Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta's

World Literature Website












Time & Place

Medieval Period (see Middle Ages), Northern France, 12th century, perhaps composed at the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Language & Form

The Lais are poetic narratives in octosyllabic couplets. The genre is supposed to have Breton/Celtic origins and was used by northern French poets, the trouvères, and storytellers, such as Marie de France, around the 12th century. Norman French language. Recommended translations: John Fowles, Robert Hanning & Joan Ferrante.


About Guigemar, son of Oridial, vassal of King Hoel of Britanny; Guigemar is excellent knight but indifferent to love; he tries to kill a white hind during a hunt but the arrow rebounds and wounds him; hind curses him to remain wounded until cured by a woman's love; the hero journeys by ship to a remote land where an old king is married to a beautiful young woman whom he guards jealously; the lady agrees to treat Guigemar's wound and the two fall in love; exchange of tokens of fidelity (the lady makes a knot with his shirt and he gives her a kind of chastity belt); the lovers are discovered and Guigemar is sent away; the lady goes in search of him but becomes captive of Lord Meriaduc; the lovers recognize each other by the tokens; Guigemar attacks Meriaduc and kills him and is reunited with his beloved

A bout Equitan, king of Nauns; the king's seneschal is married to a beautiful woman; Equitan falls in love with the lady and they become lovers; he promises never to marry anyone unless her husband dies and she's available; she plans to kill her husband, with Equitan's help, in a tub of boiling bath water; the seneschal catches Equitan and his wife in bed; Equitan accidentaly jumps into the tub of hot water and dies; the seneschal throws his wife into the tub and she dies also

"Le Fresne" ("The Ash Tree")
A knight and his wife have twin sons; the wife of a neighbor knight becomes jealous and spreads rumors that the woman has twins because she has slept with two men; the jealous woman eventually becomes pregnant and also has twin daughters and wants to kill one of them to avoid disgrace; one of the woman's attendants agrees instead to take away one of the babies; the baby is wrapped in a silk robe and a ruby set in gold is tied to it with a ribbon; the attendant takes the baby far away and leaves her in the branches of an ash tree near an abbey; the abbess takes in the child, names her "Fresne," and raises her pretending she is her niece; the girl grows up and becomes a beautiful woman; Lord Gurun falls in love with her and becomes a benefactor of the abbey; Gurun and the girl become lovers and she goes to live with him; Gurun is persuaded by others to take a wife and he agrees; Gurun becomes engaged to Codre ("Hazel") who, without anyone knowing, happens to be Fresne's twin sister; the wedding takes place; Fresne becomes the servant of Codre and dutifully arranges the bridal bed spreading over it the silk cloth in which she had been wrapped as an infant; the mother recognizes the cloth and Fresne as her daughter; the marriage to the sister is dissolved; Gurun marries Fresne

"Bisclaveret" ("The Werewolf")
A nobleman is married to a lovely lady; he is in the habit of disappearing for three days every week which greatly distresses his wife; she wants to know what he does but he refuses to tell her; she insists; he gives in and reveals to her that he is a werewolf and spends time in the woods hunting in the form of a wolf; in order to return to his human shape, he needs his clothes; the lady extracts from him the secret of where he hides the clothes; she then plans to get rid of him and takes a lover to help her in the task; she sends her lover to steal her husband's clothes so he has to remain in the forests as a wolf; the lady marries her lover; after a year the king goes hunting and has mercy on a wolf he is about to kill; the wolf follows the king; one day at court the wolf sees his former wife's new husband and attacks him; the man is saved but everyone is very suprised by the animal's behavior; on another occasion, the wolf's former wife comes to the king and the wolf sees and attacks her also, tearing off her nose; the king arrests the wife and her husband and tortures them until they reveal the truth about the wolf; the clothes are brought to the wolf who changes back to his human shape; the lady and her husband are exiled to a faraway place where they have many noseless children

