The Lais of Marie de France

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Marie de France

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The Lais of Marie de France: I. Guigemar Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Whoever has a good story is grieved if it isn’t told well. Marie invites “my lords” to hear her words. She notes that a talented person often gets slandered by envious people, but that this won’t deter her from writing. She intends to briefly tell stories that she knows to be true and that the Bretons have used to compose lays. She will start with an adventure in long-ago Brittany.
It’s not clear whether Marie has specific critics in mind here, but again, she defends her writing against those who would disapprove of it, dismissing them as jealous. She also points out that she won’t be making up stories from scratch. Brittany is a region in northwestern France; it shared a Celtic cultural heritage with Britain, and people in these regions exchanged tales, or lays. Marie has collected and rewritten Breton lays in her own style and language (Anglo-Norman, an Old French dialect that would have been spoken in England at the time), and she assures her audience that the stories are true. 
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At that time, Brittany is ruled by Hoilas, and the land is often at war. One of the king’s barons is a brave and trusted knight named Oridial, who has a beautiful daughter named Noguent and a handsome son named Guigemar. When Guigemar is old enough, his father places him in the service of another king. Later, when Guigemar comes of age, that king knights him, and Guigemar sets off for Flanders seeking renown. In all of France, there is no knight equal to him.
In spite of their fairy tale elements, some of the lais have at least some historical basis. It’s possible that Hoilas refers to Duke Hoël II, who ruled Brittany in the mid-1000s. Scholars also speculate that Guigemar might be based on a nobleman called Guihomar II who lived at the time. Either way, it wasn’t unusual for a promising young man to be placed in a different household to train as a knight, as Guigemar was in the story.
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There is just one problem with Guigemar—“Nature [has] done him such a grievous wrong” that he has no interest in romance whatsoever. Any lady on Earth would be happy to have him, and many flirt with him without success. Eventually, everyone decides that when it comes to love, Guigemar is a hopeless case.
Marie presents Guigemar’s lack of interest in romance as unnatural, something that places him outside the bounds of normal society—especially as a nobleman, who would be expected to produce heirs so that his title and property could be passed on to future generations. Since lays were typically romances, Guigemar’s “flaw” subverts the audience’s expectations and introduces a conflict.
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Once, Guigemar goes home to visit his family. After a few weeks, he decides to go hunting. Early in the morning, he and his men come upon a hind and its fawn in the forest. The hind is completely white with a stag’s antlers. When the hind darts out of the brush, Guigemar fires his bow and strikes the animal in the forehead. The hind falls at once, but the arrow ricochets, shooting Guigemar through the thigh. He falls down behind the suffering animal, which suddenly speaks, cursing Guigemar for mortally wounding it: “May you never find a cure […] until you are cured by a woman” who will suffer terribly for Guigemar’s love. Guigemar, the hind says, will suffer for the woman in turn.
A hind is a female deer. Deer often appear in medieval stories as the objects of knights’ hunts, and sometimes, like here, these hunts serve as a pretext to draw characters into a supernatural encounter. White stags were especially common in Arthurian literature and often somehow prompted the knight who slayed the deer to undertake a quest, but they didn’t have a consistent symbolism. In this case, the deer itself is apparently enchanted. Guigemar is identified with the slain hind: both of them have literal, physical wounds that represent the metaphorical “wound” of love. The hind’s warning builds suspense—since the audience knows that Guigemar has never shown interest in romance, it’s uncertain if Guigemar will ever find a woman to cure him.
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Dismayed, Guigemar sends his squire for help and binds his wound with his shirt, wondering what to do. Finally he gets on his horse and follows a path through the woods and out onto a plain, from which he glimpses a ship sitting in the harbor below. The ship has ebony trim and a beautiful silken sail. Puzzled, Guigemar gets off his horse and clambers painfully aboard. To his surprise, there’s nobody else on the ship. In the middle of the ship, he finds a luxurious bed made of gold, cypress wood, and ivory and covered with a silk quilt. Marveling at everything, Guigemar lays down on the bed to rest.
Guigemar seems to be in a helpless situation: he’s never loved a woman before, and even if that’s possible, where would he find one now? Here, the lays’ fairy tale logic becomes evident. The appearance of the luxurious, empty ship, apparently out of nowhere, is never explained, and its connection to the hind’s curse isn’t clarified. Given the talking hind, however, the audience is prepared to expect that the ship, too, might be enchanted and might have a role in Guigemar’s healing.
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By the time Guigemar gets up from the bed, he discovers he can’t disembark, as the ship has sailed off onto the high seas. At first he panics, but then he prays to God for protection and goes back to sleep. By evening, the ship reaches an ancient city. The city is ruled by an elderly lord who’s married to a beautiful young lady. The lord is quite jealous, as one would expect, “for all old men […] hate to be cuckolded.”
Guigemar’s ship is clearly magical, propelled by some supernatural force to an undetermined destination. Though he’s also in a weakened state, Guigemar seems to accept the ship’s journey as normal within the parameters of his world. Old husbands and young wives were a common trope in medieval literature, and a comic one, as cuckoldry (a man being shamed by his wife’s adultery) was often regarded as a satiric element in such literature. Here, in a trope that will be repeated in other stories in the Lais, the elderly lord basically expects his wife to cheat on him. Marie’s comment is sardonic—what men, old or not, wouldn’t “hate to be cuckolded”?—but it also anticipates the possibility that this very thing will occur.
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The elderly lord keeps his wife in a thickly walled, closely guarded enclosure in the castle garden; it can only be escaped by boat. The enclosure contains a beautiful chamber whose walls are covered with paintings of Venus. In one painting, Venus is depicted throwing the book “in which Ovid teaches the art of controlling love” into a fire. The young lady isn’t totally alone in her prison: the lord has provided her with a maiden companion, his noble and intelligent niece, and the two women are devoted friends. An old priest (who’s also a eunuch) guards the enclosure.
Marie seems to want her audience to feel sympathetic to the young lady’s plight. Ovid was an Ancient Roman poet whose works were widely studied and imitated in the medieval period. Marie alludes to Ovid’s work Remedia Amoris, or Love’s Remedy, a poem that gives advice on how to avoid lovesickness. Venus was the Roman goddess of love. The fact that the painting depicts Venus destroying Ovid’s poem communicates that Ovid’s advice should be ignored—in other words, that love is worth the pain it brings, and therefore that lovesickness shouldn’t be avoided. Because this painting hangs in the young lady’s chamber, it’s implied that this idea is always present in her environment, and it hints at how she’ll later respond to Guigemar. Again, the Ovid reference also serves to show that Marie is well-educated.
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That same day, while in the garden, the young lady and her maiden companion spot the ship coming toward them, and the lady is frightened. The maiden, reassuring her friend, steps aboard the ship and finds the sleeping Guigemar. She assumes he’s dead and calls her lady. The lady grieves over the handsome young man, but when she places her hand on his chest, she discovers he’s still alive. Just then, he wakes up and greets her, glad to discover he’s reached shore. He explains to the lady that he’s come from Brittany, and he explains his hunting accident and the hind’s curse. He begs the lady for help. In turn, the lady explains her own situation and promises to shelter the knight in her prison until he’s healed. He accepts.
The meeting between Guigemar and the young lady confirms what Marie’s audience would have already begun to suspect—that this imprisoned young wife will be the one to heal Guigemar and save his life. But recall that the hind’s curse specified that Guigemar would only be healed after he and a woman had suffered for the sake of one another’s love. The curse looms over the story and lends an ominous tone to what seems, at first, like a straightforward mutual rescue.
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With difficulty, the women support Guigemar until he’s settled into the maiden’s bed. They wash his wound and feed him. But by now, the knight feels deeply “wounded” by love. He can’t even remember his homeland and can no longer feel the pain of his wound, but he’s tormented, nonetheless. The young lady feels the same way.
Here, the details of the hind’s curse start to go into effect. Apparently, his deadliest wound isn’t the injury to his leg, but the “wound” of love. Lovesickness overwhelms everything else, including physical suffering. And it seems that, fulfilling the hind’s prophecy, the lady does indeed reciprocate Guigemar’s feelings.
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That night, Guigemar frets in solitude, realizing that because of the curse, he’s bound to suffer no matter what. He constantly thinks of the beautiful young lady; if only he’d known that she loved him, too, his anguish would have been lessened. Meanwhile, the lady also spends a sleepless night pining for him. The maiden, watching, figures out her lady’s feelings. So, when the lady goes to chapel the next morning, the maiden goes to Guigemar’s bedside. She reassures the sighing knight that his love is reciprocated, and that he should tell the lady the truth; the maiden will do anything to help them.
Guigemar and the young lady continue to suffer lovesickness, each longing for the other, neither believing that their feelings will be reciprocated. Marie seems to make a point of showing that the young lady is a devout Christian who attends Mass regularly—again making her sympathetic to the audience. In other words, the young lady is virtuous and religiously observant, so even though she’s married and starting a relationship with Guigemar would be adulterous, Marie encourages her audience to root for the lady.
