By Danièle Cybulskie
What is Valentine’s Day without a little fairy tale romance? For your Valentine’s Day enjoyment, here are three medieval romances involving fairies.
Marie de France’s lai of Yonec definitely hits all the supernatural highlights, as well as all the courtly love standards made popular by the troubadours and trobairitz of her day. It is the story of a woman, trapped in a tower by her jealous husband and dying of loneliness, who wishes for a lover to come to her. Suddenly, a bird appears at her window and flies in, revealing himself to be a handsome knight. He helpfully volunteers himself to be her lover, and the two have many an amorous time together until the jealous husband notices his wife’s suspicious happiness (and sudden care for her appearance). He has a servant secret herself into a closet to find out what is going on, and when she tells him the secret, he lays a trap for the bird.
The next time the lady summons her lover, he flies in and is pierced by a spike the jealous husband has laid in the window. Dying, the shapeshifting knight tells his lady she will bear a son and name him Yonec. He also helpfully gives his lady a ring that makes her husband forget all about this incident and treat his wife better (although one has to wonder if that might not have come in handy a little earlier). All comes to pass as the shapeshifting knight predicts, and when Yonec grows up, his mother takes him to his father’s grave and tells him the story – then dies of heartache. Yonec avenges his mother by killing his stepfather, and becomes lord of the magical land his father came from, (presumably) living happily ever after.
2. Sir Orfeo
The story of Sir Orfeo is taken from Greek myth, but it is neatly made into an English legend by a few deft twists. Orfeo was said to be an English king, whose father was King Pluto and mother was of “King Juno” (lines 39-44). He lived in Thrace, because that’s what Winchester was called at that time (claims the author, ll. 47-49), and he loved to play the harp. One day, his wife, Queen Heurodis, falls asleep under a tree – always a bad idea in medieval romance – and is told by a fairy king that he will come back the next day and kidnap her, taking her back to his kingdom with him. Despite her protests and Orfeo’s “ten hundred knightes” (l.183), that is exactly what happens.
Sir Orfeo is so distraught that he becomes a wild man, living in the woods and playing his harp in his despair for over a decade, until one day he sees a fairy ladies’ hawking party, and recognizes his wife among them. He follows the ladies until he reaches the fairy kingdom, where he plays so beautifully for the king that the king grants him anything he wishes. Naturally, he asks for his wife back. Although the king initially refuses, he is reminded that he gave his word, and so he releases Heurodis. At this point, the story diverges from the myth, as there are no strings attached to Heurodis’ release. She and Orfeo go home and, after some tricks to determine that the kingdom has been ruled well in their absence, live happily ever after – much more happily than poor Orpheus and Eurydice, I must say.
3. Sir Launfal/Launval
Of these three supernatural romances, I like Sir Launfal the best. Many other people must have liked it, too, because it not only survives as one of Marie de France’s lais (Lanval), but also as a Middle English romance.
Sir Launfal begins the story as a noble and likeable knight, but a penniless one. Because of this, he feels a little left out of the Round Table crowd, and goes off into the woods to be by himself. As he rests under a tree, a pair of ethereally beautiful maidens comes to him and invites him to meet their lady (in the Middle English romance, she is called Dame Tryamour). Naturally, he accepts and is taken to a lavish pavilion in which Tryamour is lounging, nearly naked because of the heat. Dame Tryamour professes her love for Launfal, and lavishes gifts on him. She promises to be his lover and to continue to give him whatever he needs, as long as he never tells anyone about her. Launfal accepts, of course, and all goes well until Guinevere suddenly confesses her deep love and desire for him.
When Launfal refuses to be her lover, Guinevere lashes out at him and questions his sexuality. He foolishly rises to the bait, revealing that he has a lover, and that her lowliest maiden is more beautiful than Guinevere. Insulted, Guinevere tells Arthur that Launfal propositioned her, and also that he says his lover’s lowliest maiden is more beautiful. Arthur doesn’t buy the propositioning part, but he does insist that Launfal prove his claims about his lady’s beauty in a trial. Launfal, distraught and remorseful, doesn’t believe his lover will come to him, since he broke his word, but as the trial begins, Tryamour’s ladies do appear, and then Tryamour herself arrives and explains the situation. Arthur’s knights have to concede that Guinevere doesn’t measure up, and Launfal is saved. Tryamour and Launfal return to the land of fairies (my translation of Marie’s Lanval says “Avalon”), and they all live happily ever after … except for Guinevere, who was probably not impressed.
(Incidentally, in the midst of his Middle English adventures, Launfal fights (and slays) a knight called Sir Valentine, who is fifteen feet tall. Just a little Valentine’s Day trivia to share with your date!)
Whatever your plans are this weekend, may they be every bit as epic as these tales of fairies and romance of the past.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist