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Mapping the European Breton Lai



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Film review: Sir Lanval

uclfecd31 January 2014

Sir Lanval (2010) - Tryamour's maidens

Some time ago now, I wrote about Lanval, a knight-meets-fairy-mistress lai first recorded by Marie de France that has survived in Old French, Middle English and Old Norse versions. Somewhat more recently, it was made into a rather charming film by the Chagford Filmmaking Group, a Devon-based organisation specialising in films of British fairy tales. Made in 2010 in collaboration with the Centre de l’Imaginaire Arthurien, and directed by Elizabeth-Jane Baldry (who also composed the film’s score), Sir Lanval is the group’s first full-length film, and a delightful, whimsical retelling of the medieval lai.

Based on Marie de France’s twelfth-century version of the tale, Sir Lanval follows the same essential plot: Lanval, a young knight of King Arthur’s court, meets a fairy (named here as Tryamour) who grants him her love and unlimited wealth, on condition that he keep their relationship secret. However, goaded by Queen Guinevere, who attempts to seduce him and then sneers that he evidently prefers vallez…bien afeitiez, ‘well-trained young men’, when he refuses her advances, Lanval rashly declares that he already has a lover far more beautiful than the queen. At this, the spell is broken and Tryamour disappears, leaving Lanval to be put on trial for his life after Guinevere successfully convinces her husband that the knight had first propositioned and then insulted her. On the day of the trial, Tryamour rides into Camelot and vindicates Lanval, before the lovers leave the court forever en Avalun,/Ceo nus recuntent li Bretun, ‘to Avalon, or so the Bretons tell us’.

In adapting Lanval for the screen, Baldry and her team have created a gorgeous-looking film, shot in idyllic, bluebell-suffused woodlands in Dartmoor and Brittany, with the Château de Comper in Paimpont Forest (thought to be the legendary Brocéliande, in which many Arthurian legends are set) used for Arthur’s castle. The vivid, saturated greens and blues of the early summer landscape, along with the brightly-coloured costumes (the purple gowns of Tryamour’s handmaidens, pictured above, work particularly well), give the whole film the hectic, bejewelled palette of an illuminated manuscript. There are some lovely pieces of set design, too – the gaudy fantasy of Tryamour’s fairy banquet, where roast dragon is served alongside Eden-red apples and flying fish skewers, is a particular highlight.

Ian Hensher’s Lanval is a coltish, gawkily uncertain youth, civilised and ennobled by the love of the beautiful, accomplished Tryamour (played with sultry grace by Lori Macfadyen), but unable to control his temper when rebuffing the queen. Guinevere herself (played teetering on the edge of pantomime villainess by Maxine Fone) is expanded as a character, becoming more morally complex; though she is shown to be vain and vindictive, imperiously banishing any woman she suspects of winning Lanval’s favour, she is also given an additional motivation for seducing Lanval when it is revealed that Arthur (a bluff Mark Freestone) is more interested in meeting with his counsellors than producing an heir.

Another effective expansion is the emphasis placed on the role of gossip and rumour. The losangers – flatters, tattle-tales and liars – are shown to be the enemies of true lovers in many Old French romances, bringing covert trysts to the ears of wrathful husbands and unsympathetic outsiders, and Baldry’s Sir Lanval presents loose talk as a catalyst for the story’s events from the very beginning, with Tryamour’s maidens lamenting Lanval’s inability to keep a secret in the opening scene. After Lanval is accused by the queen, Arthur is initially shown attempting to keep the scandal contained, until the rising volume of whispers in Camelot means that he has no choice but to put him on public trial.

Overall, Sir Lanval is a spirited interpretation of Marie de France’s lai, capturing the playful – and sometimes menacing – atmosphere of the medieval poem. Whether you’re  familiar with the original texts or new to the Lanval story, this version of the tale is well-worth watching.


What is a lai? The Franklin explains…

uclfecd15 August 2013

Opening lines of the Franklin's Tale

The Franklin’s Prologue in the Ellesmere Manuscript.
San Marino, California, Huntington Library, MS EL 27 C 9, fol. 123v (early fifteenth century).

In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s fictionalised account of a storytelling competition between a group of pilgrims written in the late fourteenth century, the Franklin begins his tale with a few lines which leave his listeners in no doubt as to the type of story they are about to hear:

Thise olde gentil Britouns in hir dayes
Of diverse aventures maden layes,
Rymeyed in hir firste Briton tonge,
Whiche layes with hir instrumentz they songe

[The noble Bretons of long-ago times composed lais about many different adventures, putting them into rhyme in their own Breton language; they sang these lais accompanied by their instruments]

Here the Franklin quickly name-checks the essential features he feels one might expect lais to have: they were composed in a mistily obscure far-off past by the ancient Bretons, in the Breton language; they recount stories of adventures; and they are set to music. These four lines neatly encapsulate the popular perception of the Breton lai in Chaucer’s day, and suggest that the genre must have been a familiar one; with just a few formulaic phrases, the Franklin can clearly evoke the type of fictional universe in which his tale is set (similar to beginning a fairy tale with ‘Once upon a time’). He then launches into his story proper, that of the Breton lady Dorigen and the rash promise she makes to a suitor, secure in the knowledge that his audience will be in the proper frame of mind.

How did the tales of the ‘olde gentil Britouns’, composed in ‘hir firste Briton tonge’, end up in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? To find out, continue reading…

Mapping the European Breton Lai

uclfecd12 August 2013

Welcome to the blog of Mapping the European Breton Lai, a three-year research project based in the Department of French run by me, Elizabeth Dearnley. The project aims to map the journeys across medieval Europe made by Breton lais, short, rhymed stories about love, chivalry and the supernatural which became popular in the later Middle Ages. Supposedly based on the tales of the ancient Bretons, lais were first recorded in twelfth-century England, in French, by a woman known as Marie de France. However, over the next 200 years many more lais were written down, initially in French and subsequently in other European languages.

My project aims to examine all known surviving lais, focusing on the way in which they were disseminated in manuscripts. In a pre-print manuscript culture, there is the potential for each copy of a text to be slightly different (a scribe might add or omit a few lines – or even a whole section of a story – if he, or his patron, preferred it that way, or simply make a transcription error), so I’ll be investigating some of the differences between versions of the same lai. I’ll also be looking at the sorts of manuscripts which contain lais, which are often miscellanies containing several different types of text, from religious manuals to bawdy fabliaux (short comic tales, usually involving some sort of sexual escapade), investigating whether any sorts of  patterns can be found – do lais travel mostly with other lais, for instance? Or with other types of short narrative? What relationship is there between collections of lais and other story collections (either other medieval ones such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or much later collections of tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm)?

The second part of my project involves creating an online catalogue of lais, which will contain information relating both to the actual lai stories themselves and the manuscripts in which they are contained. At the moment this is still under construction; however, in the coming months I will be making this freely available via the project website.  This will allow anyone wishing to research lais explore them in greater detail, from as many angles as possible (for instance, a user might want to look up all the manuscripts containing a certain lai and see their lists of contents, or to bring up all the lais which contain magical horses!). I will also be writing a more traditional book-length study of lais. Both website and book can be read as stand-alone works; however, they will also be designed to complement each other.

In this blog I’ll be posting updates to the project, exploring some of the different lais and the manuscripts in which they are contained, and also discussing various other things relating to lais, manuscripts or the Middle Ages I find along the way.

I hope you enjoy the blog – please get in touch with any questions or comments!