- Poetry by Marie de France
Marie de France was one of the most accomplished literary figures of the medieval age. Contemporaneous with Eleanor of Aquitaine, the poetess evinced the same inspired spirit expressed by the troubadours and trouvères of Eleanor’s Occitan and Norman courts. Marie’s identity is still undetermined, but she seems to have been connected to the retinue of Eleanor’s husband Henry II, the Plantagenet King of England and ruler of Normandy and Anjou. Refined and scholarly, Marie was multilingual, demonstrating a knowledge of Latin, French, and English as well as the Norman and Breton dialects, and was educated in classical literature, Christian discourse, and the folklore of France. That heady combination provided the raw material for Marie’s work, including her most sustained creative effort, her collection of Lais, Breton tales that she put into poetic form. A representative sampling of Marie’s poems have been gathered into a new volume by Dorothy Gilbert, a poet herself and also a writer, translator, retired professor of literature at numerous California universities, and secretary of the West Coast branch of PEN, the writers’ advocacy group. The anthology contains the Lais, a selection of Marie’s translations of Aesop’s Fables, and her version of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, based on a Latin text originally by the British monk Henry of Saltrey.
Marie’s Lais are considered by many to be the best examples of her oeuvre. She transformed bardic fantasy recitals of common currency in Brittany into written poems of octosyllabic rhyming couplets, a French verse form common in the Middle Ages. There are twelve Lais in all, of varying length and subject [End Page 280] matter, but many of them involve love stories and elements of a numinous nature. They transmit many of the transcendent qualities of the courtly love ethos of Marie’s era, an elevation of romantic love to a spiritual code of conduct. Among the most famous of them are narratives of passion and intrigue such as “Equitan,” which tells of the betrayal of a knight via an unlawful liaison between his unfaithful wife and liege-lord and the dreamlike “Laustic,” where the song of a nightingale is a conduit for communications between a married lady and her chivalric lover. Another Lai, “Yonec,” also features a fantastic bird, in this instance a swan who is a knight under enchantment, with echoes of Zeus and Leda from antiquity. And in “Milun,” a second swan acts as an erotic emissary between another pair of lovers, separated and long-suffering. The most memorable of the Lais is probably “Bisclavret,” in which a loyal lord becomes a werewolf, and even in such a bizarre state continues to warrant fealty to his king due to an uncommon show of courtoisie. Also enjoyable is “Lanval,” wherein a knight of King Arthur’s court runs away to Avalon with the queen of the fairies. “Chevrefoil” is another Arthurian tale, with its references to Tristan and Isolde, and “Le Fresne” could be a plot from Shakespeare with its saga of mistaken identity between infant girls first separated at birth and then brought together again by mysterious workings of fate. The Lais are cumulatively magical in effect, in both their fabulous imagery and their flowing verse. Marie was a master storyteller and her treatment of these tales traces a line between classical works with mythological aspects such as Ovid’s Meta-morphoses, Celtic legends, longer romances like La Morte D’Arthur, and later French fairy tales such as Charles Perrault’s “Cinderella.”
Of the one hundred and two of Aesop’s Fables that Marie translated from Middle English into Anglo-Norman French, Gilbert has chosen to include twenty-three of the more well-known ones as well as Marie’s own prologue and epilogue (with the latter incidentally providing the origin of the poetess’s pen name from her phrase “I am from France, I am called Marie.”) The Fables selected here number among them such familiar crowd-pleasers as “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,” “The Cockerel and the...