by Marie de France
(ca. 1170)
   In her collection Lais,MARIE DE FRANCE, an Anglo-Norman poet who obviously lived in England but originated from France, included the LAI Lanval. This verse narrative seems to be based on an oral Breton source, as the author insists on its historical veracity and yet does not refer to any written account of it.
   The protagonist is a “very noble young man whose name in Breton is Lanval.”We are immediately transported into the world of King Arthur, who is here involved in military conflicts with the Scots and Picts, whereas in most courtly ROMANCES, Arthur simply celebrates the arrival of spring or spends his time organizing court festivals. Only the oldest sources dealing with King Arthur, such as GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH’s HISTORIA REGUM BRITANNIAE (ca. 1138) and its translations into French by Geffrei Gaimar (ca. 1140s) and by WACE (ca. 1155), depict the king as a military leader. In other words Marie draws from ancient accounts about this mythical figure to tell her story of the young protagonist Lanval, who has come from a country far away where his father rules as a king. Although he shines in every knightly virtue, many members of Arthur’s court are jealous of him, and the king seems to overlook him entirely, never rewarding him for his many accomplishments. Soon Lanval runs out of money and faces poverty, not knowing how to ask for help.
   Depressed about this situation, he leaves the court and rides into the countryside, where he encounters two damsels who take him to their lady, who is awaiting him in a most valuable tent that would find no parallel in the entire world, neither in the present nor in the past. Because of the summer heat the lady is hardly covered, and Lanval immediately falls in love with her. She reveals that she had been looking for him for a long time and would like to offer him her love if he proves to be worthy and courtly. Not surprisingly, Lanval does not hesitate to accept her conditions and pledges his love for her.Not only does she reward him with sexual pleasures, she also showers him with all the material wealth he can think of, although she warns him that their relationship has to remain an absolute secret, otherwise he would lose her—a traditional fairy-tale motif. But she promises him always to appear in his presence whenever he will ask for her, without being seen by anyone else. Then she sends him back to King Arthur’s court, where he can suddenly demonstrate extreme hospitality and generosity to everyone.
   His happiness, however, is soon shattered because the queen begins to desire him and offers herself to him as his mistress. Lanval rejects her because he does not want to break his oath of faith given to King Arthur, and because he enjoys the love of his invisible lady. The queen at first accuses him of being homosexual—a narrative motif often used in courtly romances, such as in the anonymous Roman d’Eneas, in HEINRICH VON VELDEKE’s Eneit, in IPOMEDON, the Roman de Silence, the Histoire de Gille de Chyn, the Roman de la Violette ou de Gerart de Nevers, and in ULRICH VON LICHTENSTEIN’s Frauenbuch. In his rush to defend himself, Lanval reveals his secret love and ridicules the queen as unworthy of comparison to his own lady. In close parallel to the story of Potiphar’s wife in the Old Testament (Genesis 39), the queen then resorts to the strategy of maligning Lanval and accusing him of having asked for her love, which she had refused, and then of having ridiculed and humiliated her by claiming that the lowest servant girl of his true beloved was worthier than the queen. King Arthur immediately takes his wife’s side and wants Lanval to be tried by his barons who convene a court council. The barons decide that the accused must provide proof for his claim regarding his mistress’s beauty and social rank, otherwise he would be dismissed from the king’s service and banished from the court. Unfortunately Lanval knows that his lady would no longer come to him because he broke his oath never to talk about her in public and to reveal their love. As soon, however, as the verdict is about to be given, two of the maidens of Lanval’s lady appear in support of the young man and announce the arrival of their mistress. Gawain, loyal and trustworthy courtier as ever, approaches Lanval in the hope that one of the maidens would be his love, which would save the young man from being tried and expelled from court, but this is, of course, not the case.Nevertheless the appearance of the two maidens delays the court proceedings, and the barons return to their deliberations, when two more maidens appear, repeating the previous message. Once again Lanval’s friends assume that one of them is the true lady, since they are more beautiful and worthy than King Arthur’s queen. But the second delay of the verdict makes the queen angry, so the barons hasten to return to their duty, when finally Lanval’s beloved appears, entirely defeating the queen’s claims and demonstrating through her appearance that she is indeed much more beautiful and worthy than the queen. The young man is immediately acquitted, and when his lady leaves the court, he jumps onto the palfrey behind her and disappears with her into the utopian world of Avalon, never to be seen again.
   The fairy-tale motif is obvious, but Marie clearly indicates that she transformed oral poetry derived from the old Bretons into a literary account in which many different discourses—mythic, legal, courtly, and always intertextual—intertwine. Lanval proves to be so intriguing because of its impressive interplay with literary and biblical sources. The interrupted court deliberations, for example, seem to be based on Marie’s possible familiarity with the Historia septem sapientum (History of the seven sages), which, in turn, was a Latin translation of the Old French Roman des sept sages de Rome, and this again drew from a ninth-century Persian version, the Book of Sindbad. Moreover Lanval reveals Marie’s intimate familiarity with the legal and political discourse of her time, and the narrative by itself indicates the extent to which 12th-century women could assume powerful political positions. Lanval’s rescue by his lady appears as an ironic reversal of the traditional gender roles of knights rescuing damsels in distress, and whereas knights traditionally seem to have endless amounts of money available to them, here the young man,who is far away from home and, at first, without any friends, finds himself in financial distress from which he is relieved by his lady. In true fashion of all of her lais, Marie here projects a literary utopia where true happiness in love can be achieved in the unreality of fiction, but the short narrative also indicates the extent to which Marie indirectly criticized the courtly world where jealousy, envy, deception, rumors, and malignment seem to be the order of the day, and backstabbing is obviously a common and quite effective strategy for getting rid of an opponent.
   ■ Bloch, R. Howard. The Anonymous Marie de France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
   ■ Burgess, Glyn S., and Keith Busby, trans. The Lais of Marie de France. London: Penguin, 1986.
   ■ Burgess, Glyn S. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Context. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1987.
   ■ Jambeck, Karen K. “ ‘Femmes et tere’:Marie de France and the Discourses of ‘Lanval.’ ” In Discourses on Love, Marriage, and Transgression in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, edited by Albrecht Classen. Tempe, Ariz.: MRTS, forthcoming. Rychner, Jean, ed. Les Lais de Marie de France. 1966.
   ■ Classiques Français du Moyen Age, 93. 2nd ed. Paris: Champion, 1981.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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