Review: The Lays of Marie de France

The Lays of Marie de France The Lays of Marie de France by Marie de France
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Lays of Marie de France are a series of twelve short lays (narrative poems) in Old French. I read this translation as a library ebook, but it turns out that it is also available under a Creative Commons license:…

The translator, David R Slavitt, writes:
Marie who? A number of suggestions have been proposed for the identity of this wonderful twelfth-century poet. Marie, Abbess of Shaftesbury, the illegitimate daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet and half-sister to Henry II, King of England, is a plausible
candidate, but Marie, Abbess of Reading, Marie I of Boulogne, Marie, Abbess of Barking, and Marie de Meulan, wife of Hugh Talbot, are all possibilities. There were a lot of Maries, after all, but only a few who could read and write in English, Latin, and Anglo-Norman French. It is not inappropriate, however, for her to be a bit mysterious and even emblematic as the author of these strange, suggestive, and intriguing poems. One important thing we do know about her is that she also translated the Ysopet, a collection of 103 Aesopic fables, which could have influenced the Lais but at least suggest something about her taste in literature. There is a fabulous quality to these poems, which are at one and the same time childish and very knowing, innocent and sophisticated.

From the first tale:
A good story deserves to be
well told. My gracious lords, Marie
understands her obligation
on such a fortunate occasion
when an interesting story
presents itself. And yet I worry
that any show of excellence
invites envy of women’s or men’s
achievements. Slanders, insults, and lies
attend me. Everybody tries
to sneer at whatever one composes —
they joke and even thumb their noses.
They are cowardly dogs that bite,
mean, malicious, and full of spite.
But I refuse to be deterred
as, line by line and word by word,
I do my best to compose my lay,
whatever the jealous critics say.
I shall relate some tales to you
from Brittany that I know are true
and worthy of your attention. In
a friendly spirit, let us begin.

The highlights for me were Bisclavret (one of the earliest werewolf stories!) and Lanval. Lanval is (I think) the only one set in king Arthur’s court and I think I will want to come back to it after I have read Malory. Arthur holds a feast for the knights where he gives them all rewards for their great deeds but he forgets about Lanval who later sets out on a journey. He is wooed by a fairy lady who makes him rich, and must promise not to reveal her existence. I’m sure you can guess that a promise like that is going to cause problems for him down the road, but that would be telling! Ultimately it’s a fun reversal of the traditional damsel in distress tale where a knight rescues a lady, but I’m not saying any more than that. Just read it.

There’s also a very short lai concerning the romance of Tristan and Iseult. This one is so short that it was a little unsatisfying, but it made me want to read the longer version/s. I’m not sure when I will get around to it.

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Published by Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

This blog is for my thoughts on reading. A couple of my friends on GoodReads have blogs, so eventually I decided to start one myself. I hope to get involved in the book blogging community and become a better reader and writer! I am not accepting copies of new books for review, but I would be interested in new editions or new translations of classic authors. Find me on Upwork (as an editor) in the profile link. From September 2018 to October 2020 I blogged at Blogger.

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