The Lais of Marie de France by Marie de France

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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...

(The entire section is 3,549 words.)