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. 1150; History of the English). In “Chevrefoil,” she adapted the familiar legend of Tristan, the same story that would later be treated by such authors as Béroul (c. 1200) and Gottfried von Strassburg (c. 1210).
Like Chrétien de Troyes in the late twelfth century and the other writers of medieval romance, Marie combined supernatural elements with heroic exploits. Her character Guigemar, like Galahad and Parzifal before him, boards an enchanted ship that carries him to a distant land. Bisclavret is transformed into a werewolf, and Yonec’s father becomes a hawk. The hero of “The Two Lovers” uses a magic potion that greatly increases his strength. In addition to these supernatural details, Marie also borrowed a number of unrealistic situations from the romantic tradition. In many of her stories, her hero and heroine fall in love without ever having met: The mere report that a woman is beautiful or that a man is noble is enough to stimulate the deepest affections. Spouses, parents, and other impediments to the marriage of the central characters conveniently die or vanish from the story at the appropriate moment so that the lovers may be united.
Beneath this layer of fantasy and wish fulfillment, however, Marie’s poems reflect many values that would have been familiar to her aristocratic audience. Nearly all Marie’s heroes are either kings or...
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Probably connected with the court of the Anglo-Norman king Henry II of England, Marie de France is credited with the creation of the lai, or lay, as a literary genre. Her lays are Celtic stories she had heard recounted and sung in the Breton language and that she chose to preserve in written verse form in the Anglo-Norman dialect of Old French. They are narratives with frequent lyrical and moral overtones and occasional brief intrusions by the author to express her own opinions. Their popular appeal to readers, both in Marie’s time and today, has gained for their author recognition as the first important female literary figure of the Western world.
Familiar with the classical and vernacular literature circulating in Britain and Western Europe during the second half of the twelfth century, Marie de France synthesizes in her verse tales the narrative tradition of northern France and the courtly love lyrics of the southern troubadours. Knightly activities and adventures such as hunting parties, tournament jousts, mercenary military engagements, and the wielding of weapons, which were the essence of Old French chansons de geste and the medieval romances, figure prominently in the Lais. These events are never gratuitous; rather, they occur because they have a direct effect on the central love relationship, for each of Marie’s lais is, above all, a love story. Each lai presents a different scenario that offers a new perspective on the subject.
In her depiction of love and its intricacies, Marie uses a number of literary themes. One of the most popular motifs is that of the mal mariée (mismatched wife). In the first story, Guigemar’s lover is married to a wealthy old man who, because of jealousy, has locked her away. The reader is not surprised that the wife falls instantly in love with the handsome wounded knight. Similarly, Yonec’s mother is married to an old man who had taken her as his wife for the purposes of begetting an heir. The reader, medieval or modern, is sympathetic to her illicit affair with the bird/man. Mismarriage is also implied in the lais of Laüstic and Milun, although mismarriage is not essential to the plot of either. Reversal of this theme, the mismatched husband, appears in The Lay of Equitan and The Lay of Bisclavret.
Lack of self-control is illustrated in several of the stories. In The Lay of the Two Lovers, the young lover, overconfident of his strength, will not stop to drink his energizing potion while attempting to ascend the mountain with his bride-to-be in his arms, and he dies of the physical...
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