The Lais of Marie de France

by

Marie de France

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The Lais of Marie de France: XII. Eliduc Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Marie will now tell the story of a very old Breton lay. In Brittany there lived a brave and courtly knight named Eliduc. Eliduc had a wise, noble wife, Guildelüec, and they were happily married for a long time. But one day, Eliduc decides to go in search of work as a paid soldier. While away from home, he falls in love with a beautiful princess named Guilliadun.
At 1,184 lines, Eliduc is the longest of the Lais. Surprisingly, the story begins with an apparently happily married couple. Judging from Marie’s previous lays, though, that won’t last for long. Indeed, the story suggests that leaving home, particularly leaving a virtuous and beloved wife behind, was an ideal way for a knight to set himself up for transgression.
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The King of Brittany loves and trusts Eliduc and gives him many privileges, like freedom to hunt in the forests. Though nobody dares oppose Eliduc, many envy and grumble against him, and he ends up being banished from court on the basis of a false rumor; the king gives Eliduc no chance to defend himself. Sadly, Eliduc decides to leave the country to visit the kingdom of Logres for a while. He leaves his wife at home, promising to remain faithful.
Eliduc’s banishment provides the pretext for his leaving home. There’s no indication of what the false rumors were about, merely the suggestion that Eliduc is virtuous, and that the punishment is undeserved. Logres was the name of King Arthur’s realm in Arthurian legend, though this story has no other connections to the Arthurian tradition.
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After crossing the sea, Eliduc finds much fighting. One old king near Exeter, who refuses to give his young daughter in marriage to one of his peers, is being besieged by the peer. When Eliduc hears about this conflict, he offers to help, and the king eagerly enlists him and puts him up in fine lodgings. Eliduc starts gathering knights. A few days later, there’s word that the enemy plans to assault the town. Eliduc and his knights hide beside a wooded path, planning to ambush the enemy as they’re returning home. They quickly succeed in surprising the enemy and taking them captive.
Here is yet another possessive father—a frequent trope in the lays. It’s also not the first time that knights have resorted to violence to try to gain a wife (think of “Guigemar” and “Chaitivel”). Eliduc is portrayed as such a skilled and chivalrous knight that he smoothly deals with both these obstacles—dispatching potential rivals and winning the father’s trust all at once.
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After this episode, the king loves Eliduc even more and retains his service for a year. During his stay, the king’s daughter, Guilliadun, hears about what a fine knight he is and invites him to visit her chamber. The pair sits on her bed and enjoys a courtly chat. Guilliadun quickly falls in love with Eliduc—love makes her grow pale and sigh—but she doesn’t want to bring it up, in case he blames her for it. When Eliduc returns to his lodgings, he is distracted by thoughts of Guilliadun, but then he remembers his wife and repents.
Recall Marie’s other stories of love from afar—like Milun’s lover, for example, Guilliadun falls in love with Eliduc without ever having seen him. She also quickly falls victim to lovesickness, seemingly because she doesn’t feel free to express her feelings to Eliduc. It’s unclear why, since other female characters haven’t hesitated to take initiative that way. Notably, Eliduc doesn’t want to commit adultery, and Marie portrays his hesitance as virtuous.
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For her part, Guilliadun can’t stop thinking about Eliduc. She stays up all night, and early the next morning, she confides in her chamberlain, adding that if Eliduc pledges himself to her, it could greatly benefit him—he might even become king someday. The chamberlain suggests that Guilliadun send Eliduc her gold ring and girdle as tokens. He will observe Eliduc’s reaction to try to see whether Eliduc loves her or not. After the chamberlain goes, Guilliadun frets that if Eliduc refuses her, she will never be happy again.
Guilliadun is crafty: she knows that if Eliduc were to marry her, it could (as far as she knows of his background) elevate his position in the world. So, although she chooses a subtle method, she finds a way to signal her feelings and gauge the knight’s response.