King Arthur distributes presents, lands, and wives to his barons but neglects to reward the loyal Lanval; Lanval is depressed and in financial straits; lost in thought he goes off to the countryside and reaches a stream where he meets two lovely ladies who lead him to their mistress who is beautiful and rich; Lanval becomes her lover; she requires however that he keep their relationship secret or lose her forever; from then on Lanval is able to meet his lover whenever he wants and lives in luxury; Queen Guinevere makes a pass at Lanval who rejects her; angry, she accuses him of homosexuality; Lanval defends himself by boasting about the extreme beauty of his lover and points out that even her servants are more beautiful than the queen; enraged, the queen tells the king that Lanval tried to seduce her and insulted her; the king demands that he be put on trial; distressed, Lanval call his lover but she doesn't come; Lanval is brought to court; the barons are divided as to what to do; then it is agreed that Lanval must prove the truth of his boasts;suddently two young women, attendants of Lanval's lover and more beautiful than anyone had ever seen, appear and request that preparations be made for the arrival of their lady; two more and also very beautiful ladies arrive and also request preparations for the arrival of their mistress; Lanval's lady finally arrives to the awe of all those present who must admit she is the most beautiful woman in the world; the lady announces she has been the lover of Lanval and that the queen lied, and requests that he be acquitted; Lanval is set free and he leaves with the lady for the island of Avalon and is never heard from again

"Les Deus Amanz" ("The Two Lovers")
The king of the Pistrians has a beautiful daughter but refuses to let her marry anyone unless her suitor can carry her in his arms, without resting, all the way up a very high mountain; may try but fail; the son of a count falls in love with the girl and became her lover in secret; he asks her to run away with him but she refuses because she doesn't want to upset her father; the girl however makes arrangements to have her lover get a strength potion to help him carry out the feat required by her father; the young man gets the potion and a date is set for the trial; the girl prepares herself by trying to lose as much weight as possible and wears very little clothing on the day of the climb; the young man gives her the potion bottle to hold; he takes her half way up the mountain and begins to grow weak; she wants him to drink the potion but, out of pride, he refuses; in spite of her repeated pleas, he doesn't drink the potion and reaches the top of the mountain and dies there, exhusted; heartbroken, the girl dies by her lover's side, everyone grieves greatly and the two young lovers are buried on the mountain's top

An old, rich man marries a young, beautiful lady and locks her up to keep her away from everyone; the lady is imprisoned for about seven years, guarded by the husband's old sister; the lady is very sad, withering away, and wants to die; one day a hawk flies into her chamber and is transformed into a handsome and courteous young knight; the knight advises her to pretend to feel ill and call for a priest; the two of them lie together in bed and then he takes on the lady's shape and receives communion from the priest; the lovers spend more time together and then the knight leaves, promising to return whenever the lady desires; she calls him back very often and is happy and glowing; her husband becomes suspicious; he arranges to have his old sister hide herself and find out what the lady is doing when alone; the old woman witnesses the encounter of the lovers and the young man's transformations from man into bird; the old woman tells the husband what's occurring and he devises a trap for the hawk, setting up sharpened spikes by the window; the next day the hawk is fatally wounded while trying to fly into the lady's chamber; he comforts the lady telling her she will soon give birth to his son whom she is to name Yonec and who will avenge the lovers; the knight leaves; the lady follows his track of blood; she goes into a hill and reaches a meadow and then a city made of silver; she enters the city and then a palace where she finds two knights sleeping on beds and then finds her lover who embraces her and the two lament their misfortune; he tells her he will die soon and advises her to go away; he gives her a magical ring that will cause her husband to forget what happened; he also gives her his sword to pass on to their son; she returns home and gives birth to Yonec; Yonec eventually learns the tragic story of his father; the lady gives Yonec his father's sword, then faints and dies; Yonec cuts off his stepfather's head; Yonec becomes king of his father's people

"Laüstic" ("The Nightingale")
Two knights live next door to each other at Saint Malo; one is married, the other is not; the bachelor knight loves his neighbor's wife and she loves him too; they keep their love secret from others for a while; they see and talk to each other from their windows; the husband grows suspicious and questions the lady; she tells him that she loves the song of the nightingale and that that is why she gets up in the middle of the night and goes to the window; her husband is angry and determined to catch the nightingale; the servants capture the nightingale and the husband kills it and throws the body of the bird to the lady; she wraps the dead bird in cloth and sends it to her lover with an account of what happened; he puts the bird in a gold vessel, seals it, and carries it with him from then on

