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.
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 Goodreads.com