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When the chamberlain brings Eliduc the gifts, Eliduc immediately puts on the ring and girdle and offers a gift in return, but the chamberlain refuses it. When he returns to Guilliadun, she begs for his opinion, and he reports that Eliduc is “not fickle […] and he knows well how to conceal his feelings.” He isn’t sure, though, whether Eliduc received the gifts as love-tokens or not. Guilliadun decides she must find an opportunity to speak to him.
When the love-tokens don’t seem to have gotten the desired results, Guilliadun doesn’t hesitate to use a more direct approach. The chamberlain’s report is interesting, too. Saying that Eliduc is good at hiding his feelings is, in the courtly context, a compliment, As other lays have shown, being too demonstrative or immoderate tends to get people in trouble.
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Meanwhile, Eliduc continues to pine for Guilliadun, feeling trapped between his desires for her and his promise to his wife back home. He knows that if he asked Guilliadun for her love, he would be acting disloyally to Guildelüec. Distressed, he goes to the castle in hopes of seeing her. While Eliduc is keeping the king company, the king tells his daughter that she should get acquainted with this excellent knight. Overjoyed, the two sit apart and talk. Eliduc assures Guilliadun that he cherishes her gifts, and Guilliadun explains that she sent the tokens because she wants Eliduc to be her husband; she wants no other man. Eliduc replies that he is pledged to the king for a year, which gives them plenty of time to figure things out. They part ways happily.
Marie portrays Eliduc as an unusually virtuous knight. In other lays, characters haven’t hesitated to begin affairs, especially when they’re stuck in loveless or abusive marriages. The big difference here is that Eliduc loves Guildelüec, and she’s already been established as almost improbably virtuous. Eliduc doesn’t want to betray her. Yet he doesn’t want to let Guilliadun down, either, so he lets her continue to believe that marriage is a possibility. It’s unclear what he expects—if he plans to disappear after his service to the king is up, or if he’s simply putting off a decision. 
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Meanwhile, the king of Brittany is in trouble—his land and castles are being laid waste. He sends messengers in search of Eliduc, regretting that he ever kicked the knight out of his court. When Eliduc hears the message, he’s grieved for Guilliadun’s sake. This whole time, there’s been no “foolishness” between them; they just talk and exchange gifts. Guilliadun is still holding out hope for marriage, unaware that Eliduc has a wife back in Brittany.
Even though Eliduc hasn’t been totally honest with Guilliadun, Marie continues to make it clear that Eliduc and Guilliadun’s relationship has been completely chaste so far, making him a virtuous and therefore sympathetic character. Marie seems to want her audience to root for this unlikely couple.
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Eliduc is distraught. He’s duty-bound to return to Brittany, but he’s afraid that his departure will kill Guilliadun, or perhaps both of them. Yet he can’t marry Guilliadun because “the Christian religion would not accept it.” He goes to take his leave of the king, promising to come to his aid whenever he needs it. The king offers Eliduc all the riches at his disposal, of which Eliduc accepts a moderate amount. Then he goes to see Guilliadun.
It’s an understatement that Christianity doesn’t recognize bigamy. While this reads as a somewhat wry remark, it’s probably meant, again, to portray Eliduc as a genuinely pious and therefore sympathetic character. Eliduc also isn’t greedy—he’s “moderate” in his acceptance of gifts—another detail Marie uses to make him a sympathetic character.
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When Eliduc enters Guilliadun’s chamber, she greets him “six thousand times.” When Eliduc explains that he must return to Brittany, Guilliadun faints. Eliduc holds her, kisses her repeatedly, and weeps until she revives. He tells her that he has no choice about leaving, but that he’ll obey her wishes, no matter the consequences. Guilliadun begs Eliduc to take her with him, or else she’ll kill herself. Eliduc gently replies that this would be a betrayal of Guilliadun’s father, whom he still technically serves, but that Guilliadun must simply name the day, and he will return for her. So, they agree on a date and affectionately part ways.
