.ii.112)

  • 20  Roussineau’s observation that these paintings are similar to those Lancelot creates about his own (...)

16The version of Lionel’s adventures that the paintings depict is apparently not limited by the fairy queen’s perspective, but perfectly mirrors Lionel’s own hidden experiences. Lionel perceives the paintings as another sort of identity theft : his story, carefully guarded as proof of his adventures, has been taken from him only to reappear, like his trophies, as part of his surroundings. Insofar as the marks of identity that Lionel formerly carried with him have been appropriated and fixed into the the temple, the temple « is » Lionel. What, therefore, is « he » who regards the temple ?20

17Lionel’s initial amazement gives way to consternation as he realizes that he cannot change or remove anything in the temple, including his trophies, which have now become part of the artistic ensemble. He tries to take down the giant’s head – which has been painted to make it more life-like (II.ii.110) – with the help of a ladder used by the painters ; but is unable to approach the pillar with the ladder (II.ii.113). The specification that Lionel attempts to use the painters’ tool to recover an object that has itself been painted emphasizes that his is an attempt to gain a measure of artistic agency, a bid for the right to intervene in the work of art that surrounds him. The space resists, bringing home to Lionel his utter loss of control within his strangely controlling surroundings.

18Lionel’s third and final shock comes with the realization that once he has entered the temple, he is unable to leave it : his heroic body-as-space is also a richly decorated trap intended to deliver him to the fairy queen (II.ii.114). When Lidoire finally arrives, Lionel’s words to her convey his helplessness in the face of her art :

Je suys deshonnouré, car contre art de femme ne me sçay deffendre. [...] J’avroie plus chier a avoir guerre aux .IIII. plus preux chevaliers qui soient pour ce cas que a vous toute seule, car a eulx me deffendroie tant que la vie me seroit ou corps de mon droit, mais a vous ne m’est loy de deffendre. Car dire poez ce qu’il vous plaist sur moy comme a vostre subget et je souffriray voulentiers. (II.ii.114-115)

19As Lionel implies, he is both « subject » to Lidoire and the « subject » of the work of art that she has created. What she says about him is not only verbal, but visual and architectural, incarnated in the space within which he is trapped. He can neither contradict her nor rearrange her temple.

20Lidoire continues to maintain the temple as a way of exercising control over Lionel’s heroic identity, so much so that, when the hero falls victim to a second instance of identity theft, it is at the hands of Lidoire herself. The queen steals two shields that Lionel carried in a tournament and places them in the temple along with the other trophies. When Lionel arrives once again at the temple to claim credit for his new exploit, Lidoire recognizes him but pretends not to, because he lacks the shields that would prove his identity. In the course of the surreal and circular conversation that follows, Lionel gestures helplessly at the shields already hanging on the wall. Lidoire’s reply stops him in his tracks :

Sire chevalier, dist la royne, celui qui porta cel escu ne fut point nommé Lyonnel, ains fut nommé le Chevalier aux Deux Escus. (III.i.308)

21Lidoire here refers playfully to another index of identity-change, the name given to the incognito Lionel in the tournament where he carried the shields. As she points out, a knight’s name is in itself meaningless and constantly changing. More important are the objects identified with him, which may effectively stand in for names. If « Lionel » is no more than a collection of objects, then whoever is able to appropriate those objects has the right to say who the hero is.

22In the final analysis, the temple’s purpose is not merely to aggrandize Lionel and commemorate his deeds, but to remove his identity from his person and reconfigure it in an artistic edifice that remains firmly under Lidoire’s control, and in which the ultimate authority lies with objects placed in an immobile tableau, rather than with the human subject that they celebrate. Lionel’s experience of entering the temple is similar to Betis’ experience of entering the forest, insofar as the space into which he penetrates contains a series of mysterious clues that lead him to the guardian of the tableau. Yet it also strikes a more disturbing note because his surroundings speak to him of himself even as they resist his intervention.

