Lanval and the ethics of the court

Tuesday, September 13th, 2005

In BL we’re preping for Gawain with the Anglo-Norman Lanval and other things, and talk of the hero and the journey is in the air. At our last meeting we’d considered various criteria related to the hero and how these manifest in Marie de France’s work. In Lanval they are the encounter (which sets up the context for the fixing of obligation), the obligation, and the test. We struggled over the advances of Guenevere and Lanval’s breaking of his promise to the fairy queen, which comes in heaps and with a few rhetorical slaps. In the keeping of his obligations to his love, he obviously fails. But the hero’s problem and his context is more complicated and tricky than a simple failure like this. Lanval says to Guenevere (in nice couplets, 8 syllable lines)

“Lady,” he said, “hold me excused
Because your love must be refused.
I’ve served the king for many a day;
My faith to him I won’t betray.
Never for love, and not for you,
Would I be to my lord untrue.”

Here is an interesting glue. There has been more than one obgligation made in the story of Lanval. The promise he makes to the fairy queen and the implied obligation to Arthur in the court ethic. In a sense, we ask, which obligation takes precedence? Marie de France’s tale takes us into the legal world of 12 century courts and their intricacies, their balance of ethic, tradition, and means of maintaining order. In the context of the tale, Arthur has slighted Lanval, but Lanval refused to “dishonor” him by gainsaying Guenevere’s charge of treason. Why? In a way, he’s protecting Arthur by neglecting his defence, another kind of giving or “giving up,” giving as selfless act, and in doing so maintains the balance of law, propriety, and holds true to prior obligations. The question could be then, does this redeem him in the eyes of his love?


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