The Lais of Marie de France

by

Marie de France

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The Lais of Marie de France: IX. Milun Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
A knight named Milun was born in South Wales. He’s such a bold and skilled knight that he’s famous throughout Europe and is both loved and envied. A “most courtly damsel,” a nobleman’s daughter, hears about Milun and sends him a message, offering to be his lover. He happily agrees and sends a messenger to the damsel with a gold ring. Soon, they start meeting secretly in a garden near the damsel’s bedchamber, and Milun “love[s] her so much that she bec[omes] pregnant.” When she realizes this, she laments her fate, believing she’ll be tortured or enslaved when her pregnancy is found out. Milun offers to help in any way he can. So they plan to send the baby to the damsel’s rich sister in Northumbria, with Milun’s ring and a letter explaining the baby’s origins.
As in “Yonec,” this lay deals with an illegitimate child, though the child’s existence is handled differently here. Compare this situation to that of Le Fresne’s mother. The young damsel finds herself in a compromising situation—if she’s found to be pregnant out of wedlock, she might be disowned, deemed unmarriageable, or worse—and finds a way to send the baby away. Though in this case, there’s a conveniently faraway relative. This is also yet another case where a young woman falls in love with a knight on the basis of his reputation and offers herself as a lover.
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When the time comes for the damsel to give birth, an old woman servant, who’s in on the secret, helps conceal her so effectively that nobody realizes what’s happening. After the damsel’s beautiful son is born, they hang Milun’s ring around his neck along with a letter, then tuck the baby into a cradle lined with the fanciest linens. Then they hand the baby over to Milun’s servants, who are hiding in the garden. The servants, along with a wet nurse, travel slowly toward Northumbria, resting often to tend to the infant. When they finally reach the damsel’s sister, the lady is delighted to accept her nephew into her care and loves him at once.
As in other stories, the damsel benefits from cooperative servants and apparently unobservant parents. And like in Le Fresne, the baby is sent away with prominent symbols of his noble lineage, implying that even if the child can’t grow up with his biological parents, he’ll still be known for what’s most important in this society: his noble blood.
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Meanwhile, Milun travels abroad as a mercenary, hoping to gain fame, and the damsel’s father betroths her to a powerful nobleman. The damsel despairs over this, afraid that if she gets married, her husband will figure out she isn’t a virgin. But she’s trapped, so when the wedding day comes, she duly marries the nobleman. When Milun returns to his country, he sends the damsel a swan with a letter attached to its neck. When the damsel receives the swan, she pets its neck and finds the letter. When she recognizes Milun’s name on the seal, she weeps.
Swans are known for usually staying with one mate for life, which might figure into the choice of the swan as the couple’s go-between: despite the damsel’s forced marriage to a different man and Milun’s quest for fortune abroad, they’re meant only for each other and will stop at nothing to overcome obstacles to their love. And once again, a bird helps to facilitate human love—it remains to be seen whether this bird will come to a violent end like the others.
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Milun’s letter instructs the damsel to figure out a secret way for them to meet and to send a message back with the swan. First, however, she should feed the swan well for a time, but then starve it for three days. When she finally lets the swan go, it will be so hungry that it will fly directly back to Milun. So the damsel pampers the swan for a month, then “using her ingenuity,” she gets ink and parchment and writes a letter to Milun. After letting the swan go hungry for a few days, she hangs the letter from its neck and sets it free. It flies straight to Milun, who joyfully orders that the swan be fed, then reads the damsel’s letter, which promises that she still loves him.
This swan clearly isn’t magical; the humans manipulate its behavior in order to use it as a messenger. It’s also notable that although Milun comes up with the swan scheme, Marie highlights the damsel’s “ingenuity,” too. The pinnacle of her ingenuity is that she’s literate, which would have been uncommon in Marie’s day. Marie seems to want to highlight the fact that women could take initiative in affairs, too, even when their options were otherwise quite curtailed.
