Stories I know to be true

Some editions of Marie de France’s lais

The Lais of Marie de France,
introduction by Keith Busby,
translated by Glyn S. Burgess.
Penguin Classics 1999 (1986)

The editor and translator of Marie’s lais, leading scholars in the field of medieval French literature, have in the best tradition of Penguin Classics aimed to make their subject accessible to the general public. Translating a foreign text, especially a poetic text, is always full of difficulties, but luckily Marie’s poems, simple in expression and apparently without artifice, speak as well in translation as in the original.

A comparison with the pseudo-medieval version served up by Eugene Mason in the early 20th century is revealing for not only how tastes have changed but how many liberties were taken then with the text. For example, where Mason has Marie addressing critics with “Now let the japer, and the smiler with his knife, do me what harm they may. Verily they are in their right to speak ill of me,” Burgess offers us “But just because spiteful tittle-tattlers attempt to find fault with me I do not intend to give up. They have a right to make slanderous remarks.”

The original text mentions jongleur, or entertainer, and losengier, a flatterer or liar, and I think Burgess gets closer to what the poet intended with her simpler phraseology, which might now be rendered as “it’s their right to badmouth me!”

Nel vueil mie pur ceo laissier, | se jangleür u losengier | le me vuelent a mal turner; | ceo est lur dreiz de mesparler.

For convenience the 1999 edition prints three of Marie’s shorter lais in their original French, and anybody with even just a smattering of the language can follow the gist of the tales and see how accessible the translator has made them.

Sir Frank Dicksee: La Belle Dame Sans Merci (Bristol Museum and Art Gallery)

The first of the late 12th-century tales is called Guigemar; it has a long and complex plot but is essentially about the constancy maintained by a knight and a lady held captive by another, the fidelity symbolised by the knots they bear, he in his shirt, she in her belt. Equitan is also about forbidden love, one which leads to adultery and ultimately the death of the lovers, caught in flagrante and drowned in a bathtub of boiling water. Le Fresne (‘The Ash Tree’) is an involved story of girl twins, one named Ash-tree, the other Hazel (‘la Codre’), with one given up because supposedly conceived through adultery; recognition is finally achieved through a token, in this case a piece of cloth, which comes to light on the marriage bed.

The next tale in order from the Harley manuscript all twelve poems are collected in is Bisclavret (‘The Werewolf’), which is related to a later Latin prose romance called Arthur and Gorlagon the Werewolf. A nobleman can only turn back to his human form from a werewolf if he has access to the clothes he has doffed, but his wife is ashamed, hides the clothes and takes up with a lover. The narrative tells how he is eventually able to regain human form and get his own back on his unfaithful wife. Lanval is set in King Arthur’s court where a knight, importuned by Guenevere, is forced to reveal the secret that his true love is a fairy, only to lose the latter’s love; the lai goes on to describe how his fairy mistress forgives his betrayal and takes him off to Avalon.

Les Deux Amants (‘The Two Lovers’) is one of the shorter tales, this time with a tragic ending reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Conversely, Yonec is one of the longer narratives, telling the tale of a woman confined like Rapunzel in a tower as her husband fears she will be unfaithful. However, a bird flies to her window and transforms into a man, by whom she becomes pregnant (a common motif which Italo Calvino noted in the fairytale ‘The Canary Prince’ and included in his collection Italian Folktales). When, in bird form, he is mortally wounded by the husband, it will be up to his as yet unborn son, Yonec, to avenge him. Also with the theme of adultery, though this time unrequited, Laüstic (‘The Nightingale’) describes how a woman pretends she is listening to a nightingale when she is in fact conversing with a lover; the capture and death of the bird by her jealous husband brings the unconsummated affair to a sad end.

Unlike the tragic endings of the lais treating adultery, Milun ultimately has a happy conclusion. Despite its title Chaitivel (‘The Unhappy One’) has mixed fortunes for the lady who is beloved by four knights: though one of them eventually marries her, he is rendered impotent in a tournament while the other three die. Famously, Chevrefoil (‘The Honeysuckle’) is Marie’s account of an incident in the Tristan and Isolde legend. Finally, Eliduc is yet another complex tale of adultery but, extraordinarily, all is eventually resolved.

