"But he who does not let his infirmity be known can scarcely expect to receive a cure. Love is an invisible wound within the body, and, since it has its source in nature, it is a long-lasting ill. For many it is the butt of jokes, as for those ignoble courtiers who philander around the world and then boast of their deeds. That is not love, but rather foolishness, wickedness, and debauchery. A loyal partner, once discovered, should be served, loved and obeyed."
-Marie on Guigemar
In Marie's first lay, she sets out the overarching philosophy that will run through the Lais. This observation, which describes how Guigemar needs to confess his feelings if he wants to find happiness in love, serves to both criticize the chivalrous culture that demeans true love and also to describe how selfless love can lead to loyalty and happiness. Guigemar has avoided love his entire life, arguably because the type of love that he knows – where his peers pursue women as adventures – does not appeal to his virtuous soul. However, as a result, he is not immediately ready when the forces of love offer him a chance to be happy. Secondly, Guigemar's virtuous love with the lady, which is symbolized by their belt and shirt knot, is described in this passage. Marie explains why it is worthy of praise: they are loyal and selfless to one another.
"Any wise and courtly lady of noble disposition, who sets a high price on her love and is not fickle, deserves to be sought after by a rich prince in his castle, and loved well and loyally, even if her only possession is her mantle. Those who are fickle in love and resort to trickery end up becoming a laughing-stock and are deceived in their turn."
- The seneschal's wife to Equitan
This passage is taken from Equitan's conversation with his seneschal's lady, in which they discuss whether to pursue their affair. It not only helps to establish Marie's theme, but also is a masterful use of irony. Marie certainly believes what Equitan says – those who employ vice for their own desires are clearly selfish and will find punishment for it. However, the fact that it is Equitan – a selfish man who is easily able to subsume his reason to his passion, eschewing his loyalty to his faithful seneschal because of lust – who says this shows great irony. What he says is exactly what will happen to him, which shows the overarching irony of Marie's work, in which she often mocks those who are considered "noble" and "courtly" as being selfish and ugly people.
"She summoned the chamberlains and showed them how her lord wanted the bed made, for she had often seen it done…She opened a chest, took out her brocade and, to honor them, put it on her lord's bed."
In this passage, which describes the title character's actions when she learns of her lover's new marriage, Marie exhibits an example of the selfless behavior that we are to find not only most virtuous, but which often will bring great reward. Because of Le Fresne's subservience and willingness to please her lover even when she has every right to react in anger, the chain of events that lead to her ultimate happiness are set in motion. Marie's dispassionate language here mirrors Le Fresne's ability to not let her passion guide her but rather to act from loyalty to the man she loves, and help understand the predominant theme that selfless love is that which we ought to honor.
"Lords, do not be surprised: a stranger bereft of advice can be very downcast in another land when he does not know where to seek help."
Marie says this in "Lanval" to explain the titular character's loneliness in the court. He is from a land far away from Arthur's, which helps to explain why he is ignored by his lord and cannot find intimacy with any friends. However, this quote also helps to exhibit the primary theme of the lay, and also a central theme to many of the others. This theme is the inability of private love to exist in the public world. Lanval finds happiness in love, but only with a woman who is supernaturally wonderful, suggesting that the purest love can only exist outside of the physical world. Other, less supernaturally based, lays suggest this theme as well, though in Lanval it finds its most explicit manifestation.
"The swan acted as messenger. They had no other intermediary and they starved it before releasing it. Whoever received the swan fed it, of course. They came together on a number of occasions. No one can be so imprisoned or so tightly guarded that he cannot find a way out from time to time."
This quote helps to illuminate the metaphor of the swan, which has significance both in "Milun" and in the collection as a whole. The most obvious significance is the way Marie paints the swan, which is a symbol of their love. It is something that Milun and his lady have to keep secret, and which they must starve frequently if they are to have moments of happiness. In this way, the swan is a symbol for the many private loves that run through the lays. When a man and woman have a pure love, they must keep it secret from the world, on occasion starving it so as to indulge in it. Consider "Yonec" or "Eliduc" as examples of stories where a love cannot be fully embraced. However, in "Milun," the swan's starved nature can also be attributed to the passivity of Milun himself, who clearly is not willing to sacrifice his chivalrous reputation for his love. The swan is hence an irony, since Milun should be able to recognize that it is in his power to take his lady from her oppressive husband.
