Marie de France, "Lanval"

       "Lanval" could be called a "largesse fable" since so much of its plot turns on the importance of this courtly virtue.  In a premonetary economy, gift-giving is the "economy" and takes the place of paychecks, pension plans, bonuses, financial aid and stock options.   Those who demonstrate "largesse" are praised because they guarantee the well-being of those around them, but Lanval's fate, when Arthur inexplicably ignores him, also demonstrates the fate of generous people when their incomes dry up.  As the Tudor poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt, wrote: "The spending hand had better have a 'taker-in' as good."  (In the 15th-century Middle English version, "Sir Launfal"'s poverty is explained by the queen's hatred of him because he is aware of her adulterous nature.)  The other noteworthy aspect of "Lanval" is its use of the world of faerie as a kind of perfected courtly culture.  The faeries do everything mortal nobles do, but they do it right.  Both Lanval and the faerie maiden are wish-fulfillment fantasies for the men and women of Marie's court.  He gets protected and financed by the woman he loves, and she gets to choose the man she loves with the utter certainty she controls the relationship.  What's not to like?

Some issues:

1)  Once again, Marie's attitude toward envy and slander suggest that they are the norm, and that excellence of character or talent naturally attracts them.  Is she merely describing what the world looks like to a woman who writes in the twelfth century?

2)  The court of Arthur has been used as the setting for a huge cycle of tales that already was well-developed and several hundred years old when Marie encountered "Lanval."  Typically, Arthurian characters go through en evolution over time: when introduced, they're heroes/heroines and can do no wrong; in later tales, they acquire mortal failings and encounter crises they can't resolve; finally, they encounter the new "hero/heroine" and fall into crime or (worse) buffonery.  When Gawain began his "career" in the oldest Welsh versions of his tales, he was a sun god whose strength doubled from morning to noon and waned toward evening.  In Old French he became merely a darned good warrior, but in late Middle English he was discovered to be a murderer and his newly introduced younger brother Gareth was the son who could do no wrong and who avoided his company.  What is there about this cycle that appeals to audiences, and how is it that Arthur and his queen (not named here, later "Guenivere") fall into it?  Does this reflect some sort of crisis in our sense of ourselves?

3)  The plot of "Lanval" obviously reverses one of the oldest conventions in romance--the maiden rescues the knight rather than vice versa.   What might make this attractive to Marie and how does her presentation of it take advantage of the lai's unique features to make it plausible?

4)  The crux of the plot might be found in Marie's offhand comment that the faerie maiden "was entirely at [Lanval's] command" (75).  Is she?   Why would Marie say that if it were not so?

5)  The queen's ill-judged profession of love for Lanval provokes his profession of loyalty and a sharp rebuke for her betrayal of her lord's trust.   Stung, the queen strikes back with a charge that Lanval is homosexual and a threat to her husband's salvation.  Lanval escalates the quarrel by insulting her status and beauty.  How do these charges and counter-charges affect the plot, and why are they so violent?

6)  Compare carefully the story the queen tells the king and the charge the king brings against Lanval (77).  What's really getting to the king here and how can you explain what he leaves out?

7)  The trial is a good example of 12th-century feudal justice.   The king's seeking his vassal's advice and consent to the proceedings, knights who pledge to guarantee Lanval's presence, the Count of Cornwall's summation of the case, and the construction of a suitable "trial" or test of Lanval's words' truth all could come straight from a legal brief from the reign of Henry II.  What does that tell you about Marie's sense of her culture's core values, especially given the outcome of the trial?  Were you telling a tale about lovers at Goucher, how might you construct a similar conclusion and how would it turn out?

8)  Finally, the question of questions, but one people rarely ask of this tale: why does the faerie maiden not keep her word and abandon Lanval for breaking his oath of secrecy?

For information on Marie, you might want to look at the International Marie de France Society web site at: it's loaded with relevant scholarly information as well as both French and English translations of her complete works. Near the bottom of the home page there are introductions to and some article-length "notes" on specific tales, including "Lanval" and the later Middle English poem, "Sir Launfal."