Medieval literature sometimes uses obviously exaggerated numbers for effect, which is clearly the case with Guilliadun’s exuberant greeting here. It also conveys just how attached she’s gotten and how much she’s counting on the idea of marrying Eliduc. As Eliduc had expected, his departure devastates the girl, and perhaps for this reason, he can’t break things off with her. Guilliadun’s devastated swoon foreshadows later events in the story.
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When Eliduc arrives in Brittany, he is joyfully greeted by everyone, especially his wife. But he keeps thinking about Guilliadun, and he acts so depressed and withdrawn that Guildelüec is grieved. Eliduc insists it’s only because he’s still pledged to the king back in England and wants to return there at the earliest opportunity, so Guildelüec lets the matter drop. By the appointed time to reunite with Guilliadun, Eliduc has settled his king’s affairs in Brittany and wastes no time sailing back to England, accompanied by only a few trusted friends. He sends Guilliadun a message, and that night she secretly slips out with Eliduc’s chamberlain and meets Eliduc just outside the gates, where they kiss and rejoice. Then Eliduc puts his beloved on his horse and sneaks her off to the harbor at Totnes and from there onto a ship.
The women in Marie’s lays are often perceptive, and that’s especially the case here—Guildelüec isn’t a fool (in marked contrast to some of the cuckolded husbands in the lays) and knows something is going on with her husband. At this point, it’s unclear what Eliduc is thinking. He’s loyal—he responds to his king’s summons, and he hasn’t technically cheated on his wife—but at the same time, he seems to have made up his mind to pursue a relationship with Guilliadun after all.
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Before their ship arrives in Brittany, they meet a violent storm that drives them back out to sea and breaks their mast. Everyone prays to God, Mary, and other saints for deliverance. One of the sailors cries out that they’re doomed—Eliduc has a loyal wife at home, but he’s brought another woman with him in defiance of God. If they throw Guilliadun overboard, the ship will be spared. Eliduc is outraged at this “traitor” and comforts Guilliadun as best he can—besides being seasick, she’s just learned for the first time that Eliduc is actually married. To Eliduc’s horror, she swoons and appears to be dead. Eliduc knocks the traitorous sailor flat with an oar and kicks the man overboard. Then he steers the boat safely to shore.
The deadly storm and the sailors’ indignation recalls the Bible story of Jonah, which Marie would have known and probably expected her audience to think of here. In that story, the prophet Jonah tries to flee from God’s demands by ship, and God sends a perilous storm, whereupon the other sailors discover he’s the culprit and throw him overboard. In this case, the story resolves differently: instead of the offending person getting tossed overboard, Eliduc’s accuser suffers that fate. In any case, though, the storm forces the truth about Eliduc’s marriage to come out, so it does appear to be a judgment on his indecisiveness and failure to tell the whole truth.
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Heartsick, Eliduc tries to figure out what to do with his beloved’s body. He knows of a holy hermit who lives in a chapel in a thick forest near his home. He decides to have Guilliadun buried there; he will also establish a convent there, with monks and nuns to pray for her soul. But when they’ve borne Guilliadun’s body into the forest and knocked at the chapel door, they discover that the hermit had died about a week ago. Eliduc decides to lay Guilliadun’s body on the altar for the time being and consult with advisors about how best to establish an abbey. Before he goes, he kisses Guilliadun and laments that she ever followed him to France.
Eliduc assumes that Guilliadun is dead, and that it’s his fault for bringing her to France, so he decides to do penance by establishing an abbey. At this point, it appears that God has judged Eliduc to be disloyal and has punished him accordingly.
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When Eliduc returns home, Guildelüec finds him distraught. Two days later, he heads off into the forest again to check on Guilliadun’s body. Though she still appears not to breathe, she has a tiny bit of color in her cheeks. Eliduc weeps over her, prays, and returns home. He does this daily, and finally, Guildelüec sends a spy after him. When the spy reports that Eliduc lamented loudly inside the chapel, his wife is disturbed and decides to check things out for herself while Eliduc has business elsewhere.
There was a body of medieval folklore involving enchanted sleep that could only be reversed by magic (“Sleeping Beauty” being a famous example). This story is a bit different, though, since heartbreak, not a curse, seems to have triggered Guilliadun’s swoon. Again, Guildelüec doesn’t hesitate to take matters into her own hands when she’s worried about her husband.
