The Lais of Marie de France Summary

The Poem (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Lay of Guigemar. In the days of King Arthur, Guigemar, a knight who loves no lady, is injured by an arrow with which he has shot a white doe. In human speech, the doe tells Guigemar that he will have no relief from his hurt until he finds a woman who will suffer as never woman has before and for whom he will suffer as well. Binding his wound with the hem of his shirt, Guigemar boards an empty ship that he comes across in the harbor. He falls asleep and awakens in another land, where he is discovered by the queen, a young woman whom her old lord keeps as a prisoner. The queen takes him home, conceals him, and heals him, and the two become lovers. They live happily for a year and a half. As tokens of their love, the queen ties a knot in the hem of Guigemar’s shirt that only she can untie and Guigemar fastens a girdle about the queen’s waist that only he can unbuckle. They pledge that they will never take other lovers who are unable to unfasten the knot or the buckle.

When the king discovers Guigemar, he allows him to leave on the ship in the hope that it will perish at sea. He imprisons the queen in a tower, where she stays for two years. One day, finding the door unlocked, she goes to the harbor and boards an empty vessel; the ship carries her to the shore of a warlike prince, Meriadus, who lodges her with his unmarried sister and tries to win her love. Because he cannot loosen the buckle on the girdle she wears, Meriadus brings to her a knight who has a mysterious knot tied in his shirt. The knight is Guigemar. After the knot and the buckle have been loosed, Guigemar wants to take the queen away, but Meriadus will not let her go. Guigemar joins forces with Meriadus’s enemy to lay siege to the prince’s castle; they capture the castle when its defenders became weak with hunger, burn it, and kill Meriadus. The lovers then depart in triumph.

The Lay of Chaitivel. In Nantes in Brittany lives a beautiful lady who is loved by four knights. She is undecided which knight she likes best, and she sends presents and messages to all. Each carries her favor and cries her name in the lists. During an Easter tournament, three of the knights are slain and the fourth is severely wounded. All four of the knights are brought on their shields to the lady. Distressed, she has the three slain knights buried in an abbey and nurses the wounded knight back to health. Mourning for the three dead knights, she tells the fourth knight that she is going to make a lay about their deaths and his terrible wounds and call it “The Lay of the Four Sorrows.” The knight suggests that she instead call it “The Lay of the Dolorous Knight.” His three comrades are past suffering, he declares, but he receives every day only a few courteous, empty words from the lady and no love. The lady agrees that this is a good title. However, some still call it “The Lay of the Four Sorrows.”

The Lay of Eliduc. In Brittany, Eliduc, having lost favor with the king because of false rumors, is forced to leave the country. After he and Guideluec, his wife, pledge their faith to each other, Eliduc takes a ship to Totenois. There, he helps an aged king defeat a prince who wants to marry the king’s daughter, Guilliadun. The king gives Eliduc reward and honor, and the princess gives him her love. Although Eliduc reminds himself of his wife at home, he neglects to mention his wife to the princess.

In time, Eliduc’s own king, needing help against an enemy, sends for his return. At home, Eliduc’s wife is delighted to see him, but Eliduc is sad. He then returns to the country of Totenois and sends word to the princess to meet him. They leave secretly on a ship. During a heavy storm at sea, one of the men cries that the princess is the cause of the storm because Eliduc has deserted his wife at home. When the man wants to throw the princess overboard, Eliduc hits him with an oar and casts him into the sea. The princess faints when she hears that Eliduc is married, and all aboard the ship believe her to be dead. Going ashore in Brittany, they carry her to a chapel, intending to give her burial rites. Eliduc leaves her at the altar and returns home to his wife.

Eliduc is in such a downcast mood that his wife decides to learn the cause. When Guideluec finds the princess, she is overcome at the sadness of her death, even though she realizes that Eliduc loves the maiden. When she sees a weasel revive its dead mate by putting a red flower in his mouth, she takes the flower, uses it to revive the girl, and tells her that she will release Eliduc from his marriage vows. She takes the princess to her home, releases Eliduc, and becomes an abbess.

Eliduc and the princess marry and live happily for a time, but finally they part, and each takes holy orders. The princess goes to the abbess, who receives her as a sister. Eliduc and the princess send messages back and forth between the convent and the monastery, each encouraging the other in the holy life. Their repentance is lasting.

The Lay of Laüstic. In the town of Saint Malo, in Brittany, a bachelor knight falls in love with his friend’s wife. Although they seldom meet, the two at last become lovers. Because their houses stand side by side, they are able to gaze at each other and to pass messages and gifts through the window casements. When the knight’s friend asks his wife why she spends her nights watching at the window, she says that she is listening to the nightingale. Her husband has his servants trap the bird, and then he wrings its neck and throws it in her lap. The wife, sad because she can no longer use the bird as an excuse to see her lover, embroiders the story of the nightingale’s fate on rich silk cloth, wraps the bird in the cloth, and sends it to her lover. The doleful knight has a little chest made of gold and precious stones for the body of the bird and carries it everywhere with him.

The Lay of Sir Lanval. Because of trouble with the Picts and Scots, King Arthur is lodging at Caerleon-on-Usk in Wales. There, at Pentecost, he bestows honors and lands on all except Sir Lanval, the son of a king in a distant country whom Arthur despises. Too proud to ask his lord for his due, Lanval remains poor.

Riding unattended in a meadow near a stream, Lanval dismounts because his horse is trembling. He lets the horse graze while he tries to sleep. Two maidens wearing purple mantles appear and tell Lanval that their mistress has summoned him. He finds a beautiful maiden lying on a richly covered bed in a silken pavilion with a golden eagle on top. She is dressed in white linen with a mantle of ermine trimmed in purple. When she offers Lanval her love, provided that he tell no one of her existence, he accepts. She gives him rich clothing and a purse that is never empty. Now wealthy, Lanval redeems captives, clothes poor minstrels, comforts strangers, and is completely happy. The beautiful maiden appears whenever he calls her.

At a party in the royal orchard, Lanval ignores the queen and thirty of her most beautiful maidens because they look like kitchen wenches to him. Calling Lanval to her, the queen offers him her love. Lanval refuses, saying that he will not betray his lord. Angrily, the queen retorts that Lanval must despise women, but Lanval tells her that his love is richer than any other and that the meanest of his love’s maidens excels the queen in goodness and beauty. The queen flees, weeping, to her chamber.

When Arthur returns, the queen tells him that Lanval had sought her love and that she had refused him. At her refusal, she declares, Lanval reviled her and said that his love is set on a lady whose meanest wench is fairer than the queen. Arthur swears that he will burn or hang Lanval if he cannot deny his boast before his peers.

Because he has revealed his lady’s existence, Lanval loses contact with her. He wants to die, but instead he is compelled to appear before the court of barons. The barons say that they will look at Lanval’s lady and decide if she is more beautiful than the queen. If she is, there will be no trial. Because Lanval cannot produce her, the barons prepare to pass judgment on him. At that moment, two beautiful maidens, followed by two even more beautiful maidens, appear and announce that their lady is approaching. They are so beautiful that many say the queen has already lost. Soon Lanval’s lady appears, riding a white horse and wearing white with a purple mantle. Every man marvels at her beauty and cares no more for mortal women. She says that Lanval has never craved the love of the queen but that he had spoken hastily. The barons are overcome by her beauty, and...

(The entire section is 3549 words.)