In the twenty-first century, there are gender stereotypes of men and women. In most modern films, stories, or any form of creative work that portrays ‘art imitating life,’ we see that the male figure takes care of the female figure, stereotypically. The male handles the financial situations; they are the ones that save the day when everything is going horribly for the female. The knight in shining armor, for example, always saves the lady. We see this in fairytales like Cinderella, written in the 17th century and Rapunzel, written in the 19th century. No matter what the trouble is, the man has to save the day or else he is not a man. In Marie de France’s twelfth-century lay “Lanval,” the identities of the woman and man are completely switched.
Marie de France, who may have been an entertainer at the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England, portrays Lanval, the hero, in a completely different manner. Eleanor of Aquitaine “brought to England her love of the arts and also her taste for literature dealing with love in which woman play important roles” (Translatio). Marie de France’s “Lanval” definitely portrays a woman playing an important role. Lanval is one of the knights of King Arthur, and he is outlandishly overlooked. The lay begins with Arthur giving away gifts to his knights, “Wives and land he gave in fee who served in his meiny (household), except for one: that was Lanval” (Norton, 18-19). The story describes Lanval as someone who has nothing. He “was born to wealth and nobility” (Ireland), and yet, he does not get anything from King Arthur and he does not ask for anything either. Indeed he “serves King Arthur very well” (Norton, 40) and still cannot obtain any help from his lord. He becomes extremely gloomy because he “has no lands, no English means” (Ireland) and rides off to the countryside to take his mind off of things.
Lanval goes into a field and decides to rest for awhile. Two maidens approach him, and he thinks that they are the most beautiful women he has ever seen: “their clothes were in expensive tastes, close fitting tunics, tightly laced, made of deep dyed purple wool. Their faces were most beautiful” (Norton, 57-60). They take him to the pavilion of their lady who is crazy in love with Lanval. She tells Lanval “I love you over everything” (Norton, 116), and that if he needs anything, she will give it to him. The “lady” “provides Lanval with a ‘dowry’ of inexhaustible means” (Wiens). She will continue to do this if he keeps their relationship a secret. If he does not keep it to himself, she will never see him again. There is a “fairy mistress motif” in this story. The fairy mistress motif occurs in Celtic stories, where a woman comes from another world to choose a man for her lover and imposes a prohibition on him, and when he breaks it, she punishes him usually by a withdrawal of her love (Donagher). Marie de France uses this motif well.
Lanval keeps their romance hidden for awhile, until Queen Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife, comes up to him. This is an example of a woman taking an important role, perhaps to suit Eleanor of Aquitaine’s tastes. Guinevere propositions Lanval, “I have honoured you for long as a worthy knight, and have praised and cherished you very dearly. You may receive a Queen’s whole love, if such be your care” (Mason, 67). The queen is asking Lanval to be involved in an adulterous relationship. This is not seen as ideal behavior for modern women or for twelfth century aristocratic women. As can be predicted, Lanval rejects this love. Guinevere’s distasteful behavior continues as she accuses Lanval as being a homosexual for rejecting her. Lanval defends himself by saying that he will never betray King Arthur and that he cannot love Guinevere because he “loves and is loved of one who would bear the prize of all the ladies in the land… She, whom I serve is so rich in state, that the very meanest of her maidens, excels you Queen... in every virtue” (Mason, 68).
By revealing his love affair, he has broken the pact that is made between his lady love and himself. He does the right thing by declaring that he loves someone else, but in return, he makes the queen angry. She charges him with treason. To prove to the court that he is not lying about his love, he must show the court his lady. If he cannot show them this lady, he will be banished. The court needs her to be Lanval’s “witness and defender” (Norton, 466). Lanval is sure that his lady will not come to his rescue, but in reality, she does. She shows and declares that she loves Lanval, “I would not have the man ill-used – In your court he has been accused of lies he spoke. Listen to me, the queen committed perjury… Your barons ought to speak him free” (Norton, 622-628). Lanval is set free after her confession, and they ride out of Arthur's court together to live happily ever after.
The stereotype of the man saving the woman is not seen in "Lanval" at all. In this case Lanval seems to have taken the role of the female. He has essentially become a woman. This lay contradicts everything that an audience has been led to believe. In the tales of Cinderella and Rapunzel, previously mentioned, the audience sees the suffering lady, and just in the nick of time, the prince comes and takes her away from all her troubles. In Lanval, everything is reversed. Lanval, the male, is the one suffering and the lady is the one who comes in the nick of time to save him.
David, Alfred. “Lanval.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams. 8th Edition. New York: Norton & Company, 2006. 142-155.
De France, Marie. Lays of Marie De France and Others. Trans. Eugene Mason. London: Everyman’s Library, 1966. 61-76
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