Fairies, Foreigners and the Dead

This week, I taught one of my favourite lai by one of my favourite lai-dies (ha ha) Marie de France.

Lanval is one-part wish fulfilment (poor and lonely knight finds he is the love-object of


Rosetti’s Goblin Men aren’t such a far cry from some medieval fairies 

an infinitely rich and inordinately beautiful fairy whose favourite hobby is sunbathing naked and giving away her money) and one-part ancient dystopian nightmare in which a the only alternative to the arbitrary and partial justice of the human world is to disappear forever into ‘Fairy’.

Tryamour (Lanval’s fairy-love) might be gorgeous and enticing, but generally speaking in medieval romance disappearing into the land of Fairy is bad news.

Just take this description from the romance Sir Orfeo, where our eponymous hero’s wife falls asleep under a linden tree and is kidnapped into the Otherworld. The King of Fairy’s court is not exactly inviting:

Than he gan bihold about al,   
And seighe liggeand within the wal   
Of folk that were thider y-brought
And thought dede, and nare nought.
Sum stode withouten hade, 
And sum non armes nade,
And sum thurth the bodi hadde wounde,
And sum lay wode, y-bounde,
And sum armed on hors sete,
And sum astrangled as thai ete;
And sum were in water adreynt,


Marie, hard at work 

MAnd sum with fire al forschreynt.
Wives ther lay on childe bedde,
Sum ded and sum awedde,
And wonder fele ther lay bisides

The rich and sparkling walls are filled with corpses ‘withouten head’ (i.e. headless) or maimed (‘non armes nade’ –  had no arms) or ‘astrangled’ (choked during eating), women dying in childbirth, those burned alive, and many many more.

Of course, this has something to do with the fact that it’s taken from the Orpheus Myth but there was clearly enough slippage in the medieval imagination between Hades, the Greek Underworld, and Fairy or the Otherworld, to make this a reasonable translation of ideas.

Is Lanval dead? In Marie de France’s C12th original, he never comes back and is never seen again, but in Thomas of Chestre’s English translation ‘Sir Launfal’ (as he is known) returns once a year to joust. The idea of what ‘Fairy’ is, and what it might mean to be taken in to it, is shifting not fixed.

Likewise with Tryamour, the fairy-woman’s racial status.

In Marie de France, her riches are reminiscent of the glorious Roman imperial past. She says of Tryamour’s tent, ‘not even the Emperor Octavian could have afforded the right-hand side of it.’ Tryamour appears in flattering comparison with the most famously powerful human man who had ever lived. Quite a comparison! The colour of her clothes is ‘Alexandrian purple’ – recalling the empire of Alexander the Great and the wonders of the great pre-Christian civilisations. Tryamour is no good Christian woman, but a rich and powerful one nonetheless.


Don’t get lured in by fairies! 

The description of her in Thomas of Chestre’s version is a little different. Her riches are explicitly ‘all the work of Saracens’. ‘Saracen’ was a widely used but ill-defined term in the Middle Ages that usually meant medieval Muslims but was also applied to anyone who was not Christian. It has an ‘Othering’ aspect to it that descriptions that compare Tryamour to male empire-makers does not. To the male, English translator, then Tryamour’s riches are exotic and troubling rather than symbols of her power.

This troubling Otherness comes to fruition in Thomas’ version when Tryamour deals a punishing blow to Queen Guinevere, blinding her with a supernatural breath. Tryamour is foreign monster, but unable to contain Sir Launfal in Fairy. In Lanval, she is a dream come true, and has the absolute power to absorb our questing hero into her realm.

It’s hard, as a modern female reader, for me not to prefer Marie’s fairy-woman, and not to see Thomas of Chestre’s version as deliberately reacting with anxiety to a representation of female power. Tryamour must be more foreign, more monstrous and less powerful to sit comfortably with the story he wants the romance to tell. For my own part, I prefer her as Marie has her: imperial, powerful and absolute.


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