Analysis of Marie De France’s “Lanval” via Queer Literary Theory

Analysis of Marie De France’s “Lanval” via Queer Literary Theory

“Lanval” by Marie De France has obvious themes of homosexuality present in the tale. The queer theory lense might analyze this entire tale to be one of how Lanval, a chivalrous knight, might indeed be gay, or at least bisexual; his lover, the fairest maiden of them all, could be a transgender or androgynous male dressed like a woman and magnificent in beauty and presence, enough to convince bystanders that he was indeed a woman.

The full accusation of Lanval’s gayness is revealed when the maidens are gathered together by the queen: “The knights, delighted, gathered about the women who had deigned to come out and banter with them in courtly ways, admiring them and offering praise—all but Lanval, that is, who withdrew to the garden’s edge . . . He had no interest in this” (Marie). Although the tale says that he was anxious and impatient to be with his beloved maiden, it could be that he was in search of different company, perhaps that of the male gender. To push the issue, “The queen noticed that he was not participating, and to the spot where he was seated she went at once. Thinking he must be a perfect dunce, she explained that she wanted him and to penetrate into his dim brain, she promised him gifts if he would come to her in secrecy. But he declined” (Marie).

“‘I serve the king and cannot betray him or do such a thing as you have proposed. It would not be allowed by the code of chivalry.’ The queen was furious—and ashamed, and he was the one whom she blamed” (Marie). A closer analysis of this passage might reveal that perhaps chivalry is just an excuse and in reality he is simply not attracted to women.

‘Lanval,’ she said, ‘I have heard it said that you do not welcome women in bed. You have your pages and grooms, and you sport with them as some men do, and this is sinful and wicked. The king cannot endure the taint you bring to the court and the entire nation. He cannot risk his soul’s salvation for the sake of your peculiar taste or allow himself to be disgraced’” (Marie). This is an outright accusation of homosexuality toward Lanval by the queen. She has stated her case and called him out. He never denies the accusation and only insinuates that he has eyes only for his beloved maiden.

After being accused and sent away in the charge of the other knights, Lanval is depressed and possibly suicidal. The other knights “consoled the knight [Lanval] and, trying to cheer him, told stories of love’s folly” (Marie). What folly could this be? Perhaps they are secretly gay lovers, too, and wish to assure him that they still love him and will support him, if only in secret. Nonetheless, he longs for his maiden whom he has betrayed by speaking of her openly.

It is conceivable that Lanval’s maiden could be a man who is feminine and attractive, for it is never stated what the gender of this character is, other than “she/her” pronouns, although this does not pin down her gender or sexuality. The tale describes the maiden as being so beautiful and wearing such expensive attire that “They were stunned, every one of them, by the great cost of it—what man’s estate could pay for it?” What if she is the man that paid for it alone? It almost seems as though this blonde haired and blue eyed maiden could be a man dressed as a woman. This androgynous maiden comes to Lanval’s rescue and says that “He never sought the love of the queen, or behaved like a vulgar libertine” (Marie). Is this because Lanval does not love women at all but instead prefers the company of males, and would never betray the honor of his gay lover. By definition, a libertine is one (particularly a man) who behaves irresponsibly in sexual matters, which, by the typical standards set forth by the heterosexual community in this story, hints at gayness and a crime worthy of severe punishment.

Courtly knights were not invulnerable to the possibility of being gay, although it was frowned upon, and only recently has it become mostly mainstream and acceptable without reprisals, even supported by the Supreme Court. “Heterosexual culture was intolerant of gay perspectives both on the streets and in books, and while strong women might be put in the attic for being ‘mad,’ gay people were put in jail for being ‘perverse’ or ‘against nature'” (Ryan). In the time of knights and shining armor in the middle ages, this was undoubtedly common behavior, although it was kept secret and punishable by excommunication, banishment, imprisonment, or death. Unfortunately for Lanval, the queen has his number and she is determined to see him punished for his deviant sexual nature as “. . . the queen had accused him [of being gay] and she seemed most keen that Lanval should be tried and found guilty and upon some ground or other be condemned to die” . . . or at the least be “banished” (Marie).

Overall, this is a tale of knights and chivalry, and what a way to put a kink in the traditional tale of courtly love and honor by dominant males who are supposed to be manly, the epitome of a knight in shining armor. What would the world do if they found out that everyone has the potential to be gay? For men held to a higher standard, who must remain “manly,” this is a dreadful thought. “Heterosexuality is dangerous because it contains an instability: while it would seem to assure a man’s identity as a masculine male, it leaves the man dependent on women for certification” (Ryan). Fortunately, today it is a different story. The human race seems to be progressing more and more toward a state of acceptance and equality among the sexes and genders. As for the outcome of this tale, in the end of this lay it could be argued that Lanval sneaks away with his androgynous gay lover and they live happily ever after on the island of Avalon.

Works Cited

Marie, and David R. Slavitt. The Lays of Marie De France. AU Press, 2013.

Ryan, Michael. Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction. 3rd Edition, 2017.

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