The Lais of Marie de France

by

Marie de France

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The Lais of Marie de France: VII. Yonec Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Next, Marie intends to tell the story of Yonec and how his father, Muldumarec, met his mother, the lady of Caerwent. In Britain, there was once a rich lord of Caerwent who, when he was already quite old, married a young woman in hopes of having an heir. He loved her very much, but because she was so beautiful, he locked her in a tower with his elderly sister watching over her “to keep her from going astray.”
With its jealous elderly husband and imprisoned young wife motif, this tale has a lot in common with “Guigemar.” Though the lord claims to love his wife, it’s actually a very dark scenario—he basically enslaves her in hopes of fathering an heir.
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After seven years trapped in the tower, the lady of Caerwent is so depressed that she has lost her beauty. One spring day, the lord of Caerwent goes hunting and has his sister lock the doors behind him. Alone in her chamber, the lady weeps and curses her terrible husband. She wishes one of those old stories could come true for her—that she’d be discovered by a valiant knight who would love her in secret.
The lady’s imprisonment has a terrible toll on her. Notably, the lady appears to have been influenced by stories like Marie’s lays. But like Marie’s audience, she figures that valiant rescuers are only the stuff of fantasy.
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Just then, the lady of Caerwent notices the shadow of a large bird through the window, and then the bird flies into the room—it’s a hawk. It lands in front of her, and after a while, it turns into a handsome knight. The lady cowers in fright, but the knight, Muldumarec, assures her that the hawk is a noble bird and that he’s loved her from afar for a long time. However, he could only leave his home and become her beloved if she wished for him.
The motif of the bird-man appears in other fairy tales, probably having originated in medieval Germany and France and since appearing all over the world. Hawks were the most frequently mentioned type of bird in medieval stories and were associated with nobility and courtliness. It’s not clear why the knight is a bird, except that this enchanted form allows him to answer the lady’s summons. Though the lady has been forcibly locked up on a man’s whim, here it’s her desire that summons a desirable man.
Themes
The lady of Caerwent agrees that Muldumarec can be her lover—as long as he believes in God. The knight assures her that he does, in fact, believe in God and the Christian faith. If she has any doubts about this, she should summon her chaplain, claiming that she’s ill and wants to hear Mass. Then he’ll assume her appearance, receive the Eucharist, and recite the Creed. Accordingly, when the old woman returns, the lady pretends to faint with a deathly illness, and a priest quickly arrives with the corpus domini. The knight receives the bread and wine.
There’s a humorous irony here. The lady will agree to an affair with Muldumarec as long as he proves he’s a Christian—but willingness to engage in an adulterous affair would suggests that he’s not a very devout one.  Corpus domini refers to the body of the Lord, or the bread of the Eucharist. Presumably, if the knight tried to partake of the eucharistic bread on false pretenses, God would strike him down on the spot.
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After the chaplain and the old woman have left, the lady of Caerwent and Muldumarec lie next to each other, flirting and sharing secrets. When the knight has to go, he promises that he’ll come whenever she wishes, but that she must observe moderation—the old woman is sure to betray them, and when that happens, there’s no way the knight can avoid death. After he leaves, the lady is transformed—her beauty returns, and she’s content to stay in her tower so that she can see her beloved whenever the lord of Caerwent is out of the way. The suspicious lord notices the change in his wife, however, and tells the old woman to spy on her the next time he leaves.
Love is what makes the lady beautiful. Other lays emphasize how love makes people pale and heartsick, even unto death. Here, though, it beautifies and revives, suggesting that although love often brings suffering, it also brings joy despite that. It’s notable, though, that the knight encourages moderation—as in “Les Deux Amanz,” being too demonstrative or eager in one’s bearing can be dangerous. That quickly proves true in this case, as the lady becomes too happy and arouses others’ suspicion.
