Animals symbolize the suffering that’s unavoidable in human love. Throughout the Lais, both magical and non-magical animals play supporting roles in human love affairs, often by suffering for the lovers’ sake in some way. In “Guigemar,” Guigemar fatally shoots an enchanted white hind, or deer, and gets wounded himself when the arrow rebounds through his thigh. Suddenly the hind speaks, cursing Guigemar for killing it and saying that the knight won’t heal until a woman cures him, and until Guigemar falls in love with her. After this encounter, Guigemar wanders aboard a magical ship that carries him to the young lady who fulfills the deer’s prophecy. In this case, the hind clearly has enchanted attributes—it’s self-aware, and it sees the future—but its main function is to die while pronouncing the curse that compels Guigemar toward his life-saving love. In this sense, the hind’s death dramatizes the suffering that Marie de France suggests is inherent in romantic relationships.
In “Yonec,” an animal also has supernatural associations: the knight Muldumarec transforms into a hawk at will. In this case, the knight’s bird form serves as both a means for reaching the trapped Lady of Caerwent, as he can fly through the window of the chamber where she’s imprisoned. His transformation is also a factor in his own death, when he’s wounded by a trap the Lord of Caerwent sets in the window. The bird-man rescues the Lady from her misery by giving her an opportunity for love—yet the fact that Muldumarec’s bird form makes him susceptible to death suggests that courtly love (in which a knight chivalrously pursues a noble lady) inevitably involves suffering. Muldumarec’s son Yonec does eventually vindicate him, though—suggesting that the suffering was worthwhile and admirable.
In other lais, even mundane animals symbolize the hardships associated with love. In “Laüstic,” the married lady blames her wakefulness on the singing nightingale in the garden, which her husband—implicitly aware that she’s really chatting with her lover in the middle of the night—spitefully traps and kills, eliminating his wife’s excuse. Her beloved bachelor knight carries the bird’s body around with him in a gold casket as a symbol of their love which, though ill-fated, is apparently still worth cherishing. In “Milun,” a swan enables Milun’s and the damsel’s affair by carrying letters back and forth between the couple for 20 years. There’s nothing supernatural about this bird. In fact, the couple manipulates it by natural (if improbable) means: the swan’s recipient starves the bird for a few days until it gets so hungry that, when released, it quickly flies back to the other person. The bird’s physical suffering in these interim periods mirrors the lovers’ emotional suffering throughout the years they’re separated from each other. All in all, then, animals in the Lais invariably suffer, and their pain reflects the idea that human love is defined by struggle and anguish.
Animals Quotes in The Lais of Marie de France
The animal, wounded and in great pain, lamented in these words: ‘Alas! I am mortally wounded. Vassal, you who have wounded me, let this be your fate. May you never find a cure, nor may any herb, root, doctor or potion ever heal the wound you have in your thigh until you are cured by a woman who will suffer for your love more pain and anguish than any other woman has ever known, and you will suffer likewise for her, so much so that all those who are in love, who have known love or are yet to experience it, will marvel at it.
But love had now pierced him to the quick and his heart was greatly disturbed. For the lady had wounded him so deeply that he had completely forgotten his homeland. He felt no pain from the wound in his thigh, yet he sighed in great anguish and asked the maiden serving him to let him sleep. As he had dismissed her, she returned to her mistress, who was, like Guigemar, affected by the ardour which had kindled within her heart.
Not long afterwards, as I understand it, the king, who was wise and courtly, went into the forest where Bisclavret had been discovered. Bisclavret accompanied him and on the way home that night the king took lodging in that region. Bisclavret’s wife learnt of this and, dressing herself elegantly, went next day to speak to the king, taking an expensive present for him. When Bisclavret saw her approach, no one could restrain him. He dashed towards her like a madman. Just hear how successfully he took his revenge. He tore the nose right off her face.
The lady, now assured, uncovered her head and spoke. She answered the knight, saying that she would make him her lover, provided he believed in God, which would make their love possible. […] ‘Lady,’ he said, ‘you are right. I would not on any account want guilt, distrust or suspicion to attach to me. I do believe in the Creator who set us free from the sorrow in which our ancestor Adam put us by biting the bitter apple. He is, will be and always has been life and light to sinners.’
When the lord heard what she said, he gave a spiteful, angry laugh and devised a plan to ensnare the nightingale. […] When they had taken the nightingale, it was handed over, still alive, to the lord […] She asked her husband for the bird, but he killed it out of spite, breaking its neck wickedly with his two hands. He threw the body at the lady, so that the front of her tunic was bespattered with blood[.]
But hear now what happened next. Using her ingenuity she got hold of ink and parchment. She was able to write whatever she pleased, and seal the letter with a ring. Having let the swan go without food, she hung the letter round its neck and released it. The bird was famished and eager for food: swiftly it returned home. In Milun’s town and in his dwelling it alighted before him. When he saw it, he was full of joy.
With its teeth the weasel picked a flower, bright red in colour, and then quickly returned, placing it in the mouth of its companion, whom the servant had killed, with the result that it quickly recovered. The lady noticed this and shouted to the servant: “Catch it! Throw your stick, good man, do not let it escape!”