Sir Launfal: Introduction


1 For the Old Norse see Strengleikar eda Liodabok, eds. R. Keyser and C. R. Unger (Feilberg & Landmark, 1850), and more recently, Strengleikar: An Old Norse Translation of Twenty-One Old French Lais, ed. Robert Cook and Mattias Tveitane (Oslo: Norsk historisk kjeldeskrift-institutt, 1979). The Middle Dutch version is posited by Wilhelm Hertz, Spielmannsbuch (Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta, 1900). Lanval has also been claimed to have influenced Italian and Middle High German narrative poems. For a critical edition of Marie de France's text, see Le Lai de Lanval, ed. Jean Rychner (Genéve: Droz, 1958).

2 See Graelent and Guingamor: Two Breton Lays, ed. and trans. Russell Weingartner (New York: Garland, 1985). For a critical edition, see E. Margaret Grimes, ed., The Lays of Desiré, Graelent and Melion (New York: Institute of French Studies, 1928), pp. 76-101.

3 See Andreas Capellanus on Love, trans. P. G. Walsh (London: Duckworth, 1982), pp. 271-85, or The Art of Courtly Love, trans. John Jay Parry (New York: Norton, 1969), pp. 177-86. Another analogue, identified by Roger Sherman Loomis in his Arthurian Tradition & Chrétien de Troyes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949) and discussed by A. J. Bliss in his critical edition of Sir Launfal (London: Thomas Nelson, 1960), is Wauchier de Denain's continuation of Perceval le Gallois.

4 See Bliss, pp. 5-12. See also Erna Fischer, Der Lautbestand des sudmittelenglischen Octavian: verglichen mit seinen Entsprechungen im Lybeaus Desconus und im Launfal (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1927).

5 See Bliss, pp. 10-12; also his article, "The Spelling of Sir Launfal," Anglia 75 (1957), 275-89.

6 See Mortimer J. Donovan, The Breton Lay: A Guide to Varieties (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969).

7 A. C. Spearing, "The Lanval Story," in The Medieval Poet as Voyeur: Looking and Listening in Medieval Love-Narratives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 106.

8 Sir Thopas also contains some narrative features similar to Sir Launfal; see Laura Hibbard Loomis, "Sir Thopas," in Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, eds. W. F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster (1941; rpt. New York: Humanities Press, 1958), pp. 486-559.

9 For a discussion of correspondences see Bliss's critical edition of Sir Launfal, pp. 12-14. He includes references to a number of other scholars' work on this issue.

10 See A. C. Spearing, The Medieval Poet as Voyeur: Looking and Listening in Medieval Love-Narratives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 97-119.

11 See Elizabeth Willson, The Middle English Legends of Visits to the Other World and Their Relation to the Metrical Romances. Diss., University of Chicago, 1917; and Tom Peete Cross, "The Celtic Elements in the Lays of Lanval and Graelent," Modern Philology 12 (1915), 585-644.

12 See G. V. Smithers, "Story-Patterns in Some Breton Lays," Medium Aevum 22 (1953), 61-92. Stith Thompson discusses the supernatural wife/swan maiden narrative in the context of folktale types in his book, The Folktale (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1946), pp. 87-93. He cites the Launfal narrative as belonging to this fairytale type (p. 92). See also William Henry Schofield, "The Lays of Graelent and Lanval and the Story of Wayland," PMLA 15 (1900), 121-80. Tom Peete Cross argues that the swan maiden narrative is further afield from the Launfal narrative than Celtic precursors: "The Celtic Fée in Launfal," in Anniversary Papers by Colleagues and Pupils of George Lyman Kittredge (Boston: Ginn, 1913; rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967), pp. 377-87.

