Emare is one of the "accused queens" narratives, like Constance of Chaucer's "Man of Law's Tale," and like the other members of this group it follows a secular character whose narrative tracks closely the plot moves and character types of the "saint's life"? She's virtuous, tested by tyrants, invokes the scriptures in her defense, and is assisted by miraculous means (the rudderless boat, similar to that in Marie's Breton lai "Guigemar" and to the one that moves Galahad and Perceval to the Grail Castle). The invocation of Jesus and Mary in the opening lines, more extensive than the prefunctory praise in Thomas Chestre's "Launfal," sets the mood for this tale. How does the content fit the general purposes of a poet who seeks to tell a moral tale with secular characters?
1) The form of this tale is a "tail-rhyme stanza" in twelve rough iambic or trochaic tetrameter lines (or are they just "four-stress" and let the syllables fall where they may?) rhyming aab aab ccb ddb or aab ccb dde ffe or any one of a number of variants. The "tail" part of the stanza is composed of a trimeter (or three-stress) line followed by two rhyming couplets in tetrameter (or four-stress) and a final trimeter line that rhymes with the earlier one. Thus, the stanzas tend to divide rhetorically into 8-line narrative movements and 4-line comments on the movement, though sometimes the stanza "enjambs" as when Emare rejects Dad's unseemly wedding plans (ll. 250-264). The combination of a potentially demanding form with such apparently sloppy execution raises questions. Is our poet a loser? Or is form only a mildly interesting thing to the poet's audience? Could the poem depend more on its somewhat scandalous content (incest again!) and its moral message than on its quality as a work of high formal perfection?
2) Like "Lay le Freine," this tale is centered on a female character's experience, and like "le Freine" the plot is mainly motivated by male characters' decisions with the exception of the female protagonist's suffering endurance, which occasionally frustrates the males until they yield. How would you interpret this trend in comparison with the gender strategies of Marie's tales?
3) The arrival of the "cloth rychyly dyght," a present from the King of Sicily ("kynge of Cesyle"), appears without internal motivation ("oh, sure, monarchs are always sending each other presents"). The source, a specifically "dowghter of hethennes" is associated with "fayry" tricks, and the decoration of the cloth may give us some idea of the nature of its sorcery: Amadas and Idoyne, Tristrem and Isolde, Floris and Blanchefleur, and the son of the Sowdan of Babylone and the weaver of the cloth, "The Amerayles dowghtyr" (159). The first three are all romance protagonists who suffer mightily for love and the last is the artist, herself, who apparently has no use for the object though it resembles artifacts made for the weddings of aristocratic women. Why is this cloth part of the plot? What do its "stories in the margin" tell us to expect thematically from "Emare"? Note that it is the "cloth of golde" (243) of which he orders his daughter's wedding dress to be made.
4) The emperor's lust for his daughter does not drive him to rape her, but rather he sends messengers to Rome to get the Pope to approve this unlikely union! And the Pope does! What does it mean that the father's forbidden desire involves marrying rather than merely sexually possessing his daughter? What happened to the chorus of disapproval which greeted the bad behavior of Le Freyne's mother? As in "Degare," another lai with incest at its core, something hidden is motivating this plot's movement.
5) The tyrant's fury at being thwarted by the virtuous maiden, a stalwart plot device from saints' lives, here is put to practical use. How do you explain the fact that, the minute the rudderless boat is out of sight, he recovers his senses and repents his deeds? (Hint: see #3 above.)
6) "Emare" takes the name "Egare" (outcast) when she meets Syr Kadore, the king steward of the land to which the boat takes her, but the poet also calls her "the lady of the see" (362). Of course, she has just spent a lot of time in that element, but what does that suggest to you? Hint: who is called "Stella Maris"? Also, as a protagonist with two names, one a variant on the other, she resembles Tristram, who changes his name to "Tramtrist" when seeking a cure for a poisoned wound in the country of the knight who gave it to him. Is there a narrative logic explaining this phenomenon?
7) Like all accused queens, Emare/Egare runs into trouble with the evil mother-in-law. In this case, however, the mother-in-law is Christian, not pagan, and defends her son only from "a fende," as she calls the new girl on the block. What motivates her hatred of the protagonist? Does she need a reason?
8) The birth of Sagramore and the trick of the birth letter is perfectly paralleled in the "Man of Law's Tale," and in both the queen/mother-in-law uses wine to get the messenger drunk so as to substitute the letters. What is the poet telling us about wine and truth? As in the MoLT, there's a second switched letter because the king's so darned pious and faithful to his bride (which really bothers Mom!), and another drunken messenger incident. The point, here, obviously is Emare/Egare's acquiescence to the false letter's cruel command that she be put back in that miserable boat. (Boats without rudders rock excessively, which tends to produce inner-ear disorientation and nausea, AKA sea-sickness--the queen is really cruel!) Why doesn't either tale end here with a noble martyrdom?
9) The second trip takes mother and child to Rome (see Danae and Perseus), where once again prayer brings her safe to a protector, the merchant "Jurdan." How does the court identify Egare's characteristics, and what does that tell you about what "gentillesse" means for this author?
10) Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Syr Kadore is explaining things to the king--not a nice job. Note the judgment of the barons re: the mother-in-law/queen. The whole point here is to set up the lovers, i.e., the king and Emare/Egare, in a parallel lament which occupies one stanza. What breaks the stasis to let the plot move forward, and what values is the author promoting with that?
11) The denoument or discovery scene turns on the same service/demeanor issue which the tale uses to establish Emare/Egare's character throughout the tale, and which we also see in Marie's "Le Fresne" and the Middle English "Lay le Freyne." Note the role Segramowres plays in the event. What does that suggest re: the "gentilesse" issue? The reunion of Emare with her repentant father also turns on the same point. Note the use of the code word "anamered" (enamoured, falling in love with).
For some general help putting together issues relevant to the Breton lais in Middle English, especially on the issue of code-crossing, click here.
For more on the "accused queens" narratives in Middle English, see Margaret Schlauch's venerable but still authoritative study of the "Clerk's Tale," Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens (NY: New York UP, 1927) [826.2 C49HmaSs]. The "rudderless boat" plot may possibly be traced back to its use in the Grail narrative, Le Queste del Saint Graal, which occupies a major piece of the middle of Malory's Arthurian compilation.
If you have time and enjoyed "Degare" and "Emare," I urge you to read the longer "The Erle of Tolous", a narrative whose development appears more complete than any of the shorter lais and deals extensively with the problem of feudal social relationships formed by verbal promises which are subject to interpretation and deceptive use. Online Introduction to "The Erle of Tolous"; Online Text of "The Erle of Tolous"]