23Like Lionel, Estonné suffers a loss of identity and becomes dependent on Lidoire to reconstruct it for him. In this case, however, the loss in question is one of humanity as well : Lidoire transforms Estonné into a bear because she blames him for a hunting accident suffered by her husband, only restoring him to his human form once she is convinced that he has earned it. Re-humanized, Estonné believes that his life as a bear was a dream until he stumbles upon a monument commemorating it. He and his friend Le Tor, to whom Estonné has just recounted his « dream », find a pillar standing in the middle of a carefully cultivated garden, incongruous because it is deep within a seemingly uninhabited forest.

Sy chevauchierent depuis .II. journees par la forest sans trouver personne. Adont s’embatirent ilz sur ung moult bel placeiz et en la moienne avoit ung moult beau lieu pour reposer, car il y avoit ung praiel encloz de rosiers et d’eglentiers qui commençoient a foeuillir. Et quant ilz vindrent pres, Le Tors regarde et voit ung merveilleux pilier d’ouvraige. (II.ii.11)

24The savage landscape through which the knights have been riding gives way to one that has been shaped by art, in a series of contrasts between the deserted forest, the pleasantly cultivated garden, and the marvelously worked pillar. Here, as in Betis’ encounter, the evidence of human intervention within a deserted landscape is both incongruous and disturbing. Estonné is amazed to see that the pillar depicts details from the dream he has just told to his friend, as if his words had taken material shape. Like Lionel examining the paintings in the temple, he wonders how anyone else can have discovered his private thoughts. Deepening his confusion still further is the fact that Estonné recognizes the site of the mysterious pillar as the very place where he « dreamed ». As he says to Le Tor :

Vous sçavez que je vous comptay [...] le songe [...]. Or sachiez que quant je m’esveillay la matinee, je me trouvay en ce praiel par dessoubz ce chesne qui siet en la moienne. [...] Or voy depuis que le pilier que vous veez est cy fondé. (II.ii.12)

25The location of the pillar, like that of the monument to Perceforest, suggests that a specific place may retain the mark of the events that transpired there.

26Faced with this apparently inexplicable phenomenon, Estonné concludes that the pillar is specific to his own experience, a product of an enchantment on himself rather than a part of his surroundings.

Par ma foy, sire, je croy que nous sommes enchantez, car je ne descouvry oncques mon songe a personne que a vous, sy croy que se autres chevaliers passoient par cy, ilz ne trouveroient ne pilier ne lame. (II.ii.12-13)

  • 21  S. Huot similarly notes that « the Pillar of Estonné is never fully comprehended by anyone without (...)
  • 22  For an extended discussion of the ways in which Perceforest explores the sometimes indistinct boun (...)

27Estonné stubbornly resists the externalization of identity that the pillar represents : when he sees his subjectivity mirrored in his surroundings, he can only read those surroundings as being themselves a subjective illusion ; just as, faced with a memory of being a bear, he can only rationalize the experience as a dream. It is only later, when Estonné hears a minstrel attest to having seen the pillar, that he realizes both that the bear episode was not a dream, and that the pillar is visible to others than himself and Le Tor. Much like Betis’ knights, then, Estonné requires a human commentary before he can fully understand the mute testimony of the monument that he encounters21. His understanding of both the landscape and himself are so fully grounded in human terms, that any intervention of the non-human automatically results in illegibility and alienation. That the identity-change in question involved the assumption of a bestial form only renders the entire experience more unsettling, questioning as it does the boundaries between human, animal, and ultimately the landscape that both inhabit22. Yet Lidoire, herself a very civilized manipulator of spaces and the objects within them, orchestrates the entire episode : the force that Estonné experiences as arising spontaneously from his surroundings in fact originates with the Fairy Queen’s art.


  • 23  On this episode, and especially its heroine, see M. Szkilnik, « Des femmes écrivains », Romania, 1 (...)

28The extended episode of the Golden Knight and Heart of Steel, recounted in substantial portions of part three of Perceforest, stages a series of landscape-signs that allow two separated lovers to locate one another, and finally to resolve their dual identity problems23. Such signs have important commonalities with the monuments discussed above, but introduce a new element, that of tracking : material traces on the landscape serve as guides in the lovers’ journeys, helping them to both read and traverse the enchanted forest. These are monuments become like roads, and the landscape’s revelation of the characters’ identities, in empowering their quests after each other, also enables their human agency.

