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.

Book Review: “Wuthering Heights”

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With its complicated themes and layered narrative, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is renowned for being one of the leading novels of the gothic genre. It is undeniably a fascinating read, if only due to the numerous character and plot interpretations that can be had from it.

However, you should not take this book on if you’re not prepared to be fully committed to the storyline. Lockwood, a seemingly unnecessary character, is, in many ways, merely a device for the story to be told through, and yet the first few chapters resolve primarily on his impressions of the Wuthering Heights building and its inhabitants. Arguably, this gives depth and a better understanding of the isolation that Heathcliff and his family experience, but, in many ways, the gripping story of Wuthering Heights doesn’t really begin until after Cathy’s death, and the relationships within the next generation become steadily more intriguing. One thing must be made clear, though; this is not a love story. It is not a cheerful, upbeat novel in which readers have no choice but to expect a happy ending.

Wuthering Heights is a brutal insight to the class divisions and xenophobia of the Victorian Era, its narrative intrinsically linked to themes of envy, betrayal and revenge. Some critics would even go as far to say that the famous couple, Cathy and Heathcliff, never really had a mutual love between them; perhaps Heathcliff’s insanity produced an entire relationship for his deprived mind to obsess over; perhaps our impressions of the perfect, untainted love between them are, in reality, completely deluded.

Story Starters: A Collection

My biggest problem as a writer has always been sticking to one story after I create the initial opening; it’s too tempting to move onto something new and more exciting! Here’s three story starters, varying in length, that I’ve, at some point, abandoned.

1) This opening story sentence is for the purposes of the writing competition at: Writer’s Digest, with the brief of a maximum word count at 25 words, and the picture prompt seen below.

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A snowy owl swooped low above the forest, invisible against the white trees, and ignorant, for little did it know of the danger lurking there.

2) The flames roared high above them, great waves of smoke towering higher still. They choked and coughed as they ran, ducking and diving around the broken infrastructure that now surrounded them. Time was running out; they were already scorched and burned in more places than they knew, the agony of their wounds occasionally causing them to contort their steps as they raced onwards. Great chunks of wall and ceiling were crashing around them, too, wires dropping down into the fiery mass and sparks exploding from every direction. The reality was that they had entered hell itself, and every runner accepted that fact with a bleak resolution. There was no turning back, and, chances were, there was no escape. Hell had become the endless corridor of fire that they now faced, and they were all too aware of it.

3) The sirens were louder than they should have been. Even before her body crumpled and collapsed onto the pavement, they were there with us, ringing in our minds and pounding in our hearts. Craig was bent over her, muttering to himself and beating the ground with his fist. Little Pete was at his side as usual, waiting for the directions that would never come again. I didn’t need to crouch over her as they did, though, because I knew. In reality, I think we all knew, even before we’d hit her; we’d known even before she’d been lit up in front of my car headlights and Craig had fought to avoid her. There was no use checking her pulse or breathing rate. There was no point, because Kelly Holmes was dead, and we’d killed her. We were murderers.

“We should run,” Craig breathed, turning to face us in the half-dark. “The sirens don’t mean anything. They could be hours away yet.”

“I agree,” Little Pete piped up instantly, not even allowing a breath between Craig’s suggestion and his own sycophantic plea for attention. I shrugged, but I doubted that they could see the slight movement in the darkness. I wasn’t going to run. I didn’t want to run. I was a murderer. I had to stay and face the police, no matter how devastating that would be.

“Dan,” Craig persisted, ignoring Little Pete. “We need to go, now.” I swallowed hard, feeling braver in every new cry of the sirens.

“Then go,” I whispered, looking not at Craig and Little Pete, but at Kelly. She was beautiful even now, her long, dark hair a mess about her shoulders and back, and her slender, ghostly form almost shining in the light from the surrounding street lamps. I’d known her since she was little, from when we’d played together in my back garden. She was dead now. She would never breathe again, never laugh, never smile. She was simply gone.

“Dan, they’ll get you!” Craig whispered, his voice slightly incredulous. I could not look at my best friend, though. He wasn’t like me. He wasn’t feeling this like I was. He felt only fear, whereas I felt only loss, grief and a furious, biting sense of self-hatred. I had done this. “Dan, you know what that means!” Craig persisted, shaking my shoulder now.

“If you want to run, run,” I snapped, looking at Craig at last. “Save yourself. You better hurry up, though. It’s been too long already.” Craig stepped back slightly, confusion edging its way into his fear clouded mind. He looked at Little Pete then, suddenly lost and vulnerable. Pete looked back, and suddenly they were no longer leader and disciple, but two scared boys: criminals.

