The Lais of Marie de France

by Marie de France

Other authorsGlyn S. Burgess (Translator), Glyn S. Burgess (Introduction), Keith Busby (Translator), Keith Busby (Introduction)
Paperback, 1986



Call number





Penguin Classics (1986), Paperback, 144 pages


A prose retelling of the narrative poems, composed in the twelth century by Marie of France, dealing with courtly love, chivalric adventure, and the struggle between good and evil.

User reviews

LibraryThing member anthonywillard
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.
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LibraryThing member veevoxvoom
Marie de France was a woman who lived in the twelfth century. She is one of the earliest female writers in English literature. Her collection of lais, written in the style of the pre-existing Breton lais, tell stories of knights and ladies, kings and queens, sorcery and love.

Each lai of Marie’s reads like a fairy tale or a bite-sized portion of Arthurian legend. Arthur does appear in one lai and there is another lai about Tristan and Isolde. But for the most part these are new stories about unknown figures that still take place in that extremely courtly environment we know from Arthurian legend. Courtly love abounds in these poems, as do other values of twelfth-century Britain.

Marie’s writing is clear and accessible. It doesn’t borrow flowery or obscure phrases, so it’s quite pleasant to follow along. That doesn’t mean it reads like an uneducated person wrote it, however. On the contrary. I found Marie’s lais to contain a lot of complex themes. Even the lais that on the outside read like straightforward fables contain hidden depths. If you don’t believe me, take a look at “Chevrefoil.” That lai turns the traditional theme of a woman so beautiful that several men fight for her on its head.

So for anyone who is interested in medieval literature and the courtly tradition, but doesn’t want to wade through difficult, pompous texts, this is a good place to start.
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LibraryThing member ed.pendragon
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.
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LibraryThing member ifjuly
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...… (more)
LibraryThing member veranasi
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.
LibraryThing member baswood
The lais were short story poems written in old French, probably around 1170. They have been translated in this penguin edition by Glynn S Burgess and keith Busby into modern English prose.

There are twelve short tales here based on chivalry and courtly love and they are utterly charming. Bisclavret was my favourite story and possibly one of the earliest tales featuring a werewolf

Little is known about the author other than Marie was probably female and she wrote these stories for the English Court, which were all based on Breton (North West France) tales or troubadour songs.
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LibraryThing member grheault
Marie de France... a woman writer 14th c. -- an automatic must read, and well worth it. Short stories about knights and ladies, evil queens and knavery, originally in a poetic format, easily as entertaining as Bocaccio's Decameron. Fun to read and to re-read.


Original language


Original publication date

1190 (circa)

Physical description

144 p.; 7.7 inches


0140444769 / 9780140444766
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