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.

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