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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]


Lanval, a knight in King Arthur's court, envied for "his valor, his generosity, his beauty, his prowess", is forgotten from being invited to a banquet where the King distributed rewards, and falls into penury. Lanval rode out to a meadow one day and lay down by a stream. Two women appear and direct him to a tent to see their lady, who is in love with him. Lanval is immediately struck by the lady's beauty (who is never mentioned by name) and they become lovers. She blesses him that, "the more richly he spends, the more gold and silver he will have," and that she will come when he wants her, but only on the condition that he does not 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. The Queen (Guinevere) makes advances to Lanval, which he rebuffs, and the Queen accuses him of homosexuality. He protests by saying he has a mistress, even whose handmaidens more beautiful than the queen, thus breaking his oath of secrecy to the fairy mistress, and defaming the queen at the same time.

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. Lanval becomes very sullen and almost depressed because he is longing for his lover to come and prove herself and to prove that the promise that they made with each other was true. Many barons and other knights believed Lanval, but they did not want to go against their king so they agree to the trial. Lanval at this point is all on his own until there is a shift in the narrative. 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.[2][3]

Form, context and connections[edit]

The work was written in eight-syllable couplets, the standard form of French narrative verse.[4] Lanval is related to two other anonymous lais: Graelent and Guingamor.[5] With Graelent it shares a plot structure involving a fair lover whose identity must not be revealed if her love is to be kept.

Lanval is one of Marie de France's 12-lai collection, and only one explicitly set in Arthur's court with reference to the Round Table and the isle of Avalon (although the lai Chevrefoil too can be classed as Arthurian material).[6] It was composed after Geoffrey of Monmouth's who wrote of King Arthur in History of the Kings of Britain (ca. 1136) and of Avalon in Life of Merlin (ca. 1150).[7] A lai is a lyrical, narrative written in octosyllabic couplets that often deals with tales of adventure and romance. Lais were mainly composed in France and Germany, during the 13th and 14th centuries.

Marie's lays despite the fairy tale atmosphere all feature ordinary humans, except for Lanval which features an immortal "fairy mistress". Here too, she is not "particularly supernatural" in her described manners and guises. However, she is evidently from the Otherworld and able to confer everlasting life on her lover.[8] Lanval is rescued from Arthur's judgment by his mistress, which reverses the traditional gender roles of the knight in shining armour and the damsel in distress—at the conclusion, Lanval leaps onto the back of his mistress's horse and they ride off to Avalon.

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 Gomorrah 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 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 a homosexual, Guinevere reflected that charge back on him because everyone was endangered by that sin, according to common belief.[9]

Lanval's economic situation at the beginning of the Lai also has basis in history. Lanval is depicted as a knight that experiences personal alienation in reflection of the actual alienation of 12th-century lower nobility that primarily consisted of younger, unmarried sons. During the crisis of aristocracy, caused by the reconstitution of monarchy and through the rise of the urban middle class, the bacheliers or jeunes found themselves in a position of being without land or in the need to sell that which they did own in order to pay off their debts. Lanval is poor not just because of neglect but also because he has spent all that he has inherited.[10] His condition reflects both a class and generation whose dispossession is the result of a matrimonial model that works against the interest of women and younger sons. Under which if the eldest son survived to the age of marriage and reproduction, the younger siblings were left to wander far from home, much like depicted within the opening lines of Lanval. His wandering into the countryside and encounter with the fairy mistress represent the dream of possession. She serves as a foil to reality, while he is exiled, she has left her own country to find him and while he is neglected by Arthur, she holds him above all other knights. Most importantly while Lanval is poor, she is rich beyond measure. Lanval can be read as a sort of parody of the numerous damsel in distress tales in which a valiant knight rescues a maiden. As within Lanval it is the fairy mistress saving the valiant knight from distress instead. She is the literary incarnation of a fantasized solution to class issues which persisted in actual history during the 12th century for young knights.[11]

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.[12]

Translations and adaptations[edit]

The poem was translated into Old Norse in the 13th century as part of the initiative of King Haakon IV of Norway as Janual (Januals ljóđ), one of the Norse lays called the Strengleikar. Its version translated into Middle English is now lost, but it influenced the 14th-century poems Sir Landevale and Sir Launfal (by Thomas Chestre) as well two 16th-century versions, Sir Lambewell and Sir Lamwell.[13]

Lanval also appears in a number of modern works. As Launfal, he is the protagonist of James Russell Lowell’s poem The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848) in which she seeks the Holy Grail.[14] Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote the short poem "The Fairy Bride" (1853) about a knight named Elvar, another reworking of Marie's tale. He is the subject of T. E. Ellis' play Lanval (1908) combining the traditional Lanval story with elements from the Arthurian chronicle and romance traditions.[15] A film adaptation merging Sir Lanval of Marie's Lanval and Sir Launfal was made by Chagford Filmmaking Group Production in 2010.[16][17]

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 (2009), pp. 188–203.
  3. ^ Cross 1915, pp. 585–587
  4. ^ "Lanval," Norton Anthology of English Literature, Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. New York, 2006.
  5. ^ Maddox, Donald (2005). "Rewriting Marie de France: The anonymous 'Lai du conseil'". Speculum. 80 (2): 399–436. doi:10.1017/s003871340000004x. JSTOR 20463272.
  6. ^ Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn; Burgess, Glyn S. (2006), "Arthur in the Narrative Lay", The Arthur of the French, Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, University of Wales Press, 4, p. 187; cited in Burgess & Angeli 2007, p. 19
  7. ^ Shoaf 1990
  8. ^ Burgess & Busby 1999, pp. 4, 33
  9. ^ Juraisinski, Stefan. "Treason and the Charge of Sodomy in the Lai de Lanval." Romance Quarterly. 1 November 2010: pg. 290–302.
  10. ^ Bloch, R. Howard (15 May 2006). The Anonymous Marie de France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-0226059846. Retrieved 19 September 2017.
  11. ^ Bloch, R. Howard (15 May 2006). The Anonymous Marie de France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 69. ISBN 978-0226059846. Retrieved 19 September 2017.
  12. ^ Marie de France, "Les Lais de Marie de France", p. 151, traduits et annotés par Harf-Lancner, L., Livre de Poche 1990.
  13. ^ "Sir Launfal | UCL Mapping the European Breton Lai". University College London. Retrieved 24 March 2019.
  14. ^ "The Vision of Sir Launfal | Robbins Library Digital Projects". Retrieved 24 March 2019.
  15. ^ "Lanval: A Drama in Four Acts | Robbins Library Digital Projects". Retrieved 24 March 2019.
  16. ^ "Sir Lanval -A Chagford Filmmaking Group Production. The story so far..." D&CFilm. 11 February 2010. Retrieved 24 March 2019.
  17. ^ "Film review: Sir Lanval | UCL Mapping the European Breton Lai". University College London. Retrieved 24 March 2019.


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