Breton Lais: Translation, Growth, Reception

        Comparison of Marie de France's "Lanval" and "Le Fresne" with the Middle English "Sir Launfal" and "Lay le Fresne" gives us a chance to speculate about the process by which a Medieval narrative grows in transmission.  In Modern literate literary production, we probably would talk about "translation" of one work into another, or "influence" of one work upon another, because we pay attention to the accuracy with which a translator renders words or sentences from one language into another, and we also watch authors to detect any elements of their works which bear even the slightest debt to previous authors' works, which often is said to make them "derivative," "unoriginal," or "imitative," all negative judgments.  Modernity privileges "originality" in literary analysis above an unnamed but important Medieval quality we might call "traditionality."  The modern aesthetic of "originality" (Ezra Pound, "Make it new!") seeks to shatter readers' expectations of what prose or poetic works should be, or to introduce content which never has been the subject of literary attention, astounding audiences with creative novelty.  A "traditionalist" Medieval aesthetic praises the work which resembles most creatively that which already is known, or introduces unknown elements most deftly into already known kinds of works.  Each aesthetic serves a world view, the Modern seeking improvement by replacing old "good" ideas with new ones, and the Medieval seeking excellence by conserving that which has been known to be good, enshrining it freshly in new forms for each new era.  This should not be taken to imply that Medieval writers could not innovate, but rather they tended not to draw attention to their innovations, even trying to disguise their innovations by claiming they belong to some ancient source, an "auctor" from the Classical past.

        Medieval "translation" of one work to another, could be thought of in light of the Latin translatio, the movement of a saint's relics from the site of their discovery, usually a place implicitly contaminated by the saint's martyrdom, to the site of the relics' veneration/worship, a sacred shrine within a cathedral.  Such a procession often would take place in concert with other strategies by which the saint's partisans hoped to cause the saint to be venerated and canonized by the Church, making the sainthood official Church Doctrine (vs. a folk belief).  One of those strategies involved a poet's creation of a vita ("life") or biography of the saint which laid out the case for sainthood by tracing the saint's birth, life and death.  Not surprisingly, saints' lives tended to grow new episodes and saints acquired new attributes drawing upon the mass of folk memory of which they initially were made.  Gradually, as the narratives were recopied, they grew responding to several predictable forces to which the vitas' authors responded: local custom, generic type scenes and characters from folk tales, surviving pagan customs and tales, current church controversies, etc.  Growth of a saint's life depended upon the resulting narrative's reception by its audience, from the literate clerical elite to the illiterate folk who constituted the greatest proportion of its aural/oral audience.  What did not please was doomed, but what pleased might produce elaboration, multiplication, and variation.  If a saint's triumph over one pagan administrator in debate was well received, why not develop the debate to explore what the saint and pagan must have said?  If one debate succeeds, why not make it the first of two or three, or the last of a series, each further developing issues concerning the tale's audiences.  And if contests with pagans in words won audience approval, why should the saint not have done physical deeds of prowess, as well?

        Non-religious narratives like Breton lais had fewer checks on their evolution by these means, and because they were not usually known as the works of a named author, their anonymity gave tellers and scribes implicit authority to alter them to better serve new audiences..  The great French Medievalist, Paul Zumthor (1972), named the pattern of variation among surviving manuscript versions the "mouvance" of the text, its glacial creep in countless large and small ways from one state to another to another. Even if we are not looking at sequences of manuscripts which we can study for specific evidence of mouvance, individual tales' "loose ends" offer useful hypothetical clues to a tale's evolution.  These "loose ends" also indicate to us the comparative degree of self-conscious control an author has exerted over the surviving state of the text.  Ordinarily, even Medieval authors do not like "loose ends," but those who consider themselves "auctors" have less tolerance for them than those who merely perform others' texts, or those who merely "translate" (in the modern sense) a text from one language to another.