"It was not possible for her to love them all, but neither did she wish to repulse them. It would be less dangerous for a man to court every lady in an entire land than for a lady to remove a single besotted lover from her skirts, for he will immediately attempt to strike back."
This authorial interjection from Marie in the lay of "The Unhappy One" provides an instance of selfish love through its main character's unwillingness to sacrifice her vanity by choosing a suitor to marry. Because she is so admired, she allows the men to continue to fight over her, which ultimately creates the situation that brings tragedy to all. Marie here gives an explicit description of how a woman must use her reason to control her desires. Lastly, this quote shows one of Marie's explicit mentions of male sexuality as aggressive, since it suggests that, for men, an unrequited love can lead to aggression and violence.
"The two of them resembled the honeysuckle which clings to the hazel branch: when it has wound itself round and attached itself to the hazel, the two can survive together: but if anyone should then attempt to separate them, the hazel quickly dies, as does the honeysuckle."
Marie here explains the symbol that defines the love between Tristam and Isolde. While the symbol is spelled out in the quote, the greater significance, both to "Chevrefoil" and the collection in general, begs consideration. As in many lays, Marie is interested in how private love cannot survive when it enters the public world, and often leads to tragedy. In the well known story of Tristam – which Marie introduces with a reminder of its tragic end – she shares a picture of isolated and private love, hoping we will recall that these moments do not spell an ultimate happiness, but instead will often fade away to tragedy, since the strongest of loves lead to disaster when the world separates the lovers who feel that love.
"They prayed that God might show their beloved His sweet mercy and Eliduc in turn prayed for them, sending his messenger to see how they fared and how their spirits were. Each one strove to love God in good faith and they came to a good end thanks to God, the true divine."
This closing passage from Marie's final lay provides the most clear picture of the virtues Marie praises above all, those of selfless love and charity. Despite Eliduc's lack of loyalty to his wife, she helps to raise the maiden from the dead, showing great charity and selflessness. Further, because of her positive example, both her husband and his new wife are ultimately led to accept a place as selfless Christians. Marie ends her collection with the suggestion that pure love can never thrive in a public, cruel world, and that the best possible end would be to accept a love of God, which symbolizes complete charity.
"The lady heard this remarkable revelation and her face became flushed with fear. She was greatly alarmed by the story, and began to consider various means of parting from him, as she no longer wished to lie with him."
This passage, which describes Bisclavret's wife's reaction to learning about his werewolf curse, illustrates her vanity and selfishness. While she is not painted as a selfish or disloyal woman at the beginning of the lay, her inability to accept her husband's other side (his lust and animal nature, symbolized in the werewolf transformation) illustrates her lack of depth. Her reaction to his confession is immediately sexual – she doesn't want to "lie with him" – which suggests that she is too consumed by a lustful side, but ironically is not willing to recognize that. These qualities are what ultimately backfire on her, and help explain Bisclavret's punishment (his destruction of her nose).
"He strove to perform well so as to be esteemed above all others and he frequented the king's court and often stayed there. He fell in love with the king's daughter and many times urged her to grant him her love and to love him truly. Because he was wise and courtly, and because the king held him in high esteem, she granted him her love for which he humbly thanked her."
While the lay of the two lovers on one hand presents the love between the two young people as pure, Marie adds a level of irony and depth in this description early in the lay. Two elements are criticized in this passage, both of which help to explain how the lovers end tragically despite their great mutual affection. Firstly, we see the boy's desire to outdo others and gain great 'esteem.' This falls in line with the chivalrous nature of Marie's world, the pressure for men to pursue fame, and it explains the boy's mistake when he refuses to take the potion while carrying her up the mountain. He does not want to lose the respect of the audience, in effect choosing them over her. Secondly, this passage illustrates the effect of possessiveness, in the way the father's overbearing love has ruined his daughter's ability to see the world except through him. She falls for the boy partly because her father esteems him (when she perhaps ought to be choosing men her father hates, considering how he treats her!), which suggests that circumstances have assured she will never end up in a happy love.
The Lais of Marie de France Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Lais of Marie de France is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
In my opinion, two figures stand out above all others. First, Queen Guinevere, who offers himself to Lanval without a second thought, and who is so angered by his loyalty to her husband and ultimate rejection that she makes false accusations to...