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Three days later, the old woman hides behind a curtain while the lady of Caerwent thinks she’s alone in her room. When Muldumarec comes, the old woman is alarmed, since at one moment the knight looks like a hawk, and the next moment he’s a man. She reports all this to the lord, who quickly sets a trap, setting razor-sharp spikes in the window. Early the next morning, the lord leaves to go hunting, and the lady summons her beloved. As soon as the hawk flies through the window, however, the spikes pierce him, and he knows he’s dying. He tries to comfort the swooning lady, telling her that she is pregnant with his child, a son whom she must call Yonec; Yonec will someday avenge them both.
Since the lady has failed to stay moderate in her expression of love, she brings disaster on herself and her lover. They only get fleeting happiness before the jealous lord cruelly puts an end to their affair. Once again, love has led to suffering, though it this case, it remains to be seen whether it’s been worth the trouble. Muldumarec’s bird form has been a double-edged sword. On one hand, it allowed him access to the lady’s prison chamber. On the other hand, it made him vulnerable to being killed, unable to defend himself. It’s not clear how much time has passed over the course of their affair, but there have obviously been multiple visits, and they’ve had sex at some point. The lady’s only consolation is that she’ll have Muldumarec’s child.
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Finally, the knight has to go, because he’s bleeding copiously. The lady of Caerwent jumps out a window, miraculously surviving the 20-foot drop, and follows Muldumarec’s trail of blood through a tunnel and a meadow until she reaches a city whose buildings are made of silver. She follows the bloody trail all the way into a palace and searches the rooms until she finds her beloved. He urges her to flee, since the townspeople will blame her for his death. However, he gives her a ring that will prevent her husband from remembering what’s happened. He also gives her his sword, which must be given to their son someday. When Yonec grows up, the lady must take him and her husband to a feast where they’ll see the knight’s tomb and hear the story of how he died. When Yonec learns who his father was, they will see what he will do. The lady returns home, swooning with grief as she goes.
The lady seems to consider that she has nothing to lose and follows Muldumarec, in a sort of quest of her own. Knowing his death is imminent, Muldumarec gives her the ring and sword as protections for her future, as well as the hope that their story isn’t yet over—their son will somehow avenge them, though Muldumarec doesn’t reveal how. His ability to foretell these events hints at additional supernatural abilities on his part.
Themes
After that, the lady’s husband starts treating her better, thanks to the ring’s effects, and when Yonec is born, his parents and his whole kingdom adore him. However, the same year that Yonec is dubbed a knight, the family is invited to the feast of St. Aaron in Caerleon. There they lodge in an abbey, and before they can depart, the abbot insists on giving them a tour of the place. In the chapter-house, they see a great tomb surrounded by candles. When they ask who’s buried in the tomb, the locals tearfully explain that it contains Muldumarec, the finest knight and king their land has ever known; he was killed at Caerwent because of his love for a lady. Ever since, they’ve been waiting for his son.
With the ring’s magical help, the lady is able to live in greater peace, since her husband doesn’t remember that she cheated on him, and he assumes that Yonec is his own son. When Yonec comes of age, Muldumarec’s prophecy is fulfilled. Caerleon was an important location in Arthurian literature, sometimes identified as the site of Arthur’s capital and court, and St. Aaron was an early Christian martyr from that place.
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When the lady hears this, she calls to Yonec, saying that his father is buried here, unjustly killed by the lord of Caerwent. She hands over the sword she’s kept for him and tells everyone the whole story, then faints on the tomb and dies. Seeing that his mother is dead, Yonec immediately cuts off his stepfather’s head to avenge both his parents. The people of Caerleon bury the lady of Caerwent with honor and make Yonec their lord.
Folklore scholars have suggested that this tale traces back to ancient fertility myths in which a woman (the earth) is imprisoned by an old man (the old year) and impregnated by another man, and her son (the new year) slays the old. Examples include the Egyptian myth of Osiris and the ancient Irish tale of Balor. In any case, Yonec’s parents are avenged, and he emerges from the story as his father’s heroic successor.
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