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Marie De France

Le Lai de Lanval

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide


Le Lai de Lanval by Marie de France was originally published in a 13th-century French manuscript. In Old French, a lai (or lay) is a narrative poem following a metrical and rhymed structure. Some English translations of this poem attempt to replicate these formal features; however, English prose translations of Marie de France are the most popular and arguably the most faithful. This guide cites the prose translation by Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby originally published in 1986, which includes the original French line numbers in brackets.

Lanval is one of Arthur’s knights, and his lai is part of the Arthurian Romance—or medieval chivalric romance—literary genre. As such, its main theme is courtly, or chivalric, love. The poem also explores how King Arthur uses a democratic legal process and investigates the differences between green (undeveloped) spaces and urban spaces.

Poet Biography

Very little is known about the poet called Marie de France. Her 12th-century lais—verse narratives in a style very particular to her—were extremely popular. However, the title “de France” was not assigned to her until the 16th century, long after her death, and her poems are signed only “Marie.” Because of this, there are several “Maries” of the 12th century who could possibly have been the poet.

Whatever her real identity, Marie de France was fluent in French, Latin, and English, with some familiarity with the regional, historical languages Norman and Breton. Much of her work was concerned with the translation of Latin parables into French: the language of the common people in 12th-century Catholic France. Despite this goal of sharing famous works, many of Marie’s works are dedicated to a “Noble King,” which was likely Henry II or Philip Augustus of France.

Poem Text

de France, Marie. trans. Burgess, Glyn S. and Busby, Keith. The Lais of Marie de France. 1999. Penguin Books.


Le Lai de Lanval is a narrative poem about Lanval, one of King Arthur’s knights. The original French poem is 646 lines long.

In the first four lines of the poem, the narrator introduces the subject: Lanval. The narrator also introduces Breton as the location where the story is told.

Lines 5-10 locate Arthur and his knights in historic England. They stay in a well-fortified city called Carlisle because Scottish and Pictish knights are raiding and harming the people of England.

In Lines 11-20, the narrator describes the feast of Pentecost. King Arthur gives gifts and wives to the knights of his Round Table, as well as to other counts and barons. However, he forgets to give anything to Lanval.

Lines 21-32 include descriptions of Lanval. Other knights envy his looks, valor, generosity, and fighting skills. They pretend to be his friend, but would not be sad if he ran into trouble. Lanval is royalty—the son of a king—but does not have any money. Despite residing in Arthur’s household, Lanval is afraid to ask his host for money.

In Lines 33-52, the narrator describes Lanval’s sadness. He, as a foreigner, is unsure of how to ask for help. He decides to go for a ride on his horse to a meadow out of town. When they reach a stream, he unsaddles the horse and allows it to roll around in the field. Meanwhile, he lays on his cloak, filled with sadness.

Lines 53-68 describe beautiful, well-dressed girls who approach the depressed Lanval. They carry two bowls made of gold and a towel. When they reach Lanval, he stands and greets them.

In Lines 69-79, the women greet Lanval and tell him a damsel has sent them. Their damsel asked the girls to bring him to her. Lanval agrees to meet the damsel and leaves his horse behind to graze.

Lines 80-92 are a description of the damsel’s tent. It is stunning—more costly than what a mythic queen, a historical emperor, or current king could afford. The narrator describes an eagle made of gold on the top of the tent and reiterates that the price of it is unknowable.

In Lines 93-106, the narrator describes the damsel within the tent. She is exceptionally beautiful and lays on a bed with an expensive spread. Her clothes are also beautiful and reveal the side of her body.

In Lines 107-16, Lanval meets the damsel. She explains how she left her home to find him because she loves him. If he follows the codes of courtly love, or chivalry, she will bring him joy.

Lines 117-30 are Lanval’s response to her. He is enchanted with the damsel’s beauty and will do anything she asks. Lanval will give up anyone else he might desire and only wants to be with her.

In Lines 131-42, the damsel is so impressed with Lanval’s declaration of love that she returns it and they sleep together. Then, she gives him a gift: She will fund any acts of generosity he does for others. She encourages him to be very generous, and makes him rich.

Lines 143-52 contain the damsel’s condition for this funding. She requires Lanval keep their relationship a secret. If he tells anyone about their love, she will never see him again. Lanval agrees to this.

In Lines 153-70, Lanval lays in bed with his love all day. In the evening, she tells him they have to get out of bed. She assures him that she will come to him when he wants to see her again, as long as no one else is there.

In Lines 171-88, the damsel’s ladies give Lanval new clothes and water to wash up. They serve Lanval and the damsel a feast.

Lines 189-200 show Lanval finishing dinner and saddling his horse. He rides off to the city, but looks back at the tent. He questions if the experience was real or just a dream.

In Lines 201-18, Lanval returns home and spoils many other knights with gifts. He ransoms prisoners and gives fancy clothes to jesters. The damsel secretly visits him many times.