29The story revolves around a double case of identity lost and regained. The hero is known as the Golden Knight for the color of his arms : since he refuses to reveal his name except to one who defeats him in battle, he remains nameless to both his beloved and the readers for much of the tale. The Golden Knight’s beloved Nerones suffers a different kind of identity loss when she is abducted by a would-be suitor, tortured, and buried as dead. Escaping from her own tomb, she reinvents herself as a young man called Heart of Steel and sets out to track down her missing lover. In the double quest that ensues, both lovers find aspects of their beloveds’ changing identities recorded in the landscapes they encounter.

30When the apparently dead Nerones disappears from the narrative, her empty tomb serves as the only trace of her, a mute and illegible monument that must also be the starting point of any quest to locate her. Only a few hours after Nerones is first buried as dead, a would-be grave robber finds her tomb empty and is so astounded that he accuses himself by recounting the marvel to the equally mystified king (III.ii.213). What renders the tomb illegible to both robber and king is precisely the lack of the body that it should contain : significant human absence from a specific place, and the confusion that results, is here figured in a new way. As the story progresses, Nerones’ tomb quickly shows itself to be a meaningful location that not only retains the imprint of what occurs there, but marks developments in the narrative through its changes. The Golden Knight encounters his beloved’s empty tomb and comes to the correct conclusion that she has escaped; his next move is to transform the site and its meaning by challenging and killing Nerones’ abductor Fergus on the very spot. Nerones’ tomb is thus displaced by her abductor’s : the text insists that Fergus’ tomb is in the same place as Nerones’ (« au pres de la sepultre [...] en ce propre lieu »(III.ii.237)), while his epitaph is carved into the large tree that formerly marked Nerones’ tomb (III.ii.230-31 ; 237).

31Later in the story, when Heart of Steel comes across this same location in her search for the Golden Knight, her understanding of it indicates that it has acquired yet a third meaning. Rather than recognizing the site of her own tomb, she focuses on what it can tell her about her lover : she reads the inscription explaining that the Golden Knight has killed Fergus as evidence that the former is somewhere in the region (« au pais », III.ii.250), then rejoices to find a nearby temple of Venus, where Fergus’ and the Golden Knight’s shields are on display. Her gaze especially lingers on the golden shield with a lover’s obsession : « elle ne se pouoit sauler de regarder l’escu doré, car elle cognoissoit bien qu’il estoit a son leal amy » (III.ii.251). Heart of Steel’s joy at finding the golden shield is all the more significant because she will fail to recognize her lover when she finally does meet him, only suspecting his identity when she notices that he carries a golden shield (III.ii.267), so that it is this external object alone – which is also the only name he has – that infallibly identifies him for her. The site of first Nerones’ and then Fergus’ tomb becomes, for Heart of Steel, a sign of the Golden Knight’s significant absence within the landscape, marked both by his heroic deed and by the object that gives him his name.

32The Golden Knight inadvertently leaves a second clue imbedded in the landscape for Heart of Steel to read. As in the case of the tomb, this sign involves an object originally associated with Nerones, but that Heart of Steel encounters in a new context : a lost ring. Heart of Steel asks a poor man who has begged hospitality from her adoptive mother to hold a captive lark for her, and he ties the bird’s tether to a ring that he wears, but the lark escapes trailing the ring (III.ii.242). When Heart of Steel tracks down the lark and ring, she experiences the composite of living creature and mute object as a sign within the landscape. The scene that ensues stages the heroine’s recognition of an item that was once hers but that has been displaced, provoking first a reaction of alienation very similar to that of Lionel and Estonné, followed by a new insight about a hidden identity.

