Thomas Chestre, "Sir Launfal"

Text: "Sir Launfal" survives in only one manuscript, Cotton Caligula A. II., which also contains the only surviving copy of "Emare."

Author: The poet who tells us "Thomas Chestre made thys tale" apparently is the same man who wrote "Lybeus Desconous" (i.e., the Fair Unknown), a tale of an unknown knight who arrives at Arthur's court and undertakes a perilous quest at the behest of a maiden who berates him continuously until he succeeds in rescuing her sister from a sorcerer's enchantment.  Some similarities in content immediately can be detected between these two stories, the knight far from home, the "troublesome woman," the delight in the supernatural world, and the hero's success because of his powers of endurance rather than merely great prowess in battle, though both protagonists can swing a sword with the best of them.  Because of the dialect in which both tales are recorded, it is thought that Thomas lived in the early fifteenth century in the vicinity of Chester, a city in the northwest of England in Cheshire.  That region is also thought to be the likely homeland of the much more accomplished but anonymous author of the poems "Pearl" and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (hence, the "Pearl"-Poet or "Gawain"-Poet depending on which poem your scholar is most fond of, but MLA has settled on "Pearl-Poet").  The "Pearl"-Poet also tends to like plots featuring the supernatural, though his universe is solidly Christian, and God, not faeries, controls the apparitions.  We might think of these two poets, living in the Welsh hinterlands near the court of the earl of Chester, as constituting an English medieval counter-point to Chaucer's London-centered and royal court based style and interests.

Interpretive Issues:

1)  The courtly setting of the lai always is established in the first episode.  After the place, which usually is a real geographic location, the one of the next things to be told to the audience is the protagonist's family estate (class + status + quality + wealth + history).  Why?  What similar information would determine a modern short story's protagonist's character in a Marxist sense?  Think about having an identity which arises from and directly reflects back upon one's family, no matter where one goes or what one does.  That is a character-shaping constraint that would be both social and psychological.

 2)  The first move in "Lanval" and "Sir Launfal" is the hero's association with great knights in a great court.  This is a special case of the status-by-association strategy of identifying characters by family-estate.  Because it is a gendered-male phenomenon, how would it work were you to reverse the gender-identity and function of all of its terms.  That is, what would a court defined by its ladies be like for a female protagonist?  Think about that when you read a lai about a female protagonist and consider it periodically when Lanval/Lanfal has significant experiences.

3)  One of the ways "Lanval" has grown since it left Marie's pen (or mouth if she dictated it) is that there are more named characters.  Those great knights in "Launfal" now have names?  Who are they and where did they come from?  The answer lies in the growth of the Arthurian tales in prose in narratives scholars call "the Vulgate Cycle romances."  The main threads in these "interlaced" romances' growth are those that trace the birth and rise to knighthood of Launcelot and of Tristan.  Both become regulars at the court of Arthur, which previously had been dominated by his ancient Celtic chief knight, Gawain or "Wawain" (as the Celts would have sounded it).  Thomas Chestre now is aware of these narratives' authority in saying what Arthur's court was like, and he apparently expects his own audience to know who these guys are.  What are the rules for adding a new character to the Arthurian court?  Launfal is just such a potential addition, but he does not "stick" in the tradition.  Could there be something in this plot that explains why he fails to be taken up with the other famous Arthurian knights?  (Hint: consider the next issue's significance for the whole tradition.)

4)  The next move in "Lanval" is King Arthur's failure of generosity, and Lanval's fatal persistence in generosity.  However, in "Sir Launfal," it is not Arthur but his queen, now with a name from the "Vulgate Cycle" tradition, "Gwennere" (l. 42, AKA "Gwenyvere" in Malory or the ModE "Guinevere").  As in the French Vulgate Cycle, Gwennere is not an easy woman to live with.  What motivates her actions and how might it be a critique of courtly "noblesse" that might be applied to life in the fifteenth-century London court?  What does the Middle English poem's version of the facts do to the hero's relationship to courtly generosity's source, and to the queen's role in the plot?  See a famous image of medieval courtly generosity in the Limbourg Brothers' illumination of the Tres riche heures of the duc du Berry manuscript page for January, with the nobleman calling to his court to come to his high table for their gifts.

