The Mother of Arthur
By Gabriel Blanchard
This mysterious poet was one of the most important shapers of the Arthurian cycle.
We touched briefly on the subject of Arthur in the recent last installment of our series on the concept of signs and symbols. In the English-speaking language, this is perhaps the most influential body of myth and legend in existence. It has everything: prophecies made by wise enchanters, a fellowship of heroic knights, a tragic romance (with a great queen no less), the elusive shapes of mocking Faërie, hideous betrayals breaking friendships and even families, and the noblest relic in all Christendom. The most famous teller of the tale is probably Thomas Malory, whose Le Morte d’Arthur was published in 1485; yet Malory himself was the heir to a large body of Arthuriana, one that stretched back behind him quite as far in time as Malory himself stands behind us; the roots of the thing are not now discoverable with certainty (though there are many theories).
Many of the most important pieces of Arthurian literature come from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Thanks to both our schooling, and the books and films that usually influence our imaginations much more than our schooling, we tend to think of the Middle Ages as a dismal period, one in which learning was in decline if not outright punished by the Church; almost nothing could be further from the truth. While less scientifically advanced than our own day, the Middle Ages saw several great flowerings of scholarship and culture—the twelfth century in particular saw a revival of learning so marked that Medievalists often refer to this as “the Renaissance,” rather than the later era we usually give the name to. The royal court of England was one center of this flowering: the Norman Conquest had led to a three-way blend of influences from the French aristocracy, the Anglo-Saxon establishment, and the Celtic fringe in regions like Wales and Brittany, and this blend of sources led to a rich profusion of poetry and legend. Several Arthurian poets hail from this time, such as Robert Wace and Chrétien de Troyes (who may have been the first to introduce the Grail into the myth); prominent among them, and one of our few female sources, was Marie de France.
Surprisingly little is known for certain about Marie herself. She wrote in Old French, some time between 1160 at the earliest and 1215 at the latest; she came from France, perhaps near Paris, but spent much of her life in England; she wrote a handful of other works, including renderings of Æsop‘s fables and one or two lives of saints. Marie was almost certainly of noble blood, and may have been a member of the English court under King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. She may even have been the same Marie who was the Abbess of Shaftesbury and Henry’s illegitimate half-sister. (This would explain her ability to read and write; literacy was uncommon at the time, particularly for women, save for consecrated religious of both sexes, who were routinely taught to read.)
What we do know about are her Lais, which she said she heard from minstrels and recast. A lai (or lay) was a type of narrative poem commonly told by Bretons, and often featuring fairies or enchantments. Marie’s Lais enjoyed great popularity among the nobles of England and France, and even further afield, becoming one of the first works translated into Old Norse.
Hitherto, the tale of Arthur had focused principally on him as a general. The focus of the storytellers now shifted. The implications of the word chivalry capture the shift rather well: it is related to the word cavalry, and chivalry retains a sense of glittering swords; yet to the extent that one hears a man called “chivalrous” today, it will probably be for his courtesy to the ladies. We cannot pause for a thorough treatment of courtly love, though it is a topic we have discussed here before. Suffice it to say, the Arthurian cycle now became largely a story of knights whose most burning desire was the half-amorous, half-worshipful devotion of their courage, their prowess, and their honor to the service of a beloved lady (the most fateful being the abjection of Sir Lancelot for Guinevere the Queen).
Marie de France wrote twelve lais, all of them concerned with the joys and sorrows brought about by love. The “Lai of Lanval” is typical of the collection. Sir Lanval, one of Arthur’s lesser knights, is unexpectedly met by a lady of the fairies who is in love with him; she promises him good fortune by her magic, and that she will appear to him at any place or time he desires, on the condition that he must never tell anyone of her existence. The lovers spend some months together happily; but when Sir Lanval returns to court, Guinevere tries to seduce him and, when he rebuffs her, accuses him of homosexuality. Indignant, he thoughtlessly replies that he has a mistress whose mere handmaidens are lovelier than the queen—and now, of course, his mistress will not appear to him at all. The queen makes a formal accusation against Lanval (in the manner of Potiphar’s wife); the knight himself hardly cares, in despair over his lost love, but King Arthur determines to hold a trial. If Lanval’s purported fae lady appears, he will be adjudged innocent, and if not, not. The trial comes, and, beyond hope, the lady does appear to exonerate Sir Lanval. She forgives him for breaking his promise, and he leaps up onto her horse behind her and the two ride away.
Another tale, the “Lai of Eliduc,” gives us a very different impression. Where “Lanval,” implicitly at the least, denigrates adultery (or at any rate Guinevere!), we may be surprised by the casualness with which this story seems to treat the marital bond. Sir Eliduc, sent into exile from Brittany, leaves his loyal wife in charge of his affairs at home. He performs valorous deeds in Britain, and wins the love of a princess. He is unexpectedly summoned back by the King of Brittany, and the princess follows him; on learning that he has a wife, she faints and will not wake, leading Sir Eliduc to believe she has died. He lays her in an abandoned chapel and returns home, but his wife soon discerns that his mind is elsewhere. She follows him and finds him in the chapel, mourning over the princess, and realizes that the two are lovers. After his departure, Eliduc’s wife fetches a magic flower and uses it to revive the princess. Not knowing who she is, the princess explains her whole story; the wife forgives her, and the two women return to Eliduc, who is overjoyed. His wife then declares that she will become a nun so that the lovers will be free to marry. Many years pass, and ultimately both the princess and Eliduc himself enter houses of religion as well. This goes a long way to illustrate the paradoxical attitude that medieval courts often had toward romantic love: something so sacred it all but sanctioned immorality, and yet at the same time something to be swept away before God. In a way, the “Lai of Eliduc” foreshadowed the progress of Arthurian literature itself, in which the storied loves of Lancelot and Erec and Uther and the rest were eventually overmastered by the quest of the Holy Grail.
Gabriel Blanchard is a proud uncle, a freelance writer, and CLT’s editor-at-large. He lives in Baltimore.
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Published on 3rd October, 2022. Page image of The Accolade (1901) by Edmund Blair Leighton.