Lanval: Marie de France understood men’s dreams

Against all the forces that have suppressed men’s dreams, Marie de France dared to represent a still nearly unspeakable male heterosexual fantasy.  In her lai Lanval, Marie de France told the story of a woman-hero rescuing the knight Lanval from social isolation and unjust persecution.  This woman-hero was young, beautiful, and eager to sleep with Lanval.  She was also wealthy.  She provided Lanval with as much money as he could use.  When another woman falsely accused Lanval of attempting to seduce her, the woman-hero valiantly defended Lanval.  Marie de France’s seminal, romantic imagination deserves to be warmly received and lovingly nurtured.

dream woman in Lanval and Fairie Queen

Before the woman-hero intervened to rescue Lanval, he led a life like that of many men today.  Lanval was brave, loyal, generous, good-looking, and skilled.  He did not, however, have a lot of money.  Like a rural, blue-collar man who migrated to an urban, professional world, he was socially disrespected and socially isolated.  He was valued impersonally only for the work he did.  No one appreciated him as a man.

One day, Lanval rode out of town and lay down in a meadow.  Lanval was sad and thoughtful:

He lay thinking of his sad plight;
He saw nothing to bring delight. [1]

But then he saw two lovely, richly dressed maidens.  These maidens brought Lanval to their lady. She was resting alluringly in a luxurious tent:

She lay upon so rich a bed,
You’d pay a castle for the sheet–
In just her slip she was clothèd.
Her body was well-shaped, and sweet.
A rich mantle of white ermine,
Lined with silk, alexandrine,
Was her quilt, but she’d pushed it away,
On account of the heat; she didn’t hide
Her face, neck, breast, her whole side

Lanval took a step toward the lady and then she called him forward.  She didn’t waste his time with pretenses of coyness.  She told him, “more than anything, I love you.”  Lanval, undoubtedly stunned, could only reply with conventional chivalric promises of self-abasement:

I’ll be at your beck and call,
To fulfill whatever needs you
Have, wise or foolish–you are above
Me, my only commandant.
All others for you I abandon.

As a fantasy woman-hero, she probably was disappointed with this conventional male subordination.  Brushing aside Lanval’s banality, she gave him her body and a blank check:

Anything he may ever want
He’ll get, as far as his needs extend;
Generously he may give and spend–
She will find the wherewithal.

She promised to do with him anything he wanted when he was alone.  She also made Lanval promise not to reveal to anyone their love.  Her love represented the hidden dream that Marie de France was sharing with everyone through the lai Lanval.

That love was publicly revealed when the woman-hero spoke out to defend Lanval from Queen Guinevere’s false accusation.  With the woman-hero’s support, Lanval became an honored man at court.  Queen Guinevere, famed for her adultery, then propositioned him.  Lanval rejected her.  She then insulted Lanval with fabricated gossip that he was a homosexual.  That’s a classic shaming tactic that women use to manipulate, silence, and subordinate men.  Lanval, anguished, declared that he loved a woman far more beautiful than her.  He thus broke his promise to the woman-hero.  She accordingly stopped appearing when he sought her.  To King Arthur, Queen Guinevere falsely accused Lanval of attempting to seduce her.  Furthermore, Queen Guinevere claimed that after she had rebuffed Lanval’s proposition, he had insulted her.  King Arthur put Lanval on trial for these crimes.  The potential punishment was severe.  Fortunately, the woman-hero appeared to defend Lanval from the false accusation.  She would not allow Lanval to be punished unjustly.  After Lanval jumped to grab for a second chance at love with the woman-hero, she did not push him away.  The love of woman-heroes is like that.

From medieval romances to the recent sinking of the Costa Concordia, men are expected to risk their lives to save women in distress.  Men are also expected to provide money and goods to women.  Few have been able to imagine better opportunities for men to realize themselves fully as persons.

Medieval author Marie de France was different.  She profoundly narrated the real social conditions of men’s lives and men’s fantasies.  She set out a heroic model of love for men.  Marie de France’s work has not been adequately appreciated.[2]  Now more than ever, men must try to dream, and women, to understand men’s dreams.

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Read more:

Notes:

[1] Marie de France, Lanval, c. 1170, from Old French trans. Shoaf (1991).  All subsequent quotes are from id.   Here’s the Old French source for Lanval.

[2] The Wikipedia entry for Lanval is a complete muddle with only tangential relation to the actual text.  For example, it claims that Lanval at the beginning of the lai is a “prepubescent boy.”  Babble about feminism is quite common in writing about Marie de France.  Male professors strive for professional praise by dishing up conventional academic misandry:

Stories like this {Queen Guinevere’s propositioning of Lanval} are common: a shameless woman propositions a man and is rebuffed and takes her revenge by accusing him of trying to seduce her.  Such tales are obviously popular among men who want to blame women for all sexual aggression. {seek better education}

If alive today, Marie de France would probably respond to such writing with an emphatic hand gesture.

[image] Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen, by Henry Fuseli, c. 1788, oil on canvas, thanks to Wikipedia and the Yorck Project.

Reference:

Shoaf, Judith P. 1991, 2005.  Marie de France. Lanval.

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