Milun is a matchless knight from South Wales, no one can defeat him; a lady falls in love with him and informs him of the fact; they become lovers; the lady becomes pregnant but is very distressed about losing her reputation and being punished; when the child is born they secretly send him to Northumbria to be raised by an older sister of the lady; the child bears with him Milun's ring and a letter which are to inform him of his identity when he grows up; the sister receives the child and the tokens very happily; Milun devotes himself to martial exploits while his lady is given away in marriage to another; Milun is disheartened but devises a way to communicate with his lady by means of a messenger swan; the swan, bearing a letter from Milun, is delivered to the lady; they exchange letters in this way for twenty years; meanwhile, their son grows up and becomes a knight and is given the Milun's ring and the letter revealing his origins and identity; he goes away in search of adventure and soon becomes famous as "the knight without equal"; Milun, not knowing this is his son, hears his fame and decides he must fight him; eventually the two meet at a tournament; Milun is unhorsed by his son who, however, treats him with great courtesy; Milun recongnizes the ring on his son's finger and the two are reunited; meanwhile the lady's husband dies and Milun rushes to her side and the two are married and live happily ever after

"Chaitivel" ("The Unfortunate One" or "The Four Sorrows")
A beautiful lady is pursued by four suitors; she does not want to discourage any of them; she gives them each love tokens and keeps them ignorant about each other; a tournament is called; three of the lovers are killed during the tournament and one survives; the lady is heartbroken and has the dead buried and the survivor treated by doctors; the lady cannot be consoled and composes a lai which she calls "The Four Sorrows"; the surviving knight wants it called "The Unfortunate One" because the lady does not grant him her love; she agrees to name the lai as he suggests

"Chevrefoil" ("Honeysuckle")
King Mark exiles his nephew Tristan because of Tristan's love for Mark's wife Queen Iseult; Tristan goes to his native South Wales and stays there for a year; he is sad and eventually decides to go back to Cornwall in search of Iseult; Tristan hears Mark and Iseult are to go to Tintagel for the Pentecost feast; Tristan hides in the woods by the road where Iseult is to travel; he cuts a hazel tree and carves his name on it with a knife; he intends for Iseult to see the sign and know of his suffering for her love; Tristan and Iseult are said to be like the honeysuckle that entwines itself around the hazel tree--the two survive together but die if separated; Iseult rides along the road and sees and recognizes Tristan's sign; she orders her men to stop and she goes into the woods and meets Tristan; she promises him that he is to be reconciled with Mark; they separate and weep; Tristan then composes the lai called Chevrefoil ("goat's leaf")

"Eliduc" (or "Guildeluec and Guilliadun")
Eliduc, a worthy knight living in Brittany, is married to the virtuous Guildeluec; he is forced to abandon his homeland because of the attacks of others who are envious of his virtues and slander him before his lord; promising to be faithful, he leaves his wife in Brittany and travels to England where he helps a king who is having trouble with a peer who wants to marry his daughter; Eliduc sets up an ambush and takes several prisoners from among the king's enemies; the king loves Eliduc and keeps him for a year; the king's daughter, Guilliadun, is very lovely and summons Eliduc to her side; she falls in love with Eliduc and sends him love tokens, a ring and a belt; Eliduc takes the presents but is troubled because of his promise of fidelity to his wife; Guilliadun makes full confession of her love for him and he accepts it but doesn't tell her about his wife; meanwhile his former lord, the king of Brittany, is having trouble with his enemies and sends messengers to Eliduc asking him to return and help him; Eliduc is distressed at having to abandon Guilliadun; Eliduc announces his intention to leave; she faints; he promises to return to her at an appointed time; Eliduc goes back to his homeland and his wife but can't stop thinking about Guilliadun; he helps the king of Brittany solve his problems and sails back to England; he arrives secretly and sends a messenger to Guilliadun; she slips away from her father's home and joins Eliduc who is hiding in the woods; they go back to his ship and sail away; when they are nearing Brittany a storm breaks out; one of the sailors says the cause of the storm is Eliduc's betrayal of his wife and asks him to throw Guilliadun into the ocean; Guilliadun faints at finding out that Eliduc is married; Eliduc is furious and throws the sailor overboard; they disembark in Brittany; believing her dead, Eliduc takes the unconscious Guilliadun to a hermit's chapel for burial; he decides to delay the burial and seek advice from others; Guilliadun is laid on a bed; Eliduc goes to his castle but his wife notices he is visibly unhappy; Guildeluec has Eliduc followed and finds out about Guilliadun's body in the chapel; Guildeluec is distressed at the sad fate of Guilliadun and her own loss of Eliduc's love; while she is mourning a weasel runs out from under the altar and is killed by a servant; the weasel's mate revives its dead companion by placing a red flower it its mouth; Guildeluec has the flower retrieved and uses it to bring Guilliadun back to life; Guildeluec hears her story and then tells her that Eliduc believes she's dead but still loves her; she then tells Guilliadun that she will allow her and Eliduc to be together; Guildeluec joins a convent; Eluduc marries Guilliadun and lives happily with her for many years; in his old age Eliduc founds a monastery and joins it while Guilliadun joins the same convent where Guildeluec lives; all three spend their last years in the love and service of God

