Book Review: “The Lais of Marie de France”

Consisting of twelve short stories, supposedly composed during the late twelfth century, The Lais of Marie de France tells of chivalric knights and Arthurian wonders, an insight into the nature of love, as well as magic. It demonstrates the values of courtly love, a principle that viewed love not only as a suffering, but a social requirement for the nobility. As Marie notes in Equitan, the second of the lais, “how could she [the Lady of the lai] be a true courtly lady, if she had no true love?” (Equitan, 57).

One of the most memorable quotes from all the lais, however, is this: “love is an invisible wound within the body, and, since it has its source in nature, it is a long-lasting ill” (Guigemar, 49). This quote summarises the main content in all the lais, for they describe the practices of love, both true and adulterous, and the pain that they can cause.

In Equitan, a king has an affair with his seneschal’s wife; when they fall in love, they plot to murder the Lady’s husband by boiling him in his too-hot bath water. Comical though this may seem, the brutal descriptions of Equitan and the Lady boiling in the tub, for their plan backfires on them, are far from the comedic.

Bisclavret, delving further into the genre of fantasy, describes how Bisclavret’s wife imprisons him in the form of a werewolf by stealing his clothes. The wolf befriends the king, who treats him as his beloved pet, up until Bisclavret, still transformed, rips his wife’s nose right from her face, and the king thus discovers his true identity.

Considering this, it is fair to argue that the lais of Marie de France are exceptionally varied; this has been one of the problems for translators and critics over the centuries, for the lais were not discovered in one intact document, but pieced together, said to be written by the same author through the analysis of writing style in its original French dialect. In fact, there is no way to be sure that these lais were all written by Marie de France, or whether Marie existed at all; she may be a mythic figure such as Homer, her works, just like his, perhaps being collaborations of writing by multiple authors and poets. Whilst this may deter from the magic of The Lais of Marie de France, it may also add mystery. After all, these are influential tales that have had impacts on our fairytales, folklore, and culture, yet their origin is completely unknown.

Another interesting aspect of the lais comes back to the concept of courtly love. Whilst the renowned knights are admired for their heroic prowess and fighting techniques, they are never fully accepted by, or able to integrate with, society, until they find love. Courtly love was believed to be a requirement of the true knight, or Lady, of course, which meant that marriage was always to be expected. In my view, this is the true message carried by The Lais of Marie de France, and is one that ties the stories together in a way that indicates one sole author: love is a requirement of life, and, without it, one may never gain the wealth or reputation that they seek.

Honestly, I had no knowledge of The Lais of Marie de France before being handed it as part of my university course, and when I discovered that it was a collection of short stories, I was not altogether enthused; I was unfamiliar with this style of reading, and was unsure how to react. In truth, though, this is an incredible read, and I would recommend it to anyone. It deserves more fame and recognition, considering original tales that excite the mind and engage the senses. A reader must, of course, accept the clear misogyny of the time, noting how the majority of the female characters in the lais are referred to only as “the Lady”, but, once you are past this barrier, the true magic of the lais is set free.

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