Lines 219-36 occur shortly after midsummer. About 30 knights—including Gawain and Yvain—gather in a garden near the queen’s tower. Gawain mentions they did not invite the generous Lanval; all the knights fetch Lanval and bring him to the garden.

In Lines 237-58, Queen Guinevere notices the knights. She gathers more than 30 damsels to frolic in the garden with her near the knights. Most of the knights gallantly greet and entertain the damsels. However, Lanval misses his own damsel and separates from the others.

In Lines 259-74, Guinevere joins Lanval. She asks him to become her lover. Lanval refuses her, saying he is loyal to King Arthur.

Lines 275-86 show Guinevere's reaction to Lanval’s rejection. She accuses him of being homosexual and condemns homosexuality, calling it a sin that will corrupt the King.

In Lines 287-302, Lanval responds to this accusation by revealing his secret love. He says that his damsel’s servants are better than the queen in both looks and character.

In Lines 303-24, Guinevere feels humiliated and runs to her room. She plans to pit Arthur against Lanval. When King Arthur comes back from riding in the forest, Guinevere lies, telling Arthur that Lanval asked her to be his lover. Then, when she refused, Lanval called her lower than his damsel’s servants.

Lines 325-31 show Arthur’s reaction to Guinevere's story. He swears that if her claims prove true, Lanval must be executed. He orders three barons to bring Lanval to him.

Lines 332-51 describe Lanval lamenting the loss of his damsel. Since he broke his promise, she will not appear. This makes him extremely depressed.

In Lines 352-70, Arthur’s barons bring Lanval to court. Lanval feels suicidal. Arthur accuses him of slandering Queen Guinevere.

Lines 371-99 show Lanval denying Guinevere's accusations. He admits he had a damsel, but lost her due to breaking his promise of secrecy. King Arthur, furious, asks his knights to discuss the matter. They decide to have a full court hearing.

In Lines 400-14, Gawain pays bail for Lanval. Lanval stays at home and the barons visit him. They condemn his love for the damsel and make sure he eats.

Lines 415-32 describe the beginning of Lanval’s full court hearing. About 100 men there believe Lanval is innocent. Everyone waits for the barons’ verdict. Some men want to see Lanval hanged.

In Lines 433-60, the Count of Cornwall addresses the court. He restates the charges. They must respond to the charges because the King must be honored. The Count argues that if Lanval can bring forth his damsel in order to prove that she is fairer than the queen, he will be pardoned. If Lanval cannot produce his beloved, he will be banished.

Lines 461-71 describe sending a message from court to Lanval. The message states that if his beloved shows herself, Lanval will be pardoned. However, Lanval is certain she will not help him, and the messengers bring this response back to the judges. King Arthur asks for a speedy verdict.

In Lines 472-98, two beautiful damsels on horseback approach the city. Gawain sees them and asks Lanval if one of them is his beloved. Lanval does not recognize them. The damsels dismount in front of King Arthur and ask for a room to be prepared for their lady. Arthur assigns two knights to help them.

In Lines 499-508, King Arthur returns to the judges. He asks again for their verdict. They are still debating because of the arrival of the damsels.

Lines 509-32 describe the arrival of two more beautiful damsels. All of Arthur’s vassals believe they will save Lanval. Yvain tells Lanval about the damsels, and asks if either is his beloved. Lanval replies he does not know nor love them. The damsels dismount in front of the King, and their beauty is admired by the court.

In Lines 533-46, the elder of the damsels asks King Arthur if a room can be prepared for their lady. He sends them to the room with the other two damsels, and ignores their mules. Arthur again demands a verdict from the judges, upset that Guinevere is still fasting.

Lines 547-74 describe another woman who approaches on a horse. She is exceedingly beautiful and her white horse is also elegant. The horse has stunning accessories and the damsel’s white dress is described: Its lacing shows off her sides. There is a list of her features that emphasizes how each part of her is fair and bright. She is accompanied by a sparrowhawk and a greyhound.

Lines 575-92 contain the reactions of the townspeople to the damsel. They gather to watch her ride towards the court and admire her beauty. Barons rush to tell Lanval about her, hoping she will save him.

In Lines 593-600, Lanval responds to the barons’ descriptions of the damsel. He realizes that his beloved has come to save him and wants to see her—no matter the cost.

Lines 601-29 describe Lanval’s beloved speaking to King Arthur and his court. Everyone watches her approach and believes there is no one more beautiful than her. King Arthur greets her and others praise her. She tells Arthur she loved Lanval, and Guinevere was the one who tried to seduce him (not the other way around). When the damsel asks Arthur to free Lanval, he defers to the judges. They acquit Lanval, making him a free man.

In Lines 630-46, the damsel leaves Arthur’s court. Lanval jumps on a block of marble to mount the white horse behind his beloved. Together, they ride off to Avalon. The narrator says no one heard about Lanval again and so his tale ends here.