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Still lovelorn, the young lady returns from mass, and her maiden urges her to speak to Guigemar. When they greet each other, the knight is afraid to speak of his feelings, since he’s a stranger and a foreigner, and he’s afraid the lady will reject him. Marie interjects that a person who won’t speak up about their illness cannot expect a cure, and that because love is “natural,” it’s a long-lasting illness. It’s different from mere debauchery, like “ignoble courtiers” who “philander.” Rather, a worthy lover ought to be faithfully served.
Marie’s interjected commentary is notable here. She draws a distinction between different kinds of love: “philandering,” (having casual sexual relationships) and faithful, genuine love, or courtly love. Marie frames the latter as morally superior to the former—even when courtly love involves adultery, as it typically did in lays and other medieval romances. Marie further comments that love—even when it goes against social conventions like marriage—is “natural,” and that the only proper way to resolve it is to openly deal with it.
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Finally, love forces Guigemar to speak his feelings. He tells the young lady that he’s dying of his longing for her, and that if she refuses to love him, he’ll die. She lightly replies that such a matter can’t be decided hastily. Guigemar begs her to be merciful and bring his suffering to an end, and when she sees he’s telling the truth, she readily “grant[ed] him her love.” They kiss and lay together talking. “May the final act,” Marie says, “give them pleasure.”
Love is presented as an external force that ultimately can’t be resisted. In this case, Guigemar takes the initiative to speak his feelings, and the lady playfully resists at first. But their suffering is quickly resolved when they not only admit their mutual attraction but consummate their feelings sexually. In courtly literature, expressions like “granted[] him her love” and “the final act” are thinly veiled euphemisms for sex. Though extramarital relations and adultery were widely regarded as morally wrong in Marie’s world, courtly literature used euphemisms to present it as acceptable and even sympathetic, as Marie does here.
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Guigemar stays with the young lady for a year and a half, and it’s a happy time. But “fortune […] soon turn[s] her wheel,” and eventually, the couple is discovered. One summer day, while the two lie kissing, the lady predicts that she’s going to lose Guigemar soon, and that she wants to either die along with him or remain alone with her grief forever. To assure her that he will never leave her and take another lover, Guigemar gives her his shirt in pledge; the lady knots the shirt’s tailpiece and makes him promise that he will only love the woman who can untie it. He promises, and in return, he makes her promise to wear a belt around her loins; she can only love the man who can open the buckle without tearing the belt. She promises.
Lady Fortune was a common image in medieval literature. When she “turn[ed] her wheel,” those on top could suddenly find themselves on the bottom—as Guigemar and the young lady do here, abruptly going from blissfully in love to facing adversity. Love tokens were also common in medieval literature. Often these were things like rings or garments that lovers exchanged; here, the tokens specifically serve to deter any other lovers. It’s not clear whether the young lady’s belt is actually meant to prevent her from having sex with anyone else, but the fact that it goes around her “loins” suggests so. Even in a case of mutual love, Guigemar, like the elderly lord, deems it necessary to lock up his lover in a way.
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That same day, the couple is discovered by a crafty chamberlain, sent by the elderly lord, who peeks through the chamber window. The lord is heartbroken when he hears of their affair, and he takes a few trusted men with him to break down the chamber door. When he sees Guigemar inside, he orders the knight killed, but Guigemar fearlessly wields a wooden pole, ready to maim anyone who gets close. He explains the hind’s prophesy, and the lord doesn’t believe him—but says that if there’s a ship as the knight claims, he’d better get on it. They find the ship in the harbor, and the lord and his men put Guigemar aboard. The ship sets sail.
Now it becomes clear what Marie meant by the turning of Fortune’s wheel, as the young lady’s prediction comes true, and the happy couple are found out. Though the old man comes across somewhat sympathetically here, it’s worth remembering that a year and a half has passed since Guigemar’s arrival—during which time the elderly lord has been oblivious to his wife’s affair. This fact would have made him a laughable cuckold in the eyes of Marie’s audience, not to mention an inattentive husband. For the time being, however, the elderly lord seems to prevail, as Guigemar is forced off the island. But knowing the ship’s magical properties, the audience can hope it will somehow help Guigemar again.