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Milun and the damsel communicate this way for 20 years, with the swan acting as their go-between. The couple is able to meet in secret a few times. By this time, their son has grown up into a fine young man and become a knight. When he learns about his parentage, he decides to leave the country at once—since he has such a renowned knight for a father, he figures it would be a shame if he didn’t seek to distinguish himself, too. He sails to Brittany, where he competes in many tournaments and wins them without fail. He is also perfectly courtly and generous. Soon, he gains a reputation as “The Peerless One.”
This detail isn’t actually as fanciful as it sounds: depending on the species, swans can live for 20 years or more. More remarkable than the bird’s longevity, however, is the endurance of the couple’s love affair. Despite their distance and the damsel’s marriage, they remain in love and apparently undetected. This is another case where Marie’s sympathy is clearly with the adulterous couple rather than with the unwanted, unloved spouse. Meanwhile, Milun’s son comes back into the picture, apparently taking after his father despite never having known him.
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When Milun hears about this impressive young knight, he feels depressed—as long as he’s capable of bearing arms, he thinks, no other knight from his homeland should gain such praise. He decides to sail to Brittany to joust with this upstart and humiliate him. Once that’s done, he will go in search of his son, whom he hasn’t seen in all these years. The damsel agrees to her beloved’s plan.
Milun seems to regard it as an affront to his knightly honor if anyone bests him. Of course, the audience knows the irony of Milun’s plan—that the upstart is his son.
Themes
Milun spends that whole winter competing in tournaments and gathering knights around him. Around Easter, many knights—Normans, Bretons, Flemish, and French, but few Englishmen—gather at Mont St Michel. Milun asks about the famous young knight and studies him closely, envying the youth’s skill but grudgingly admiring him, too. When they finally joust, Milun breaks the other knight’s lance, but then the young man unhorses Milun. When the youth sees Milun’s white hair, he feels ashamed and brings him his horse, apologizing for knocking down a man of Milun’s years. Milun, pleased by this, asks the knight about his family background. The young man explains that he’s the son of a Welshman named Milun, but that he was raised in Northumbria. He hopes to reunite with his father soon.
The knights’ broad geographic origins point to the cultural proximity between France and England at the time Marie wrote. This part of the story is an instance of dramatic irony, because the audience knows who the mysterious young knight is, while Milun doesn’t yet know it’s his son. At the same time, the audience also wonders if the young knight will tragically kill his father in combat before the men learn each other’s identities. As it turns out, the two knights are fairly equally matched. But the youth feels ashamed of knocking Milun off his horse, because that would be seen as disrespecting an elder. The fact that the youth even cares about this suggests that he’s an honorable knight who cares about chivalrous virtues, not an arrogant upstart.
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When Milun hears this, he eagerly seizes the young knight, proclaiming that his life is whole again: this is his son. As the men embrace, onlookers weep for joy. That night, Milun tells his son about his mother, the damsel, and how they’ve been forced to communicate by swan for all these years. The son tells Milun not to worry—he will kill his mother’s husband so that she and Milun can marry at last.
The suspense is relieved as it becomes clear that this story will end in triumph, not tragedy, and Milun and his son are reunited after decades apart. Like the swan, the men’s reunion isn’t obviously miraculous or supernatural. Still, it seems there’s a father-son bond between the two that improbably drew them together over the course of the story.
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The next day, Milun and his son journey to Wales. On their way, they meet a servant of Milun’s beloved, who informs them that the damsel’s husband is now dead. With no obstacles before them, the men hurry to the damsel’s castle, where the lady is delighted to be reunited with her son. The son gives his mother to his father in marriage without delay, and they all live happily ever after.
This story resolves unusually happily for one of Marie’s Lais. Again, though, it’s a case where little sympathy is shown for the unloved husband—except that, in contrast to Yonec, he doesn’t get murdered by his wife’s illegitimate son (perhaps because, unlike Yonec’s stepfather, the damsel’s husband isn’t clearly wicked).
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