King Arthur is staying at Carlisle while the Scots and the Picts are threatening the country of Logres. While there, he gives lavish gifts to all the knights of the Round Table, except for one—Lanval—whom he’s forgotten about. In fact, because Lanval is so brave, generous, and beautiful, nobody likes him, and the other knights secretly wish something bad would happen to him. Far from his native country, Lanval is poor and despondent.
“Lanval” is the only one of the lays that takes place in King Arthur’s court. Lanval, or Launfal, is one of the lesser-known knights in the Arthurian literary tradition. If there was a historical King Arthur at the heart of that tradition, his origins are lost to history. Medieval romances portrayed him as a king of Britain in the fifth or sixth century, surrounded by a fellowship of knights known as the Round Table who defended Arthur’s kingdom and undertook various quests. Unlike the other knights, Lanval stands out because he doesn’t have money—perhaps he’s a younger son and has already spent what little he’s inherited. Still, Lanval has many virtues that provoke others’ jealousy.
One day Lanval rides through a meadow and stops to let his horse roll in the grass. While he’s resting there, he sees two purple-clad damsels approaching, one carrying golden dishes and the other carrying a towel. They invite Lanval to their lady’s tent, an extravagant structure topped with a golden eagle. Inside, a beautiful fairy lady rests among priceless linens, wearing only her shift. The lady tells Lanval that she has traveled from her own country in search of him and that she loves him above all else. Lanval promptly offers to devote himself to the lady. The lady then offers to give Lanval whatever he wishes; no matter how much he spends, she will grant him yet more gold and silver. The only catch is that he must keep their love a secret.
Lanval encounters the lady outside the setting of King Arthur’s court: in a meadow, a kind of in-between place set apart from civilization, where magical things can happen. This setting contrasts sharply with Lanval’s situation at court, where he’s overlooked and underprivileged. Here, the lady seeks him out, desires him, and enriches him. This is a typical courtly love scenario: a down-on-his-luck, lower-status knight declaring his love for a lofty lady. A “shift” is basically a slip. It’s also implied in this encounter that Lanval and the lady have sex. It all seems too good to be true, and Marie hints that keeping his love secret might be difficult for Lanval.
Lanval and the fairy lady linger together until evening, but before he goes, the lady tells him that whenever he wishes to see her, he just has to think of her, and she’ll be there. The lady’s damsels dress him in fancy clothes and serve him a lavish meal before he returns to the city. That night, Lanval richly entertains his fellow knights, though nobody understands how he manages this because he’s known to be poor. He even does many generous deeds, like freeing prisoners and clothing jongleurs. As time passes, Lanval has great joy because he’s able to see his beloved whenever he wants.
Jongleurs recited stories and poems in court, and they tended to be poor, so Lanval’s gesture is very generous—and perhaps Marie chose to highlight it because she herself was a writer. Lanval has undergone such a dramatic reversal of fortune that his relationship to his fellow knights and his society as a whole has dramatically changed, too. He’s no longer looked down on others, but instead benefits them.
Sometime later that year, a large group of knights, including Gawain and Ywain, is relaxing in the queen’s garden. Gawain notices that Lanval is missing and insists that he be brought to join them, since he’s so generous and courtly. Meanwhile, the queen and a large number of her ladies join the knights in the garden. While the other knights enjoy the ladies’ company, however, Lanval withdraws, only wanting to embrace his own beloved. Seeing this, the queen sits with Lanval and offers him her love. But when Lanval refuses, the queen gets mad and accuses him of not desiring women at all; he probably enjoys himself with young men instead.
In the Arthurian literary tradition, Arthur’s queen is named Guinevere, though she isn’t directly named in Marie’s telling. Here, as in other Arthurian literature, the queen is portrayed as flirtatious and prideful, more concerned about her own reputation than her faithfulness to her husband, Arthur. In the Middle Ages, the traditional story of Guinevere’s adulterous affair with Lancelot, another Knight of the Round Table, was widely known. Gawain was also well-known in the Arthurian tradition, renowned as the most courteous of knights. That seems to be borne out in his kindness to Lanval here. However, Lanval’s loyalty to his beloved makes him an awkward fit in King Arthur’s court, as he rejects the other knights’ carefree flirting—and fatefully rejects Guinevere’s advances, too.
