“Whoever has a poet’s voice
And, by the grace of God, enjoys
The gift of learning, holds in trust
A precious treasure, which she must
Not hide away, less moths and rust
Corrupt us and it turns to dust.
Heaven has given you a voice
So sing your heart out, and rejoice”
I swooped on this book when I saw the words “Lais of Marie de France”. I worried when I saw that it was a modern translation but I didn’t need to – I was in safe hands.
Jane Tozer has made some fairly radical changes to her source material, but she explains very clearly and thoroughly what she has done and why, and her love for the lais always shines through.
The prologue is beautifully – and cleverly – handled and then there are the Lais:
Guigemar: The Lais of the Silver Hind
Guigemar is is a young knight who seems quite unable to feel romantic love. One day, on a hunting expedition, he mortally wounds a white doe, but he is injured as well. Before dying, the deer speaks to him, leaving a curse that his wound can only be healed by a woman who will suffer for love of him, and he will suffer as much for her. Guigemar wanders through the forest until he finds a river and a boat with no crew. He rests there and when he wakes he finds that the boat is sailing, he knows not where.
The boat takes him to an island where the king has imprisoned his wife out of jealousy. The queen and her servant find Guigemar, tend to his wound and give him shelter. Guigemar and the queen fall in love and, to bind them together, the queen ties a knot in his shirt that only she can untie without tearing and he gives her a chastity belt.
The lovers are soon discovered and the the couple are parted. Both go through trial and tribulation before they are finally reuntited and able to release each other from their bonds.
A wonderful story and very well execeuted.
This is a much shorter story, a comic tale of adulterers who try to rid themselves in their spouses but find themselves snared by their own trap. For me this one didn’t quite work, but I think the problem lay more with that nature of the material than the translation.
This is lovely. A noblewoman accuses her rival of adultery, claiming that her twin children can only come from two different fathers. In time though she herself gives birth to twin daughters of her own. Rather than risk ridicule she abandons one daughter at a convent. And so two sisters grow up in very different worlds. Eventually of course they meet and wrongs are righted.
The tone darkens here, with the story of a werewolf who is trapped in lupine form by the treachery of his wife. Another gem.
And then the tone changes again for the story of a knight at King Arthur’s court. Lanval is overlooked by the king, but he wooed by a fairy lady and she gives him all manner of gifts by her, though he must promise to never reveal his identity. problems begin when the Queen makes advances to Lanval, which he rejects. She accuses him of shaming her and the King forces him to he reveal his mistress. Although Lanval has broken his promise, his lover eventually appears to justify Lanval, and to take him with her to Avalon.
Wonderful story telling, but it doesn’t work as well as some of the other lais, maybe because the fairy lady’s motivation is never explained.
Les Deus Amanz
A tragic tale. A widowed king takes comfort in raising his beautiful daughter, and he is reluctant to let go of her when she is of marriageable age. He challenges all her potential suitors to prove themselves by carrying her up a nearby mountain. Many try and fail. When the king’s daughter falls in love , she tells her suitor of a magical potion that will renew his strength and allow him to carry her all the way up the mountain. He obtains the tonic , but when he tries to carry her up the mountain, he refuses to take it, believing that love should give him the strength he needs. And he succeeds in bringing her to the summit, but then he collapses from exhaustion and dies. She dies of a broken heart. This provides a nice contrast to the many neatly resolved tales.
Another tale of a beautiful woman kept prisoner by a jealous husband. Her lover takes the form of a goshawk, which allows him entry to her rooms. Of course the lovers are discovered and the goshawk is trapped and killed. But not before a son is conceived, who will one one day put things right. Some lovely moments but the end is a little unsatisfying.
Lovers talk through opposite windows, both saying that they are watching a nightingale. When the woman’s jealous husband kills the nightingale the romance ends. lovely verse, but a slight tale.
Lovers conceive a child. Because the woman is unmarried they hide the pregnancy and the child is sent away. Later her father arranges her marriage. Later still father and son recognise each other on the battlefield. And later again, the woman’s husband dies and she is reunited with both her son and her lover. Wonderful – the episodic nature of the story works well.
A lady is loved by four knights. They joust to decide who will win her. I just couldn’t take to this one.
A snippet from the story of Tristan and Isolde. they have been separated but seize a chance to meet briefly. Enchanting, but it leaves you wishing for much more.
The last lais is the longest and this allows it to take a more complex storyline. It works well.
Eliduc is a valiant knight in the service of the King of Brittany, who banishes him based on false rumors. Eliduc decides to seek his fortune as a mercenary and leaves the kingdom, promising his wife that he will remain faithful.
Eliduc comes across a king who is at war because he will not give away his daughter in marriage. Eliduc y helps defeat the king’s enemies and is rewarded with power over the king’s lands. Guilliadun, the king’s daughter, falls in love with Eliduc and she with him. They live happily together until Eliduc is realled to Brittany. It seems the lovers must be parted. Like Guigemar and his queen back in the first lais, the lovers go through much trial and tribulation before finally being happily reunited.
“So ends the history of these three
The courtly bard of Brittany
Composed this most affeting lai
– Of its kind a nonpareil –
That those who hear or read this song
May remember well and long
God send you all a loving friend
And, in ripe time, a happy end.”
And so, this is a wonderfully diverse collection of tales linked by many common themes.
I am not a critical or scholarly reader, just a lover of words, and I found in this book both wonderful tales and perfectly constructed verse.
I could have asked for nothing more.