The opening of Marie's first lay echoes the material from the whole collection's prologue. She stresses that "whoever has good material for a story" is sad when it's poorly told, and so will that teller be sure to impress her listener. She states that those with good reputations ought be commended, but that unfortunately, envious people are wont to undercut good reputations. However, Marie will not be waylaid by the potential of such gossip, and instead intends to tell a good story. She cites her source for her lays as Breton lays, and the setting of the story as Brittany.
Long before, in a time when Brittany was often at war, a baron of the king had a brave and handsome son named Guigemar. Because the boy was so valuable, he was sent to work in the service of another king, where he distinguished himself through valor and a willingness to fight his lord's wars in France. He was much loved in the court and could have had his choice of lady – but "Nature had done him such a grievous wrong" by imbuing him with no interest in love whatsoever. Because of his disinterest, he was considered a "lost cause" by both friends and enemies.
One day, Guigemar returns to visit his family. While there, he decides to go hunting, and recruits a large party of followers to join him. On his excursion, he comes across a great deer, completely white and with antlers. He fires his arrow and strikes it fatally, but the arrow bounces back and wounds Guigemar in his thigh. As the deer dies, it pronounces upon him a curse: Guigemar will never find a cure for his wound until he finds a woman who will not only suffer for him, but for whom he himself will suffer. It will have to be a love worthy of repute. After the deer dies, Guigemar is concerned since he has never come across a woman whom he believes could inspire such devotion from him.
He sends his squire to fetch his party, but almost immediately decides to avoid their hindrance, and so he wanders through the forest until he comes upon the shore, where sits a ship, ready for departure and almost perfectly wrought of ebony. He's concerned since no ship has permission to dock there, and in investigating he finds it is deserted. He wanders the ship, discovering at its center a beautifully constructed bed, the details of which Marie paints in great detail. In pain, Guigemar takes a rest. By the time he feels well enough to stand, though, he finds that the ship has set sail and is well on its way somewhere else. Though sad, there is nothing the knight can do, both because the ship is self-propelled and because of his great pain, so he accepts his fate and returns to sleep.
Marie tells us that the ship was bound for the capital city of an ancient realm. It is ruled by a very old man, who is perpetually jealous of his young, beautiful wife. Worried she might cuckold him, he keeps her trapped in an enclosure with one entry point that is guarded at all times by a castrated man, who can hence be trusted not to desire the woman. Aside from this one entrance, the enclosure can only be approached by the sea. Inside, the woman spends her days in a luxurious suite surrounded by paintings of Venus contemplating love, and attended by the old man's niece, with whom the queen is great friends.
Marie jumps back to the story's present, and tells how one day the lady, sleeping in her garden, is awoken by the arrival of the ship. She is immediately terrified to see the ship is unsteered, but her maiden attendant begs strength and investigates the ship to find the sleeping knight, whom she assumes to be dead because of his deep sleep and pale color. When the maiden reports to the queen her findings, the latter decides they should bury him if he is dead, and they go together to fetch the body.
Immediately, the Queen is both impressed by Guigemar's handsomeness and grieved at his seeming death. When she takes his pulse and finds him warm, she has little time to rejoice before he awakes and rejoices for the both of them. They share their stories with one another, and the lady offers to nurse him to health. When he agrees, she and the maiden house him in the lady's bed, where they nurse his wound and help him recover. During this process, Guigemar is no longer bothered by his wound but is instead troubled by a nascent love for the lady, unaware that she too suffers with a passion for him.
Both parties are tormented by a love each fears is unrequited. Guigemar particularly is aware that if she does not suffer for him as he does for her, then the wound will kill him as promised by the deer. He resigns himself to the belief that "suffering was inevitable," but nevertheless passes a sleepless night tormented by her beauty. She too has a sleepless night, and so the maiden visits Guigemar. The maiden tells him that the queen shares his love, and that the maiden will help them to be joined.
The next day, after mass, the maiden suggests the lady visit Guigemar. Though both suffer, neither is willing to confess his or her passion, and Marie stresses that "he who does not let his infirmity be known can scarcely expect to receive a cure." Finally, Guigemar confesses his love, and the lady stresses they ought not be too hasty in deciding such weighty matters. Guigemar argues that if she does love him, patience will gain them nothing, and she acquiesces. They make love and find peace.
They spend a year and a half in great bliss, until one day the woman has a premonition that they will be discovered. Grieved that they could be parted and end up with other people, they make a vow never to be untrue unless another can defeat tests they will set for each other. The Queen ties Guigemar's shirt into a uniquely complicated knot, and Guigemar attaches around the lady's loins a chastity belt.
