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.

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.

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The Canon—Close Encounters: What Is in That Name?

The language of the relationship between Proteus and Valentine in Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, familiar and natural to Shakespeare’s original audience, creates an ambiguity for readers of the twenty-first century. We may wonder about the true character of their friendship when they address each other as “loving Proteus” and “sweet Valentine” (1.1.1, 11). Should we assume a romantic atmosphere between them? Jane Donawerth’s analysis of sixteenth-century usage of English language sheds light on this ambiguity. In the chapter “What Is in That Word?: The Nature, History, and Powers of Language,” Donawerth observes that “[i]n their etymological elements, words were thought to communicate knowledge not immediately obvious, a legacy of the wisdom of the past” (31). In order to discern between our twenty-first-century reception of the play’s language and its original meaning, I will consider the etymology of the character’s names and examine resulting connections.

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The Canon—Close Encounters: The Value of the Practice of New Historicism

The more I find myself immersed in literary study, the more I am at risk of taking for granted why I do it. I study literature because it is my passion and because I want to make it my profession. Therefore, to reflect on the value of linking literary study to a study of history, the linking that has become a common practice in the course of my studies, I asked for the opinion of others. The “others” happened to be my 13-year-old son and his best friend. I asked them: if you have read the book, why would you be persuaded to learn about the author’s life and about the historical moment in which she created her work? It translated to the boys as: why bother to do all this extra reading? They were happy to help and their answers, short and sweet, gave me a lot to think on. To the insightful middle-school student, the main value of approaching literature with history in mind is to discover the many layers of meaning and to relate to the author, or, as Stephen Greenblatt puts it in his essay “The Circulation of Social Energy,” to answer to “the desire to speak with the dead” (1).

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