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Lanval is one of the Lais of Marie de France. Written in Anglo-Norman, it tells the story of Lanval, a knight at King Arthur's court, who is overlooked by the king, wooed by a fairy lady, given all manner of gifts by her, and subsequently refuses the advances of Queen Guinevere. The plot is complicated by Lanval's promise not to reveal the identity of his mistress, which he breaks when Guinevere accuses him of having "no desire for women". Before Arthur, Guinevere accuses Lanval of shaming her, and Arthur, in an extended judicial scene, demands that he reveal his mistress. Despite the broken promise, the fairy lover eventually appears to justify Lanval, and to take him with her to Avalon. The tale was popular, and was adapted into English as Sir Landevale, Sir Launfal, and Sir Lambewell.[1]

Historical context[edit]

During the 12th and early 13th centuries it was common for married women to have their work claimed by their husbands, but Marie de France made a strong effort to identify herself in all of her writing, possibly implying that she was not married. From Marie's writing, it is clear that she was very educated, knowing both Latin and French and perhaps even the Breton language.[2] It has sometimes been suggested that she was Henry's illegitimate sister Marie, who became Abbess of Shaftesbury around 1181, and who died in 1216; but without actual concrete evidence this is mere speculation.[3] Whatever her relation to Henry II, it is very likely that she was attached to his and his wife's, Eleanor of Aquitaine, court.[4] However, despite her being of noble birth it is likely that she had no wealth due to her single marital status.[5]

In the time of the 13th century, the land borders were not the same as they are today, therefore one cannot assume that Marie de France wrote the story while living in France. It is believed that she was from Continental Europe rather than England because of her choice of language. She used Norman dialects in her writing which suggests that she was originally from Normandy.[6]

Lanval is one of Marie's 12-lai collection. At the time of these writings, many male poets were writing lais that dealt with a high level of romantic tension.They are primarily concerned with the theme of love and courtliness, and as such the heroes are usually knights or aristocratic ladies.[7] Although Marie’s writing also had a level of tension, it differed from her male colleagues because it focused more on the eternal struggle of the promises and expectations within a romantic relationship.[8] Most of Marie's contemporaries who wrote on the subject of love were focused more on the tension between balancing love and chivalric pursuits. Marie rather focuses on the personal desires of her characters, especially those of her female characters.[9] "Her lais often depict intensely intimate love relationships set against a backdrop of a threatening society in which unfulfilling marriages, the arbitrary dictates of court life, and oppressive social practices hold sway."[10] The poem Lanval is particularly unique because the unknown woman is seen as the heroine as she saves Lanval at the end of the story which was very unusual for the given time period.[11]

Marie de France began writing shortly after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (written around 1138),[12] which seems to be the base for much of the story of Arthur and his knights, who figure so prominently in this and other lais. Geoffrey had laid out the main lines of legend for the Middle Ages, emphasizing Arthur as a King ruling over a unified Britain. Whereas Marie de France is more modest in depicting him as defending his own borders.[13]

Having composed Lanval around 1170-1215, Marie wrote near the time of the Third Lateran Council 1179, which prescribed excommunication for those guilty of sodomy. This was following a tradition derived from a misreading of the Bible that the innocent in Sodom and Gomorah were killed as well as the guilty for homosexuality, although it states that God only slew the wicked. Thus, homosexuality became a sin not just against oneself, as with other sexual sin, but an endangerment to everyone near the person. In France Rouen 1214 it was punishable by hanging. The only way to prove sexuality was to have open mistresses, and so abstinence or not condemning the sin led to imagined guilt. Lanval, by saying that he did not want to betray the king implied that the queen was behaving traitorously. By declaring him an homosexual, Guinevere reflected that charge back on him because everyone was endangered by that sin, according to common belief.[14]


Lanval - The main protagonist in this story. He is a soldier who is under the command of King Arthur. Lanval goes to a meadow and finds the most beautiful Lady that he has ever seen and falls in love with her at first sight. He makes a promise to her to keep their relationship a secret, which he breaks when the queen tries to seduce him and he refuses her advances.

The Queen - King Arthur's wife who attempts to seduce Lanval, "Lanval, I have honored you greatly and loved you and held you very dear. You can have all my love; tell me your desire!". After being spurned by Lanval, Guinevere goes to Arthur and accuses Lanval of having tried to seduce her, and upon failing then insulted her greatly.

Unnamed woman/Lady - She is of another land and has come here for Lanval. This Lady is never given a name but is described as being the most beautiful lady that anyone has ever seen. Lanval meets her when he leaves to go for a walk into the woods. Lanval is brought to her by two messengers and realizes that she is extremely powerful and has great wealth. She offers Lanval her love and her body if he will only keep their relationship a secret. She also gives him a promise of wealth—that the more wealth he spends the more wealth he will receive. At the end of the story she comes to save Lanval.

King Arthur - King Arthur, leader of the army, has to punish Lanval because his wife accused Lanval of seducing her. He knows that Lanval is a good man, and doesn't want to hurt him. He is happy to see the Lady appear to save Lanval.