13 See E. Margaret Grimes, ed. The Lays of Desiré, Graelent and Melion, pp. 76-101.
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Sir Launfal: Introduction

Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal, written in the late fourteenth century, is preserved in only one early fifteenth-century manuscript: British Library MS Cotton Caligula A. ii. The Launfal narrative can be found in several medieval versions, however, the earliest of which is Marie de France's twelfth-century Lanval. Sir Launfal and Lay le Freine are the only two Middle English Breton Lays which can be traced directly back to Marie de France's collection. Marie claimed that her "lais" were translations of ancient Celtic tales of love and magic which she heard the Bretons sing. Her collection was written for an aristocratic audience and is preserved complete in one mid-thirteenth-century manuscript: British Library MS Harley 978. Selections and fragments of her lays are also preserved in at least four other manuscripts dating from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Extant translations of Marie de France's Lanval can be found in Middle English and Old Norse; a Middle Dutch version (now lost) has also been posited. [1]

When Thomas Chestre composed his version of the narrative, he drew on three earlier texts, two of which survive. The immediate and primary source for Chestre is the 538-line Middle English Sir Landevale, which is an adaptation from Marie de France. It has been preserved in a number of manuscripts and early printed books. Verbal echoes of Sir Landevale are pronounced in Chestre's text; in fact, Chestre borrowed whole lines from it. The Old French lay of Graelent forms the other known source for Sir Launfal. This anonymous text, or some version of it, appears to be the source for four passages in Sir Launfal: Guenevere's conflict with Arthur's knights, Launfal's conversation with the mayor's daughter, the episode in which gifts are brought to Launfal's abode, and the disappearance of Gyfre and Blaunchard immediately after Launfal speaks of his fairy-lover. [2] Most scholars assume that Chestre used at least one other source (now lost) which probably contained the tournament at Carlisle and the Sir Valentyne episode. An analogue of this lengthy episode can be found in Andreas Capellanus's The Art of Courtly Love (De Amore). [3]

The dialect features of Chestre's Launfal suggest that its scribe may have been Kentish, although the problems presented in the language of the text are considerable. [4] The scribal hand of the manuscript is clear but the orthography is problematic, and, as A. J. Bliss has commented, it presents "peculiarities" which record the effects of phonological and orthographic changes occurring in language sound and written hand in the early fifteenth century. [5] Sir Launfal is a tail-rhyme romance and shares the form with at least twenty-three other tail-rhyme romances written in the fourteenth century. [6] It is, thus, a more popular and less aristocratic poem than the highly crafted Lanval by Marie de France. A. C. Spearing has recently labelled Chestre's poem "a fascinating disaster." [7] Chaucer's parody of tail-rhyme romances in the Tale of Sir Thopas presents a courtly and educated parody of the more popular form. [8]

Sir Launfal is one of only a few Middle English romances or lays which record the author's name. In line 1039, the author writes, "Thomas Chestre made thys tale." Nothing definitive is known of him. For quite some time, scholars assumed that he was also the author of Octavian and Libeaus Desconus, romances which reside on either side of Sir Launfal in the Cotton Caligula manuscript. The exact relationship of the three tales is highly disputed, and it cannot be assumed that Chestre wrote any except the one he "signed"; however, the three texts bear some correspondence. [9] The tail-rhyme form coupled with the narrative simplicity and the blunt criticism of the court world suggest that he lived outside the aristocratic world. Bliss assumes that Chestre wrote for a peasant audience, but if we consider how and where the text itself might have been performed, read, or copied into a manuscript, we would likely establish a potentially wider and somewhat more varied audience, perhaps not peasant, but certainly mercantile. Bliss and Donovan criticize the poem for its lack of courtly sophistication. But Spearing offers the more likely view that the poem rather masterfully satirizes a bourgeois mentality. From this point of view the poem becomes a commentary on medieval popular culture. [10]