5)  As in the case of Launfal's fellow knights, note that here the queen is named, as is the faerie queen.  This may be called only a process of historical addition of detail, but it does have an effect upon the readers/hearers' perception of the tale.  How does it affect the plot to have the hero going up against a named enemy, and to have him defended by a named ally with a specific culture-of-origin (i.e., daughter of "Olyroun, / . . . kyng of fayrye, / Of occient, far and wide," ll. 278, 280-1)?  How does the more specific location of "faerylond" as a kingdom affect the way the supernatural functions in "Launfal" as opposed to the more imprecise, misty rendering of the damsel in "Lanval"?

6)  Someone, perhaps Thomas, has added a sub-plot involving the Mayor of Karlyon, the semi-mythical town in which Arthur's court was said to be located (in Malory, "Caerleon," one of Arthur's alternative court sites along with the more familiar "Camelot").  Think of the court as a kind of roving political convention that moves from a palace or great hall in one major town to halls/palaces in other towns as the seasons or political strategy dictates.  When the court comes to town, the townsfolk have an opportunity to profit in many ways, picking up the latest court customs and clothing, as well as selling the court what it needs to feast properly (again, maintaining the nobles' estate).  How does the mayor's behavior connect with the potential for court satire in Gwennere's behavior?  From whom does he learn to act this way?

7)  Fortunately for Launfal, the mayor's daughter does not share her father's lack of charity or proper respect for knightly estate, depending upon whether we're evaluating her actions according to Christian or secular noble values.  Consider her offer as a  counterpoint to her father's churlishness (as Thomas might call it) and weight Launfal's reasons for not accepting what she offers.  What's important in this poem's world?

8)  After a lousy ride on a badly conditioned horse, Launfal, like Lanval, gets his break.  Note how much of the Middle English version preserves Marie's scene (two serving damsels, richly decorated pavilion in the forest, lady lying in bed and somewhat underdressed for medieval court standards).  As in "Lanval" plot, the faerie princess, Triamour, offers the knight a male fantasy of success, both endless riches and her sexual favors.  Thomas Chestre's version specifies the mechanisms by which the former are to be delivered, and makes the faerie's gift something much more like a typical feudal lord's gift-giving to his vassal.  She offers a silk and gold "alner" or wallet which will produce one mark (2/3 of a or 13s 4d) every time he reaches into it, a mount, "Blaunchard, my stede lel [loyal]" (l. 326), "Gyfre, my owen knave [boy/servant]" (l. 327), and a "pensel" or pennant with her coat of arms, "thre ermyns ypeynted well," which apparently have magical properties to protect him in battle (ll. 328-33).  What kind of generosity rule is being enacted when the lady gives the vassal her own possessions rather than someone else's or some newly acquired or manufactured possessions?  Even this generosity is not enough for the tale's appetite for "richesse," so ten mules accompanied by ten retainers arrive at Launfal's town dwelling with loads of clothing and armor and silver and gold.

9)  Wealth restored, Launfal next gets revenge on the Mayor of Karlyon, who "segh that rychesse, / And Syr Launfals noblenesse" (ll. 400-1).  The knight reject's the commoner mayor's offer of generosity in terms that shame the mayor and that emphasize the falsity of such offers to one who has no need of them.  How would you analyze the signals Thomas is sending his audience here?  Especially note what Launfal does once he begins to celebrate his return with the obligatory feasting and gift giving (ll. 421-32, especially l. 430!).

10)  Tournaments follow feasts as if they were the natural order of things, and indeed, historians tell us that since the reign of Edward III, a major fan of Arthurian literature, tournaments in the Arthurian manner were routinely held throughout England. (Cf. in general, the work of Richard Barber and Sydney Anglo, and on combat in Malory, Andrew Lynch's Malory's Book of Arms: The Narrative of Combat in "Le Morte Darthur", [Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1997].)  Serial combat scenes are a staple of the Vulgate Cycle romances where they are used to establish a hierarchy of prowess among knights on the field.  Much like a basketball or lacrosse tournament, in which winners from one match meet the winners from the other matches until one is left, successful knights' performance is rated by heralds who announce their deeds to observers and spread their fame ("los" in Thomas' dialect).  After defeating the Constable of England, Launfal is next challenged by "The Erl of Chestere" (l. 469).  Notice Thomas' source-reference (almost the only one!) that is produced by his anxiety concerning his authority to so overtly alter the source to render a complement to his patron ("Thus seyd the Frenssch tale," l. 474).  What does this tell you about medieval authorship and attitudes toward innovation of the sort we usually call "originality"?  We will encounter this same "Frenssch" source formula when Sir Thomas Malory makes his most daring alterations of his sources in the Morte

