|Text (Part of The Lais of Marie de France)
|Marie de France
|Late 12th Century
|Literature and Humanities 1 (YCC1111);
Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (YHU2309)
“Yönec” is one of the Lais of Marie de France. It is the seventh lai in the collection, coming after “Les Deus Amanz” and preceding “Laüstic”. It is notable for being the other lai aside from “Bisclavret” that features human-animal shapeshifting and for its similarities to the lai of “Milun”, where both tell of characters across 2 generations and include a revenge-plot.
A young girl is locked away in a tower by her wealthy and old husband to ensure that she remains his possession, and he makes his widowed sister, an old dame, stay in the same tower to further ensure this. The young girl produces no children after many years. Loveless and lonely, the girl grows miserable and fades in beauty until a hawk flies into her room one day, which upon closer look, transforms into a knight named Muldumarec. Although he seeks her love, she is afraid that the knight is affiliated with the devil and asks him to accept a Christian service and partake in the sacrament. He accepts, and thereafter they become lovers, meeting regularly and secretly in her isolated room.
However, the husband soon notices changes in his wife and asks the old dame to spy on her. The old dame witnesses the illicit affair and reports to the husband, who then sets a trap of iron prongs in the window. When Muldumarec returns, he suffers a fatal injury and bestows his hopes for vengeance upon his unborn son in the young girl. Muldumarec then leaves, and the young girl follows after the trail of his blood, presumably on foot, in the process miraculously jumping off the twenty feet high window and landing on the ground alive. She finds him in a castle of some distant land and they share their final words, in which Muldumarec passes her a small ring that wards off her husband’s possessiveness, a lovely gown, and his sword. He then asks her to take their son to a festival when he becomes of age, where they will see a tomb in an abbey. There, she should hand their son the sword and reveal to him his lineage. With that, he dies and the girl leaves in sorrow.
Their son, Yönec, grows up to be a fine knight. During a religious festival in some distant town, Muldumarec’s words come true. After realising that the king whom the locals buried in a beautifully adorned tomb is in fact Muldumarec, Yönec’s mother does as she was told and drops dead. From there, Yönec takes his stepfather’s life in vengeance and becomes king, and a beautiful coffin is made for her mother and she is placed next to her lover in the tomb.
Appearance is to be a major concern in this lai, beginning with how the young girl’s beauty fades and reemerges—she “lost her beauty” as per those “whose will has drained away” when she is kept locked away by her husband (Marie de France 93), and is explicitly mentioned to have “recovered all her beauty” and her behaviour “much changed” to being more spirited and graceful (101). This seems to suggest that outward appearances are a reflection of one’s internal emotional state, and indeed, Marie draws great attention to the girl’s interiority by devoting a significant number of lines—from line 61 to 104—to detail her sorrow and lament. However, this translationality of inner emotions into beauty becomes problematic when Marie points it as the reason to the husband’s suspicions, a fact that is reinforced by Muldumarec’s words “your beauty was the death of us” when he suffers the fatal wound (107).
The male lover, Muldumarec, is characterised by his shapeshifting into a hawk, which is thought to be a noble animal (97). His appearance as a noble hawk seems to capture his human qualities as a “handsome, noble knight” who is also the beloved king of a beautiful land (97, 117). The portrayal of Muldumarec differs from the girl as his appearance does not actually reflect his inner state, which is barely mentioned, but it does suggest that a character’s morality is hinted outwardly. Nonetheless, Marie adds a layer of complexity to this idea by introducing Christian connotations of the deceptive devil to the shapeshifting motif, unlike what is seen in the lai of “Bisclavret”, and Muldumarec must undergo a test of faith before his morality can truly be assessed.
Although the lai is titled “Yönec”, it is clear that the love affair between Muldumarec and the girl of the tower takes centre stage in this lai, and the fulfillment of their love is the goal of the narrative. However, the death of Muldumarec introduces a complication to the goal. During his last moments, Muldumarec makes a lengthy request to the girl about revealing to Yönec his lineage, and concludes on an open note, “[w]hat he’d do then / they would soon see” (113). The remainder of the story then proceeds to play out exactly as that request, making the request seem almost prophetic. By foretelling the subsequent events exactly as they happen, the emphasis of the narrative is able to remain hinged on the lovers, with the evoked sense of a grand destiny making the remainder of the lai more of a question whether their legacy will be inherited. This is supported by how the girl’s character eventually becomes a purely functional one for the narrative, almost as though she has already died, and whose relevance only goes so far as to facilitate the fulfillment of the legacy and exit the stage thereafter (117). It is Yönec’s act of inheriting the legacy that enables the narrative to come to a close. The character of Yönec is significant not so much as a character (and for this, he has been given no real characterisation anyway), but as the representation of his parents’ love bearing fruit. Yönec’s act of revenge is therefore glossed over, with the ending focusing on the girl being “borne in a fair coffin, to the tomb” (119), and the lovers are fulfilled in death, their love literally engraved and sealed for eternity.
Marie de France. Marie de France: Poetry. Translated by Dorothy Gilbert, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.
[Featured Image & Fig. 1] http://feltse12.blogspot.com/2015/01/yonec-by-marie-de-france.html
CONTRIBUTED BY TOH HONG JIN (’23)