The poem, apparently written in the same period as the Peasants' Revolt, treats the court world and wealthy urban society with a certain amount of mockery, although the established order of a powerful, manly, and aristocratic world is affirmed at the beginning of the poem. Arthur's authority is never questioned, less so even than it was in Marie de France's version, but, as in a number of fourteenth-century romances including the very courtly Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the King appears to be inept. Here he has a hasty temper and is quite easily manipulated by Guenevere. Despite the fact that Launfal had been Arthur's faithful steward for ten years, Arthur believes Guenevere when she, seeking revenge against Launfal, claims that Launfal propositioned her. Impetuously and in anger, Arthur swears "by God . . . that Launfal schuld be sclawe" (lines 722-23). Only the intervention of other kindly knights gives Launfal a reprieve of one year to find his fairy-lover. There is also a certain coldness implied in the court's invitation for Launfal to return once he's known to be wealthy again, since they hadn't sought after him before. The poem also includes what Bliss calls an uncourtly and "unpleasant streak of bloodthirstiness" (p. 43). When Launfal defeats Sir Valentyne, he not only slays his downed opponent, he also kills all the lords of Atalye and expresses satisfaction about the slaughter; neither character nor narrator appears concerned about negotiating fourteenth-century chivalric codes governing combat or tournament. Launfal's vengeful response to both the mayor and Guenevere is hardly courtly, although both antagonists deserve punishment. The blinding of Guenevere as a fulfillment of the queen's casual remark, though consistent with folkloric patterns, is severe. In a more courtly narrative, shame might well have been sufficient punishment. The criticism of the court is certainly suggested by the conclusion of the narrative as well. The court does not reward Launfal or give him any restitution for his ordeal; instead, Launfal rides off into the Otherworld with Dame Tryamour. Subsequently, the unmanly or "soft" court is repeatedly challenged by Launfal's spirit which crosses into this world once a year to joust with any man who wants "to kepe hys armes fro the rustus" (1028).

Contributing to the fund of medieval Arthurian material, Sir Launfal sustains the late Middle Ages' represention of Arthur as a passive figure around whom the active knights revolve. Queen Guenevere, as usual, deceives her husband and is promiscuous with her husband's knights. Although other late medieval writers frequently treated her more sympathetically, Chestre's representation of Guenevere harks back to an earlier period in Arthurian romance when she was frequently despised. As many scholars have noted, her rash oath and her blinding have no known parallels in Arthurian materials, though the gestures of the rash oath and blinding can be found in other narratives influenced by folklore and mythology.

Sir Launfal contains a number of narrative elements which proclaim its connections to folktale tradition: the spendthrift knight, the fairy lover, a journey to the Otherworld, combat with a giant, the magical dwarf-servant, magical gifts, a beauty contest, the offended fay, a secret oath that is broken, and the cyclic return of the mounted warrior's spirit to this world once a year. Such folktale material led B. K. Martin to argue against scholars who tried to read the text through codes of chivalry ("Sir Launfal and the Folktale," Medium Aevum 35 [1966], 199-210). If the Middle English Breton Lay has connections with Celtic folktale, the connections can be easily perceived in Launfal. Celtic tales often revolve around the motif of an offended fay. In these tales, a mortal man either visits the Otherworld and is chosen by, or wins the love of, a fairy maiden; or the supernatural female figure visits the mortal world and takes him as her human lover. All is well until the mortal disobeys the fay's commands and suffers. Sometimes he loses everything, including his life; sometimes he is restored to his fairy lover. [11] Numerous medieval texts inscribe tales of fantastic female lovers, perhaps the most familiar of these being the Swan maiden tales with their corollary in the well-known Tchaikovsky ballet, Swan Lake. [12]

Besides, Chestre's sources, the lays of Guingamor, Tydorel, and Desiré (as well as others) bear striking resemblance to Sir Launfal. In Desiré, for example, the lover is guided by a beautiful maiden to meet his fay. The meeting apparently occurs in the mortal world, but Desiré finds the fay lying on a beautiful bed and, chasing after her, seizes her. After they make love, the fay gives Desiré a ring and commands him never to speak of her. He is sent away to another country to fight the King's enemy whom he defeats. On his arrival home, he mentions his beloved fay at confession; she abandons him for a year. She finally relents and, appearing at the King's court, reclaims her lover and carries him off to her Otherworld. The lay of Desiré introduces other materials into the narrative design, but the correspondence with Launfal is pronounced. [13]

In his Chivalric Romances: Popular Literature in Medieval England, Lee C. Ramsey argues that the conflict between individual and community forms a central meaning in Sir Launfal and many other medieval lays and romances. On the one hand civili- zation, the community and its conventions, protects and provides; on the other hand, it subjects its citizens to its prejudices and judges their successes and failures within its own assumptions and frame. The narrative of Launfal, Ramsey claims, expresses a fantasy solution to the tension between community and individual drives and desires: "By a natural extension of the family-romance myth, this could be achieved by rejecting (slaying) the civilization emblemized as father and uniting oneself with it as emblemized by the mother-lover" (p. 147). The giant Sir Valentine embodies the power of civilization to dominate, overwhelm, and subject; the fairy-lover, Dame Tryamour embodies the power of a civilization to comfort, protect and delight.

