Socializing the Sorceress:
The Fairy Mistress in Lanval, Le Bel Inconnu, and Partonopeu de Blois
Colleen P. Donagher
Among the most extensive Old French developments of the traditional Celtic fairy mistress motif are the Lanval of Marie de France; Le Bel Inconnu by Renaut de Bâgé1 and the anonymous Partonopeu de Blois. Though there is disagreement as to the dating of the texts, particularly the latter two, all are considered to be fairly early, with none dating after the early thirteenth century, and perhaps all three belonging to the twelfth.2 They therefore provide the opportunity to study early Old French transformations of a motif which had probably been received recently as a result of the exchange of cultures in Anglo Norman England.
The fairy mistress motif as it is found in extant Celtic sources3 receives a variety of treatments, too extensive to be analyzed here. Normally, however, the story involves a woman who, on the basis of a mortal man's reputation, comes from the other world to choose him for her lover; imposes a geis or prohibition on him (or simply informs him of the existence of such a prohibition), which he later breaks; and then punishes him (or must stand by helplessly and watch him being punished) for his disobedience, usually by a withdrawal of her love.4 The geis is, of course, a ubiquitous motif in Celtic literature, not peculiar to the fairy mistress motif. Yet is is interesting to note that the use of geasa is common in Old French texts in which this motif is found.5
The motif is most often developed in the lai, some examples being Désiré, Graelent, and Guingamor, with Lanval, which is usually considered to post-
All three of these texts make considerable use of the Celtic elements in the tale, though, not surprisingly, Lanval seems to be in many ways closest to the Celtic sources. For instance, unlike the case of the two romances, Lanval's lady is clearly a fairy, who at the end takes her lover back to her own land, Avalon. While O'Sharkey's attempt to identify her directly with Morgain is perhaps not wholly convincing, she is the most linked of the three female figures in question to the older Celtic tales. The ending, though different from the one outlined above in that it may be described as "happy,'' resembles many Celtic tales, old and modern, in which a mortal is spirited away to the other world, never to be heard from again. The use of geis or prohibition receives an interesting twist, however, in that the lady has the power, or somehow acquires it, to remove the penalties for breaking the prohibition, and does so because of her love for Lanval. Such a possibility is normally absent in Celtic tradition, according to which a geis, once imposed, seems to be almost written on the wind, so that the very universe seems bound to enforce it. Although there is often no moral question involved in a particular geis, such as that imposed on Fergus never to refuse a feast (in the "Exile of the Sons of Uisliu," in The Táin) or on Cuchulainn never to kill a dog, the necessity of keeping one, and the problems that accrue when two geasa are found to be in conflict, form the basis of many Old Irish stories.7 As John Reinhard notes, however, Old French texts tended to use the geis as a means of exploring the courtly love ethic and the relations between men and women. The prohibition imposed by the lady on Lanval is a personal one, directly touching on their relationship, at the same time that it relates to
Before examining other elements in the Lanval, we shall first look at the so-called fées in the two romances, and at the nature of the prohibitions they impose. Both of the fées are what Reinhard calls "rationalized fairies" (299), sorceresses who have learned how to do apparently magical things through study. Both, however, live in what seems at first to be a kind of "other world" setting. The Golden Island, on which the Pucele aux Blanches Mains lives, for instance, immediately calls to mind the islands of the Irish Tir na N'Og, and the palace is described in terms that emphasize both its richness and its strangeness: "Un palais i ot bon et biel;/ Cil qui le fist sot d'encanter,/ que nus hom nel puet deviser/ De coi i fu, mais bials estoit (190-7). Yet in other ways the city seems normal enough, with a wealthy burgher population and booming trade that may help to explain where the rich stones of the palace came from. Besides, the "journey" to the island requires nothing more that crossing a bridge (after the rather formidable obstacle of the lady's ami is passed), since the island is cut off from land by only "uns bras del mer" (1878). As for the lady herself, Sara Sturm-Maddox rightly notes that her magic role is de-emphasized throughout the text, although she is still referred to from time to time as a "fée." She is shown as being able to foretell
