The his wealth” (73). Lanval’s lack of financial means

The Shallow Court of Arthur in Marie de
France’s “Lanval”

            The Court of King Arthur is
historically depicted as composed of worthy men and women who represent the
best of society, the pinnacle of mankind. Those who sit at Arthur’s Round
Table, feast in his banquet halls, and reside in his chambers are the most
honorable and worthy of mortal beings. Arthur’s knights are those who seek difficult,
fulfilling adventures. They are expected to come to the aid of anyone in
danger, especially women in distress. They act in accordance with the code of
chivalry and the moral codes of their religion. They are expected to uphold the
law and ensure that violators are punished. Marie de France offers a portrayal of
Arthurian society and of Arthur’s famous court that contradicts this image of
perfection and flawlessness. In “Lanval,” Marie de France juxtaposes an
idealized supernatural realm suggestive of the Celtic Otherworld or Heaven with
the flawed Court of Arthur, exposing the superficiality and elitist nature of the
knights of Arthur’s Court.  

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Marie de France initially depicts
Arthur’s Court in a manner suggestive of an adherence to the stereotypical
depiction of the Court. The narrator states that “there was no such company in
the whole world” (73) referring to the great collection of noble and
well-regarded knights and ladies joining Arthur for his Pentecostal Feast. Marie
de France’s later characterizations of Arthur and the knights of the Round
Table do not match this initial description, though, and portray these men in
an unfavorable light. Marie de France depicts Arthur’s Court as unaccepting of
foreigners and those of a lower socioeconomic class. The narrator describes
Lanval as a “stranger … in another land,” (73) suggesting that he is not native
to Arthur’s Court or to England, but was born elsewhere and migrated to Logres.

In addition to feeling foreign by nature of his birthplace, Lanval is also different
from the other members of the Court in that he is not wealthy. Though Lanval is
the son of a noble king who is of great wealth, Lanval is “far from his
inheritance… and spent all his wealth” (73). Lanval’s lack of financial means
and possessions places him in a lower socioeconomic status compared to the
other members of the court and the Round Table. The narrator illustrates the
discrimination he receives from his Courtly companions, presumably on the basis
of his social class. During the Feast of Pentecost, Arthur does not remember
Lanval and no knights will speak well of or recommend him. Some of the knights
“pretended to hold him in esteem” (73), but do not actually care for him,
suggesting Arthur’s knights are disingenuous towards those they do not feel
belong. Marie de France characterizes the knights of Arthur’s Court as
discriminatory and unaccepting, revealing the flawed nature of these noble
knights and portraying the mortal realm in a negative light.

The knights’ treatment of Lanval changes
after he is given access to a “bottomless purse” by a damsel he meets when he
is transported to a supernatural realm. He is afforded the ability to “wish for
nothing which he would not have” (74), and no matter how much wealth he gives
away or spends, there will always be more. After returning from this realm,
Lanval “offered lavish hospitality,” and was able to “serve richly and well” inhabitants
of a city, giving “costly gifts” (75). Only after Lanval proves himself
financially capable of providing for and offering gifts to people, does Gawain
lament to his companions at the court that they “treat their companion Lanval
ill” (76). Marie de France also has Gawain include that Lanval’s father is
“rich” (76) in his lamentation, further accentuating the importance of wealth
and social class in Arthur’s Court. Though Marie de France characterizes Lanval
as a man of “valour, generosity, beauty and prowess” (73) before he acquired
unlimited wealth and a higher social position, he is not accepted as a member
of the court until he is able to climb to the same economic status as the other
knights.  The court does not appear to be
made up of a diverse array of unprejudiced knights, but rather a homogenous
group of discriminatory characters who refuse to accept someone of lower class
and foreign birth as one of their own, despite how noble a knight they may be. Marie
de France depicts the knights of Arthur’s Court as valuing social status and
financial means above traditionally knightly virtues. The author’s
characterization of Arthur’s knights as superficial and elitist serve to
further portray them in an unfavorable manner. Through these depictions of the
characters in the work, credence is given to the interpretation that the
natural and mortal realm in which Arthur’s Court exists is fundamentally
flawed. It is possible that Gawain and his companions may consider Lanval
“generous and courtly” (76) because of the “honorable acts” (75) he performs,
not solely based on his elevation in social status. Though this is an
understandable interpretation, Lanval would not be able to perform these acts
had he not received his supernatural access to unlimited wealth. Marie de
France’s depictions of Lanval as generous and of valour before the encounter
with the supernatural realm also suggest that the other knights are not
impressed with Lanval’s knightly virtues, but rather his newly acquired wealth.

