Feminism in Marie de France’s “Lanval” Poem


Marie de France’s Lanval is a twelfth-century poem about a knight who has become a social outcast. The love between Lanval and a mysterious lady does not seem to fit in the cruelty and filth of the real world, and the lovers leave for a mystical realm of Avalon. However, even though the themes of the corrupt society and the absence of pure love in the real world deserve attention, there is another motif worth mentioning. The present paper offers an analysis of central themes and characters from the point of view of gender roles. The inquiry reveals that the poem can be considered feministic since the reasons for Lanval’s happiness and misfortune are women.

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Two central male characters, Lanval and King Arthur, appear to be weak in character despite being brave, fair, and generous. On the one hand, Lanval is a virtuous knight who “was envied by all the court” (De France 1). However, he failed to remind the king about the fact that no land was granted to him. Moreover, he did not keep the promise he gave to his lover due to pride. On the other hand, King Arthur, despite being historically known as being just to everyone, he wishes to punish Lanval being pressured by his wife. During the trial, Arthur repeatedly tries to hurry the barons to find the knight guilty. Additionally, King Arthur did not give the promised reward for loyalty to Lanval, failing his feudal duties. In short, even though the two male characters are the central actors of the poem, they seem to be weak and cannot be held accountable for their actions.

The two female characters, however, are pictured as influential individuals, which are the reasons for all the happiness and misfortunes. The queen knows what she wants and can manipulate both the knight and her husband. She is the reason for Lanval’s and King Arthur’s ill acts. At the same time, Lanval’s mysterious lady is also depicted as a virtuous woman, who has both beauty, power, and wealth to turn an outcast into an active member of the society. She can set her rules and make Lanval obey them. In other words, while the men are powerless in front of feminine beauty, women are strong characters who have all the power and knowledge.

Thematic Analysis

Even though the central actors of the poem are male characters, the plot shows that women can become the reason for both the development and decline of a man. Lanval’s lover is the reason for his success in life. Therefore, de France makes it clear that a man is nothing without a woman’s guidance. However, men need to follow all the rules set by women; otherwise, they can return to being an outcast or even die. Lanval does not know the lady’s name; he cannot search for her or reveal to anyone that she exists, which demonstrates that the knight does not have any power over her except for that she has granted to him (Briscoe 25). The fairy lady is also empowered to choose whether she wants to save her lover or not by showing up during the trial. Therefore, Lanval surrenders to love being deprived of all power.

The queen is also a compelling character that can make a man become wealthy or fall out of favor. If Lanval is to surrender to the queen’s desire, she could have given him pleasure, money, and status by reminding her husband about his duties to the knight. However, the queen is also free to punish Lanval for insulting her using her husband’s hands. Therefore, de France demonstrates that a woman can be the reason for man’s rise or fall, and the only who can save him is another woman. Therefore, the central theme of the poem is women’s power over men.

There are also other ideas touched upon in the poem, which may be considered of similar importance. For instance, according to Strong, the motif of banishment and rejection of genuine values by the society is in the middle of all the action (60). Indeed, Lanval can be considered as the personification of true valor and loyalty that has been rejected by society. De France makes the knight forgotten by the most virtuous king and his friends since “those who claimed to hold him dear, if Fortune had brought him up short, would not have shed a kindly tear” (1). Moreover, at the end of the story, the fairy lady and Lanval leave for Avalon, showing that true love and values have no place in the real world.

Even though the theme of banishment is present in the poem, it cannot be considered more important than the motif of female power. The central event of the poem if the trial was caused by Lanval’s failure to obey both women. He brakes his word to the fairy lady by revealing that he has a lover, and he turns down the queen’s offer of love. Therefore, the central idea of the poem is females’ power over men.

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The analysis of de France’s poem reveals that it is a feministic piece of literature. In Lanval, female characters are stronger than men, and the central theme of the poem is males being subdued to women’s mercy. However, the power practiced by women is sophisticated and subtle. De France demonstrates that a man fallen out of favor of a woman can be saved only by another woman.

Works Cited

Briscoe, Emma. Female Agency, Eroticism, and Empowerment in Marie de France’s Lai de Lanval. Dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2015. VPISU, 2015.

De France, Marie. Lanval. Translated by Judith P. Shoaf. 2005, Web.

Strong, Tanner. “Transformation of Knights with Magic.” Journal of Student Research, vol. 4, no. 22, 2015, pp. 58-63.

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