Marie de France Short Fiction Analysis
Marie is best known for the twelve Lais that represent her earliest work and also present her narrative art in its fullest variety. The Medieval Fables and the Espurgatoire Saint Patriz are clearly derivative (more or less faithful translations of earlier works) and allow very little opportunity for the development of character, ironic situations, or the exploitation of supernatural elements that are hallmarks of Marie’s work. It has been suggested that, in the Lais, Marie is the creator of a narrative form. Although this is a debatable point and one that is difficult to support, it is reasonable to say that the form Marie gave to the lai became normative in the centuries that followed.
Marie states that she is writing down lais that she has heard from Breton conteurs or from other sources. The titles of some of her Lais, “Yonec,” “Eliduc,” or “Laüstic,” for example, are of Celtic provenance, but it is impossible to determine precisely how much and in what ways Marie depended on her “Celtic sources.” Even the etymology of the word lai—possibly the Celtic laid, Latin leudas (laus or laudis?), meaning a tale to be sung—is in dispute and can give little substance to theories of the origin of this genre. If there were Breton minstrels who composed and performed, possibly with musical accompaniment, the short adventures known as “Breton lays,” there is very little evidence of connection between such performers and the courts of Norman England.
The general prologue to the Lais provides Marie’s definition of the genre and her own statement of purpose in writing the Lais. A lai is composed to commemorate an adventure, generally an affair of love, that had first become current as a conte, a tale (prologue, vv. 33-42) which was then formulated in verse so that it could better be remembered. Marie desired to demonstrate her literary skills, which should not be hidden; she also saw in her writing a labor that would keep her from idleness and sorrow: “Who wishes to defend herself from wickedness should study and learn and undertake serious work.”
Both the general prologue and the prologue to “Guigemar,” her first Lai, show an artist at once confident in her skill and defensively aware that her learning makes of her an anomaly in her culture, the object of jealousy and scorn. In a strongly worded passage, she compares her detractors to “evil, cowardly, felonious dogs/ who bite people treacherously,” but she will not allow such opposition to stop her from writing. Isolated by her talents and quite possibly also isolated in her personal circumstances since “de France” indicates that she is not writing in her native land, it is not surprising that many of her characters find themselves in some form of alienation created either by their own natures, or their societies, or by the love relationship that is the core of their adventure. This is not to suggest that the Lais are autobiographical; rather, the theme of isolation or alienation is one of the most effectively expressed elements in the Lais of Marie.
Most notable in this regard is “Lanval.” The protagonist, Lanval, a young knight of Arthur’s court, finds himself neglected and unrewarded by the king he serves and envied by his fellows because of his prowess. His own pride prevents him from seeking help in his impoverished state and, near despair, he leaves the court to seek the consolations of solitude. He is approached by the handmaidens of a princess of the fairy realm. The princess welcomes him as a lover and promises to free him from want and loneliness as long as he keeps their relationship a secret. When he returns to court, he finds himself both the possessor of miraculous wealth and also the lover of the lady. He keeps his lady’s identity a secret until he is taunted by Arthur’s queen, whose efforts at seduction he has repulsed, claiming that the least of his lady’s maidens is more beautiful than the queen. His words earn him the king’s displeasure and it is only at the last moment that he is rescued from the penalties of lèse majesté by the arrival of his lady, who makes good his boast.
The theme of isolation is the most consistently developed element of “Lanval.” Although Marie alludes specifically to the plight of one who finds himself a stranger in a foreign land, her implicit references to alienation are more effective. Lanval is wretched in his neglected state, but part of his plight is the result of his own prideful refusal to seek aid. His eminence in knightly skill—which should alleviate his difficulties—ironically worsens them since he earns only the envy of his fellows. Even in the consolations of love he finds himself shut out from the knightly community since he must keep secret his lady’s existence. This same necessity for secrecy opens the way for the vicious taunts of the queen (spurned, she accuses Lanval of unnatural vice) that lead to Lanval’s breaking of his oath to his lady.
Marie’s presentation of isolation in “Lanval” has a lyric force and intensity, yet Lanval is agent as well as victim; his own sexual pride is the cause of the betrayal that redoubles his isolation. The poignancy of his situation is balanced by the aesthetic distance that Marie provides in indicating that much of Lanval’s distress can be attributed to his own nature. At the same time, she emphasizes the exclusivity of the love relationship, the effect of which is heightened by the use of the supernatural, since, in gaining the fulfillment of love, Lanval must leave behind the society that both nurtured and scorned him. Lanval’s lady comes from the fairy realm, and it is to her land that Lanval is taken in the end. In this and in many others of the Lais of Marie, the denouement is ambiguous at best.
If Marie’s lovers are isolated in and by their loves, they are also, initially, deprived of love. In “Guigemar,” “Laüstic,” “Yonec,” “Les Deus Amanz” (“The Two Lovers”), and “Milon,” the protagonists either spurn love initially (“Guigemar”) or are the victims of jealous mates (as are the wives in “Guigemar,” “Laüstic,” “Yonec,” and “Milon”) or of too-possessive parents (the daughter in “The Two Lovers”). The jealous husband in “Laüstic” is...
(The entire section is 2671 words.)