As is common with Lays, there is an ever-present
element of the supernatural in this work, suggestive of the existence of the
Celtic Fairy Otherworld or Heaven. After Lanval leaves Arthur’s Court, he
encounters two beautiful women in a meadow. The damsels then “conduct him
safely” (74) into what can be interpreted as a supernatural realm. Marie de
France’s descriptions of the damsel’s tent suggest that the damsel is a being
outside of the realm of mortals and that Lanval has been transported to an
alternate location. The narrator states that the tent was a spectacle to behold
and so richly constructed and decorated that mortal kings and queens “at the
height of their wealth, power and knowledge” (74) would not have been able to
construct something so awe-inspiring. Through her suggestion that this damsel
had amassed more wealth than even the most powerful and rich of mortals, Marie de
France depicts this damsel as existing in and belonging to a realm that is more
impressive and profound than that of the mortal world. It is likely that this supernatural
realm is intended to represent the Celtic Fairy Otherworld or the Christian
Heaven, though the distinction is not evident. The narrator depicts the damsel
as having skin that was “whiter than the hawthorn blossom” (74). The hawthorn tree
is one that has literary associations with both the Celtic Otherworld and Heaven,
further obscuring the interpretation. The narrator’s use of “God” (76) in the
singular throughout the work and the description of the “right-hand side” (74)
of the tent provide evidence that this realm may be the Christian Heaven.

Marie de France’s descriptions of the supernatural
realm in this work serve to establish it as an idealized location and portray
Lanval’s lover as an idealized being. She rides a “white palfrey … no finer
animal on earth” (80), has white skin resembling that of a hawthorn, and is
depicted as a manifestation of the virtue of generosity, as she gives Lanval
all he could ever ask for. When Lanval returns to the superficial and flawed
realm of the mortals, he reflects on the world he just visited. The narrator
states that Lanval “could not believe it was true” (75), suggesting that the
idealized supernatural realm differs so much from the mortal realm he has known
that he has difficulty believing it was real. The idealized depiction of this
supernatural Heaven-like realm juxtaposed with the flawed depiction of Arthur’s
Court serves to highlight the imperfection of Arthur’s knights. By establishing
two seemingly opposite realms, a comparison is set up that offers a better
appreciation the faulty nature of Arthurian society and the knightly ideal, as
depicted by Marie de France. Though still portrayed as superior to the mortal
realm in authenticity, the supernatural realm is not a perfect place either.

The two damsels who escorted Lanval into the otherworld are characterized as
the “servants” (77) of Lanval’s lover, suggesting that even in this seemingly
perfect world there is a system of social hierarchy. Wealth and riches also
seem to be a key focus in this realm, suggested by the fascination the narrator
has with how lavishly decorated the lover and her tent are and the financial
nature of the power that she gives to Lanval. It is unclear whether she gives
him this power because she knows it will elevate his status and experience in
the mortal realm, or if wealth and status are valued in the supernatural realm
as they are in the moral realm. Though the supernatural realm is depicted as
somewhat flawed as well, it is still vastly superior to the portrayal of the
mortal realm in which Arthur’s Court exists.

Marie de France depicts Lanval as
appearing to belong somewhere between the flawed mortal realm of King Arthur
and the idealized supernatural realm of his lover, but not truly belonging in
either. He feels like a foreigner in King Arthur’s Court until he can prove
that he belongs to the same social class as the other members of the Court. He
is only accepted as a member of the Court once he has proven himself wealthy
enough to be worthy. His rise in class status is due to a supernatural gift,
suggesting that he is not truly in this class but that his status derives from
an otherworldly source. Lanval’s inability to gain true acceptance and
belonging in the mortal realm suggests that he has characteristics that set him
above the flawed and superficial knights of the Round Table. Using the mortal
realm of Arthurian Society as a reference point, Marie de France depicts Lanval
as being above this, closer in nature to the purity of those in the
supernatural realm.