Main Issues

romantic and magical situations, themes, and imagery; elements of the supernatural; values of chivalry and courtliness; influence of classical and Celtic mythology (Land of Faerie)

theme of lovers in hostile world of oppressive marriages and social conventions (conflicts between love, chivalry, and marriage); love as escape from oppressive world

expression of women's perspectives and desires

challenge to male, patriarchal, and traditional Christian interests and perspectives

personal, psychological, and affective issues; emphasis on the individual and her/his desires as opposed to social obligations

emphasis on freedom of desire and imagination; enjoyment of the body and sensory experience

also consideration of problems of love (treachery, selfishness)

positive assessment of nature (animals, plants, etc.) as realm of freedom and unrestricted desire

ambiguous moral messages

Study Questions

"Laüstic" ("The Nightingale")
How is courtly love expressed and celebrated in this story? How is the husband portrayed as the villain? How is the relationship of the lovers portrayed? What distinguishes the lovers from the husband? What values is the story promoting? What does the nightingale represent? Is it significant that it is hunted down? Why? What does the activity of hunting suggest? What is the attitude toward animals in these tales? (compare, for example, with "Bisclaveret"). Does this suggest a new set of attitudes toward nature? How does the hunter become the villain? Why is the body of the bird put in a gold vessel? What does that suggest? What has it become? What sorts of allusions are established by means of that image? Why are the lovers and adultery not condemned? What new values toward human relationships are embodied in these narratives? Why are such values coming into being? How do they clash with traditional ideas of marriage and authority? Who is being challenged here? Why? How is the story connected to the economic, social, cultural, and political developments of the period?

How does this story define true merit? Why is King Arthur criticized? What does he fail to appreciate in Lanval? What values and virtues does Lanval embody? What is the meaning of his secret lover? Why must secrecy be maintained in order for their love to survive? How is the lovers' lifestyle described? How is this significant? Is that related to the economic and social developments of the courtly era? Is a luxurious lifestyle condemned or criticized? How does that differ from earlier medieval and Christian attitudes toward wealth and worldly riches? What new values are embodied in the life of Lanval and his lover? How is Queen Guinevere portrayed in this story? Why? What does that suggest? Whatt downsides of the courtly life are explored in this narrative? What are the vices that threaten the courtly existence? How is beauty treated in this tale? What sort of aesthetic principles are advocated in the story? What is the relationship between truth and beauty? What is the meaning of the ending of the story? What does it suggest? How does it compare or contrast with Christian ideas of salvation and the afterlife? What leads to the happy ending in this case?

Who is the hero of this narrative? Why? Is Eliduc the only title of the story? Why? What does the multiplicity of titles suggest regarding the interpretation of the story and its characters? Can Eliduc be considered a perfect heroic figure? Why or why not? Does he have faults? What are they? How about Guilliadun? How would you describe her character? What do you think of Guildeluec's reactions and behavior after finding out about her husband's affair? Does this love story deal with more than one kind of love? How can the different types of love be characterized? Which characters are associated with what types of love? Are some forms of love higher than others? What are some possible meanings for the images of the weasels and the red flower? Is it surprising that no one is punished and that in a sense they all get to live happily for ever after? What does this indicate regarding the possible meanings of the story and its treatment of the relations between men and women, as well as women and women? Is there some possible symbolic meaning in the main characters' joining monasteries and convents at the end of the story? What does the monastic life represent? In what ways does the story embody elements of the ideologies and practices of courtly love? (It is recommended to do some additional reading into the definition of courtly love before answering this question). How might this story relate to the relations between men and women in the courtly societies of the 12th century? Is there any possible connection to the conflicts between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine? (It is recommended to do some reading into the history of Henry II's reign and his relations with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in order to answer these questions)


© 2001 by Fidel Fajardo-Acosta, all rights reserved


This page designed and maintained by Fidel Fajardo-Acosta, © 2001