Elle vey plusieurs oyselés de diverses manieres qui queroient leur pasture. Lors la pucelle darda son javellot au milieu d’eulx. Et quant la volille vey ce, tout se leva en l’aer pour la paour qu’ilz eurent, reservé une aloette qui s’arresta et s’atacha a un chardon par ung fil, puis commença a soy debatre des esles pour les autres sieuvir. Et tant en fist que Cuer d’Achier, alant pour querir son javelot, la vey. Sy la print par ung fillet a quoy elle estoit atachie et y trouva ung aneau. Quant Cuer d’Acier eut pris l’aloette et eut regardé l’aneau, tout le sang lui mua, car elle recognut que c’estoit le propre aneau qu’elle avoit a son amy donné. Et puis recognut le fil a quoy l’oysel estoit lyet, sy sceut certainement que c’estoit l’aloette qu’elle avoit baillé en garde au povre homme. Et par ceste raison, veu qu’il y avoit mis l’aneau, il faloit que ce fust le Chevalier Doré. (III.ii.250)

33Heart of Steel’s increasingly focused gaze as she moves into the landscape mirrors Betis’ : her attention lingers on a flock of birds, then on one bird, and finally on the cord and ring attached to it. Her discovery of the significant object is precipitated by her intervention in her surroundings, when she « pokes » at the flock of birds with her javelin, apparently motivated by the same curiosity that drove Betis to handle the automaton’s horn. Her encounter with the ring is similar to Lionel’s and Estonné’s encounters with the monuments that reflect their experiences : her blood turns to ice (« tout le sang lui mua ») at the sight of what amounts to another haunted landscape, inexplicably presenting her with a trace of her own past life and former identity. Her subsequent process of interpretation leads her gaze back outward from the ring, which she recognizes as the one that she gave to her lover, to the cord, which she identifies as the one that she herself tied to the bird, to the bird that she handed to the « poor man », and finally to the deduction that this man must have been the Golden Knight. Thus, Heart of Steel’s reading of a composite sign, part live animal and part very civilized object, the whole of which has become literally stuck within the landscape, leads her to reconsider the history of her own actions and finally, belatedly, to recognize her lover. It is at this point that her initial reaction of supernatural horror changes to joy, centered around the very object that previously terrified her :

Cuer d’Acier eut lors grant joye quant elle eut trouvé l’aloette atout l’aneau. Plusieurs fois elle le regarda par grant plaisir et dist que son amy, le Chevalier Doré, estoit en ce pays. (III.ii.250)

  • 24  Huot discusses a similar moment, at which the Golden Knight is confronted with the dangerous and s (...)

34The lark-and-ring composite now signifies Heart of Steel’s missing lover, and she experiences its finding, like that of the golden shield, as a joyous reunion with an object that stands in for a person. Yet the entire scene, like Lidoire’s surreal exchange with Lionel over the two shields, also ends up emphasizing the fragility of the Golden Knight’s identity : without an identifying object, whether shield or ring, he is unrecognizable even to his lover; conversely, when the landscape « wears » these objects it also « becomes » him in Heart of Steel’s eyes24.

35Heart of Steel’s quest for the Golden Knight can thus be summarized as a series of strange meetings in which the desired beloved is transformed into a significant object, becoming part of the scenery through which the questing lover moves. However, these are also a series of encounters with her former self, sometimes recognized and sometimes not : while the fact that Fergus’ tomb was once hers passes unnoticed, the same is not true of the ring. Instead, Heart of Steel’s encounter with something that once belonged to Nerones, now in a new and savage context yet manifestly the same object, ultimately leads her to seek out her lover, and thus to seek to become Nerones again. Both ring and transformed tomb renew Heart of Steel’s determination to keep riding, to locate her lover within a landscape that seems to speak of him. The discovery of significant objects fixed within the landscape returns her to the act with which this essay started, that of cheminer, of making tracks across the forest, now linked in a new way with the theme of identity-change :

Adont elle dist qu’elle n’avoit qu’ester de cheminer, car son intencion estoit telle qu’elle n’arresteroit jamais et ne se donneroit a cognoistre jusques a ce qu’elle l’avoit retrouvé. (III.ii.251, emphasis mine)

  • 25  For more on women’s roles as builders of manor houses and cultivators of gardens, see Huot, Postco (...)

