The Lais of Marie de France are important both as folklore and as literature. As Marie herself says at several points, most of her stories originated in the oral legends of the Bretons. As a result, poems such as “Lanval” contain many plot elements found in oral traditions all over the world. Like Elsa in the Germanic legend of Lohengrin or Psyche in the Greco-Roman legend of Cupid and Psyche, the hero Lanval temporarily loses his beloved by breaking his promise. Like Potifar’s wife in the Old Testament or Anubis’ wife in the Egyptian tale of Anubis and Bata, Guinevere falsely claims that a man molested her when he had actually refused her advances. In “Eliduc,” the king of England’s daughter is restored to life in a manner almost identical to that by which both the healer Asclepius and the seer Polyeidus were said to have revived Minos’ son Glaucus in Greek mythology.
By recording the legends of the Bretons, Marie preserved these tales at a time when oral traditions throughout Europe were being obliterated by a rapidly expanding literary culture. Even as Marie was preserving these stories, however, she was also reshaping them, giving them a distinctly literary form. She added geographical names and a touch of the archaism that she found in such chronicles as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1135; History of the Kings of Britain) and Geoffrey’s Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis (c....
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