Gawain - A knight of Arthur and a friend to Lanval. He is the only one who stands in defense of Lanval when he is accused of attempting to seduce The Queen.


In King Arthur's court, everyone was given gifts except Lanval, whom people envied for "his valor, his generosity, his beauty, his prowess." He had run out of money, and decides to go into the wilderness and think on his situation. While there, two women come and take him to their lady who is in love with him. They become lovers and she blesses him that "the more richly he spends, the more gold and silver he will have," that she will come when he wants her, but commands him not to tell anyone else of her. Lanval goes home and gives gifts, and they continue to meet. After a while he is invited to join the knights by Gawain, wherein Queen Guinevere notices him. She offers herself to him, but when he refuses her she calls him a homosexual. He retaliates that he loves someone much more beautiful than her with handmaidens who are also more beautiful than the queen, breaking his oath. The queen then complains to Arthur that Lanval asked to be her lover and when she refused him he said he loved someone more beautiful, and Arthur puts Lanval on trial. It is decided that if his lady comes then they will know that Lanval would not have made advances on the queen. Lanval has been calling to her, to no avail. The day of the trial arrives and first her maidens come, then her. By her beauty and request, Lanval is freed and hops up behind her on her horse to go to Avalon.[15]


One reading of the text introduces the theme that such a devoted love as Lanval's can't exist within the society of the day. This is first symbolized when Lanval abandons his horse to go into the woods to see the lady. This represents his willingness to leave behind the world he knows and the world which makes him an outcast. As he forsakes the world he knows he is well rewarded by the unnamed lady who only asks that he keep their love a secret. His "love" becomes that more impassioned and he is willing to drift away from the world he knows. This is seen when Gawain invites him to spend time with him and the other knights—however it is not long before Lanval drifts off to be by himself."Marie wishes us to realize, however, the tragedy that such an intensely personal love will always be at odds with the world, so dedicated to society of others. Consider how no other characters ever act or are seen alone in the poem. The only other valiant character, Gawain, is nevertheless always described as being part of a company, even when they are nameless, as though to suggest he cannot act without his buddies. Arthur cannot decide Lanval's fate without calling together his men, who then request that they contact more men to facilitate the process." [16]

Another reading can be seen from a sexual standpoint. Marie De France’s story begins with a young knight of the Arthurian court named Lanval. Lanval is a "king’s son" who feels he has great potential because of lineage. He is a knight possessed of great qualities including both beauty and valor, and as a result is envied by many other knights who would not have grieved had he suffered misfortune. Arthur never grants him anything, despite his loyal service, and neither do the other knights make any effort to help him. As he was born far away and has long since spent his inheritance, Lanval lives a sad, lonely life.[17] In search of fulfillment and help from his “sorrows,” [18] Lanval saddles a horse and rides off into the forest in search of enlightenment as to the meaning of his life. Marie De France’s understanding of Lanval’s, and most adolescents’, psychology is impressive. She continues to follow this psychology and Lanval’s transition from boy to man throughout her lais, but does it in a more symbolic and cryptic form. Lanval enters the forest in search of something. The forest is a common representation of the unknown or discovery that we later see in early American literature, and that still exists today (Peterson). Once Lanval enters the forest, it is clear the forest truly represents discovery. As he enters the forest he finds a nameless woman who "[grants] him her love and her body",[19] facilitating his transition from boyhood to manhood. However, this relationship that Lanval has with the unknown woman is more like that of masturbation. It is a way of self-gratification and done in secret. Though this relationship he feels more like a man but is unable to tell other the source of his confidence. This transition comes strictly from finding his sexuality, which will later be threatened by the very court that caused him his previous turmoil.

By realizing the whole purpose of Lanval’s journey to the woods, and his new found sexuality we also understand the purpose of the unnamed woman. Her whole existence is based upon Lanval and awaking his sex drive. This gives great insight into how many women felt throughout this time period, but also how they were viewed: as necessary objects for the future generation. By the end of the poem Lanval’s ultimate lover still has no name. Nevertheless, she shows Lanval mercy by saving him from a terrible fate, despite his having broken his only promise to her. Many people view "Lanval" as being a rather revolutionary story for its time in regard to feminism because of the unnamed woman’s heroic ending. She saves Lanval instead of the traditional knight who saves the damsel in distress.Though this is one possible solution, it is also important to remember that this woman is no more than a nameless beauty with no personality. Her only role within the story is to gratify Lanval, but she also has the power to withhold that gratification. This is what is most different and makes steps to changing the game of romance so to say. Now women have a voice, though not much of one. They might not be able to simply refuse a man, but they are now able to set conditions through which men can obtain their gratification. Here Marie has set women on a pedestal causing them to appear more desirable while also setting parameters in order to achieve that beauty. Another point of interest is when she comes to rescue Lanval and comes riding upon a palfrey and putting Lanval behind her. The story ends with "No one ever hear[ing] another word of him." [20]