36Heart of Steel’s action of cheminer, differently from that of road building discussed at the beginning of this essay, involves not landscape-domination but landscape-reading, since only the correct interpretation of the signs she encounters can guide her on her path. At the same time, the necessary masculine disguise that she assumes for her quest references one gendered aspect of Perceforest’s opening of the paths of the forest with some irony. For Heart of Steel, a masculine identity is the only thing that allows her to traverse the landscape in safety, while the brutality that Nerones has undergone and that led to her assumption of masculine attire in the first place echoes the treatment of women under Darnant’s rule. As these remarks indicate, there is a gender dynamic implicit in Perceforest’s portrayals of landscape change and domination. The building of monuments, like the establishment of manor houses and gardens, is the province of women, while those who traverse the landscape, making use of the roads that indicate civilization, are almost always men – in Nerones’ case, she must dress as a man. The unsettling power of monuments might, then, figure the unsettling power of women, as a force that apparently arises from within the landscape rather than dominating it from without25.


  • 26  See Siewers, Strange Beauty, p. 5, for the provocative idea of a medieval « cultural symbolism tha (...)

37The significant landscapes examined here convey an ambiguous message. On the one hand, they confirm that the characters of Perceforest understand their environment in purely human terms, only attending to their surroundings insofar as they apply to themselves – or even, as in the case of Estonné, believing that their surroundings are nothing more than an illusion arising from their own experiences. On the other hand, it is this very involvement of the landscape with people, its constant commentary on human affairs, that makes it both disturbing and incomprehensible to the individuals concerned26. In the strange encounters discussed here, Perceforest’s characters find, frequently to their own dismay, that their surroundings come to reflect and even shape their subjectivities. The effect is remarkably similar whether the significant places in question are deliberately created or accidental, anonymous or the work of the fairy queen : one of the marks of Lidoire’s power is her ability to appropriate a force that the romance elsewhere portrays as arising from the landscape itself.

  • 27  I adopt the term « more-than-human world » from David Abram’s important work of ecological philoso (...)

38The power of Perceforest’s landscapes to speak to humans, recording and transforming their subjectivities and even giving evidence of a mysterious presence that « talks back », stands in singular counterpoint to the romance’s central metaphor of the road as an instrument of environmental domination. In the discourse of the landscape, in sharp contrast to the discourse of the road, the salient opposition is not one of savagery versus civilization, but of surroundings versus self : in these tableaux marked in various ways by human intervention and artistry, the question of taming wildness, so important elsewhere, never arises. Instead, the problem posed is that of the place of selfhood within a more-than-human world, as the characters experience both alienation and a haunting sense of recognition faced with their strangely animate surroundings27. Peculiarly fragile, the self in Perceforest is destabilized by the echoes that it finds in the landscape and the objects fixed within it. If the characters of Perceforest locate their identities in the significant places that bear the traces of their deeds, that very act of dis-location indicates the extent to which those identities escape their control.


1 I presented ideas related to this essay in two conference papers, « Disembodied Voices : Women’s Artistry in Perceforest » at the 44th International Conference on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, May 2009; and « Interpréter le paysage du Perceforest : forêts, jardins, monuments » at the 4e Colloque International Arthurien de Rennes, October 2010. I would like to thank Christine Ferlampin-Acher for organizing both occasions, and members of the audience for their comments. Thanks also go to Sylvia Huot for giving me the opportunity to share my work in the present context as well as for interesting conversations about Perceforest via email and in person, to Michelle Szkilnik for reproducing a copy of her article on Perceforest’s landscapes for me, to Sam Findley for reading and editing multiple drafts of this essay, and to the anonymous reader for CRMH.

 On Perceforest as a narrative of colonization, see S. Huot, Postcolonial Fictions in the Roman de Perceforest, Woodbridge, UK, D.S. Brewer, 2007.

2  Similarly, Huot has argued that « intertwined in [...] Perceforest are the twin themes of the conquest of a rival civilization, and the conquest of nature itself ». Cf. « Cultural Conflict as Anamorphosis : Conceptual Spaces and Visual Fields in the Roman de Perceforest », Romance Studies, 22, 2004, p. 185-195, cit. p. 186. On the civilization of Perceforest’s landscapes in terms of place-names, see also Ch. Ferlampin-Acher, « La Géographie et les progrès de la civilisation dans Perceforest », Provinces, régions, terroirs au Moyen Age, éd. B. Guidot, Nancy, Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1993, p. 275-290.

