Marie de France’s epic poem “Lanval” is an outstanding work of satire that pokes fun at the societal norms of the author’s time, including government and the institution of marriage. Though she never directly states it, de France paints marriage at the court level as a farce, a facade, and an arrangement of convenience rather than passion, love, or commitment.
Marie de France wastes no time in laying the groundwork for the subtext of this poem. Within the first few stanzas, as she paints a picture of the great and noble King Arthur, she manages to slide in a reference to King Arthur providing his Round Table members with wives as “gifts.” She mentions these gifts in the same breath as “lands,” which suggests the King views women as property and the institution of marriage as a kind of purchase agreement. The art here is in the subtlety with which de France inserts this subversive idea into what seems like a simple description of a man’s virtues.
The author reinforces her statement on marriage – specifically the sexist nature of marriage and relationships at the time – with the introduction of the mysterious, wealthy and beautiful maiden. The maiden acts as a caricature of a male fantasy, approaching him out of nowhere with the offer of free love and devotion. Only her physical and financial features are praised, and when Lanval agrees to her terms, she immediately allows him to sleep with her. Lanval has found himself in the perfect situation – sex and wealth from a beautiful woman, and all he has to do is not acknowledge their relationship.
It is not long before Lanval’s loyalty is put to the test and de France puts another nail in the coffin of marriage. King Arthur’s wife, the Queen, apparently unconcerned with the fact that that she is married, offers herself to Lanval. The author treats this as though a Queen coming on to a knight was common practice, even expected. When Lanval denies her wish, the Queen is incensed; one gets the idea that she is no stranger to such an arrangement and not used to being turned down. When Lanval professes his love for his fantasy maiden, he does so to disprove the Queen’s suggestion that he is homosexual.
As one would expect, King Arthur is extremely angry when he finds out what has happened between Lanval and the Queen, though the version he hears is not the whole truth. Arthur vows to bring the knight to justice in court, which is heavily swayed in the King’s favor. However, when he brings the charges against Lanval he fails to mention that Lanval attempted to sleep with his wife. Instead, he focuses on Lanval’s statement that his lover’s maidens were fairer than the Queen. As it seems logical that King Arthur would be far more upset with the idea of Lanval sleeping with his wife than speaking these words, readers get the idea that perhaps King Arthur does not believe the Queen’s accusations. Perhaps he knows and ignores the Queen’s unfaithful ways, and perhaps he is guilty of the same behavior.
After a series of ridiculous happenings in which the male members of the court are nearly put into trances by a series of half naked maidens on horseback, Lanval’s beautiful maiden comes to his aid. Upon witnessing her beauty, all side with Lanval immediately, King Arthur included. By pardoning this man who has supposedly wronged the Queen, King Arthur gives insight into his priorities. Since the mystery maiden is far more physically attractive and wealthy than the Queen had ever been, there was no way Lanval could have made such an advance on the Queen. And even if he said the things he said, he spoke the truth. In this comical twist by de France, the King is more than willing to put aside his honor and the honor of his wife for an attractive stranger.
Marie de France makes her final comment on the male-female, love-marriage tradition with the image of Lanval leaping onto the back of the maiden’s horse and riding into the distance. Clearly, de France is turning the typical boy-rescues-girl scenario upside down, and perhaps is suggesting that things in her time are out of hand and need some strong women to turn things around.