The story is downright odd, especially by medieval standards. Erec, a young prince of Wales, is attending the Easter court of King Arthur when the king announces a grand stag-hunt designed to pair lovers with their ladies. Erec has no lady, but in the course of the hunt he finds one: Enide, who's pure and beautiful and, as Gilbert informs us, probably quite young: "The discerning reader will notice that, whereas the here is described as being just under twenty-five years of age, the girl's age is not discussed at all. It is probably safe to assume that she is in her mid-teens." They fall in love, get married, and retire to Erec's ancestral homeland - only to find trouble in the very heart of their bliss. Erec comes to feel that the perfect contentment he feels with Enide is weakening his fighting virtue as a knight, and he decides to go questing for purifying adventure - and, unlike in virtually every other medieval romance, Enide decides to go with him.
They have many adventures, including many excitingly described fights Erec has in order to defend Enide's honor, and Chretien keeps things rolling right along. By far the most interesting character in the poem is the volatile and thoroughly human dwarf-king Guivret le Petit, who first fights Erec and then becomes his devoted friend, but all the characters are rendered with such tongue-in-cheek humor and sharp insight that when you're reading Chretien, you can't help but think ahead to Chaucer.
Reading Chretien, it must be admitted, is more fun than reading any English translation of him that yet exists, although Gilbert's is very often a very enjoyable experience. The problem, as she sees perfectly well, is that in modern English octosyllabic rhymed couplets have a strong tendency to pull toward foot-stomping hand-clapping fireside sing-alongs that have lots of infectious glee about them but no intellectual or aesthetic heft. Striking the right balance (not to mention creating passable English lyrics) can be tough, and there are many patches where even Gilbert's skill (and some generous line-padding) isn't quite enough:
Out of the chamber where she's been
she comes, adorned to see the queen.
The queen rejoices in the sight;
she loves the girl, and takes delight
in one so courteous and fair.
Now they take hands, and they repair,
thus linked, to see the king once more.
And the king, when he sees them there,
arises, meets them where they stand.
You can feel something of the magic of the original in many of Gilbert's passages, however. The trick is all those end-rhymes, which have to echo each other without cancelling forward momentum. Naturally, our translator is on firmer ground when she's dealing with the most common English word-ending sounds:
Sir Gawain felt sincere alarm,
and said, "Sire, not a thing but harm,
grielf, and ill will can come of this.
We all know what this custom is!
The man who kills the stag will be
obliged, by right and courtesy,
whatever the cost or import,
to kiss the loveliest girl at court.
No matter who's insulted, he
must offer up this gallantry.
The perfect English translation would be a two-part affair. First, a scholar of Gilbert's merit would untangle (and sometimes helpfully conflate) the manuscripts, do the translation, and gloss the literal meanings of just about everything. Then she would hand the mass of her notes - and her most-checked email address! - to a couple of the best country music lyricists currently working in Nashville and let them work. The result would be quite stellar, if they hired the right fellah.