3  For another reading of Perceforest’s landscapes, see M. Szkilnik, « Des “blancs moutons pasturans les rais du soleil” : le paysage dans les marges du Roman de Perceforest », Cahiers du SEL, 2, 1997, p. 31-54. Szkilnik emphasizes the realism of the romance’s landscape-descriptions, which she compares to marginalia in their vividness and tangential nature.

4  For the purposes of this essay, I use the term « environment » to refer to the ensemble of the material world or « place-world » that surrounds or « environs » the romance characters, and the term « landscape » to designate that portion of the environment that appears within the characters’ immediate perceptual field. Neither term assumes any priority of nature over culture : in Perceforest, both the environment and the landscapes that unfold within it are generally shaped by humans. On this terminology, see E. S. Casey, « Taking a Glance at the Environment : Preliminary Thoughts on a Promising Topic », Eco-Phenomenology : Back to the Earth Itself, eds. Ch. S. Brown and T. Toadvine, Albany, NY, State University of New York Press, 2003, p. 193-96. As Casey notes, Heidegger was the first to insist on « the idea of something surrounding us » implicit in the word environment, p. 193. For a use of similar terminology in a medieval context, see A. K. Siewers, Strange Beauty : Ecocritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape, New York, Palgrave, 2009, esp. p. 5-6. Siewers provocatively suggests that landscape in certain medieval texts may be understood as « a form of narrative image mediating between the physical environment and human culture and thus crossing conventional boundaries between the biological and the imaginary, the body and the environment, the subjective and the objective », p. 5.

5  All citations of Perceforest are from the Gilles Roussineau edition, Geneva, Droz, 1987-2007, and are identified by part number, followed by volume number and page number.

6  « eaue doit estre de commun » (I.i.141)

7  As in the case of the perron merveilleux, the mysterious rock that, after several permutations, will eventually house the famous sword in the stone. As Huot says of the ensemble of Perceforest’s monuments, they « are a sort of history of the future [...] the land is acquiring a history, one which can provide the basis for its cultural renewal ». Cf. « Chronicle, Lai, and Romance : Orality and Writing in the Roman de Perceforest », Vox intexta : Orality and Textuality in the Middle Ages, eds. A. N. Doane and C. Braun Pasternack, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, p. 203-223, cit. p. 207.

8  On this scene, see also S. Huot, Postcolonial Fictions, p. 46. As she states, « Perceforest’s pleasure in the English forests is a delight not in unfettered wilderness, but in a well-managed environment for human habitation, rich in valuable resources ».

9  « ses forestz ou nul n’osoit entrer », I.i.138.

10  Betis’ changing perspective as he enters the forest constitutes an example of what Laura L. Howes has termed the « processional, pedestrian experience » of medieval space. Cf. « Narrative Time and Literary Landscapes in Middle English Poetry », Inventing Medieval Landscapes : Senses of Place in Western Europe, eds. J. Howe and M. Wolfe, Gainesville, FL, University of Florida Press, 2002, p. 192-207, cit. p. 197. Howes argues that medieval spaces, both literary and actual, are designed not to be surveyed from above, but to « reveal themselves as one proceeds through them, step by step », p. 194.

11  As we later learn, the ladies of the forest use similar automata to give warning when someone is approaching their castles (IV.ii.956).

12  Yvain is a close comparandum to this scene : first Calogrenant and then Yvain rouse the guardian of a magic fountain by spilling water onto a stone; to Calogrenant, the guardian complains specifically about his trees, which have been felled in the resulting storm : « Anviron moi est li garanz / de mon bois, qui est abatuz » (ll. 500-501). Different is not only the automaton, with its implicit questioning of the limits of human presence in a deserted landscape, but the fact that Betis drinks and therefore uses the fountain’s water rather than simply spilling it. He is thus able to answer Darnant’s challenge with an argument about the use of natural resources : « eaue doit estre de commun » (I.i.141).

13  « Ilz ne sceurent point qu’ilz s’embatirent sur le lieu ou Percheforest avoit premier jousté a Darnant » (I.i.174).

14  On possible inspirations for this equestrian statue, see Roussineau, I.ii.1136-37.

15  « ilz oent ung cor sonner » (I.i.175).

