Lanval Gender Roles Essay

Lanval is one of the Lais of Marie de France. Written in Anglo-Norman, it tells the story of Lanval, a knight at King Arthur's court, who is overlooked by the king, wooed by a fairy lady, given all manner of gifts by her, and subsequently refuses the advances of Queen Guinevere. The plot is complicated by Lanval's promise not to reveal the identity of his mistress, which he breaks when Guinevere accuses him of having "no desire for women". Before Arthur, Guinevere accuses Lanval of shaming her, and Arthur, in an extended judicial scene, demands that he reveal his mistress. Despite the broken promise, the fairy lover eventually appears to justify Lanval, and to take him with her to Avalon. The tale was popular, and was adapted into English as Sir Landevale, Sir Launfal, and Sir Lambewell.[1]

Historical context[edit]

Lanval is one of Marie's 12-lai collection, and only one explicitly set in Arthur's court with reference to the Round Table and the isle of Avalon (although the lai Chevrefoil too can be classed as Arthurian material).[2] It was composed after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s who wrote of King Arthur in History of the Kings of Britain (ca. 1136) and of Avalon in Life of Merlin (ca. 1150).[3] A lai is a lyrical, narrative written in octosyllabic couplets that often deals with tales of adventure and romance. Lais were mainly composed in France and Germany, during the 13th and 14th centuries.

Marie's lays despite the fairy tale atmosphere all feature ordinary humans, except for Lanval which features an immortal "fairy mistress". Here too, she is not "particularly supernatural" in her described manners and guises. However, she is evidently from the Otherworld and able to confer everlasting life on her lover.[4] Lanval is rescued from Arthur's judgment by his mistress, which reverses the traditional gender roles of the knight in shining armor and the damsel in distress—at the conclusion, Lanval leaps onto the back of his mistress's horse and they ride off to Avalon.

Having composed Lanval around 1170-1215, Marie wrote near the time of the Third Lateran Council 1179, which prescribed excommunication for those guilty of sodomy. This was following a tradition derived from a misreading of the Bible that the innocent in Sodom and Gomorah were killed as well as the guilty for homosexuality, although it states that God only slew the wicked. Thus, homosexuality became a sin not just against oneself, as with other sexual sin, but an endangerment to everyone near the person. In France Rouen 1214 it was punishable by hanging. The only way to prove sexuality was to have open mistresses, and so abstinence or not condemning the sin led to imagined guilt. Lanval, by saying that he did not want to betray the king implied that the queen was behaving traitorously. By declaring him an homosexual, Guinevere reflected that charge back on him because everyone was endangered by that sin, according to common belief.[5]

Lanval's economic situation at the beginning of the Lai also has basis in history. Lanval is depicted as a knight that experiences personal alienation in reflection of the actual alienation of twelfth century lower nobility that primarily consisted of younger, unmarried sons. During the crisis of aristocracy, caused by the reconstitution of monarchy and through the rise of the urban bourgeoisie, the bacheliers or jeunes found themselves in a position of being without land or in the need to sell that which they did own in order to pay off their debts. Lanval is poor not just because of neglect but also because he has spent all that he has inherited.[6] His condition reflects both a class and generation whose dispossession is the result of a matrimonial model that works against the interest of women and younger sons. Under which if the eldest son survived to the age of marriage and reproduction, the younger siblings were left to wander far from home, much like depicted within the opening lines of Lanval. His wandering into the countryside and encounter with the fairy mistress represent the dream of possession. She serves as a foil to reality, while he is exiled, she has left her own country to find him and while he is neglected by Arthur, she holds him above all other knights. Most importantly while Lanval is poor, she is rich beyond measure. Lanval can be read as a sort of parody of the numerous damsel in distress tales in which a valiant knight rescues a maiden. As within Lanval it is the fairy mistress saving the valiant knight from distress instead. She is the literary incarnation of a fantasized solution to class issues which persisted in actual history during the twelfth century for young knights.[7]


Lanval, a knight in King Arthur's court, envied for "his valor, his generosity, his beauty, his prowess", is forgotten from being invited to a banquet where the King distributed rewards, and falls into penury. Lanval rode out to a meadow one day and lay down by a stream. Two women appear and direct him to a tent to see their lady, who is in love with him. Lanval is immediately struck by the lady's beauty (who is never mentioned by name) and they become lovers. She blesses him that, "the more richly he spends, the more gold and silver he will have," and that she will come when he wants her, but only on the condition that he does not tell anyone else of her.

