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Mapping the European Breton Lai



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.


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.