They are indeed discovered that day by one of the lord's spies, and the lord breaks in on them intending to kill Guigemar. When the knight stands ready to defend himself, the lord asks his story, which Guigemar shares. The king doubts its truth, but offers to let him reboard the ship and leave. Guigemar accepts the deal, and the ship sets sail immediately for his own homeland. Once there, he rejoins society to the great joy of his friends, but remains downcast and sad, refusing to even consider taking a wife to replace his lost love. Word spreads about his fanciful knot, but despite the best efforts of ladies throughout the land, no one can untie it.
The final section of the lay shifts its perspective to the lady, who is imprisoned in a tower by her husband after Guigemar's escape. She suffers there for over two years until finally deciding she would rather kill herself than suffer any longer. After deciding this, she strangely finds the door to her prison unlocked, and no guards around. She heads to the shore to drown herself, but instead finds the ship waiting, attached to the rock where she intended to drown herself. On the ship, she suddenly realizes Guigemar must have died if the ship is still there, but cannot kill herself before the ship sets sail for Brittany.
The ship lands near a castle that is ruled by Meriaduc, currently at war with a neighbor. When Meriaduc sees the ship land, he investigates and is immediately taken with the beautiful woman, whom he recognizes must be of noble lineage. He accepts her as a guest, and attempts to persuade her to have him, but she denies him both from her love for another and because she insists she can only love he who can undo her chastity belt. He recognizes a similar situation to that of Guigemar (which he knows by its reputation), and tells her about it. She faints, and his attempts to undo her belt while she sleeps are unsuccessful.
Meriaduc later throws a tournament intended to gain allies in his war against his enemy. He invites Guigemar mainly because he needs an ally in the war, but is also curious to see whether his suspicions are accurate. The moment comes when both the lady and the knight are in the same hall, and the lady grows faint on hearing his name. Guigemar believes he recognizes her, and attempts to talk to her. Meriaduc suggests she attempt the knot, and though she initially cannot from weakness, Meriaduc's insistence leads her to easily untie the knot. Shocked, Guigemar notes that she wears his belt, and asks her story. She tells it, and Guigemar then asks Meriaduc to allow him to take his beloved, promising to act as his vassal in the war as payment. Meriaduc says he does not need the knight's service, and refuses to release Guigemar's love.
That night, Guigemar takes his friend and allies and pledges himself to Meriaduc's enemy, who gladly receives him. They set out immediately and besiege Meriaduc's castle. It is a long process, but Guigemar persists until he has starved the town, killed Meriaduc, and reclaimed his beloved.
Marie ends the poem by reminding the reader that the lay was originally performed on harp.
There is much scholarship about what exactly Marie of France intended for her lays – were they intended as a collection? Did she write them all at once? And yet there is much reason to consider that "Guigemar" was intended to open the collection, since it not only sets the stage for her work in its prologue but also because it impressively contains all of the major themes she will explore during the poems.
The prologue is interesting in its tone. It mostly repeats the sense of the collection's primary prologue, but suggests that Marie will hold her own against any detractors. To some extent, this could suggest anger at critics of her earlier poetry, but it also could be a proactive defense against the attacks on courtly love that are contained in this poem. Marie's conception of love, which is hardly consistent or simplistically didactic, nevertheless is more complicated than the basic conception popular amongst aristocratic courts that valued chivalry.
To call "Guigemar" a love poem is not inaccurate but is perhaps limiting for a modern reader. For while the poem's main theme is love, the treatment is suitably complex to touch on several other themes: selflessness, suffering, individuality, and fate. Each of these themes will be discussed in turn.
One theme Marie will consistently explore is selfless vs. selfish love. In general, the former is rewarded and approved of by Marie, while the latter is condemned both through her plots and her authorial interjections. In this poem, Guigemar is, despite his heroism and positive qualities, seen as cursed for not being interested in love. Marie describes his plight as a "grievous wrong" done to him by nature. While his self-involvement and lack of interest in women around him is hardly something we can criticize – after all, he doesn't choose not to love – it is seen to be a limitation.
However, when the curse is set in motion and Guigemar finds himself in love, there is little doubt that his love is selfless. He loves not for himself, but for the woman, and it is with her that his thoughts lie. Worried that she will be offended or untouched by his passion, he chooses to suffer for it. Even though his resolve is dampened by his tormented and sleepless nights, he attempts to weather his own feelings and not burden her. Likewise, she acts the same way until her servant endeavors to bring them together.
This is in great contrast to the selfish love of the woman's husband and Meriaduc. The former has locked her away out of jealousy, which prohibits her from blossoming and experiencing life and love. Of course, this is exactly what he wants! There is no mention of his visiting her in order to sire an heir, and in fact, it is telling that she and Guigemar can maintain their affair for over a year, since it suggests he does not often see her. She is little more than a possession to him, and his love is centered around his own fear and not her welfare. His blindness to this is reflected in the irony of the paintings in her chamber, which depict Venus, the goddess of love, attempting to rid the world of controlled love.