Without another word, they took off, running in the opposite direction from the houses and sirens beyond them. There were fields not too far off, and after that, the forest. If they made it that far, they were safe. It was said that fugitives and criminals caked the trees themselves, living amongst the branches and leaves on the earthy floor. I used to have nightmares about the place, but for Craig and Little Pete, it had just become the last hope. Maybe, just maybe, they would be okay.

I looked back at Kelly then, and my heart shuddered to a halt, too.

Lean into Me

This piece of creative writing is for the purposes of the competition at Ad Hoc Fiction. With only 150 words and this week’s prompt word, “lean”, this competition gives its winner free entry into the Bath Flash Fiction Award, which boasts of a prize of £1000! 

An avalanche of emotion ripped apart my soul and threatened to throw me from the Earth’s orbit. I rocked and fell forwards, landing face down in the dirt where no one could see me. They tried to pull me up again, but it was no use.

I didn’t want to see them, I didn’t want to hear their voices, because they didn’t look like her and they didn’t sound like her. No one ever would again, because she was gone and I was alone.

Then soft hands were about my shoulders, gentle, but firm. They pulled me up and hugged me close, a gentle whisper telling me not to open my eyes.

“Lean into me,” she whispered, and, as I was reborn into my childish state, I clasped onto my mother with both hands, sobbing into her chest. I was alone, but I was home.

“The Odyssey”: Poem Review

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The Odyssey is one of the greatest tales of all time, renowned for its influences over other works, its critical commentary of the human condition, and, more importantly, its story.

Unlike Homer’s earlier work, The IliadThe Odyssey is a complex poem with numerous embedded narrators and a non-linear storyline, its protagonist and hero, Odysseus, reflecting on many of his adventures, such as with the famous Cyclops, Polyphemus, and mysterious witch, Circe, after they have already happened. The Odyssey is clearly then a more adventurous work compared to The Iliad, which, in twenty-four books, depicts a passing of only forty days. The later text describes the passing of ten years, Odysseus travelling all over the known world and bringing culture and mystery to the work. More significantly, perhaps, The Iliad features mainly prominent heroes, such as the likes of Hector and Achilles. Whilst The Odyssey does this, too, it also depicts multiple women with developed characters, and even gives a perspective of the world from the eyes of a beggar. In considering the nature of humanity, then, The Odyssey is a clear view of the world of Ancient Greece, considering its beliefs, customs, and every level of its society.

Many readers of The Odyssey struggle with it, perhaps because of its unusual features, such as constant repetition and the use of epithets; these, however, were devices used by the poet when the story was told in its oral form, as it predates the existence of the Greek alphabet. The presence of the “human” gods in the poem may also be cause for confusion, as they constantly interfere with the actions of the mortals around them. However, though these factors may, initially, seem off putting, cultural differences will always be apparent in unfamiliar texts, whether they originated in modern France or historical Ghana. Really, it is worth accepting these differences and embracing the unfamiliar culture, in order to properly process the incredible tale of The Odyssey, for it truly is one worth reading.

What I found most interesting when reading the poem, was the nature of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife. Ancient Greece was a place of the typical patriarchy, where the man ruled the woman and she existed only to serve him. What seems curious, then, is that the “cunning Odysseus” is matched only by the “cunning” of Penelope. To prevent herself from having to remarry in her husband’s ten year absence, she tricks her many suitors, telling them that she will only choose her new husband once she has finished weaving a shroud upon her loom. However, “cunning” Penelope returns to the weaving each night, unpicking her stitches to delay having to choose one of the suitors to marry. This is a clear sign of the intelligence of Penelope, but what is still more interesting, is the question of when she truly recognises her husband.

When Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca from his many “wanderings”, the goddess, Athene, disguises him, changing his appearance into one of a beggar. This is in order to aid him in the destruction of Penelope’s suitors and the reclaiming of his household. However, the beggar Odysseus speaks to Penelope from book XIX of The Odyssey, and what struck me, is that, whilst the true “reunion” between Odysseus and Penelope officially takes place in book XXIII, the “cunning” Penelope may have been far more informed than this would suggest. After speaking with the beggar, she goes from swearing to never marry again, to hosting a competition to decide who the lucky suitor would be. If she truly did not know of her husband’s return, why would she have such a change of heart? And why would the contest play on Odysseus’ greatest strength, that being the bow and arrow? It makes more sense if she knew that he was home, but could not reveal this fact, so as not to ruin his plan to destroy the suitors.

Whatever the case, this argument proves the greatest strength of The Odyssey: its interpretations. With such an ancient story, there have been hundreds of different theories and ideas questioning its every aspect, and there is so much to wonder about. Really, the magic of The Odyssey is then in its reception, just as much as it is in its existence.

Regardless of how deeply you read into the poem’s narrative, this is a story that I feel everyone should be made aware of. It has influenced every book we know today, whether this was done consciously, or not. It is an epic, and a story to take throughout your life.