The poem contains other tensions as well. Issues of generosity, vows and moral obligation (geis), mercy and sexuality are powerfully present in this poem. The feudal world in which generosity is prized, in which Launfal can earn the high rank of steward because of his largesse, gives way to a courtly world when Arthur marries Guenevere. And when Launfal, former benefactor to the mayor of Caerleon, seeks a haven in the urban world, he is rebuffed. In his "excessive" gift-giving, Launfal is reminiscent of the epic hero whose reputation rests, in part, on his ability to give gifts to his comitatus. But moved into this romance world, the same actions cause misery. Stripped of everything, even his horse, Launfal falls into poverty and despair. Noticeably, he cannot, on his own, achieve his restoration; he is reestablished in wealth by the fairy-lover acting as a deus ex machina. Whereas Sir Cleges turns to prayer and to God to relieve his poverty, Sir Launfal is simply chosen by the fairy world. This very secular narrative gives no direct explanation for why Launfal is chosen to be the lover of the most beautiful woman alive, although his moral indignation about Guenevere's promiscuity may imply, indirectly, that his ethical standards are rewarded. Since he is praised for his liberality, that too, may be the reason he is rewarded. The lay sets sexual liberality against pecuniary liberality, punishing one and rewarding the other. If Guenevere is the main obstacle, the one who disrupts the manly idealized world pictured in the opening of the lay, Dame Tryamour becomes the agent of salvation by the end of the poem. Exercising mercy, she forgives Launfal for violating the geis and rides into Arthur's court parading in after her retinue of beautiful ladies. Proving that she is, indeed, the most beautiful woman alive - more beautiful than the indignant queen - she breathes on Guenevere, blinds her, and avenges her beloved Launfal. Unlike most medieval lays and romances, Launfal does not conclude with a reintegration of the hero back into the court world; instead, he rides off into the fairy otherworld as soon as he is restored to Dame Tryamour.

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Select Bibliography


British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.ii, fols. 35v-42v. [Dating from the first half of the fifteenth century, this paper manuscript contains thirty-eight items, including poems by Lydgate, anonymous poems, and ten romances. Sir Launfal is the seventh item in the manuscript. It is preceded by Octavian and followed by Libeaus Desconus, both of which have been, at times, attributed to Thomas Chestre. The text is organized in two columns per page, each column containing about forty lines, and the hand is clear. Landevale, the earlier Middle English version of the lay which Thomas Chestre apparently knew, is preserved in three manuscripts and two fragments of early printed books. The best manuscript of Landevale is MS Rawlinson C 86 found in the Bodleian Library (a late fifteenth-century text). Landevale can also be found in Cambridge University MS Kk.v.30, a seventeenth-century paper manuscript inscribed by James Murray of Tibbermuir. This MS version of Landevale is incomplete and fragmentary. The third manuscript of Landevale is MS Additional 27897, also called the "Percy Folio Manuscript" (c. 1650), which is housed in the British Library. Landevale in this paper manuscript is very corrupt and includes interesting additions. For full descriptions of this manuscript see J. W. Halls and F. J. Furnivall, Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript (1867) i, xii-xiv. The two early printed texts of Landevale offer quite incomplete versions of the poem, and both contain additions. Bliss dates these texts to the early sixteenth century. G. L. Kittredge has studied the manuscript affiliation: see his article "Launfal," American Journal of Philology 10 (1889), 4-17. Manuscript readings, where emended, are contained in the notes. I am much indebted to the work of A. J. Bliss, both in textual decisions and commentary.]

Critical Editions

Bliss, A. J., ed. Sir Launfal, London: Nelson, 1960.

Johnson, Lesley, and Elizabeth Williams, eds. Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal. Leeds: University of Leeds Press, 1984.

