Marie de France, "Milun"

    The third in the "bird" sequence, "Milun" follows the path of the illicit lovers in "Yonec" with the "bird-as-go-between" from "Laustic," and the faint "Oedipal" motif which we saw in "Yonec" here becomes strangely intensified when Milun’s son tells his true father "I shall bring you and my mother together. I shall kill her husband and marry her to you" (103). The son’s killing of his mother’s husband is not necessary, as it happens, but the marriage takes place as he foretold. What’s Marie up to here?

Study Questions—

1) The heroine of "Milun" is another of Marie’s strong women, able to pursue her desires and to achieve them, though she must suffer the consequences of living within patriarchal rule which will punish her if it discovers her success. The exchange of secret messages (by 20 years of "swan mail"!) creates a kind of literary relationship between her and her beloved, and she similarly establishes a textual connection to her child when she must send him away. What does this seem to mean to Marie, given her gender and occupation?

2) The "custom of our ancestors" is described by Marie as if it were an unthinkable barbarism. What are the cultural punishments in past history for unmarried daughters who give birth to children outside marriage? What were they in Marie’s own time?

3) The son’s attitude toward his duties to his birth-status are fairly typical for aristocratic males of this era, and literature from the period often turns upon the quest for fame by means of combat. Note that when Milun learns of The Peerless One’s success in combat, he immediately is motivated to try to humiliate "PO," in order to protect his own fame. What does this do to the male experience of maturation, and how might it affect both women’s experience of the same events, and the male children’s reaction to the women’s experience? Does it in any way tend to happen this way in modern American culture? (That is, could Marie be "pushing our buttons" on this issue, too?)

4) Part of "PO"’s motivation for seeking fame in combat has to do with his position as a son who is not "owned" by his father and mother. The "disowned" son or bastard has an extremely painful social status in medieval (and modern!) Anglo-European culture. The absence of paternal approval seems to make almost any social slight into a mortal offense for him, and the son’s quest for paternal approval often preoccupies his entire life. What is Marie dramatizing in the combat in which Milun recognizes his son’s ring?

5) Note that, when they marry, the couple summon no kinsmen and tell nobody of the wedding. What does that indicate and what effect do you think that might have on Marie’s readers’ feelings about the story?

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 "Sir Launfal."