Breton Lais as a Genre
Like modern film genres such as the horror movie or the science fiction movie, genres of popular medieval literature often were flexible and admitted a great deal of variation. Since the Breton lai is a species of popular vernacular romance, rather than a formal Latin work, almost any literate medieval person probably would be familiar with in one of its many varieties. No "lai police" existed to rule on admission to the genre. However, some generalizations probably would help the modern novice reader get a grip on typical expectations of this tale type.
1) The protagonist could be male or female, which is rare in romances, where the protagonist almost always is male.
2) The protagonist always was from a privileged upbringing, usually noble.
3) The tale, itself, will be short, and it sometimes refers to lyric performance as if it once was intended to be sung.
4) The plot usually involves the pursuit of a loved one, and supernatural elements usually play a part in the outcome.
5) Because of the extreme economy of the plot, the climax usually involves extraordinary events.
6) All medieval Breton lais are composed in rhymed verse, but in the twentieth century, Guy de Maupassant, an author born in Brittany, wrote many short prose fictions which met the first, third, fourth and fifth criteria.
Click here for some interpretive angles relevant to the Breton lais in Middle English.