These are magically potent tales telling of sadness and joy, morality and ecstasy, nobles and fairies. The theme of love permeates them all, sometimes fierce and generous, at other times submissive or even vindictive. The action moves from Brittany to the West Country, to Wales and Northumbria and back again; it alludes to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and to Arthurian motifs and common lore about the natural world. The best word may rest with Marie herself, from Guigemar: in Burgess’s translation she says

“I shall relate briefly to you stories which I know to be true and from which the Bretons have composed their lays.”

True stories indeed, in that they reveal the passions that lie behind human relationships. Let no tittle-tattlers or slanderers contradict that.

The editor has provided an introduction which contains pretty much all you need to know (and pretty much all anybody knows) about who Marie might have been, the historical background, the literary context and so on. For such a slim volume there is much to engage the reader, whether their interest is in a genuine female voice of the 12th century, Arthurian legend, human psychology, folk tales or just good stories succinctly told.

  • French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France. Translated by Eugene Mason. J M Dent / E P Dutton, 1911
  • Lais de Marie de France. Traduits, présentés et annotés par Laurence Harf-Lancner, texte édité par Karl Warnke. Librairie Générale Française, 1990

Revised and expanded review first posted 9th November 2012 on

25 thoughts on “Stories I know to be true

  1. Marie is fun to work with. The comparison of translations, and what people read into the translations (that the translations often do not say) is fascinating. My Hanning & Ferrante edition from grad school has gotten a bit worn over the years. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I remember the reference to Bisclavret in your book (which, by the way, I really must finish and review, a well overdue task!), the theme of werewolves occurring to me when reading Joan Aiken’s Wolves fantasies. My French Livre de Poche edition has the original with a parallel modern French text on the facing page, useful for seeing a different nuance to the English translations (though the Mason is more a free interpretation than a translation). I’ve not come across the Hanning & Ferrante edition, but then as a mere dilettante I’m unlikely to chase it up!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I do admit to being very intrigued by Marie de France.

    This is the edition I use, also.

    I conducted an in-depth reading of the translated tale, Eqitan, in my ebook Gifts of Rings and Gold. It fits the ring format perfectly.

    Now, whose skill was that, the writer? A collector and transcriber?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not sure of the point you’re making, Michael. If by your question you’re asking if the ur-tale, Marie’s retelling, or Burgess’s Englished version fitted what you term the ‘ring format’, then it’d be helpful to explain what you mean by this template. If this isn’t what you meant then I’m afraid I’m at a loss to puzzle what you did mean.

      But yes, Marie is indeed an interesting figure, and her retellings — in the way they reuse folktale motifs (Rapunzel, mistaken identities, the love token, shape-shifting etc) — genuinely intriguing; plus the fact that she’s an early example of a female writer from France retailing fairytales, a precursor of the likes of Madame d’Aulnoy and Madame de Villeneuve.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The question is what we know of Lais, how they were transmitted, recorded/written down in the form we have, by who, and when. Since almost nothing is known of M de F we cannot deduce her authorship even.

        As for using the term ‘ring’, apart from inviting people to get my ebook ;-}, it’s a pattern of construction, like chiasmus, but used for the whole work, All the Harry Potter books are written this way, and the whole series a complete ring also. As is The Lord of the Rings, and I could go on (and on)….

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Inklings appearing in my brain, unwrinklimg some of the wrinkles in my furrowed brow… But sorry, can’t manage ebooks, have tried but blog posts are the most I can cope with, though if there was a p-book of your desirable tome I’d be interested!

          I agree we know almost nothing about the author but we can in fact deduce a few things. She names herself as Marie in one of the lais which, unless we are being deliberately misdirected, tells us the author is female and has a specific moniker. Secondly her sobriquet implies that though she is from France she might well be abroad during the authoring of these poems, most likely Norman England, from a couple of clues: she refers to “l’aüstic”, the Breton name for what in French is le rossignol, and then gives the English equivalent, ‘the nightingale’; what would be the point unless she was Breton, spoke Norman French, and was writing for an audience who had some knowledge of Old English?