Ritson, Joseph, ed. Launfal, An Ancient Metrical Romance by Thomas Chestre to Which Is Appended the Still Older Romance of Lybeaus Disconus. Edinburgh: E. and G. Goldsmid, 1891. Pp. 1-33.


Fellows, Jennifer, ed. Of Love and Chivalry: An Anthology of Middle English Romance London: Dent, 1993. Pp. xviii-xx; 199-229.

French, Walter Hoyt, and Charles Brockway Hale, eds. Middle English Metrical Romances. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1930. Pp. 345-80.

Rickert, Edith, trans. & ed. Early English Romances in Verse: Done into Modern English. London: Chatto and Windus, 1908. Pp. 57-80.

Rumble, Thomas C., ed. The Breton Lays in Middle English. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965. Pp. 3-43.

Sands, Donald B., ed. Middle English Verse Romances. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966. Pp. 201-32.

Related Studies

Anderson, Earl R. "The Structure of Sir Launfal." Papers on Language and Literature, 13 (1977), 115-24. [Provides a reading of the lay, emphasizing its thematic and structural components. Argues that the testing of Launfal's manhood is the poem's central theme with accompanying parallels and contrasts. "The congruence of structure and theme is Chestre's major contribution to the Lanval story, and represents a credible claim to significant artistry" (p. 124).]

Bliss, A. J. "The Hero's Name in the Middle English Versions of Lanval." Medium Aevum 27 (1958), 80-85.

Cross, Tom Peete. "The Celtic Fée in Launfal." In Anniversary Papers by Colleagues and Pupils of George Lyman Kittredge (Boston: Ginn, 1913). Pp. 377-87. [Discusses Lanval, Desiré, Graelent, and Guingamor to uncover Celtic symbols underlying each poem.]

---. "The Celtic Elements in the Lays of Lanval and Graelent." Modern Philology 12 (1915), 585-644. [A thorough study of Celtic affinities in the narrative: the fée, her assertiveness, her gifts, her geis or taboo command, and her withdrawal into the Otherworld. Identifies parallels between Launfal and other texts influenced by Celtic myth and folklore.]

Martin, B. K. "Sir Launfal and the Folktale." Medium Aevum 35 (1966), 199-210. [Cautions against over-reading the tale, expecting to find the complexity of a Chaucer in the work of lesser poets. Identifies features of the tale as folkloric, not for the purposes of defending the aesthetics of Launfal, but for the purposes of understanding the tale. Differs from Cross's studies of the Celtic elements in Launfal, instead discusses the European folktale genre more generally and its influence on the lay.]

Nappholz, Carol J. "Launfal's 'Largesse': Word-Play in Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal." English Language Notes 25.3 (1988), 4-9. [Argues that Chestre's Launfal uses the word "largesse" for the purposes of sexual innuendo and pun. Maintains that "Chestre consciously set out to write a humorous piece rather than a serious romance" (p. 9).]

Ramsey, Lee C. Chivalric Romances: Popular Literature in Medieval England (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983). Especially Ch. 6: "The Fairy Princess," pp. 132-56. [Reads Launfal thematically in terms of general social and political contexts and in terms of generalized psychological frameworks.]

Spearing, A. C. "The Lanval Story." In The Medieval Poet as Voyeur: Looking and Listening in Medieval Love-Narratives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 97-119. [Compares Marie de France's Lanval with Chestre's, emphasizing wish-fulfillment, the erotic, and Freudian readings alongside the authors' gender differences and ways the authors' differences are written into the texts: "If Marie has a role in the Lanval story, it is not as Lanval but as the fairy lady who confines him to the world of fiction. He may imagine that he is devouring her; actually she, as storyteller if not as mother, is devouring him" (p. 106). "Chestre's own social insecurity may reveal itself in the way his hero (Launfal) is more concerned with avoiding shame in others' eyes than with gaining honour" (p. 112); "Chestre so exclusively identifies with his hero that his narrative becomes an open invitation to diagnosis" (p. 114).

Willson, Elizabeth. The Middle English Legends of Visits to the Other World and Their Relation to the Metrical Romances. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1917. [I have not examined this document.]