11)  After Launfal has won "the prys" or victor's honors in the tournament, he repays the social debt incurred by holding feasts in which all the lords who now accompany him are entertained according to their estate.  This reverses the sad poverty of his departure with only Arthur's two nephews as his "menie" or affinity group.  It also may be connected, implicitly, the envy of Launfal's next opponent, "Syr Valentyne," a giant who hears of Launfal's tournament success and wants to "pleye" with him (l. 514).  Note that it is the public fame of being mighty that arouses the desire to compete (l. 521 also).  The challenge, in turn, is couched as a challenge to Launfal's "manhod" and his relationship to his "lemman," Triamour.  The erotic threat (Valentyne!) will be fully discharged in the Queen's slanderous claim, but here it sets up an association between the overwhelming eroticism of the faerie princess-knight relationship and the giant male opponent.  Psychoanalysis, anyone?

12)  We see the "mayne" or entourage again as a sign of the knight's estate as Launfal rides to meet Valentyne with only Blaunchard, his horse, and his knave, Gyfre.  What is the intent of his deliberate reduction of his "menie"?  Note Valentyne meets him with a great host.  Imagine this as a visual scene depicted in a tapestry.

13)  The patterned combat sequences by which Launfal and Valentyne fight are the choreography of romance, and also its calculus.  Shame and honor rise and fall as each blow takes its effect.  How does Gyfrey's role in the combat affect our reception of the prowess of the hero, and how might that differ from the reception apparently expected by Thomas Chestre from his audience?  What differences account for this?  The same problem of conventional expectations probably will affect most modern readers' response to Launfal's treatment by the "lordes of Atalye," and his rather preemptory response to their behavior.  Remember, it's literature, play, but play with roots in reality.  What kind of fantasy is this enacting?

14)   Arthur's forty-day feast follows the now familiar ceremonial pattern, reacting to public news (AKA "los") of Launfal's prowess in battle with a vast display of consumption, which Launfal oversees as steward "For cowthe of largesse" (because he knew about generosity).   This says something about Arthur, for appointing Launfal to the post of distributing Arthur's goods, and about Launfal, for being worthy of the appointment.  In an ordinary lai, we would be done, having unraveled the complication or restored the loss of the original plot sequence, but the queen's gambit still must be played out for this plot has a double strand, generosity-reciprocity and sexuality-desirability.  Both are entangled in this tale as if their "economies" were connected in some way, most notably in the passage in which the queen sees Launfal dancing and forms her deadly desire for him, or for something about him: "To lede the daunce Launfal was set; / For hys largesse he was lovede the bet, / Sertayn, of alle tho. / The quene lay out and beheld hem alle; / 'I se,' sche seyde, 'daunce large Launfalle; / To ym than wyll Y go. / [. . . ] /Y love hym as my lyf!" (ll. 643-8 and 654).

15)   Launfal's answer to the queen's sudden declaration of love identifies what she wishes him to do with being a "traytour" (to his lord), which indicates he sees her behavior in a political, not an erotic, context.  Then he makes his nearly fatal error by revealing his love for Tryamour, and he does so in language that echoes the poet's description of her beauty in comparison with her maids' beauty.  However, this time he compares her maids to the queen in an unfavorable light.  Can this be understood as an "estate" insult (ll. 683 and 694-99)?

16)  Following the line of reasoning in the previous item, we might look to the queen's version of events, told to Artour when he returns from the hunt, and to the king's rehearsal of the charges against Launfal when the knight is arraigned in the court.  The queen tells Artour first that Launfal asked her to be his "lemman," which she associates with "schame" (cf. "Le Fresne"/"Lay le Freyne"), and then tells the king of the boast about his lover's maids being worthy to be "a quene above me" (ll. 715-20).  The king explodes in anger immediately after the second charge, and when he tells Launfal the charges, the comparison of the maids with the queen is the one he names first, mentioning the erotic charge second, almost as an afterthought.

17)  Launfal's answer raises the concern for his masculine identity, which the queen's statement had called into question, and which led to his comparison of the maids with her own beauty.  Think about this way of measuring manhood, in effect, accounting for masculinity by degrees of associated female beauty.  That leads to his testing by the jurors who, despite generally accepting the truth of his version of events, insist that he produce that fair beloved for their inspection.  How might we describe this tale's version of erotic justice?

18)  The jurors "quest" is an important linguistic clue to the real origins of the famous romance motif, the questing knight.  At its root, the word has the same origins as the modern "inquest," an investigation to find out the truth about something.  Consider Launfal's journey into the forest as a form of "inquest."  What "truth" has he found, and what has his journey back into the court done to his "truth"?