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Mapping the European Breton Lai



Archive for the 'Lai in focus' Category

Lai in focus: Lanval

uclfecd22 October 2013

The opening of Lanval, British Library MS Harley 978, fol. 133v.

The final lines of Bisclavret and the beginning of Lanval, British Library MS Harley 978, fol. 133v. The last two lines read ‘Laventure dun autre lai/cum ele avient vus cunterai’ (Just as it happened, I will tell you the story of another lai’).


Lanval, a young knight far from home and overlooked by King Arthur, rides out alone from court. Reaching a meadow next to a stream, he dismounts to ponder his situation. Two beautiful girls dressed in purple approach and lead him to a sumptuously decorated tent, inside which lies la pucele/flur de lis e rose nuvele […] trespassot ele de beauté, ‘the maiden who surpassed in beauty the lily and the new rose’, wearing only her shift and a white ermine cloak. The maiden explains that she has travelled from her own country to find him, and that she will grant him her love, the ability to summon her whenever he chooses, and a magic purse which will never become empty, so long as he never reveals her existence. As Marie de France’s narrative dryly puts it, Ore est Lanval bien herbergez!, ‘Now Lanval was well-lodged!’

This happy state of affairs lasts until Lanval, angered by an insult from Queen Guinevere after he has turned down her advances, boasts that jo aim e si sui amis/Cele ki deit aver le pris/Sur tutes celes que jeo sai…Une de celes ki la sert/Tute la plus povre meschine/Vaut mieuz de vus, ‘I love and am loved by one who is more worthy than any other I know…Her lowest servant girl is better than you’. Not only does this break the spell, but the incensed queen demands that Lanval be killed unless he can provide proof of his boast. Arthur’s court now becomes a court of law, where Lanval is on trial for his life. Believing that he will never see his beloved again, Lanval is in despair. However, on the day of the trial, his lady rides into court on a white palfrey, le chef cresp e aukes blunt, ‘her hair curling and very blonde’, proving to all that Lanval was speaking the truth. Lanval then leaps onto the horse behind his beloved, and they both ride away to the enchanted Isle of Avalon, after which nul hum n’en oï plus parler, ‘no man has heard any more about them’.

Lanval is another lai first recorded by Marie de France. Her version appears in four manuscripts (MSS British Library, Harley 978; British Library, Cotton Vespasian B X IV; Bibliotheque Nationale de France nouv. acq. fr. 1104; Bibliotheque Nationale de France fr. 2168), the highest number of any of her  lais other than Yonec, suggesting the popularity of this Arthurian tale. It was also translated into Old Norse as Janual, and twice into Middle English; firstly as the fourteenth-century Sir Landevale, which appears both in manuscripts and early printed editions as late as the seventeenth century, and secondly as the late fourteenth-century Sir Launfal, a jaunty tail-rhyme adaptation of the earlier Middle English translation. This second translation, which brings a more popular, mercantile tone to the aristocratic French original, also appears to provide us with the name of its creator, declaring in its closing lines that ‘Thomas Chestre made thys tale/Of the noble knyght Syr Lanvale’.

Much more recently, the story of Lanval has been adapted twice in the early twentieth century: as part of stage show Kissing the Wind by storyteller Cat Wetherill, which reworks three of Marie’s lais, and as a full-length film, Sir Lanval (2010), produced with the Brittany-based Centre de l’imaginaire Arthurien by the Chagford Filmmaking Group, who have made some beautiful films of a number of British fairytales.

With its outsider hero and fairy-mistress heroine, suspense-filled trial, and last-minute escape, it is easy to see why Lanval has appealed to so many adapters, translators and audiences over the centuries. You can read the entire French tale online in Judith Shoaf’s excellent English verse translation, and the Middle English version is available here.


Lai in focus: Bisclavret

uclfecd16 August 2013

Bestiary image of wolf

Detail from Bestiary. London, British Library, MS Royal, 12 F. xiii, fol. 29r.