As regards the question of the prohibition and the consequences for breaking it, we note that, as in the case of Lanval, the prohibition is a personal and very specific one: the hero must not leave the Golden Island to attend a tournament held by King Arthur (one that has, in fact, been set up for the purpose of luring Guinglain there so he can take his place in the Arthurian society and receive his proper "reward" of a bride--the woman he has rescued--and her kingdom). The reason for the prohibition is, however, a very pragmatic one and concerns events that are totally beyond the lady's control--she has "read in the stars" (5347-51) that if he goes there he will be married. Being what he is, however (and, ironically, it is because of his superiority as an Arthurian knight that she loves him), he is unable to resist the temptation of going to the tournament, and the lady seems totally helpless to change the events in any way. In a sense, then, the breaking of this prohibition is more reminiscent of the situation in traditional Celtic stories than are the events of Lanval in that consequences cannot be undone. The open ending of the romance, of course, leaves open the possibility that Guinglain may find his mistress again, yet any such future liaison could only be adulterous and necessarily cause unhappiness to all concerned.10
Like this .lady, the heroine of Partonopeu de Blois, Melior, is a sorceress who has learned the practice of magic from her father. Partonopeu's
Like Lanval, Partonopeu is eventually forgiven for breaking the prohibition, finally marrying his lady after some rather lengthy trials. But it should be noted that the immediate consequences of breaking this prohibition are substantially different in the latter text than in the former, for here
It is interesting to note that, from the breaking of the oath, the romance loses its emphasis on the mysterious and magical which color the early parts of it. Though there are some strange occurrences from time to time, most of the action is taken up with battle scenes and tournaments, following a rather standard romance pattern in which the hero must fight for and win his beloved. This change of movement is analogous to what Peter Haidu notes in Le Bel Inconnu in which the hero's wavering between the two ladies--the one whom he has "won" by his bravery and physical prowess and the one who offered herself to him freely--also represents a wavering between the expectations of two genres, the lai and the romance, with the romance prevailing toward the end, only to be to some extent pushed out in favor of the chanson at the very end of the work. In the case of Partonopeu, it seems more that the expectations of the lai are simply pushed aside, at least partially because the lai has played itself out and can no longer furnish any forward movement to the test. With the loss of Melior as sorceress, the influence of the lai is largely lost, not to be
It will be noted that, in all three texts, as in many Celtic stories, the lady chooses the hero freely, after having, arranged for him to join her in her own territory12 with nothing being required of him but to refrain from breaking her prohibition. The difficulty in doing so, however, varies considerably, as it does in the Celtic stories involving the breaking of geasa. Many geasa are broken quite by accident or because of trickery,13 but in other cases, some failing of character may be involved, as when Crunniuc mac Agnomain ("The Pangs of Ulster," in The Táin) boasts of his wife Macha through pride. In the case of Lanval, as W.T.H. Jackson notes, it is the lady's goodness to the hero that places him in the position, where he unthinkingly breaks his promise, since it is his new material wealth that allows him to look his best and to display the natural generosity that makes him attractive to Guinevere. By giving him the means to succeed in Arthurian society, the lady actually places him in a rather dangerous position. Because of the circumstances, it is difficult to see his failure as much of a "sin" against his lady. Although the opinion of some critics (e.g., Ireland) that Lanval's revelation of the lady's existence to Guinevere is motivated by love for his lady (rather than anger at the queen's accusation of homosexuality) is perhaps idealizing the character, his hasty reaction to the queen's unexpected vulgarity and attempt to manipulate him is quite understandable, as is the lady's eventual willingness to forgive him. Although it is difficult to argue, as has been done (e.g., Koubichkine),14 that Lanval wins his lady and Avalon because he "deserves" that reward and because he really is a native of Avalon to begin with, there seems little doubt that the fairy rescues him because of the depth of her love for im, and because he gives evidence of his great love and sincere repentance. This love and the actions it inspires are clearly contrasted with the motivations of Arthurian society, which, as Jackson (18) says, is
It is worthwhile to note, in this connection, that the fairy chooses a man who has sometimes been described as "alienated" (Hodgson) from society, in that he is prevented from participating fully in a society that does not recognize his merits. As Koubichkine points out, perhaps a little too poetically, he eventually goes from a form of nonexistence to "une existence complète et indestructible" (481) when he rides away to Avalon. The story makes clear that Lanval leaves little behind when he goes.