16  On this scene, see also A. Berthelot, « La Grande Bretagne comme terre étrangère : le tourisme d’Alexandre dans le Roman de Perceforest », Diesseits- und Jenseitsreisen im Mittelalter, ed. Wolf-Dieter Lange, Bonn/Berlin, Bouvier, 1992, p. 11-23, cit. p. 21. As Berthelot argues, this episode provides Alexander with the opportunity to participate in a reduced version of Betis’ adventure : « Alexandre suit le parcours d’un héros de roman, sans l’être lui-même [...] [il] se déplace dans un univers parallèle avec toujours un temps de décalage par rapport à la narration centrale ».

17  Sebille explains the king’s new name to Alexander (I.i.185) ; Olive to Gadiffer and Le Tor (I.i.238).

18  The text refers to the monument’s creation only obliquely : « on avoit fait ung pilier de pierre a la Fontaine du Pin » (I.i.157).

19  Similarly, Szkilnik shows that the Fairy Queen’s role as a creator of artistic tableaux is similar to that of nature : « La reine-fée et Nature se révèlent toutes deux à cette occasion des maîtres incomparables dans l’art de l’illusion, faisant naître à volonté des paysages magnifiques et impressionnants qui en effet frappent l’imagination des spectateurs ». Cf. « Des blancs moutons », p. 41. On the complex figure of Lidoire, see J. H. M. Taylor, « La Reine Fée in the Roman de Perceforest : Rewriting, Rethinking », Arthurian Studies in honor of P. J. C. Field, ed. B. Wheeler, Woodbridge, UK, D.S. Brewer, 2004, p. 81-91.

20  Roussineau’s observation that these paintings are similar to those Lancelot creates about his own life (II.ii.556) only serves to emphasize the key difference between the two heroes’ experiences : Lionel is here faced with art about him, and revealing his inmost secrets, but not by him, and over which he has no control.

21  S. Huot similarly notes that « the Pillar of Estonné is never fully comprehended by anyone without the aid of an oral commentary ». Cf. « Chronicle, Lai, and Romance », p. 210 ; the same might be said of the equestrian statue of Perceforest. For Huot, this marks « the importance of the oral tradition [...] the minstrel is the guarantor of truth », p. 211. Yet it shows, too, the alien nature of places and objects to the romance characters : they are only able to understand monuments through human intervention and interpretation.

22  For an extended discussion of the ways in which Perceforest explores the sometimes indistinct boundaries between animal and human, see Huot, Postcolonial Fictions, op. cit., ch. 2, « Testing Boundaries », esp. p. 48-69.

23  On this episode, and especially its heroine, see M. Szkilnik, « Des femmes écrivains », Romania, 117, 1999, p. 475-88.

24  Huot discusses a similar moment, at which the Golden Knight is confronted with the dangerous and savage beste glatissant, but sees only Nerones reflected in its neck. Cf. « Anamorphosis », p. 187. As she argues (quoting Nadia Lovell), « nature becomes socially meaningful because it provides the means through which humans can recognize identities and places ».

25  For more on women’s roles as builders of manor houses and cultivators of gardens, see Huot, Postcolonial Fictions, p. 74-75.

26  See Siewers, Strange Beauty, p. 5, for the provocative idea of a medieval « cultural symbolism that defines nature intersubjectively, across boundaries between the human and the nonhuman ».

27  I adopt the term « more-than-human world » from David Abram’s important work of ecological philosophy, The Spell of the Sensuous : Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, New York, Pantheon Books, 1996. I would suggest that the reciprocal and often supernatural relationships between humans and their surroundings described by Abram are similar to those that occur in Perceforest.

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Brooke Heidenreich Findley, « Haunted Landscapes », Cahiers de recherches médiévales et humanistes, 21 | 2011, 185-199.

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Brooke Heidenreich Findley, « Haunted Landscapes », Cahiers de recherches médiévales et humanistes [En ligne], 21 | 2011, mis en ligne le 18 juillet 2013, consulté le 22 juillet 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/crm.12440

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Brooke Heidenreich Findley

Penn State Altoona

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