Monday, April 15, 2013

Book Review: "The Lais of Marie de France"

"Lais are", as the back of this Penguin Classics edition tells us, "short stories in verse based on Breton tales, depicting a moment of crisis in love relation always intense and refined, and often far more complicated than our received view of courtly love might lead us to suppose." And while I'm not entirely sure what "our received view of courtly love" should be, I admit that I was fascinated by the depth and intricacy of these short tales.

The Lais are short stories lifted from the Bretons and told to the English by the (probably) French author Marie de France. Her purpose in writing these is given in the Prologue and at the beginning of the first story:

Anyone who has received from God the gift of knowledge and true eloquence has a duty not to remain silent: rather should one be happy to reveal such talents. When a truly beneficial thing is heard by many people, it then enjoys its first blossom, but if it is widely praised its flowers are in full bloom. (Prologue)
Whoever has good material for a story is grieved if the tale is not well told. Hear, my lords, the words of Marie, who, when she has the opportunity, does not squander her talents. (I. Guigemar)

In other words, the point of these tales is the exercise of the author's talent--an exercise best done in public. The success or failure may be judged by the praise of the audience. Since we're still reading her works a thousand years later, I think it's safe to say that Marie's goals have been met.

All twelve of these short stories are fascinating (as is the Editor's Introduction). I was especially surprised that there seem to be three main characters in each one: the knight, the lady, and Love. Or at least, "love" is present, if not actually a character. In fact, I found the treatment of love to be the most interesting part of this work. Rather than personifying love, or even idealizing, the Lais does two things: it treats the effects of love with a gritty reality; and it objectifies love.

While there are certainly supernatural components present in these stories (knights turning into birds, for example), there is precious little idealism about the impact love has on the world. Love is portrayed with a gritty reality that bears little resembles to the modern chick flick. Love brings happiness, pleasure, and even transcendent joy, to be sure. But it also leads to sorrow, grief, despair, and even the destruction of the innocent and guilty alike. Love has real-world effects that lead to the utterly destruction of everything and everyone involved, and yet are still clearly understood to be worth the time and effort of pursuit. The rewards  of love do not always outweigh dangers, but they do so often enough that love is clearly something of enough value to merit lifelong dedication.

Probably the biggest disconnect between the view of love in the Lais and our modern view is the objectification of love. I don't mean the idolization of love, as if it were being elevated to an inappropriate position (though that may be the case elsewhere in Medieval literature). Nor do I mean the personification of love (though that does happen here and there). I mean actually treating love as if it were a physical object. This is from the story of Guigemar:
Guigemar was very much in love and either had to receive relief of be forced to live a life of misery... "My lady," he said, "I am dying because of you; my heart is giving me great pain. If you are not willing to cure me, then it must all end in my death. I am asking for your love. Fair one, do not refuse me."... The lady recognized the truth of his words and granted him her love without delay. He kissed her and henceforth was at peace. (49-50)
This is not simply referring to sex (though sometimes love involves that also). Love is being willed and granted as if it were a trophy. It is taken back and given to someone else in exactly the same way. Which is exactly not the way we think of it. We don't think of someone as being worthy of love- we think of love as an emotional state that just happens. The heart wants what it wants and there's nothing you or I or a team of psychologists can do about it. The idea that love is something for which we have a moral responsibility to use well, and which we can (should?) give out to those who are worthy is an interesting one, and certainly one worthy of further reflection.

These are not the only components of love in the Lais, but I think they are by far the most interesting. Also interesting are the knights and ladies and the troubles they get into, but you'll have to read it for yourself to find out what's going on there.

Overall, this was a delightful little collection of stories. It is short, clear, and fun to read, and so I recommend this to everyone. Even if you're not a fan of Medieval literature, the Lais are short and interesting enough that you'll find it to be a fast read.

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