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As Guigemar sails, he laments and prays that if he’ll never see the young lady again, then God will just let him die quickly. However, the ship soon docks at Guigemar’s homeland, and he disembarks. He sees a young man who once served him, and the youth offers Guigemar a horse for his journey home, overjoyed that Guigemar is still alive. But even as his friends celebrate, Guigemar continues grieving, and as time goes on, he refuses to marry. Guigemar’s story travels throughout Brittany, and many women try to untie the knot in Guigemar’s shirt, but nobody succeeds.
At first, the fact that the ship returns Guigemar to Brittany suggests that his adventure is over, and that his love affair with the young lady will go unresolved. Upon his return, as far as it looks to everyone else, Guigemar hasn’t changed: he is still averse to love, he refuses to get married, and his knotted shirt now serves as an extra deterrent. But the audience knows that everything has changed for Guigemar who, once wounded by love, can never go back to the way he was before.
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Meanwhile, the elderly lord has imprisoned the young lady in a marble tower, and she suffers there, grieving for Guigemar, for over two years. At one point, distraught, she decides to drown herself at the spot where Guigemar set sail. She finds the tower door unlocked, but when she reaches the harbor, she finds the ship sitting there. As soon as she boards, the ship whisks her away to Brittany and deposits her beneath a big castle.
In response to what’s happened, the elderly lord puts the young lady under a stricter guard than before. This seems arbitrarily cruel, since as the story established earlier, the island can only be escaped by boat. But the lord didn’t count on the magical ship’s intervention. This sequence of events suggests that magic or the supernatural is on the lovers’ side, which again encourages the audience to root for them, too.
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The castle’s lord, Meriaduc, is standing at a window when the ship arrives and is delighted to find the beautiful young lady aboard. He doesn’t know how she got there, but he can see that she’s noble, and he falls in love with her immediately. He entrusts the lady to his sister’s care, and she is well looked after and honored, but she remains depressed, even when Meriaduc approaches her to beg for her love.  She shows him her belt and explains she can only love the man capable of undoing it. Angrily, Meriaduc tells her about the knight with the knotted shirt, at which point she faints. Meriaduc then tries to undo the belt buckle, but he fails. He summons many knights to try, but they have no luck, either.
A new character is introduced, and Meriaduc’s role in Guigemar’s and the young lady’s relationship isn’t clear at first. In fact, he quickly gets established as not just an obstacle, but an adversary. Though Marie doesn’t come right out and say so, she implies that when the young lady faints and Meriaduc tries and fails to undo her belt, he was attempting to rape her. This makes it even crueler that he keeps bringing in other knights to try the same thing. But it now appears that Guigemar’s belt serves a defensive function for her.
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Things go on like this for a long time until, one day, Meriaduc holds a tournament against a neighboring enemy. Meriaduc invites his friend Guigemar to come, and Guigemar duly arrives with many knights of his own. Then Meriaduc summons the young lady to the hall, and when she hears Guigemar’s name, she faints. Looking at her, Guigemar asks if it can possibly be his beautiful lady. He urges her to untie the knot in his shirt, and she does so easily, but Guigemar is still afraid to hope. When he touches her hips, he feels the belt and realizes it’s truly her. The lady tells him about her imprisonment and sufferings and, becoming joyful, tells Guigemar to take her away.
There’s dramatic irony in the fact that Meriaduc invites Guigemar to the tournament, since the audience knows what Meriaduc doesn’t: that the imprisoned young lady is the one Guigemar loves. Their reunion is dramatic; they don’t instantly recognize each other out in the ordinary world, but the love tokens do their job and confirm their respective identities. (This also confirms that the lady’s belt is a type of undergarment, since Guigemar clearly isn’t inclined to unbuckle it in public.)
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When Guigemar declares his intention to take the lady away from Meriaduc, Meriaduc refuses to let her go. At once, Guigemar issues Meriaduc a challenge and rides with his knights to Meriaduc’s enemy’s castle. The next day, Guigemar’s men and the enemy’s men ride together to attack Meriaduc’s castle and the surrounding town. Eventually, after a siege, Guigemar succeeds in capturing the castle and killing Meriaduc. Then, he joyfully claims his beloved young lady. The lay of Guigemar, performed on harp and rote, was composed from this tale.
Before the reunited couple can run off together, however, there’s unfinished business to resolve. Since Meriaduc is apparently unwilling to let the young lady go, the men resort to combat. Notice that, after Guigemar wins her hand once and for all, the elderly lord is never heard from again. This implies that, in Marie’s view, mutual love wins out over all, even if the couple can’t get married (since the young lady is still technically the old lord’s wife). On another note, Marie assumes that her lay should be sung rather than simply read or recited: it’s meant to entertain a larger audience than just a private reader.
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