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 strain. In three of the tales, overindulgence in sexual pleasure on the part of adulterous lovers results in detection of the affairs by the cuckolded husbands, leading to the separation or even the deaths of the lovers. In contrast, the patience and composure of Le Fresne, Milun, and Eliduc’s first wife bring about happiness for all concerned.
All twelve stories rest on the premise that love brings with it suffering in the form of physical and emotional distress. In The Lay of Guigemar, Marie de France declares, “Love is an invisible wound within the body, and, since it has its source in nature, it is a long-lasting ill.” In the first story, love is symbolized by the rebounding arrow that strikes Guigemar in the thigh. In The Lay of Yonec, it is the lack of love that keeps the young wife awake. Separation from the beloved is the worst of all the woes sustained by the lovers in The Lais of Marie de France ....
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Their anguished longing is portrayed with poignancy and delicate lyricism. Several of the estranged couples are reunited, but some must endure permanent despair.
Supernatural elements, particularly those characteristic of Celtic legend, are present in several of the Lais. Since much of the natural world was as yet unexplained in the twelfth century, the medieval mind easily accepted the possibility of human transformation into wolves or birds, visits from otherworldly beings, animals that talk, magic potions, and magic boats that sail without a crew. Whenever paranormal activity occurs in the Lais, it always moves the story forward; such activity is not portrayed with the intention of dismaying the reader.
The author of the twelve lais presents a composite picture of love that is strikingly more modern than the concept of courtly love established by the Provençal troubadours. For Marie de France, true love can exist only between equals—persons of the same age, social status, and education. Moreover, both members of a couple must possess the same courtly qualities as each other, and they must be completely loyal to each other. Although never overtly expressed, it is implicit in the stories that God condones such love, even when, through circumstances, the love is necessarily illicit or adulterous. As in the well-known legend of Tristan and Isolde, true love in the Lais is a product of destiny, and the love is eternal.
Symmetry and balance are evident in the structure and style of the Lais. In the only manuscript containing all twelve stories, long tales are followed by short ones; the opening and closing tales, both extended ones, end with the triumph of love in this life, whereas the two middle tales end with the union of the lovers in death. In one story a lonely knight is loved by an otherworldly female; in another story, an imprisoned lady is visited by a supernatural bird/man lover. The Lais are replete with polarities of vices and virtues: cupidity and charity, deceit and loyalty, generosity and greed, excess and moderation, egotism and altruism.
Obviously, moral lessons can be inferred from such narratives. In her prologue to the tales, Marie discusses ancient texts that, on close scrutiny, reveal subtle truths. It is clear in the prologue, however, that the author’s primary purpose is to relate interesting stories and, by doing so, preserve them and her own name for posterity. She insists that her tales are not fictitious, and she frequently lends them veracity by including precise geographical locations and by associating events with specific dates in the Church calendar. Her concise writing is occasionally punctuated with analytical or descriptive passages vital to proper comprehension of the narrative. Unlike many medieval texts, Marie de France’s lais contain no obscurities. They are the products of a gifted young writer and consummate storyteller; they will doubtless continue to delight readers everywhere, just as they did in the twelfth century.