Lanval goes home and gives gifts, and they continue to meet. After a while he is invited to join the knights by Gawain. The Queen (Guinevere) makes advances to Lanval, which he rebuffs, and the Queen accuses him of homosexuality. He protests by saying he has a mistress, even whose handmaidens more beautiful than the queen, thus breaking his oath of secrecy to the fairy mistress, and defaming the queen at the same time.

The queen then complains to Arthur that Lanval asked to be her lover and when she refused him he said he loved someone more beautiful, and Arthur puts Lanval on trial. It is decided that if his lady comes then they will know that Lanval would not have made advances on the queen. Lanval has been calling to her, to no avail. Lanval becomes very sullen and almost depressed because he is longing for his lover to come and prove herself and to prove that the promise that they made with each other was true. A lot of the barons and other knights believed Lanval, but they did not want to go against their king so they agree to the trial. Lanval at this point is all on his own until there is a shift in the narrative. The day of the trial arrives and first her maidens come, then her. By her beauty and request, Lanval is freed and hops up behind her on her horse to go to Avalon.[9]


One reading of the text introduces the theme that such a devoted love as Lanval's can't exist within the society of the day. This is first symbolized when Lanval abandons his horse to go into the woods to see the lady. This represents his willingness to leave behind the world he knows and the world which makes him an outcast. As he forsakes the world he knows he is well rewarded by the unnamed lady who only asks that he keep their love a secret. His "love" becomes that more impassioned and he is willing to drift away from the world he knows. This is seen when Gawain invites him to spend time with him and the other knights—however it is not long before Lanval drifts off to be by himself."Marie wishes us to realize, however, the tragedy that such an intensely personal love will always be at odds with the world, so dedicated to society of others. Consider how no other characters ever act or are seen alone in the poem. The only other valiant character, Gawain, is nevertheless always described as being part of a company, even when they are nameless, as though to suggest he cannot act without his buddies. Arthur cannot decide Lanval's fate without calling together his men, who then request that they contact more men to facilitate the process." [10]

Another reading can be seen from a sexual standpoint. Marie De France’s story begins with a young knight of the Arthurian court named Lanval. Lanval is a "king’s son" who feels he has great potential because of lineage. He is a knight possessed of great qualities including both beauty and valor, and as a result is envied by many other knights who would not have grieved had he suffered misfortune. Arthur never grants him anything, despite his loyal service, and neither do the other knights make any effort to help him. As he was born far away and has long since spent his inheritance, Lanval lives a sad, lonely life.[11] In search of fulfillment and help from his “sorrows”, Lanval saddles a horse and rides off into the forest in search of enlightenment as to the meaning of his life. Marie De France’s understanding of Lanval’s, and most adolescents’, psychology is impressive. She continues to follow this psychology and Lanval’s transition from boy to man throughout her lais, but does it in a more symbolic and cryptic form. Lanval enters the forest in search of something. The forest is a common representation of the unknown or discovery that we later see in early American literature, and that still exists today (Peterson). Once Lanval enters the forest, it is clear the forest truly represents discovery. As he enters the forest he finds a nameless woman who "[grants] him her love and her body", facilitating his transition from boyhood to manhood. However, this relationship that Lanval has with the unknown woman is more like that of masturbation. It is a way of self-gratification and done in secret. Though this relationship he feels more like a man but is unable to tell other the source of his confidence. This transition comes strictly from finding his sexuality, which will later be threatened by the very court that caused him his previous turmoil.

By realizing the whole purpose of Lanval’s journey to the woods, and his new found sexuality we also understand the purpose of the unnamed woman. Her whole existence is based upon Lanval and awaking his sex drive. This gives great insight into how many women felt throughout this time period, but also how they were viewed: as necessary objects for the future generation. By the end of the poem Lanval’s ultimate lover still has no name. Nevertheless, she shows Lanval mercy by saving him from a terrible fate, despite his having broken his only promise to her. Many people view "Lanval" as being a rather revolutionary story for its time in regard to feminism because of the unnamed woman’s heroic ending. She saves Lanval instead of the traditional knight who saves the damsel in distress.Though this is one possible solution, it is also important to remember that this woman is no more than a nameless beauty with no personality. Her only role within the story is to gratify Lanval, but she also has the power to withhold that gratification. This is what is most different and makes steps to changing the game of romance so to say. Now women have a voice, though not much of one. They might not be able to simply refuse a man, but they are now able to set conditions through which men can obtain their gratification. Here Marie has set women on a pedestal causing them to appear more desirable while also setting parameters in order to achieve that beauty. Another point of interest is when she comes to rescue Lanval and comes riding upon a palfrey and putting Lanval behind her. The story ends with "No one ever hear[ing] another word of him".

