The Lais of Marie de France

The Lais of Marie de France Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Would you consider Marie an optimist or a pessimist? Explain.

    One could certainly argue this either way, considering how the messages of Marie's lays tend to contradict themselves rather than conforming to a single moral. It is easiest to argue Marie is a pessimist. There are certainly myriad examples of lovers who find a pure love, but that love is thwarted by the world. Consider "Les Deus Amanz" or "Yonec" to see lovers who cannot stay alive and happy when placed in the public, social world. Or there are lovers who exhibit selfish behavior, like in "Equitan" or "Chaitivel," suggesting Marie does not think much of humanity. However, one could also argue that Marie is an optimist in her belief that love can transcend the ugliness of the world. Consider "Chaitivel" or "Guigemar" as examples. The best answer is that Marie is a pragmatist – while love can transcend the ugly world, it requires great sacrifice of that public world to survive, as in "Eliduc."

  2. 2

    Why do some lays have tragic endings, while some have happy endings?

    The answer to this question is based around the type of love represented. Marie tends to approve of selfless love with some kind of happy ending, whereas selfish love leads to an unhappy or tragic ending. "Le Fresne" is the happiest and most triumphant of endings, mainly because the girl shows such selflessness. On the other hand, "Bisclavret" ends poorly for the selfish wife while Bisclavret himself is redeemed by the love and trust of his lord. There are certainly examples where primarily selfless lovers come to poor ends, like "Yonec," but this is tempered by their son Yonec's revenge, which is their redemption. Again, Marie's work does not easily fall into one pattern, though one can link the ending of a lay to the type of love represented therein.

  3. 3

    How does Marie criticize chivalry while also relishing it?

    Marie's work is written for a courtly audience much devoted to the rules and art of chivalry, and as such seems to glorify it. Knights are praised by the narrator for their prowess on the field, tournaments are lauded as the height of showmanship and enjoyment, and pursuit of women by courtly knights is taken to be worthwhile and virtuous. Yet several of the lays also indicate how courtly virtues lead to selfishness and self-glorification that cause great pain later. Consider "Milun," where the titular knight stays passive in pursuing his pure love because he is too vainly obsessed with his own reputation. Most of the lays take place in a courtly world, and can be understood in terms of this disconnect.

  4. 4

    How does "Eliduc" illustrate all of Marie's recurring themes in one lay?

    Most of Marie's recurring themes are represented in some way or another in "Eliduc." The rather complicated and contradictory motives represented in the protagonist of the story explore both selfishness and selflessness. In general, he shows the latter towards his wife, though he is unable to totally rid himself of the former in the way he strings Guilliadun along. The story ends with a devotion of selfless love in the way all characters devote themselves to God. One of the ways Eliduc stays noble is through his use of moderation, a virtue Marie seems to prize. He does not sleep with the maiden despite his desires. Fate and magic exists in the way they fall in love, as well as in the weasel's herb, but as usual, human decisions in the face of magic are what matter. Lastly, the inability for private love to exist in the public world is much on display in the way that Eliduc cannot justify bringing his love for the maiden out into the world, and so are the circumstances that nearly lead to tragedy begun.

  5. 5

    What role does fate play in Marie's lays?

    As a general rule, Marie exhibits a belief in fate, especially in terms of how love strikes lovers without their control. This is true of lovers in positive, selfless relationships, as in "Guigemar," and of selfish lovers, as in "Equitan." And yet the events of the lays are never caused by magic, but always by human action. For instance, in "Guigemar," what leads to the ending is not the magic of the talking deer, but rather how Guigemar acts in the face of such supernatural events. Marie tells stories of people with agency, who can make their own decisions, and what matters is how they respond to love and magic, not the love or magic itself.

  6. 6

    What is the function of Marie's authorial interjections?

    Marie is an extremely active narrator, not only explicitly in her "Prologue" but throughout the lays. In some cases, her interjections help to propose the moral of the lay, as in "Chevrefoil" or "Laustic." Other times, they help to provide a connection to the audience, in the way she promises the stories are true. But mostly, the authorial interjections help to illustrate the way her storytelling works – she wants us to believe the lays are true stories even as we might recognize the patterns they follow, as though to remind us that art is capable of realizing great truth even when it tells made-up stories.

  7. 7

    How does Marie think about extra-marital dalliance?

    The basic answer is that Marie does not provide one moral or didactic answer to this. There are times, like in "Equitan," where the extra-marital nature of the love is frowned upon and leads to disaster for those who engage in it. However, there are also cases where the man seems weak for not going further into the dalliance, as in "Milun." And lastly, there are cases where we are to lament that the affair cannot take place, as in "Laustic." Overall, one of the interesting elements of the lays is how such superficial designations don't matter, but what does instead is the type of love represented, not just the bond that represents it.

  8. 8

    Are Marie's characters psychological? Explain.

    Ultimately, Marie seems quite disinterested in the psychology of action. Most of her characters are described in one of two ways: extremely great or extremely bad. The former tend to be beautiful, sophisticated, courtly ladies or handsome, strong, courtly men. The latter tend to be selfish misers or brutally selfish women. Rarely does she go deep into a character's motivations, but rather accepts motivations at face value. This does not mean, however, that the characters do not transcend stock. Instead, we judge them by their actions, by their reactions to the love they are in or the love they observe. Marie does not seem interested in judging people by their reasons for action, but solely by the action itself. The rare exception, like the wonderfully ironic soliloquy in "Equitan" where the king convinces himself to pursue his senschal's wife, do exhibit her ability at getting in someone's head when she wants to.

  9. 9

    In what way could one argue that Marie's lays show a woman's perspective on classical stories?

    To call Marie a feminist would be to speak way out of school, but her status as a woman undoubtedly influences the way she tells her stories. The first way is the stress of women as characters with equal agency to that of men. Where historically men would have total control over marriage and circumstance, Marie is willing to show how a woman might control the men through non-explicit means and thereby cause either great happiness or tragedy. Her ironic view of chivalry – which superficially, at least, places women as the prize to be won by valiant men – also suggests a detachment from the patriarchy that controlled the court. And lastly, many of the lays (like "Yonec," "Guigemar," "Chevrefoil," and "Milun") are about women who are battered past their beauty by men who keep them locked away. If one were to interpret the metaphor, one might find in this an implicit critique of a social order that limits a woman's agency even if she boasts great beauty both in surface and soul.

  10. 10

    What value does Marie praise above all?

    In answering this, one could go many ways. While one could argue that the end of the collection ("Eliduc") suggests selflessness as the proper path, one could also look to moderation as the goal. Certainly, as Marie is so influenced by classical sources, the traditional Greek impulse to "know thyself" could be applied to Marie. The characters who suffer do so mainly because they are unable to balance their desires against their reason. Again, the wonderful irony of the monologues and dialogues in "Equitan" show how reason can be so subsumed to desire without our knowing it if we are not careful. Either of these virtues can be traced through all of the lays, both in terms of how they lead to happiness or prevent it.