Marie de France, "Yonec"

    This is another in what we might call Marie’s "shape-shifter" sequence, with "Bisclavret," or "faerie" sequence, with "Lanval" and "Guigemar" (for the deer), but in its current manuscript position before "Laustic" and "Milun," it’s also in a kind of "bird" sequence. The hawk-knight who appears in answer to the imprisoned wife’s prayers seems, like Lanval’s mysterious maiden, a wish fulfillment of the most extraordinary sort. With enormous economy, Marie compresses his son’s revenge and the lady’s suffering into a short, sudden event which appears completely coincidental. Can you explain why she appears to have omitted the motivation for the step-father’s journey on the feast of St. Aaron?

Study Questions—

1) Readers of Marie’s other tales will immediately be familiar with "jealous old man with young wife" motif. The role of the man’s sister as gate-keeper and spy also resemble other characters Marie places near her embattled ingenue-heroines. One striking shift in this tale’s use of the familiar motifs is its near parody of the Christian story of the incarnation, betrayal, passion, and triumphant resurrection of Jesus, the last being enacted by the hawk-knight’s son, Yonec. What does the faerie-knight’s sacrifice signify in the world of Marie’s courtly values? What does his son’s revenge do to the divided worlds of faerie and human?

2) The hawk-knight’s earnest avowal of Christian doctrine and ritual may seem a bit strange unless you think of this marvelous being from a medieval point of view. The Church taught that both divine and demonic spirits roamed the air (both descendants of the Greek daemons) bringing news and inspiration to humans, but the problem obviously becomes identifying what’s divine and what’s demonic. Making a mistake here could result in that form of "inspiration" we know as "possession." The invisible psychological influence sought becomes damaging, demanding, and overpowers the human "vessel." What other ways are there to tell whether the inspirations we seek are good or bad for us, and what role do our friends, family, teachers, etc. play in that task?

3) Marie’s personal outbursts judging characters’ behavior and reacting to anticipated events become quite pointed in this lai. She seems almost to lead a cheering section for the lovers and delivering a prosecutor’s judgment of the step-father’s treachery. Does she think we’ll miss the point? Or is she, herself, overwhelmed by the significance of her tale?

4) The dream-like world of the faerie city, with its path under the hill and its streets filled with silent people, creates a striking image. What kind of human emotions and experiences might Marie be tapping into (the "buttons" she’s trying to push in us) as the lady follows the trail of her beloved’s blood from her prison to his palace?

5) Since the old man married the lady to get an heir, and since (until the hawk-knight’s arrival) he was unable, doesn’t it seem strange that he accepts Yonec’s presence and doesn’t accuse his wife of infidelity, especially since he knows all about the hawk-knight? Some readers see more than a little "Oedipal" content here, with the father-figure’s hostility displaced onto the step-father and the mother’s eroticism safely bestowed on her mysterious feathered beau. What kinds of drives, yearnings, hostilities, etc. might Marie be drawing upon in the minds of the young men in her audience, and how might the young women also be affected by this tale’s version of "the family romance"?

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."