Lanval has a fairy-tale like simplicity, and leaves the realm of reality for a “happily ever after.” Avalon remains the utopic place accessed only through rejection of and by the real world. As readers of Lanval in the twenty-first century, we only have one reaction: Happiness, and maybe relief at the justice the story offers Lanval.[14]

In Lanval there is a parallel between Lanval's relationship with Arthur, and with lady. Lanval was a foreigner, and Arthur would not give him gifts despite Lanval being his vassal. This was a break of the traditional lord and vassal relationship, and Arthur possibly did it to ensure that Lanval would not leave once he had enough money. However, Lanval swears undying love to his lady, breaks his promise to her in order to prove his love for her. This is a break from courtly love, in that Lanval's love is not adulterous. His love forgives him, and even takes him to Avalon in contrast to Arthur's unwillingness to fulfill a lord's obligations.[15]


This lai makes a number of references to ancient history. When describing the opulence of the fairy lady's lodgings, Marie de France describes them as being superior to those of the Assyrian queen Semiramis and the Roman emperor Octavian. Another example is Guinevere's denouncement of Lanval, which is an allusion to the story found in Genesis 39:7, where the wife of the powerful Potiphar falsely accuses Joseph of trying to seduce her against her will.[16]

"Lanval" is related to two other anonymous lais: "Graelent" and "Guingamor".[17] With "Graelent" it shares a plot structure involving a fair lover whose identity must not be revealed if her love is to be kept.

The idea of the woman being more beautiful than any other woman is an allusion to her being a fairy. Which in this story shows that this story is more fairy tale than factual. [18]


The work was written in eight-syllable couplets, the standard form of French narrative verse.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^Colette Stévanovitch, "Enquiries into the Textual History of the Seventeenth-Century Sir Lambewell (British Library, Additional 27897)", in Palimpsests and the Literary Imagination of Medieval England, eds. Leo Carruthers, Raeleen Chai-Elsholz, Tatjana Silec. New York: Palgrave, 2011. 193-204.
  2. ^Bruckner, Matilda Tomaryn; Burgess, Glyn S. (2006), "Arthur in the Narrative Lay", The Arthur of the French, Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, University of Wales Press, 4, p. 187 ; cited in Burgess & Angeli 2007, p. 19
  3. ^Shoaf 1990
  4. ^Burgess & Busby 1999, pp. 4, 33
  5. ^Juraisinski, Stefan. "Treason and the Charge of Sodomy in the Lai de Lanval." Romance Quarterly. November 1, 2010: pg. 290-302.
  6. ^Bloch, R. Howard (May 15, 2006). The Anonymous Marie de France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 68. ISBN 0226059847. Retrieved 19 September 2017. 
  7. ^Bloch, R. Howard (May 15, 2006). The Anonymous Marie de France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 69. ISBN 0226059847. Retrieved 19 September 2017. 
  8. ^Cross 1915, pp. 585–587
  9. ^"The Lais of Marie de France Summary and Analysis of "Lanval"". gradesaver. 
  10. ^
  11. ^Leventhal, Cassidy (April 2014), "Finding Avalon: The Place and Meaning of the Otherworld in Marie de France's Lanval", Neophilologus, 98 (2): 193–204 
  12. ^Ireland, Patrick John. "The Narrative Unity of Marie de France", Studies in Philology. April 1, 1997: pp. 130–145.
  13. ^Marie de France, "Les Lais de Marie de France", p. 151, traduits et annotés par Harf-Lancner, L., Livre de Poche 1990.
  14. ^Maddox, Donald (2005). "Rewriting Marie de France: The anonymous 'Lai du conseil'". Speculum. 80 (2): 399–436. doi:10.1017/s003871340000004x. JSTOR 20463272. 
  15. ^Donagher, Colleen P. (1987). "Socializing the Sorceress: The Fairy Mistress in Lanval, Le Bel Inconnu, and Partonopeu de Blois". Essays in Medieval Studies. 4: 69–90. 
  16. ^"Lanval," Norton Anthology of English Literature, Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. New York, 2006.


  • Black, Joseph (2009). The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. 1, The Medieval period (2nd ed.). Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press. pp. 180–202. ISBN 9781551119656. 
  • Burgess, Glyn S.; Busby, Keith (1999), The Lais of Marie de France, Penguin, ISBN 0140447598 
  • Burgess, Glyn S.; Angeli, Giovanna (2007), Marie de France, Boydell & Brewer, ISBN 1855661543 
  • Cross, Tom Peete (April 1915), "The Celtic Elements in the Lays of 'Lanval' and 'Graelent'", Modern Philology, 12 (10): 585–644, JSTOR 432976 
  • Marie de France (1990), Lanval(PDF), Shoaf, Judith P. (translator) 

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