The basic premise of King Arthur is probably as familiar to you as Jack and the Beanstalk. So are the travels of his knights. Even if you don’t remember the original stories, you probably are familiar with the Monty Python parody of them.
Gawain, Lancelot, and Percival get most of the credit in the tales of King Arthur’s knights. Lesser known but still at least named are Sir Bors, Sir Kay, and Sir Bedivere. But, have you heard the story of Lanval?
Lanval never comes up. But then, neither does his creator. Women writers in medieval times? Yes, they existed.
We know little about Marie and what we know; she tells us herself.
Marie de France lived in the second half of the 12th century (think 1100s) and her exact identity remains a mystery. We know her name was Marie. We know she was from France. We also know that she received a lot of her inspiration from the Breton minstrels who circulated amongst the nobility.
As I mentioned in the post on Geoffrey of Monmouth, a torrent of Arthurian literature started pouring into European courts after his History of the Kings of Briton. Chretien de Troyes, another French writer usually gets the credit for the next iteration of the legends and it’s in his romances that we see the more familiar storylines of Guinevere and Lancelot emerge.
We see a hint of Guinevere’s true nature in Marie de France’s tale as well. She plays the part of the coy flirt who tried to get Lanval to commit adultery with her and then falsely accuses him when he refuses. If you know The Book of Genesis from the Talmud, this is almost exactly the same as the story of Joseph and Potipher’s wife.
The difference? Lanval is pledged to another lady—one obviously from elfland. She weds him, beds him, sends him off with great wealth, but on the pain of not telling anyone about her.
Now, if this were a regular fairy tale, you can almost predict what happens next. He tells, he loses her; he ends miserably, right? Well, not exactly…
Lanval gets his HEA with considerably less suffering than a Grimm fairy tale.
So, if this were a Grimm fairytale, you’d expect there to be rougher going than there is. For instance, the witch throws Rapunzel out of the tower the prince loses his sight, and it’s years before the two of them find one another again. Princess Aurora touches the spindle and falls asleep for a century, and so on.
So, what of Lanval? Well, here’s where it gets interesting. So, the tale takes place in Arthur’s court. This time, it’s in Carlisle, which is closer to the border with Scotland. The Queen, who we would assume to be Guinevere since she’s not named in Marie’s tale, tried to convince Lanval to commit adultery with her.
Lanval, being very loyal to King Arthur, refuses. And, in his vehemence, not only tells the Queen of the love he was supposed to keep secret, but tells her that the lady he loves is far prettier and worthier than she could ever hope to be. Well, you can guess how she took that.
Well, Lanval realizes what he’s done. He’s not only insulted the Queen (a big no-no, even if she was behaving badly), but he’s broken his promise to his fairy lady. Whatever is he to do?
Well, he suffers the loss of his status and Arthur puts him on trial for his insolence. Remember, this is a tale of chivalry, so being put on trial for insulting the queen is definitely plausible. He’s rescued by the fairy lady arriving at King Arthur’s court, proving Lanval correct in every point, and then the two of them ride off into Avalon.
That’s it. No years of suffering. No monsters, banishment, anything.
And he isn’t even the one who does the saving.
The damsel in shining hair rides to save the knight in distress.
Lanval isn’t a story of a knight saving a damsel in distress, but a damsel saving a knight in distress. She’s the one who gives him riches and greater status at court. He even rides off with her on her horse. He breaks the rule she sets, and it is she who proposes to him. Not the other way around.
And it is she who takes him to Avalon—the Fairy Realm.
If you think Lanval’s story is unique in medieval poetry, you’d be hilariously mistaken. Thomas the Rhymer’s True Thomas has a similar storyline. Even Chaucer got in on the action with the Wife of Bath’s tale where the knight fulfills his vow to the crone who helps him and by ceding power to her, gains everything he wanted. So, the concept is there and has been there before.
And it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has had any encounter with Celtic tradition or with the abbey system of the Celtic Church. Both were decidedly female-centric. Abbesses used to outrank abbots, after all and some of the most popular deities from Celtic mythology—and the most enigmatic are women.
Why have we forgotten this piece of the Arthurian legend? Well, that’s the thing…
Why have we forgotten Marie de France’s work in Arthurian literature? Well, perhaps it’s because this was the only piece featuring Arthur she wrote. Also, you underestimate the influence and legacy of Sir Thomas Malory, who re-birthed the legend, yet again 300 years later.
Of course, since she wrote only one piece with Arthur, this makes her a little less important to the overall story arc of the Arthurian legends, practically speaking. It’s not that she’s negligible, it’s just that she’s overshadowed by far larger contributions to the tales.
Also, in the English-speaking world at least, we have very little interest in Old French. For many centuries, we didn’t have an interest in Old English either. Greek and Latin? Absolute must-haves. But Anglo-Saxon? Occitan? Not so much.
But, that is why we have to have a healthy and robust reading diet. There’s so much out there that we do ourselves a disservice by not reading some of the old material.
A new take on Arthur’s knights?
With the likes of Rick Riordan, Sarah J. Maas, and others reimagining the fairytales of our childhoods, perhaps it’s time for us to do a Marie de France-style imagining of the Arthurian legends. Take out the weak or unfaithful women, insert the damsels who come and save the knights from their own folly.
And make those knights faithful like Lanval.
Mare de France’s story of the faithful knight in distress and the damsel who carries him away may have only been a sliver, but I think it’s an intriguing one worth exploring.
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