Though Marie de France depicts Lanval as
fitting in with the supernatural realm, he is not fully accepted there either. The
narrator depicts Lanval as the only knight noble enough to enter this supernatural
location. The damsel tells Lanval that she came “far in search of him” (74)
and that she loves him “above all else” (74), suggesting there is something
about him that sets him apart from the other knights of the Round Table. Though
he is offered admittance and derives great pleasure from visiting the
otherworld, it too does not seem to be the place to which Lanval belongs. Lanval
appears to still possess characteristics of the mortal realm, as evidenced by
the necessity of the damsel escorts who “conduct” (74) across the realms. After
he dines with his love, “his horse was brought to him” (75) suggesting that
this realm was not somewhere that he could reside, but only visit. After Lanval
returns to Arthur’s Court, the narrator mentions that Lanval “cared little for
other people’s joy when he could not have his own pleasure” (76) indicating
that though he is a truer knight than most, he is still selfish. Marie de
France’s depiction of Lanval places him somewhere between the two realms. Her
characterization of him serves to depict him simultaneously as a mortal, and a
being with traits that place him above mortals, offering an ambiguous depiction
of the protagonist. After Lanval is proven innocent in the trial in which he
was accused of soliciting the mortal queen’s love and lying about having a
lover more beautiful than the queen, his damsel escorts him with “her to
Avalon…a beautiful island” (81) with a literary history of association with the
supernatural. Only after proving that he is an honest and loyal knight during
his criminal trial is he able to gain permanent entrance into the supernatural
realm. This suggests that Lanval exhibited characteristics of supernatural
beings, but had to undergo a trial in order to prove himself. Marie de France’s
use of Lanval’s character allows the reader to gain insight into what defines
the mortal realm and what defines the supernatural realm, providing an opportunity
for differentiation. Lanval’s role in the work is essentially that of a device the
author uses to provide the reader with an opportunity to compare the two realms,
and to gain insight into how flawed the mortal realm is.

Marie de France’s “Lanval” offers a
critique of the superficiality and flawed nature of Arthur’s court. Popularly thought to host
the best of men and the noblest of women, the Court, as Marie de France depicts
it, is one in which social status is valued over knightly virtue. Flawed and
discriminatory characters are awarded with admittance into the court and
acceptance as a member, while true knights of valor and generosity are shunned
if they do not possess a certain level of wealth. Marie de France establishes a
juxtaposition of two realms, the flawed mortal realm and the idealized
supernatural realm, that highlights the imperfection of the Court. This
juxtaposition allows for a comparison between what society is, and what it
should be. Though the supernatural realm is depicted with its own set of flaws,
these pale in comparison to the fallibility present in the Court of Arthur. The
protagonist of this work serves as a device that allows comparisons to be made
between the two realms. Through Lanval’s experiences in the two realms, the
reader is able to gain insight into how the two realms operate and the type of
person that belongs in each. Lanval’s feeling of isolation in both realms
suggests that he shares some of the flawed traits of the other mortals in this
work. If Lanval truly is mortal, he is depicted as the most noble and true of mortals,
as evidenced by his admission into the supernatural realm. The otherworld’s likeness
to the Celtic Fairy Otherworld and the Christian Heaven allow for an
understanding of who is allowed into these realms. Marie de France highlights
the fallibility of mortal men through the imperfection of the Court of Arthur shown
in her descriptions of the two realms and the inability of her protagonist to
feel as if he belongs in either one. Marie’s depictions of Lanval’s character
and his eventual admittance into the established supernatural realm of Avalon
suggest that, by the end of the work, Lanval has demonstrated that he is worthy
of admittance into Heaven, despite the inherently flawed humankind.

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