The Lais of Marie de France

by Marie de France
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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1165

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 noblemen. Nearly all of her heroines are kings’ daughters or ladies of the court. In every case, the characters adhere to the complex set of social conventions that came to be known as courtoisie (courtesy). Medieval authors represented courtesy through such traits as generosity, fidelity, valor, and romantic love. Discourtesy is usually introduced by Marie only to be punished quickly and severely. Equitan, for example, is killed by the same plan that he had intended for his steward. Bisclavret’s wife and her lover are banished because they have plotted against the hero. Guigemar kills Meriaduc for the discourtesy that he displayed to the hero’s beloved. Situations such as these helped to reinforce the values of Marie’s aristocratic audience and encouraged readers to identify with the noble figures depicted in her poems.

While the central characters of Marie’s Lais thus generally follow the code of behavior known as courtly love, this does not mean that they are constrained by every precept of that code. For example, lovers are occasionally unfaithful or even treacherous. Eliduc, although married, takes a lover when he is sent into exile. The heroine of “Chaitivel” has four lovers, all of whom she loves equally. Moreover, the knights in Marie’s poems rarely suffer the prolonged period of “languishing” that was common in courtly romances. The female figures in Lais are neither as disdainful as the heroines of many romances nor pure, unattainable women such as Beatrice in the La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy) of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). To the contrary, Marie’s heroines are usually amorous women who succumb to their lovers shortly after their first meeting. In part, this departure from the romantic tradition is attributable to the short length of the lai, which did not permit Marie to describe long periods of unfulfilled passion. In part, too, it was attributable to the age in which Marie was writing, a time when all the conventions of courtly love had not yet been firmly established.

One of the most important values shared by Marie’s original audience was the view expressed in “Equitan” that honorable love can exist only between social equals. While it is true that Marie continues this discussion by saying that a man who is poor and honorable is of far greater worth than a king who is discourteous, strict social boundaries still separated the two classes. Humble individuals, Marie notes, will come to disaster if they search for love above their station. In fact, all the central characters in Marie’s poems are aristocrats. Unlike such literary forms as the fabliau, the lai was a type of poem written about the nobility for the nobility. It dealt with characters who had sufficient wealth and leisure to devote to such activities as falconry, tournaments, courtship, and listening to ballads.

The values of Marie’s social class also help to explain her emphasis upon male characters, often at the expense of women. Since Marie herself was a woman author, the reader might expect the heroines of her stories to be prominent. In fact, this rarely occurs. While most of Marie’s heroes have names, most of her female characters are referred to only by their titles. In “Guigemar,” the hero concludes (incorrectly) that a woman whom he sees cannot really be his beloved since “all women look rather the same.” In “Eliduc,” the hero’s wife humbly retires to a convent so that her husband will be able to marry his lover. These situations reflect the conventions of the literary genre that Marie had adopted and the aristocratic values of the late twelfth century. There is no way of knowing whether they also reflect the feelings of the author herself. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Marie gives roughly the same attention to the romantic plights of her male and female characters. She portrays women as highly creative, even as the guiding forces in several stories. In “The Two Lovers,” for example, it is the female character who suggests that the hero travel to Salerno to acquire the magic potion. In “Milun,” a noblewoman rather than the hero develops the plan by which her pregnancy is kept a secret.

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