The Lais of Marie de France
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Ancient European stories come to life in the poetry of a now forgotten medieval woman writer.
her and whenever he needs her, but she remains invisible to everyone else, as though she were the creation of his fantasy. Indeed, even when she does appear to the court at the end of the lai, she is the climax of a wonderful and otherworldly procession of beauty and wealth. Her rich clothes and trappings, the hawk and the hunting dog, suggest an allegorical figure, a personification of Love, and all who see her perceive her as their ideal beauty. She offers Lanval enormous wealth, enabling him
twentieth-century novel. Marie is thus one of the creators-the only woman among them-of a grand tradition that has shaped and defined our literary culture. We know almost nothing about Marie herself, except that she was originally French and lived in the latter part of the twelfth century. It is not unusual to have virtually no information about medieval authors except what we can glean from their and others' works. There are none of the public records and reactions we take so for granted with
her possessiveness and ambition. There is no supernatural intervention; on the contrary, the machinations of the lovers are responsible for all that happens. One concludes that, important as love is in the fulfillment of the individual, it is not to be pursued at all costs. The different natures of these two loves-one necessary and true, and ultimately rewarded; the other self-indulgent and treacherous, and finally punished -are pointed up by the ease with which the first is acknowledged (a woman
any of Marie's lovers. In addition to our involvement with the protagonists of the Lais, we respond constantly to the mastery with which Marie presents them. The deft touches of irony (as in the conclusion of Equitan, where the adulterous king, to avoid discovery, leaps into the vat of boiling water he has prepared in order to destroy his mistress's husband), or of homely sentiment (e.g., the description of the earlymorning discovery of the abandoned infant heroine of Le Fresne by the porter of a
the lover appears in the form of a hawk; in Laustic, a live nightingale stands for the lover (in the lady's excuse to her husband), the dead bird, a lifeless object in a rich shrine, stands for the love; in Milun, a starving swan is the messenger of love, carrying letters between the lovers for twenty years. In both Yonec and M, ilun, the bird symbol gives way to a child, who, in Yonec, is all that remains of the union; while in Milun the child becomes the agent that reunites the lovers. The love