Aside from, potentially, “Chevrefoil”, “Lanval” is the most famous, and consequently most widely discussed, Lay written by Marie de France. Originally translated from an Anglo-Norman dialect, the tale follows the endeavours of “a very nice nobleman” (3), Lanval, who, renowned for his “beauty and his prowess” (22), serves as a knight at the court of King Arthur. Lanval, having spent his life – and all his money – in devoted service, is subsequently overlooked by the king; as such, sad and alone in a “strange land” he rides off into the country to cheer himself up. At this point he strikes the fancy of a fairy lady and is ‘selected’ as her exclusive love interest; she bestows upon him a number of gifts and provides him with unlimited funds, requiring only that she keep their love a secret. This situation suits Lanval well until Queen Guinevere, the promiscuous wench that she is, attempts to coax him into an extramarital affair; offended by his refusal Guinevere unleashes a slew of homosexual insults causing Lanval, in defence of his masculinity, to reveal his relationship with the fairy – whose beauty, he states, is far superior to that of Guinevere. Unable to comprehend Lanval’s refusal, Guinevere accuses Lanval of treason, to which he must answer in front of King Arthur’s court; in order to absolve himself, Lanval is then charged to present this woman whose beauty outmaches that of the Queen. This, by the logic of the narrative, should be problematic in that, having broke his promise, Lanval has rendered his relationship with the fairy null; fortunately for him, Marie De France breaks narrative convention and has the fairy return to save the day, outshine the Queen and whisk Lanval on horseback to Avalon: an “island far away.”
The fairy mistress motif is a recurring theme within the celtic tradition and, as such, reappears frequently in the associated narratives. Traditionally speaking, the motif is characterised by a woman, who comes from an ethereal world to select a man as her lover; having done so, she imposes upon him some form of prohibition, the breaking of which, is usually punished by the withdrawal of her love. Throughout these narratives, as in every Disney film ever made, however, the male protagonist traditionally maintains a dominant role, showcasing his honour or resolve in the face of impending doom; the fairy woman, thus, typically takes the form of a prize or reward.
Marie De France’s narrative is slightly unconventional in that Lanval’s fairy mistress holds far more narrative power than is typically granted; unlike the heroes of conventional fiction, Lanval is presented from the beginning as a somewhat powerless man. Having spent all his money, he is socially neglected and becomes depressed, finding solace, only, in a solitary horse ride; the fairy woman, thus, becomes HIS saviour, providing him with the financial backing to gain social appreciation and showcase his generosity. When Lanval breaks his promise, traditionally, she should disappear into the mist, never again to be seen; contrary to convention, however, Lanval’s fairy mistress returns, on horseback, to rescue him from the clutches of doom… despite him having broken her promise. In this regard, the fairy mistress, as presented by Marie De France, is substantially more powerful than is typical for the genre; she, on two separate occasions, saves Lanval from misfortune and seems, literally, to take the reigns in regard to their romantic relationship.