The Lais of Marie de France : With Two Further Lais in the Original Old French, Paperback

The Lais of Marie de France : With Two Further Lais in the Original Old French Paperback

4.5 out of 5 (6 ratings)


Marie de France (fl. late twelfth century) is the earliest known French woman poet and her lais - stories in verse based on Breton tales of chivalry and romance - are among the finest of the genre.

Recounting the trials and tribulations of lovers, the lais inhabit a powerfully realized world where very real human protagonists act out their lives against fairy-tale elements of magical beings, potions and beasts. "De France" takes a subtle and complex view of courtly love, whether telling the story of the knight who betrays his fairy mistress or describing the noblewoman who embroiders her sad tale on the shroud for a nightingale killed by a jealous and suspicious husband.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Poetry by individual poets
  • ISBN: 9780140447590



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Showing 1 - 5 of 6 reviews.

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Review by

read this over the course of a quiet evening alone with a glass of wine. wonderful. i love sensualists, even if they get religious. reminds me of that one pessoa heteronym, i forget his name, who spends all his poems singing out about how knowing what a blade of grass or a rock IS has nothing to do with words or meaning or anything but just being, and its being being near his own. people who sing about that are essential for me...

Review by

The editor and translator of Marie's lais, leading scholars in the field of medieval French literature, have in the best tradition of Penguin Classics aimed to make their subject accessible to the general public. Translating a foreign text, especially a poetic text, is always full of difficulties, but luckily Marie's poems, simple in expression and apparently without artifice, speak as well in translation as in the original. For convenience the 1999 edition prints two of Marie's shorter lais in their original French, and anybody with even just a smattering of the language can follow the gist of the tales and see how accessible the translator has made them. A comparison with the pseudo-medieval version served up by Eugene Mason in the early 20th century is revealing for not only how tastes have changed but how many liberties were taken then with the text.The editor has provided an introduction which contains pretty much all you need to know (and pretty much all anybody knows) about who Marie might have been, the historical background, the literary context and so on. For such a slim volume there is much to engage the reader, whether their interest is in a genuine female voice of the 12th century, Arthurian legend, human psychology, folk tales or just good stories succinctly told.

Review by

This is a collection of twelve short tales about the sad or happy love affairs of knights in shining armor and ladies in castles. They were written in poetry in Anglo-Norman (a dialect of Old French) in the mid-twelfth century by a woman called Marie of France. Marie as it turns out is a significant figure in the literature of Medieval England, one of the best poets before Chaucer. She was very well known in the literary world of her day, which revolved around the court of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She herself was of aristocratic background, born and brought up in northern France. She is thought to have moved to England as a result of her husband's job, so to speak, which was being a feudal lord. She was remarkably well educated and, in an age when court culture was almost exclusively French-speaking, took the trouble to learn the language of the people of her adopted country, Old English, well enough to translate a book of fables from it into Anglo-Norman verse. The Lais constitute one of her three major works, the others being the afore-mentioned collection of fables, and an account translated from Latin having something or other to do with St. Patrick and Purgatory. Marie claims the Lais were based on Breton stories, though we do not have a corresponding collection in Breton, so it is hard to know how much she translated and how much she made up. But many of the themes are familiar. I generally find this type of literature tedious, but in Marie's case the brevity of each Lai forces the story to move along briskly, so they sustain interest. Also, Marie does not use the same plot twice. Each lay presents a different situation and different characters, motivations, emotions. She rings all the changes on her chosen genre to a fascinating degree. Some end happily, some sadly. Some of the protagonists are heroic or admirable, some not. Some include magical devices, some are totally naturalistic. In some the woman takes the lead, in some the man. So each tale is distinct and individual. The style is bright, crisp, and clean, with a fresh kind of observation of the world. There is refreshingly little moralizing. Though many of the affairs are illicit, she never blames or criticizes the participants, except sometimes for lack of loyalty. The characters are human, not symbolic stand-ins for abstract virtues or concepts. However, there is no character analysis, just observation and reporting. She takes her characters as she finds them. The translation is in prose, elegant, clear, and simple. Three of the lais are given in an appendix in the original Anglo-Norman. They are written in short lines, rhyming in couplets. There is a scholarly introduction, which one would do well to skip or to postpone reading until after one has read the poems. Much of it would be incomprehensible without prior acquaintance with the lais. Also, though it is not as dry as dust, it is on the dry side. But it will answer any questions you might have about the poet, the origin and interpretation of the poetry, and other background.This book presents a window on a medieval view of the world. It is the view of a privileged participant, and even so is somewhat a view of a storybook world. I found it intriguing and charming, and enjoyed the collection greatly. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in medieval culture or in important but neglected woman authors.

Review by

I studied Guigemar and Bisclavret, and I ended up wanting to read the rest of Marie de France's lais. Bisclavret is one of my favourites, really, possibly due to reading William Burgwinkle's criticism of it and being amused to see it as a gay love story. Most of the lais are short and very easy to read, dwelling on knights and their lovers. I quite liked Lanval, as well, the Arthurian lai. Some of them have little morals in them, some of them are just sweet little stories (or sometimes rather bitter little stories, like Yonec, in which the lady's beloved dies!). I like the translation, even if it's put into prose instead of the original verse: it's easy to read and captures the air of storytelling.

Review by

If you like fairy tales or weird pomo fiction, read this book. Neither pomo nor fairy tales, the Lais of Marie de France will satisfy you, especially if you are me. I'm going to read all of her works, I've decided. Marie is tons of fun.

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