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When Guildelüec finds the maiden on the chapel altar, she knows this is the reason for her husband’s behavior. She says that “either pity or love will prevent me from ever knowing joy again” and sits weeping for the dead girl. Just then, a weasel suddenly runs out from beneath the altar. A servant quickly kills it with a stick. But soon, a second weasel appears and circles the first one, touching it with its foot. When the first weasel doesn’t respond, the second, seemingly distressed, runs into the woods and soon returns to the chapel with a bright red flower in its teeth. It places the flower into the other weasel’s mouth, and the first weasel quickly recovers.
Guildelüec is a deeply sympathetic person; though she doesn’t know exactly what’s happened, it doesn’t make her husband look good, and yet she’s still ready to pity the sleeping girl. In the Middle Ages, some folk traditions held that weasels were capable of using medicine. In the lays’ most elaborate example of animals assisting human love, these weasels demonstrate what Guildelüec should do to help Guilliadun.
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When Guildelüec sees this, she orders her servant to catch the weasel. She quickly takes the red flower from the animal’s mouth and places it into Guilliadun’s mouth. A short time later, Guilliadun breathes again. Then she opens her eyes and says, “I have slept so long!” Thanking God, Guildelüec asks the girl about herself, and Guilliadun explains that she is a princess from Logres who fell in love with the knight Eliduc. But Eliduc sinfully tricked her, concealing the fact that he was married. Now he has abandoned her in a foreign land and betrayed her. She concludes that “She who trusts a man is extremely foolish.”
Observant and resourceful, Guildelüec quickly figures out what to do and restores Guilliadun. Though the audience might expect her to be vengeful, both she and Guilliadun continue to come across as sympathetic here. Guilliadun feels deceived and betrayed, and Guildelüec shows her nothing but kindness and sympathy. Guilliadun’s remark about trusting men seems to be a bit of wry commentary on Marie’s part.
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Guildelüec assures Guilliadun that Eliduc has not betrayed her—in fact, he visits her daily and will be overjoyed to know that she is alive. What’s more, she will set Eliduc free so that he and Guilliadun can marry, and she will become a nun.
This is a surprising turn of events, since Guildelüec loves Eliduc, and it’s not clear that such a separation and remarriage would be considered lawful by the church. But the overall point seems to be that Guildelüec is an incredibly unselfish character and that, as often happens in the Lais, true love must prevail, even when there’s a marriage in the way.
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Later that day, when Eliduc hears the whole story, he is ecstatic. He thanks his wife tenderly and kisses Guilliadun over and over. When Guildelüec sees their happiness, she asks for a separation. After all, even if it weren’t illegal, it’s improper to keep two wives. Eliduc happily grants this and even gives her the land where the chapel stands so that she can build a church and abbey. Guildelüec soon founds an order of nuns.
Again, this resolution is a bit puzzling. While it wasn’t unheard of for a woman to enter a convent with her husband’s permission, church law wouldn’t have regarded this as cause for annulling a marriage, and divorce was certainly forbidden. This detail seems to be a fantastical way for Marie to let Eliduc’s and Guilliadun’s love prevail.
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After that, Eliduc marries Guilliadun, and they live happily together. They give away many alms, and Eliduc also builds a church near the castle, giving it all of his gold and silver. Once the church is ready, he eagerly joins the pious men there, first placing Guilliadun in Guildelüec’s convent, where Guildelüec teaches Guilliadun her order. They pray that God will show mercy to Eliduc, and he prays for them in turn. All three of them “came to a good end,” thanks to God.
This story ends with all three main characters as paragons of virtue. In the end, Eliduc doesn’t commit adultery, he still gets to marry Guilliadun, and Guildelüec is effectively a saint who makes way for true love to flourish. Again, this is a very unlikely scenario, but it’s a fairy tale—it’s a way for things to end happily ever after, and as virtuously as possible.
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