Bisclavret is one of the twelve lais in Marie de France’s collection, and there are also two closely-related versions amongst the other Breton lais which have survived: Biclarel and Melion (it was also translated into Old Norse as Bisclaretz lioð). Clearly, this was a popular narrative, and it’s easy to see why; telling the tale of the shapeshifting werewolf Bisclavret, who is forced to remain in wolf form after his unfaithful wife hides the clothes which allow him to turn back into a man, this lai contains love, betrayal, dark tangled forests, and a gruesomely specific revenge in which wolf-Bisclavret bites off his former wife’s nose (incidentally cursing her female descendants with noselessness). It’s also a thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be human; do outward accoutrements of civilisation, such as clothing, make the difference between humanity and beastliness? Or should inner virtues, such as good manners, self-control and clear-headed thinking, be seen as more significant?

A Beauty-and-the-Beast tale with a difference, the characters in Bisclavret keep switching roles; the wife’s fear of her husband’s wolfish nature leads her to become monstrous in her turn, tricking him into permanent wolfhood whilst she marries a new lover. After a year in the woods, Bisclavret escapes death at the jaws of the royal hunting dogs by licking the king’s foot and begging for mercy, which allows his inner intelligence to be seen. Becoming a lupine royal lapdog, sleeping by the king’s side and loved by all his companions, Bisclavret remains at court until chance brings his wife and her new husband into the king’s orbit. Bisclavret attacks them ferociously, saving the most savage punishment for his wife:

Oiez cum il est bien vengiez:
Le neis li esracha del vis.

(Just hear how successfully he took his revenge. He tore the nose right off her face.)

Subjected to torture by the king – suggesting that even the most courtly of monarchs has a bestial side – his wife confesses, and produces Bisclavret’s clothes. These, it is explained by the king’s wise counsellor, must be donned observing the rules of human propriety in order for the transformation to be successful:

‘Cist nel fereit pur nule rien,
Que devant vus ses dras reveste
Ne mut la semblance de beste […]
Mut durement en ad grant hunte!

(Nothing would induce him to put on his clothing in front of you or change his animal form […] it is most humiliating for him!)

Bisclaret and its analogues is one of several werewolf tales circulating in the Middle Ages – others include the French romance Guillaume de Palerne (c. 1200) and the Latin Arthur and Gorlagon (13th/14th century) – and the notion of shapeshifting wolf-men clearly resonated with medieval audiences. Many encounters with werewolves are presented as historical fact, such as that of the historian Gerald of Wales, whose treatise on the geography and folklore of Ireland, Topographica Hibernica (c. 1188) includes an account of a young boy and a priest who meet an elderly couple turned into wolves by a curse. Meanwhile, bestiaries of the period credited wolves with various unsettling qualities, including the ability to rob a man of his voice by looking at him (should this happen, the only way for him to save himself is to remove his clothes and bang two rocks together, according to authorities such as the Aberdeen Bestiary – the image above, from a British Library manuscript, illustrates this situation).

In the twenty-first century, the story of Bisclavret, with its moral as well as physical shapeshifting, has been explored in a lovely short animated film by Emilie Mercier (France, 2011), which offers a more sympathetic portrait of Bisclavret’s wife. Some clips of this are available on YouTube:

Bisclavret, dir. Emilie Mercier (France, 2011)

Bisclavret's wife (Emilie Mercier)

Bisclavret’s wife (Emilie Mercier)


Washington-based group Grendel Babies also have a song called ‘Wife of Bisclavret’, which retells the story from the wife’s perspective to a smokily jangling accompaniment of piano and screeching rock violin, adding a honky-tonk yowl to the multiplicity of voices which have retold the story from the twelfth century onwards.

Meanwhile, the figure of the sympathetic werewolf continues to prowl through popular culture, appearing in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels and the hit HBO series True Blood they inspired, and – in perhaps the most pervasive sympathetic werewolf image of the past few years – Twilight, in which the relationship between a werewolf and his clothes is also given attention (happily, werewolves are revealed to have higher-than-average body temperatures when in human form, meaning that fewer clothes can be worn for convenient removal when shape-shifting; this also allows werewolves to carry their clothing with them, an innovation which would have saved Bisclavret a lot of trouble).

What other latter-day Bisclavret figures are there?


Further reading:

Marie de France, Bisclavret, in The Lais of Marie de France, 2nd edn, trans. by Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996)

Melion and Biclarel: Two Old French Werewolf Lays, ed. and trans. by Amanda Hopkins (Liverpool Online Series: Critical Editions of French Texts, 2005) (pdf)

Leslie A. Sconduto, Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity through the Renaissance (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008)