The situations of the two romance heroes are quite different, however. It is true that the Bel Inconnu is unknown in Arthurian society, which does not recognize him or know his name, while the "fée" has known and loved him for many years. She, in fact, arranges for the quest that will lead to his gaining a proper place in society,15 and she is the first to tell him his name and identity as Gawain's son. However, Guinglain is not an "alienated" character in any sense of the word; he earns his place through his own efforts and because he was clearly born to Arthur's court. At his first entrance,
When he returns to the Ile d'Or after rescuing Blond Esmérée, however, he is shown as wasting away for love in the traditional Ovidian manner, then later enjoying his love for her in a setting that, with its beautiful gardens and elaborate artwork, resembles the traditional locus amoenus.17 What the lady has to offer him, then, is not an idyllic alternative to an unsatisfactory existence, but an alternative that, for reasons not clearly explained in the text, seems to interfere with his knightly activities in the Arthurian world and to prevent him from participating fully in it. For, although he is not explicitly forbidden to leave the island, he remains there until the announcement of the tournament, and his life is largely an unchallenging, unproductive one. This means that, though happy with his lady, he cannot live the balanced existence achieved by Chrétien's heroes--for instance, Erec and Yvain--at the end of their trials. Therefore, despite the help she gives him, the Pucele becomes an impediment to him, and it is at least understandable that some earlier critics (e.g., Paris and Schofield) have found fault with the text for placing so much emphasis on the love of Guinglain and the fée, in contrast to other versions of the story, in which she is not more than a temporary diversion from his real task, the rescuing of the enchanted
These judgments, however, fail to take into account the psychological interest generated by the extended role of the Pucele and the conflicts thus created for Guinglain, as well as the effects of the text's unusual ending. Renaut uses the fairy mistress to examine certain questions pertaining to the individual and society, as well as the nature of love. Neither the sorceress nor the Arthurian court is to be found exactly "in the right" or "in the wrong," but, because of the romance's unsatisfactory ending, at least from the hero's point of view, both are problematized, the former because she is, as will be seen later, a somewhat subversive figure who cannot be reconciled with the demands of a society of which she is not part, and the latter because of its restrictiveness and its disregard for the freedom and happiness of the individual. While one should not say the text "fails" because its problematic ending makes it overly "realistic," as two critics (Boiron and Payen) have,18 it is accurate to point to the text's inherent pessimism. Despite Guerreau's strong arguments in favor of the social rightness of Guinglain's wedding to Blonde Esmérée, the knight's triumph at the end seems a hollow one.
The situation in Partonopeu de Blois is a very different one, for here it is not really a question of a conflict between two worlds for the hero's loyalty, though that is the way things at first appear. But, as stated earlier, the mysterious, otherworldly quality of Chief d'Or disappears when Melior loses her powers as a sorceress. It is true that Melior chooses Partonopeu on the basis of his merits, at a time when those merits are not accepted by her own people. Yet their refusal is based only on his age, despite which he already enjoys a very important position in the Frankish kingdom as Clovis's nephew and favorite. The strange and lonely life he lives at Chief d'Or, in which he has all he wants, delivered by unseen hands (reminiscent of Guinglain's life at the Ile d'Or. where his every
Again, the sorceresses in the two romances are not really viewed in a negative way, despite the fact that each is portrayed as volatile, particularly in contrast to the other female characters, Blonde Esmérée and Urraque, with which they cannot help but be compared. Yet both are treated with relative sympathy, particularly in comparison to later treatments of similar figures, where the sorceress is seen as a harmful, deceptive figure who keeps the hero in a prison of inactivity and temporarily prevents him from accomplishing what he needs to do. (Besides the sorceresses in other versions of Le Bel Inconnu--the English Lybeaus Desconus and Antonio Pucci's Carduino--Ariosto's Alcina and Spenser's Duessa come readily to mind. The classical figure of Circe seems to figure heavily in the latter two treatments, and perhaps also in the two romances under consideration here.) Melior is exonerated of any accusation of evil, while the Pucele would be, as Colby-Hall states, as worthy a bride for Guinglain as the one he eventually takes. Yet the fact that he takes the one he does is significant, as is the fact that Melior cannot marry Paronopeu until she is first humiliated and degraded to the status of passive victim, much like the enchanted queen Blonde Esmérée, who is doomed to remain in the form of a serpent until rescued by Guinglain.