In response to the queen’s accusation, Lanval quickly says something he comes to regret: that he enjoys the love of a fairy lady he prizes above all others, and that even the poorest of that lady’s servant girls is more beautiful than the queen. Humiliated, the queen retreats to her bed, and when King Arthur returns, she tells him that Lanval has shamed her—he asked for her love, she claims, and when she refused him, he insulted her. The king angrily swears that unless Lanval can defend himself, he’ll be executed. He sends for Lanval who, meanwhile, has been desperately calling for his beloved, but to no avail.
The queen fulfills the role of the temptress, and Lanval fulfills the role of the man who valiantly resists temptation. Stories like this were common in medieval literature: a woman sexually propositions a man, gets rejected, and later makes up an accusation against him in revenge. It’s also ironic that King Arthur defends his queen, since she was the one willing to be unfaithful to him. In any case, things look bad for Lanval—he’s broken his promise to the fairy lady to keep their affair secret.
When Lanval is brought before the king, he’s so despondent that he wishes for death. Still, he denies the accusation that he sought the queen’s love, though he admits that his boast about his lady’s beauty is true. King Arthur decides that the matter will have to be decided by trial and allows Gawain to stand bail for Lanval in the meantime. On the appointed day, all the king’s barons assemble to discuss Lanval’s plight. They decide that if Lanval’s beloved comes forward and what Lanval said about her proves true, they will pardon him.
Lanval figures that because he’s broken his promise to the fairy lady, she won’t come when he calls, and there’s no hope of his being vindicated. King Arthur shows his fairness as a king in that, even though he’s furious at the supposed insult to his wife, he insists on a fair trial.
Lanval says this won’t be possible, but before the barons can banish him, they see two purple-clad damsels approaching on horseback. They ask Arthur to provide lodgings for their lady, which he grants. The knights are all delighted at the sight of these women, but Lanval says he doesn’t know who they are. When the barons resume their deliberations, they’re soon interrupted by two silk-clad maidens riding down the street on Spanish mules. They, too, ask for lodgings, and the king hastily sends them to join the other women; this is taking too long, and the queen is growing impatient.
Drama mounts as it looks like Lanval’s lover won’t come forward to vindicate him at trial. The appearance of the two different sets of maidens is a little confusing, but presumably all these damsels serve the fairy lady. Their interruptions of the trial help build suspense and anticipation, as well as giving a touch of the supernatural to the scene.
Just as the barons are about to render a verdict, an extremely beautiful woman appears on horseback, with a sparrowhawk on her wrist and a dog following. Everyone watches her approach with wonder, and when Lanval hears her described, he knows that his beloved has come, and he is saved. The fairy lady explains to King Arthur that the queen was wrong and that Lanval had never sought her love. Then the barons all agree that Lanval’s boast was justified and that he should be acquitted. Lanval jumps onto the lady’s horse and accompanies her to Avalon, where he’s never heard from again.
The suspense finally breaks as the fairy lady does indeed come forward to speak on Lanval’s behalf. In Thomas Chestre’s Middle English adaptation of this tale, the fairy lady blows a blinding breath at Guinevere, who remains blind for the rest of her days. Though nothing bad happens to Arthur’s queen here, Lanval is clearly vindicated despite her accusations. Avalon was a magical island, an idyllic, otherworldly place inhabited by fairies. The reader can infer that the fairy lady comes from Avalon originally. Just as Lanval first encountered the lady in a marginal setting—the meadow—now Lanval and his fairy lady disappear to a realm outside the bounds of human civilization. This conclusion also represents a reversal of gender expectations, as the fairy lady rescues the knight, and not vice versa. In that sense, it can be read as a parody of the traditional knight in shining armor and damsel in distress story.