Edgar Sienaert’s description of the lay as a mixed or intermediary genre is based on the work of folklorists, notably Vladimir Propp and Max Lüthi, who have identified (independently of one another) the basic structure of the European folktale. One of the most striking features of the folktale, or fairy tale (Sienaert’s term for the genre is conte merveilleux: a tale with a happy ending, in which the “marvelous” is paramount) is that the identities and motivations of characters may be freely altered from one version to another, whereas the plot sequence, and the roles characters may fill in it, are rigidly maintained. The mainspring of the fairy-tale plot is not the motivated action of its characters but rather the intrusion of the marvelous, and although the working out of the plot satisfies deep human desires, its conclusion is not attained by human effort but by magic (a potion, a ring) or by a deus ex machina (a fairy, a speaking animal). It has long been recognized that there were affinities between the fairy tale and Marie’s Lais, but these affinities had remained somewhat vague, limited to the happy ending (which does not apply to a number of lays) and an ill-defined “charm.” As Sienaert has shown, however, the lays sometimes follow the fairy-tale pattern in which motivation is not linked to plot. Thus, the knight Eliduc, for example, scarcely earns his happiness; it comes to him in spite of the bad faith he has shown his wife and his young lover. At the same time, though, and in the same tales, the motivation of Marie’s characters can be essential to the outcome; thus, Eliduc’s wife, by her unexampled generosity, makes possible for her husband the happy ending he had deserved to forfeit. Sometimes it even happens that a realistically motivated character forestalls the expected happy ending, as does the young man in “Les Dues Amanz” (“The Two Loves”), who refuses to drink the magic potion that would restore his strength. Finally, there are a few stories from which the fairy-tale plot is completely missing. “Equitan” has been compared to a fabliau (a more consistently realistic, generally coarse and cynical, short narrative genre contemporary to the lay) because of its realistic and cautionary plot of betrayal, attempted crime, and punishment; while falling within the scope of the medieval exemplum, or tale with a moral, it resembles the modern short story in linking the outcome to the character and actions of the central figures. Sienaert argues that Marie deliberately placed it second in her collection, after a tale that has many affinities with the fairy tale, to mark the two poles between which her pieces would move.
As will become apparent from a closer look at several lays, this approach to the genre question can be extremely useful. Its chief drawback is its degree of abstraction—it cannot account for the thematic content of the collection.
“Lanval” is a good example of a lay using a straightforward fairy-tale plot. Lanval, a “foreign” knight at King Arthur’s court, is slighted by the King until a beautiful fairy maiden approaches him, offering both her love and riches if he will keep her existence secret. This he does, until one day the Queen likewise offers him her love, and he reveals the fact that he already loves another, whose least handmaiden surpasses the Queen in beauty and accomplishments. At this, the Queen denounces him to the King as having accosted her, nor will the fairy-lover come at his call, since he has revealed her existence. When he is put on trial, however—more for insulting the Queen’s beauty than for allegedly accosting her—the fairy relents, first sending her handmaidens and then arriving in person so that all can see the truth of Lanval’s boast. The tale ends as Lanval rides off with her to the otherworldly Avalon, to live happily ever after.
This lay epitomizes a tendency of many of Marie’s tales to fuse Celtic folk motifs with the courtly love theme. As Jean Frappier has observed, there is an analogy between the “otherworld” of Celtic mythology, to which the “marvelous” properly belongs, and the privileged condition of courtly lovers, whose experience of love (open only to a small, elect group), gives them a taste of paradise on earth. Avalon thus becomes an allegory for the state of mutual love, where the “foreigner” Lanval finds his true home after rejecting, and being rejected by, the flawed world of Arthur’s court (where the king has slighted him and the queen accused him of her own infidelity). As Sienaert would add, however, the motivations of the characters—even of the fairy, who relents in her punishment of Lanval—are fully humanized and linked to the outcome. The lay is thus emotionally satisfying, not only for its fairy-tale ending but also for its vindication of mutual love—though it should also be noted that the “real world” is seen as hostile to that love, which can flourish only in a land of its own. In this respect, “Lanval” is perhaps the most frankly escapist of the lays.
“The Two Lovers”
“The Two Lovers,” by contrast, creates the expectation of a fairy-tale ending only to reverse it at the last moment. A widowed king, unwilling to part with his sole daughter, invents a trial in which he thinks no suitor can succeed: To win her hand in marriage, the suitor must carry her to the top of a mountain without pausing to rest. To help a young man whom she favors, the girl sends him to her aunt in Salerno, who provides him with a potion that can restore strength. During the trial, however, the young man feels strong enough to do without the potion; he resists the girl’s repeated pleas that he drink it and reaches the summit only to collapse—his heart has given out. The distraught girl spills the potion, which causes medicinal herbs to spring up on the mountainside, and herself dies of grief on the spot, where the two are buried together.
Of all the lays, this one has perhaps evoked the greatest diversity of interpretation. It has been seen as a tragedy, a cautionary tale, even a satire. Here, Sienaert’s insights are especially helpful, accounting for the diversity of critical (and emotional) response without explaining it away. The story is indeed tragic insofar as it reverses the carefully created expectation of a happy ending, and it is cautionary insofar as Marie stresses the démesure (lack of moderation) that leads to the boy’s death. Yet there is also something positive about the ending: After rejecting the magical means to success, the boy accomplishes the feat (though none of his predecessors had come close), and the girl’s love, because it equals his, unites them in death. The boy’s decision is flawed, as Marie herself observes: “I fear [the potion] will do him little good/ For he had in him no moderation.” As Emanuel Mickel points...