        Oral/aural tradition narratives, even when they survive in manuscripts, also tend to evolve by "mouvance" rather than by strong authorial composition control.  Imagine the contrasting composition and performance situations of the oral/aural and "literary" composers.  The former compose for public delivery of the work before an audience they directly address in the tale's introduction and, often, in its conclusion.  The oral/aural poets control the pace of the performance, but they also must interact with their audiences' responses.  During performance, the oral/aural delivery poet can detect immediate feedback from the audience for each episode and sometimes from individual lines or word choices.  Gradually, the aural/oral poets' audiences with strong aesthetic tastes might even become co-composers because of their influence upon the poets' perceptions of the success of the works, though strong poets might sway audiences with weak aesthetic tastes..  The poet writing for a mixed audience of oral/aural listeners and literate readers also might work alone, but except when their work is read aloud, they cannot control the pace of the works' performances by those distant readers, and they must anticipate readers' responses at a future time.  Private readers' responses probably would differ from those of the oral/aural audiences' because readers control the pace of delivery, can reread and read ahead, and can compare the present work contextually with a wider range of contemporary and predecessor texts.  If we were to compare poets and audiences to players in a game, the poets writing for literate audiences are playing a tougher set of competitors and must use their greater preparation time to gain more control over the readers' experiences, anticipating readers' interpretive moves, tricking readers into cooperating with the works, and rewarding readers' labors with an experience more extraordinary than mere entertainment. The literate audiences' delayed responses to the poets' compositions will be generalized with regard to the entire work more often than they are pointedly focused on individual episodes or lines or word choices. 

        These two composition and performance situations can overlap, as Joyce Coleman has demonstrated, when literates read aloud to their illiterate friends and family, a situation which often is announced in works' address to readers who "read or hear."1.  Chaucer, in particular, seems to have constructed the Troilus and Canterbury Tales for both types of audience, often mentioning what audiences have "heard" or "will here," but also writing, in the prologue to the profane "Miller's Tale," "And therefore, whoso list it nat yheere, / Turne over the leef and chese another tale" (I.3176-7).  Coleman disproves the notion that Chaucer's later works are more "literate" in orientation than his earlier ones, but she does not address the greater level of "finish" he gives his tales when compared with the loose ends allowed a Breton lai like "Sir Degare," or his increasing level of authorial control of audiences' interaction by means of his narrators' personae in the Tales and "Troilus," compared with the relative lack of overt authorial control of audiences' reaction to highly charged themes like the incest motif in "Degare," "Lay le Freyne" and "Emare" (150-52).  For interpreters of the less highly crafted works like the Breton lais, the seeming "flaws" like flaws in their plot motivation or lack of overt authorial control can become advantages when read as evidence of the tale's place in a process of "mouvance" from one state to another.

Some suggestions for where to look for evidence of tale-evolution, authors' literate/aural-oral stances, etc.--

Oral/aural delivery vs."literary" narrative production as measured by "loose end" survival, narrative coherence, and and narrators' presentation of plot elements in "Le Fresne" vs. the narrators of "Degare" vs. "Emare"

Self-conscious authorship vs. repressed or unexpressed authorial control of narrator-audience interface

"Le Fresne"'s explicit infanticide motif vs. its implicit incest motif (marriage of sisters to Guron)--> ME "Lay le Freyne"'s narrator identifies the "incest" motif in sisters' marriage to Gouron, directs audience's anticipated response.  Why do it only at the wedding and, if so, why allow the couple to cohabit on the wedding night, only annulling the marriage the next day?  Both version accept the wife's infanticidal logic and the maid's altruistic intervention.  Why?

"Degare"-->From the start of the narrative, audiences encounter a slow, steady growth of emphases on the impending mother-son incest motif and the father-son parricide/infanticide motif with multiplication and variation of tests and opponents.  The currency and letter and glove and sword tokens multiply the means of identification and reunion of the foundling with his parents but they create many loose ends.  What seems to be the most likely order in which they were added to the plot, or are all somehow already essential to the plot?  If so, what might account for the failure of the maid to transmit the "glove test" message or the sword to Degare's foster parent at the proper time in the narrative?  How does the poem treat literacy within the plot?  Do the poem's "read" and "hear" references clearly establish it as an aural/oral performance script, or as a a hybrid aural/oral-literate text?

"Emare"-->When compared with Chaucer's "Man of Law's Tale" and other "Accused Queen" narratives, "Emare" contains fewer multiplications and variations of its basic plot--innocent female beset by male and female immorality but survives and triumphs in the end.  How has Chaucer handled this plot type?  What elements has he elaborated, multiplied, or varied?  What does the pattern of his reception of the tale type tell you about his artistic values and/or his audiences' aesthetics?

