CategoryText (Part of The Lais of Marie de France)
FormPoetry (Lai)
AuthorMarie de France
TimeLate 12th Century
LanguageAnglo-Norman French
Featured In
Literature and Humanities 1 (YCC1111);
Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309)

Lanval,” the fifth of Marie de France’s lais, is perhaps the one most directly influenced by ideas of the Celtic otherworld, and the only lai to allude to the figures of Arthurian romance. It appears in her collection after “Bisclavret” and before “Les Deus Amanz.”


The lai begins with the knight Lanval’s departure from King Arthur’s court on account of having been forgotten in a round of gift-giving. Pensive and melancholy, Lanval rides to a nearby stream, where he catches sight of two beautiful young women, who claim to have been sent by their mistress to fetch him. Lanval follows these messengers to a magnificent pavilion, where he meets a woman who offers him her love along with an inexhaustible capacity to bestow gifts: he can enjoy both of these, she tells him, as long as he keeps their love a secret.

Lanval being tried in court.

Back in Arthur’s court, Lanval gains a new reputation for generosity, and Queen Guinevere offers him her love. When he rebuffs her advances, she accuses him of homosexuality, telling King Arthur that in fact she had been the one to refuse Lanval and that, moreover, Lanval had boasted of having a lover more beautiful than Guinevere herself. The outraged king forces Lanval to submit to a trial: if he is able to summon a lady who turns out to be more beautiful than the queen, he will be exonerated; otherwise, he will be banished from the court. Knowing he has violated his vow to secrecy, Lanval at first despairs of being rescued, but at the last moment, two ladies arrive in court to announce their mistress’s approach. Lanval’s lover at last appears, and when she rides into the palace and unveils herself, all marvel at her unequalled splendour. After declaring that she loves Lanval, she begins to ride off; Lanval leaps up behind her onto the horse, and the two disappear forever into Avalon.


Sight and secrecy are both significant to the lai, which dramatizes the tensions between a courtly culture of lavish display and the erotic allure of the secret liaison. The magical realm of Lanval’s mistress, which exceeds Arthur’s in opulence, offers an implicit critique of the court: whereas readers might expect the legendary King Arthur to perfectly embody the chivalric virtue of largesse, Lanval is in fact overlooked and excluded at the court, and the fantasy of infinite generosity is manifest only in the faerie realm. Through this juxtaposition, the lai explores how material wealth and economies of desire are mutually implicated: even the beauty of Lanval’s mistress is imagined as a commodity that can be objectively measured, exonerating him from the charges against him at the trial.

Of all Marie’s lais, “Lanval” contains the clearest example of an Otherworld, a space contiguous with the world in which the protagonists live, but which offers an alternative reality free from the social constraints and hierarchies that order the outside world, a space where desires are fulfilled and obstacles fall away. The sudden appearance of the ladies in waiting, the marvellous pavilion, the injunction to secrecy, and the magical gift bear some resemblance to elements of otherworldly spaces in Celtic folklore, one repository of narratives which Marie may have encountered in some form. Such a cultural borrowing—along with her insistence on Breton sources—can be seen as part of a larger pattern of appropriating British and Welsh material for an Anglo-Norman audience in the post-colonial culture of twelfth-century England, reminding us of the complexity of political and cultural identities in the context in which she writes.    


Marie de France. Marie de France: Poetry. Translated by Dorothy Gilbert, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.


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