Lanval has a fairy-tale like simplicity, and leaves the realm of reality for a “happily ever after.” Avalon remains the utopic place accessed only through rejection of and by the real world. As readers of Lanval in the twenty-first century, we only have one reaction: Happiness, and maybe relief at the justice the story offers Lanval.[21]

In Lanval there is a parallel between Lanval's relationship with Arthur, and with lady. Lanval was a foreigner, and Arthur would not give him gifts despite Lanval being his vassal. This was a break of the traditional lord and vassal relationship, and Arthur possibly did it to ensure that Lanval would not leave once he had enough money. However, Lanval swears undying love to his lady, breaks his promise to her in order to prove his love for her. This is a break from courtly love, in that Lanval's love is not adulterous. His love forgives him, and even takes him to Avalon in contrast to Arthur's unwillingness to fulfill a lord's obligations.[22]


This lai makes a number of references to ancient history. When describing the opulence of the fairy lady's lodgings, Marie de France describes them as being superior to those of the Assyrian queen Semiramis and the Roman emperor Octavian. Another example is Guinevere's denouncement of Lanval, which is an allusion to the story found in Genesis 39:7, where the wife of the powerful Potiphar falsely accuses Joseph of trying to seduce her against her will.[23]

"Lanval" is related to two other anonymous lais: "Graelent" and "Guingamor".[24] With "Graelent" it shares a plot structure involving a fair lover whose identity must not be revealed if her love is to be kept.

The idea of the women being more beautiful than any other women is an allusion to her being a fairy. Which in this story shows that this story is more fairy tale than factual. [25]


The work was written in eight-syllable couplets, the standard form of French narrative verse.[26]

External links[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Colette Stévanovitch, "Enquiries into the Textual History of the Seventeenth-Century Sir Lambewell (British Library, Additional 27897)", in Palimpsests and the Literary Imagination of Medieval England, eds. Leo Carruthers, Raeleen Chai-Elsholz, Tatjana Silec. New York: Palgrave, 2011. 193-204.
  2. ^ Black, Joseph (2012). The Medieval period. (2. ed.). Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press. p. 111. ISBN 9781551119656. 
  3. ^ Black, Joseph (2012). The Medieval period. (2. ed.). Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press. pp. 110–112. ISBN 9781551119656. 
  4. ^ Black, Joseph (2012). The Medieval period. (2. ed.). Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press. pp. 110–112. ISBN 9781551119656. 
  5. ^ Petersen, Zina Nibley, "Middle English, Oral (folk) and Written (clerical) and Mixed (civic)." British Literary History 1. Brigham Young University, Provo. 24 Sept. 2013. Lecture.
  6. ^ Black, Joseph (2012). The Medieval period. (2. ed.). Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press. pp. 110–112. ISBN 9781551119656. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Petersen, Zina Nibley, Dr. "Middle English, Oral (folk) and Written (clerical) and Mixed (civic)." British Literary History 1. Brigham Young University, Provo. 24 Sept. 2013. Lecture.
  9. ^ Black, Joseph (2012). The Medieval period. (2. ed.). Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press. pp. 110–112. ISBN 9781551119656. 
  10. ^ Black, Joseph (2012). The Medieval period. (2. ed.). Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press. pp. 110–112. ISBN 9781551119656. 
  11. ^ Petersen, Zina Nibley, Dr. "Middle English, Oral (folk) and Written (clerical) and Mixed (civic)." British Literary History 1. Brigham Young University, Provo. Sept. 2014. Lecture.
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ Juraisinski, Stefan. "Treason and the Charge of Sodomy in the Lai de Lanval." Romance Quarterly. November 1, 2010: pg. 290-302.
  15. ^ Black, Joseph. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature Concise Edition. Second Edition. Canada: Broadview Press, 2012. Print.
  16. ^ "The Lais of Marie de France Summary and Analysis of "Lanval"". gradesaver. 
  17. ^
  18. ^ Black, Joseph (2009). The Medieval period. (2. ed.). Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press. pp. 181–182. ISBN 9781551119656. 
  19. ^ Black, Joseph (2009). The Medieval period. (2. ed.). Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press. pp. 181–182. ISBN 9781551119656. 
  20. ^ Black, Joseph (2009). The Medieval period. (2. ed.). Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press. pp. 180–181. ISBN 9781551119656. 
  21. ^ Finding Avalon: The Place and Meaning of the Otherworld in Marie de France's Lanval - Springer (Finding Avalon: The Place and Meaning of the Otherworld in Marie de France's Lanval - Springer)
  22. ^ Ireland, Patrick John. "The Narrative Unity of Marie de France." Studies in Philology. April 1, 1997: pg. 130-145.
  23. ^ Marie de France, "Les Lais de Marie de France", p. 151, traduits et annotés par Harf-Lancner, L., Livre de Poche 1990.
  24. ^ Maddox, Donald (2005). "Rewriting Marie de France: The anonymous 'Lai du conseil'". Speculum 80 (2): 399–436. doi:10.1017/s003871340000004x. 
  25. ^
  26. ^ "Lanval," Norton Anthology of English Literature, Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. New York, 2006.