"Lanval"/"Sir Launfal"-->Marie's narrative begins with an incomplete expression of "faery queen" theme, giving Lanval's protectress no name and no ancestry, nor any explanation of how she comes to possess such extraordinary powers.  The Middle English "Sir Launfal" explains all of those missing motives by use of the "faery" motif.  Other narratives among Marie's lais contain what might be borrowings from the faery- or folk-tale narrative tradition, among them "Yonec"'s hawk-knight who shape-shifts until trapped by love, and "Eliduc"'s magic herb and talented weasels.  Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature can allow researchers to find rapidly other tales in which a female faery helps the hero with her magic powers.

"Degare"-->By contrast with "Sir Launfal," "Degare"'s plot begins with an incomplete expression of "faery knight" theme in which the princess's rapist is motivated by Otherworld appetites for attractive humans.  He knows more than a realistic knight would know, but are there other signs that he is not operating in the realm of narrative realism?  Comparison with the abductor of the Middle English "King Orfew"'s wife would be productive.  There the motivation has fused two sources, the "King of Faeries" and "The King of the Underworld" from the Celtic and Classical Greek traditions.

Chaucer's "Parliament of Foules" or "Book of the Duchess"-->How does Chaucer's handling of literacy and orality seem to you now that you have encountered some more clearly oral/aural texts?  What signs can you see that vision, and especially symbolic interpretation of what one reads, is central to Chaucer's reception of the narratives he uses to introduce his own plots (the Macrobius commentary on Cicero's "Somnium Scipionis" and Ovid's "Seys and Alcyone" from Metamorphoses)?

Breton lais poets as authors--Clearly the lais' narrators differ from Chaucers narrators in the ways they manage their relationships with their audiences.  How do they establish their own goals as performers of the narratives, and what kinds of reader-responses do they appear to expect from their audiences.  Do you see signs they implicitly are claiming ownership?  When ownership is claimed explicitly, as in Thomas Chester's version of "Launfal," does the tale strive for more complex effects, more frequent elaboration and variation of episode, etc.?

What are the larger consequences of literacy and aurality for reading Chaucer and Pearl-Poet vs. lais or Saints' Lives?  Is it something like the difference between reading "high-art" literature vs. popular literature like mysteries, science fiction, or popular romances?  Or are these "high-art vs. low-art" distinctions modern anachronisms that keep us from seeing something more important. 

Authors have careers during which they learn more about their craft and change their style.  Malory, in particular, appears to be a writer who evolves.  In his earliest work, which is not necessarily the first portion of the "Morte" you read, he seems to begin as a literary translator, one who turns a French or alliterative Middle English poetic text into a Middle English prose text.  He makes relatively few changes, and those he makes usually are made silently.  In his "middle period" works, he appears to have considered what he was doing a species of "forgery," changing sources' versions of events in response to his own and his readers' deeply held beliefs, elaborating or repressing elements of the sources which he or his readers found important or offensive.  Finally, in his latest work, he seems to break free of source-dependence altogether, sometimes combining elements from many tale types or writing freely major new passages that do not occur in a source he was following.


1)  "The reception phrase most common in metatexts--prologues, epilogues, and rubrics--is 'read and/or hear,' which is very often used in excusing the 'rudeness' of one's writing to one's future audience or in asking for their prayers. [ . . . ] The modest authors of such formal and wordy excuses maybe invoking two different reception channels out of a desire to list all possible formats--so that 'read' means 'read privately' and 'here,' 'read publicly' (a 'hard' contrast).  Or 'read or hear' may mean 'whether you are reading the book aloud or hearing someone else read it' (a 'soft contrast).  Or the entire phrase may be 'format-neutral'; i.e., the author is content for the phrase to mean whatever the reader thinks it means.  Often a series of 'reads' or 'hears' in a prologue or epilogue will be capped by a 'read and/or hear' in a final 'sweep' position that seems intended to embrace all possible preferences" (102-3). 

Works Cited

Coleman, Joyce.  Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.  028.9 C692p   

Thompson, Stith.  Motif-index of folk-literature; a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends.  6 Volumes.   Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1955-58.  Reference 398 R47 1955 

Zumthor, Paul.  Essai de poétique médiévale.  Paris: Seuil, 1972.  840.9 Z94e    

Further Help

Notes Toward a Structuralist Analysis of the Breton lais in Middle English