The Canon—Close Encounters: Ideal of Courtly Love Examined

If I were to read or hear “Lanval” at the time Marie de France wrote it—the twelfth century—I might be a lady at the Anglo-Norman court, possibly at the court of Henry II. I would have “listened … gladly and joyfully” to such narratives and would have referred to them as “lays.” These narratives, telling of “love and adventure”—later known as romances— would have excited my curiosity and a sense of wonder, as they told stories of kings, queens, and knights, and often included elements of the supernatural. Romances are “stories of separation and return, disintegration and reintegration” (Greenblatt 158). If I were a listener of this particular lay, I would have followed the struggle of Lanval, one of the knights of the Round Table, to the deeply comforting, happy ending, but I would also have been left with many questions to ponder long after the echo of the last words that have died in the chamber. Perhaps I would notice that the structure of the story varies from other romances that I have heard—the elements of separation and loss appearing immediately in the beginning. To use Greenblatt’s language, the “protected, civilized state of some integrated social unit” is missing at the start of the story while the elements of “disintegration” abound (158). “Lanval” is a narrative that makes the reader focus on disintegration and does not offer much in terms of solution; rather, it offers a looking glass in which the courtly audience can see and examine themselves.

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Disintegration or disruption is present from the first lines of the narrative, which takes place in king Arthur’s   England, torn by violence, where “Scottish and Pictish peoples [lay] / waste all that land, in war and raid” (de France 7-8). Marie de France builds the story of Lanval with complexity, depth, and creativity. Where a typical romance would move the audience from a harmonious beginning, through loss or separation, to a satisfying reintegration, Marie de France employs creative variation to this structure. From the country at war, she narrows down to the “unit” of Arthurian court, where she zooms in on many points of disintegration. She undermines the legendary notion of the unquestionable nobility of the Knights of the Round Table—all equal and unified around their king; instead, Arthur is portrayed not as a superhero and the best of kings, but a prone to error human who “forgets” to reward one of his most valiant warriors (19). Arthur and his knights, guided by petty jealousy, “[make] a show of loving” Lanval, says the story, and there, I believe, begins Marie’s commentary on love in its various forms.

England, torn by violence, where “Scottish and Pictish peoples [lay] / waste all that land, in war and raid” (de France 7-8). Marie de France builds the story of Lanval with complexity, depth, and creativity. Where a typical romance would move the audience from a harmonious beginning, through loss or separation, to a satisfying reintegration, Marie de France employs creative variation to this structure. From the country at war, she narrows down to the “unit” of Arthurian court, where she zooms in on many points of disintegration. She undermines the legendary notion of the unquestionable nobility of the Knights of the Round Table—all equal and unified around their king; instead, Arthur is portrayed not as a superhero and the best of kings, but a prone to error human who “forgets” to reward one of his most valiant warriors (19). Arthur and his knights, guided by petty jealousy, “[make] a show of loving” Lanval, says the story, and there, I believe, begins Marie’s commentary on love in its various forms.

Love, the central theme of romances, can be the reason or the object of disintegration. De France juxtaposes pure and faithful love to pretense, a poor proxy to the real feeling. “Lanval” questions the values promoted by courtly love—a set of conventions that guide the behavior of Medieval courtiers in which romances operate. The lay starts with the concept of brotherly love, disturbed by human weakness; Lanval, “envied by most men” for his “manly beauty and “his prowess,” becomes, in time, “much disturbed” (33), “heartsick, [and] heartsore” (53), and is driven away from the court into nature, where he hopes to find a “relief of care” (42). The story leads from Lanval’s separation from his brethren to the romantic love in which the first and, I would argue, the only integration is achieved. Lanval indeed finds what he is looking for—solace in the

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unlikely arms of a fairy queen, who is surrounded by beauty, peace, and harmony of her loyal court. By providing Lanval with a woman from the magical world, the story seems to question whether authentic love can be found at court. Lanval persists in his conviction that his love is superior to any human, even when he faces a court trial and a possible death by hanging or being “burnt to death” (328). The original audience of the narrative would have noticed by now the gentle criticism of courtly love and perhaps became aware of the longing for another ideal.

The lack of purity in courtly love often points to human error and eroding morality. Courtly love portrayed in “Lanval” is more concerned with courtesy, a behavior norm to which one needs to adhere in order to appear genteel or, as the narrative suggests, “refined” (244). According to conventions, courtly love is usually unrequited but sometimes turns adulterous and an “ideal” woman is usually portrayed as married and dependent on men, a “damsel in distress.” Guinevere is the ideal representation of courtly love on the one hand and of moral disintegration of Arthur’s court on the other. It is difficult to say what Guinevere means by offering Lanval her “druerie” (266, author’s emphasis), since the meaning ranges from love token to love affair, but she expects Lanval to “rejoice in taking [her]” (267, emphasis added). Rejected and rebuked for her disloyalty, Guinevere reacts like a human, accusing the knight of dishonoring her. Her lies enrage Arthur who demands explanation which leads to the disintegration of the love affair between the mortal Lanval and the fairy queen. The complexity of this conflict shows that one cannot exist in the two worlds (of love) at the same time. Keeping the required secret proves an impossible task—the hurdle—and Lanval has to choose courtly love over his new-found magical one if he wants to save his life. De France sets the fairy queen in competition with queen Guinevere—the ideal of courtly love—in plain sight not only to have the court decide which one is more beautiful, but also to have the audience reflect on the moral values each of them represents. That Lanval prefers to die than to engage in superficial relationships points to the critical angle from which the author operates.

De France ends her narrative with a spin on the structure of a romance. According to Greenblatt, the state of disruption in a unit is followed by a return to the “integrated, civilized state of familial and/or social unity (158). However, Lanval is the only character truly reintegrated and not in the expected sense of returning to the court. On the contrary, his reintegration depends on moving away from the civilization to the ancient, magical past. “Lanval” the narrative, may be called the romance of chivalry, because it uses the story of the knight to “[explore] psychological and ethical dilemmas,” setting up a looking glass for its audience (Greenblatt 12). Lanval, who opposes the conventions of courtly love, is the only one who passes the test of psychological strength and ethical behavior. At the same time, Arthur and his queen prove to be ordinary people, not especially beautiful, noble, or powerful. Lanval, with his beyond-human fidelity, demonstrates his worthiness of love that the fairy queen represents. De France creatively employs the necessary refinement in the form of a romance and, without alienating her audience, subtly probes and questions the disintegration hiding under the guise of courtly love.

— Kasia Wolny, Asst Fiction Editor, Asst Art & Design Editor; Copy Editor

Editor’s Note: This is an essay written by Asst. Art & Design Editor Katarzyna Wolny. Wolny originally wrote the piece for her British Literature to 1800
course with Dr. Mardy Philippian.

References:

De France, Marie. “Lanval.” Translated by Dorothy Gilbert. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 10th Ed., Vol A, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Norton, 2018, pp.171-85

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 10th Ed., Vol A, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Norton, 2018, pp. 300.

 

 

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