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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