Similarly, Meriaduc has full knowledge of how circumstances have pledged her to another, and still refuses to give her to her beloved Guigemar. Marie describes Guigemar's love as tormented and passionate, while Meriaduc's is described as deriving from his realization that she is "noble." This chivalrous idea of a marriage of circumstance, one that would pit two high-class people together, is frowned upon as superficial, and it leads Meriaduc to become selfish. In fact, despite being at war and needy of help, he is offended enough by her refusals that he does not accept Guigemar as vassal. Because of selfish love, both characters are punished – the old man loses his wife, and Meriaduc brings death and pain upon his own people (to whom he ought to have shown selfless loyalty as their protector) by forcing Guigemar to fight for his enemy instead of him.
Also in "Guigemar" is an intense depiction of Marie's conception of love as intertwined with suffering. True love is not the chivalrous pursuit of many women (which the world would like Guigemar to engage in during the early part of the poem), but instead exists apart from society. Notice the way that Guigemar and the lady's love is characterized. Their best happiness takes place not only in a non-specific, far-way land, but behind the coverlets of a bed in the center of a bedroom itself at the center of a remote, inaccessible enclosure where the lady has been trapped. It is meant to suggest that true, passionate love can only flourish when removed from the world, whose eyes and envy are sure to desecrate it. This parallels the envy Marie mentions in her prologue, there directed against strong storytellers.
However, the world will always catch up, and this is where suffering comes in. Despite the poem's happy ending, Guigemar's idea of "inevitable" suffering that comes from love is closest to Marie's. The deer's curse is ironic not only because it is self-inflicted (his inability to love is what causes his pain, in the same way that it is his arrow that wounds him) but also because in offering him a potential cure, it only leads him to greater suffering. He is cured by loving the woman, but undergoes greater suffering while wondering whether she loves him back. Of course, they are able to alleviate this suffering until their great separation almost derails them. Marie notes that his love "wounded him deeply."
Again, this argument is a bit less sound in "Guigemar" because the lovers are reunited, but it's worthwhile to understand in broad strokes here since it will be more firmly painted in almost all the other lays. Also, it could perhaps be argued that it is the willingness of both characters to live with suffering that marks them for success. Instead of lamenting their fate and hating the world, they both are willing to accept that they suffer. Guigemar returns home and persists despite his unhappiness, while the lady only finds her door unlocked and the ship waiting when she is finally willing to die for her love. By accepting suffering as intertwined with love, they are ironically given the means to ultimately release themselves from that suffering.
Lastly, the poem explores the themes of individuality and fate. Marie is not often terribly concerned with individual characterizations. Her 'good' characters are described in generic terms, and "Guigemar" provides good examples in its lover – he is painted as brave, honest, etc., while she is painted as beautiful, kind, etc. However, this does not mean Marie ignores the importance of individuality. While this poem is clearly influenced by traditional fairy tales and medieval romances in its use of magical devices (the deer, the ship, the knot and chastity belt), they are conspicuously irrelevant to the movement of the plot, and are only devices, useless without the agency of the characters. That is, they help the plot to progress, but it is still the characters who set the plot in motion. Only by refusing to wait for his companions and boarding the ship after his wound does Guigemar find his lady. Had he chosen to retreat into the society of his companions or not to board the ship, the magic of love would never have been released. Likewise, the magical quality of the knot and belt is less important that its symbolic quality as reflection of the vow that unites the lovers in a willingly accepted suffering of separation.
It is worth noting the way that Marie shapes her story for her intended audience. First is her use of the Breton setting and authority. Scholars find it unlikely that the models of Marie's lays were in fact Breton, since they seem derived from too many traditional and classical sources unknown in Celtic or Breton lore. However, she frequently cites the stories as Breton, perhaps to give an authority that her audience would recognize. Likewise, while the poem criticizes the chivalrous view of love as superficial and empty when compared to the love that exists apart from the world, the poem nevertheless is set within that milieu. For instance, Guigemar as knight moves from lord to lord, and is sent by his father to fight for another king.
One final element of these poems that is interesting to note is Marie's use of the authorial voice. It is in this lay alone that she names herself as Marie, and she frequently interjects her own opinions into the work. While one could expect the author is always implicitly present, Marie makes special effort to comment on the action in several places. Similarly, she has a tendency to give authority to the accuracy of her story by expressing uncertainty. For example, when she tells the reader how long the lady lived alone after Guigemar's escape, she says "I think" it has been two years, as though to suggest she is not in fact in control of the story, but rather that it is a true tale that she merely recounts.