[St. Pachomius Library]

The Power of Music in Medieval Literature:
The Trumpet Shall Sound:
The Joy of the Court

© 2000, 2004 by Brenda Johnstone Flynn. All rights reserved.

          The Song of Roland is one of a number of medieval works of literature in which the trumpet plays a role. In Chrétien de Troyes' Erec and Enide, a 12th century romance, the last adventure takes place in the lands of King Evrain, and involves a very strange horn. The episode starts out typically, with the introduction of a challenge, and the hero's stubborn insistence that he will attempt the challenge. As Erec and his entourage enter the town and the castle, King Evrain's people warn him against the mysterious Joy of the Court: "You're as handsome as a man can be,/ And so we mourn your beauty,/ For tomorrow we'll see it vanish./ Death comes for you/ Tomorrow" (Troyes 174). Of course, their lament and advice serves only to encourage the knight to attempt the Joy, whatever it might be. King Evrain, too, tries to dissuade the knight from attempting the perils and near-certain death that accompany the Joy of the Court. Erec listens to him, but ignores his advice. Determined to attempt the challenge, Erec finds himself in an enchanted garden preparing to confront the Joy of the Court.
          Throughout all these unheeded warnings, no one has told Erec what the Joy of the Court actually involves, other than near certain death and decapitation. So when Erec arrives at the location where the Joy is to take place, he naturally has a few questions. The garden location is obviously an enchanted one. While no walls separate the garden from the rest of the world, there is an invisible barrier, which can only be crossed at the gate. Inside the garden, fruit is always growing and birds are always singing, but nothing can be taken out of the garden. It is in this atmosphere of magic and enchantment that Erec finds himself, having vowed to take on a challenge whose parameters he does not know. Inside this magical garden is a row of spikes, upon each of which there is an impaled head of a knight. The last spike holds only a horn. His curiosity about the Joy of the Court is understandable. Presented with this strange sight, but according to the narrator, unafraid, Erec asks King Evrain what the stakes signify. Evrain's answer explains only part of the mystery of the Joy of the Court:

And the king replied: "My friend,
You don't understand the meaning
Of this thing we see in front of us?
You ought to feel mortal fear,
If you value your life, for this one
Empty spike, where only
A horn hangs, has been waiting
For a knight. Who? We don't know -
You, or someone else.
Be careful, don't let the head
Be yours, as it's meant to be.
. . .
Then understand that if,
As predicted (as soon as this
Was set in the ground, hung
With a horn), your head is there,
Another spike will be planted,
And it, too, will await
A head, though God knows whose.
I've nothing to tell you about
The horn, for no one's been able
To play it, but whoever can
Will earn the greatest honor
And fame of any knight
In this land. . .

(Troyes 182-3)

The mystery of the Joy of the Court is tied to the horn that is hung from the prophetic final stake. The horn perpetually awaits the next victim of the Joy, and holds the next victim's place on the empty spike. There is an anticipation in this scene of the death of a knight, quite possibly the death of Erec himself. An uncomfortable feeling underlies the passage. Is that spike actually intended for Erec? Perhaps the Joy of the Court is a magical trial, against which Erec's valor will be useless. The unsoundable horn is perhaps the greatest mystery of the mysterious elements in this scene. The bodiless heads of knights are plain enough, as is the empty, anticipatory spike. Evrain offers Erec little information about the nature of the Joy of the Court, but he offers even less regarding the role of that trumpet in the Joy. All he can tell Erec is that no one has been able to sound the horn.
          It is unclear whether any knight, before engaging the Joy of the Court, had actually attempted to blow on the horn and failed, or whether only a victorious knight would attempt to sound the horn. If the horn has not been sounded, it indicates that no one has ever defeated the Joy of the Court. The decapitated heads indicate that many have tried. However, it should be remembered that this horn lies within a magical garden, making the idea of a horn that cannot be sounded more plausible. Were a knight to succeed in blowing the horn, the greatest of honors would be his, according to Evrain. Of course, such honor and nobility are exactly what a young knight such as Erec seeks. Therefore, he cannot but wish to blow the horn.
          With the possibility of glory inherent in blowing the horn in his mind, as well as the dire consequences should he fail in the Joy, Erec decides to take the adventure. The challenge of the Joy of the Court turns out to be a knight who cannot leave the garden unless he is defeated in fair combat because of a promise made to his lover. She had claimed it by setting these conditions of the gift the day Mabonagran had been knighted by his uncle, who happens to be the taciturn King Evrain. Erec defeats Mabonagran, and upon defeating him spares his life. The two become friends, exchange names, and Mabonagran explains how he came to be in the enchanted garden. With the two knights talking like old comrades, and Mabonagran's lover weeping because her idyllic time in the garden has come to a close, it seems that the Joy of the Court is over. For all intents and purposes, it is over. But Mabonagran informs Erec that there is still one thing left to be done, without which the Joy of the Court is not officially concluded:

"But still, there's one thing more.
I believe you've seen the horn
Hanging on an empty spike.
I'm not permitted to leave
This garden until it's been sounded,
And then I'll be truly free
And Joy will begin, since anyone
Hearing that horn, who knows
Its secret, is thereby enabled,
In spite of any obstacle,
To attend my uncle's court.
So rise, my lord, and quickly
Fetch that horn, for now
There's nothing to keep you from doing
What you need to do." Erec
Rose at once, and the beaten
Knight rose with him, and together
They went in search of the horn.
And Erec blew it, and blew
It loud, and its voice carried
Far and wide.

(Troyes 194)

There is more involved here than simply the promise Mabonagran made to his wife. There are supernatural forces at work with the Joy, the garden, and the horn. According to the tale Mabonagran relates about how he ended up in the garden, he made a promise to his love, and he simply held to it. This "one more thing" indicates that the forces controlling the Joy of the Court are more than just a promise. While Mabonagran has fulfilled the conditions of the vow he made to his wife, there is still another condition to be filled: that the horn be sounded. He cannot leave the garden until that has been done. Of course, Erec cheerfully sounds the horn and fulfills the conditions of Mabonagran's obligation.
          Sounding the horn on the ever-unused final stake accomplishes a number of things. The first effect of the sounding of the horn is to release Mabonagran from the garden. With Mabonagran's freedom linked to the sounding of the horn, it is possible that had the knight been defeated and his victor chosen not to sound the horn Mabonagran would not have been able to leave the garden. This second effect of the sounding actually changes the status of the people of Evrain's kingdom. The wording here is less clear, but it seems as though by blowing the horn, Erec summons the people to the King's castle. More than that, he enables people to come "despite any obstacle" (Troyes 194). The enabling of the populace implies an amnesty for those who are exiled or forbidden from the court, as opposed to compelling those who do not wish to come to present themselves. The horn inaugurates a new period of Joy for the people of Evrain's land, perhaps in a legal sense as well as an emotional one. Significantly, however, to participate in this new period of Joy, the people have to be informed of the significance of the horn's sounding. Just as Chrysostom's psalms only bring spiritual benefit to those who understand them, so the new status is only available to those who understand the secret of the horn.
          The third major change the horn initiates is to Erec. King Evrain, at the beginning of the adventure, said that whoever could blow the horn would become the "knight of all knights" (Troyes 183). While defeating Mabonagran leads to the opportunity to sound the trumpet, the status that Erec gains does not really come from his victory over Mabonagran, but rather from the blowing of the horn afterwards. Again, had Erec beaten Mabonagran but not sounded the horn, it seems as though fame and fortune would not have been his. It is all contingent on the blowing of the trumpet. Significantly, this adventure is the last for Erec and Enide, before settling into a happily-ever-after ending. With the sounding of the horn, Erec has finally achieved enough honor and glory to satisfy Enide, whose accusation of sloth launched the series of adventures that comprise the romance. After the horn is blown, the movement of the work is towards conclusion and completion.
          This horn changes the status for all around it. It frees Mabonagran, ennobles Erec and alters the status of the kingdom of Evrain. These changes are won in battle, but become fact only with the sounding of the horn. The sword and the trumpet take a position equal in importance, just as they did in The Song of Roland. In this case, however, the horn has a position that is almost greater than that of the sword, since what has been won with the sword is not truly won until the trumpet has been involved. The promise of the trumpet is fulfilled. This is Erec's last adventure in Erec and Enide. After this point, the now happy couple settles down as rulers of a kingdom. By blowing the horn, Erec has settled once and for all Enide's doubts about his valor.