          She also names specific places like Nantes and Caerwent which further implies some familiarity with these places, and refers to the mythical Avalon in terms which might locate it in Somerset.

          Unless one was being realllly picky (and that’s a perfectly justifiable stance to take) and claim (a) named places were common knowledge and thus no proof the author had first-hand experience of them, (b) ditto equivalent words in different languages, (c) even the gender and singularity of the author (authors?) is unproven — unless all the following, I think Marie de France comes across as a real person, even if we can’t with any certainty identify her with any of the educated women called Marie living in England in the late 12th or early 13th century.

          Okay, ring — chiasmus — sequence — ouroboros, I get it, now I shall have to see how it applies to the lais. Bear with me…


  3. piotrek

    I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never heard about it… there seem to be a nice Polish edition from the 60-ties (in a collection of “Masterpieces of Medieval French Literature”), if I ever come upon it I’ll definitely take a look.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Call yourself a European, Piotrek! Seriously though, I think I’d never have heard of these Breton lais by Marie if I hadn’t already been fixated on Arthurian tales via history and legend; and there are even many readers who enjoy Arthurian retellings in modern fiction who have never come across these delicious poems. You might find those awkward Mason versions for free online on Gutenberg or elsewhere if you wanted to sample them though, frankly, more recent translations into whatever language must surely be preferable!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        Perhaps I’ll visit a library one day? Who knows, I do need to limit my purchases, there is a contested bookshelf that my fiancée claims is actually hers and I need to make space for her recent acquisitions… and not too much space left on ones that are definitely mine 😦

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for including the original medieval French for your first quote; it’s always so interesting to compare modernized / translated texts to the original. My (yours, too?) 1990/1998 modern French Livre de Poche edition — translated by Laurence Harf-Lancner — has the passage as “Malgré tout je ne renoncerai pas, même si les railleurs et les médisants veulent dénigrer mon entreprise : libre à eux de dire du mal!” That’s closer to the original text than either of the English translations (and not just because it happens to be a modern version of the same language as the original, I think — nobody would have compelled Harf-Lancner to be quite as textually faithful, after all), but I have to confess I really like Burgess’s spirited rendition … it comes with the same built-in extended middle finger as Marie’s original text, and while it’s very late 20th century in tone, it’s nevertheless perfectly true to Marie’s authorial intent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much! I’m not at all conversant with the nuances of Old French — like many of us I have to rely on scholars to interpret the precise import of words and phrases — but the Harf-Lancner parallel text at least helps along this path, as far as my schoolboy French allows me to gauge.

      I chose to quote this passage because of Mason’s risible use of verily — at least there were no yeas or forsoothss that I could see to use instead! In any case, I detect a lot of quiet humour in Marie’s narration, a humour which Mason’s stilted, even po-faced, version doesn’t really capture (quite apart from the fact that he seems to take huge liberties with the original). I think Burgess gets that across better, as far as I remember from my recent rapid reread.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Quite frankly I‘m happy to even be able to make out words or sentences in Old / High Medieval / Late Medieval anything (French, English, German, you name it), but that doesn‘t take away from my joy of seeing the various versions of a text contrasted … and on a related level, I also love tracing the origins / linguistic paths of individual words and their spelling. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m always fascinated by the ancient tales which attribute unwanted pregnancies to shapeshifting creatures. The husband has been off at war for a year, and comes back to find his wife six months pregnant. “How did this happen?” He asks. “I don’t know,” she replies, “but there was this silly little bird that landed on my windowsill.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah! In the mid 20th century there was a proliferation of ‘true’ accounts of (mostly) American citizens abducted by aliens and ‘probed’, for scientific reasons presumably, by ET’s mates. Before that it was fairies who abducted innocents, and incubi and succubi who did unmentionable things to European men and women. I wonder what the common theme here is?

      There’s also that story of the knight who went off on the crusades, strapping his wife into a chastity belt and leaving the key with his most trusted friend for emergencies. All went well, he then came back from his crusade and happily found his wife not with child. When he thanked his friend for safeguarding his wife’s honour, the friend said, “You’re welcome, my pleasure. But you know, you gave me the wrong key.”

      Liked by 1 person

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