The reasons why the Pucele aux Blanches Mains cannot marry Guinglain are not really made explicit in the text. After his return to the Ile d'Or, there seems to be no real impediment. Yet neither of them mentions marriage, despite the fact that the Pucele had, the first time he stayed at her castle, spoken of it strongly, and further stated that she would never allow their love to be consummated until after they were married. (Fairies, as we saw in Lanval, do not always keep their word, any more than do their knights.) It is also not clear why Guinglain finds himself in the forest on the morning after he has decided to disobey his mistress and go
Clearly, the case of Melior is similar. But here, a different solution is found, one which might in modern terms be called a "socialization." Instead of being left behind, remaining excluded from a society to which she is fundamentally alien, this sorceress is safely incorporated back into it and rendered harmless to the society, the hero, and the
The treatment of the fairy mistress motif in these three texts (and in others as well) has implications for feminist theory such as that formulated by Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément in La jeune née (translated into English as The Newly Born Woman). In speaking of Michelet's La Sorcière, they note that the role of the sorceress is traditionally "ambiguous, antiestablishment, and conservative at the same time" (5). The latter quality comes, they say, because the sorceress always ends up being destroyed, leaving nothing but "mythical traces," although Michelet had said simply that she disappears on a black horse, never to be heard from again. In any case, since she has "touched the roots of a certain symbolic structure," she must somehow disappear, and with her disappearance, "woman's causality becomes undone." The disappearance of death of the sorceress thus serves to reinforce the culture whose contradictions she has helped to express by representing what it has tried to exclude. Noteworthy, however, is the fact that societies have at least two different ways of dealing with those it considers deviant, including the sorceress--they may be locked up or excluded, or they may be given a place in the determination of culture. The sorceress, according to Cixous and Clément, "oscillates between the two poles"(8).
These formulations may prove useful to a feminist reading of these and other texts that deal with similar feminine figures. Noteworthy is the obvious deviance of such a figure in her textual surroundings and in the context of the societies that produced these texts, as well as the impossibility of her reconciliation with the alternative structures with which she comes into conflict, unless some change occurs.
And that, precisely, is what happens to Melior. To understand the change that this character must
What happens to the Pucele aux Blanches Mains is less easy to explain, and the open ending of the Bel Inconnu must always be kept in mind. Though she remains isolated and excluded at the end, the text admits the possibility that she may still influence. Yet her major plan has failed, for reasons that seem to be her own doing, but which at first defy logical analysis. At least part of the explanation must be that she is somehow recognized as a threat to the established order, both of the romance and of the society to which the romance is directed. Problematical though that order may be in the text, it is still the one that must prevail. The threat, however, remains attractive, and its loss is cause for grief.
Lanval's lady, rather than being so much a threat to the established order, may better be described as pointing to a structure that is incompatible with it, and thus to offer an alternative order, one in which tile relationship of men and women and the nature of love would be quite different from those of twelfth-century Anglo-Norman or French society. The lady disappears, in a way much more in line with Cixous and Clément's description of the traditional sorceress, who leaves behind only "mythical traces." The fact remains that she has been seen and admired by the entire court, however, and has let them see their own shortcomings in her merits and in those of Lanval. The possibility remains that the foolish and corrupt followers of King Arthur have been somehow changed by their brief encounter with the woman from another world and by the one she took as her consort, and also by the lais which are still sung about them.
It will be seen that Lanval is the only one of the three texts that seems to imply criticism of
Of course, as we have already noted, the movement of romance tends to oppose that of the lai in that it may be expected to undermine the position of
The question of the varied role of the fairy mistress--and of any kind of "fée" figure that may be taken to have its origins in Celtic myth and legend--is an important one to a feminist study of medieval French literature. The emergence and extended use of a figure so rich in social and mythological implications can say much about the way a given social group regarded women and conceived of the possible roles that were available to them, and the use of such a figure by a female writer deserves particular attention. Also, the changing view of this figure from being rather sympathetic to one that was mainly regarded as evil may well point to a shift in viewpoint that involved, at least as far as the role of women goes, a repression of some of the possibilities offered by the early encounter with Celtic culture. The questions involved are, needless to say, far from simple, and they are worthy of examination from both a diachronic and synchronic point of view, so that we may understand the fée