Today was the first day of class for my Undergrad Comp Lit course (where I’m doing Marie Lais, a Life of Cuthbert, Voyage of Brendan, Lai d’Haveloc, Grettir’s Saga, the Gawain Poet (SGGK, Pearl, & Patience), the Hebrew King Artus, Amis e Amilun, and the ME “Debate of a Christian and Jew”). After my dreadful pocket introduction to the MA, I distributed the prologue to the lais, and asked them to keep a few basic questions in mind: “How does she claim authority or the right to speak? What is the purpose of literature? Why is she writing? And who is her audience?” Surprising me with their enthusiasm, as good students always do, they would never have left the first question had I not interrupted them with a few of my favorite points. For example:
Li philesophe le saveient,
Par eux meïsmes entendeient,
Cum plus trespassereit li tens,
Plus serreient sutil de sens
E plus se savreient garder
De ceo k’i ert a trespasser. (17-22)
Philosophers knew this
they understood among themselves
that the more time they spent,
the more subtle their minds would become
and the better they would know how to keep themselves
from whatever was to be avoided. (Hanning and Ferrante trans; here’s another one)
You probably recall that Marie is here speaking about the deliberate obscurity of ancient texts, and the necessity of glossing them, and that she implicitly links her own literary production to that of the ancients. This is what I told my students, anyhow, but I also observed that the verb “trespasser” means, in its first use, to spend time, but in the second use means much more like what we mean, now, when we say “trespass.” Since the AND doesn’t allowing linking (easily?), click on this image for more:
What is she up to here? What do you do in your classrooms? (I know more than a few of you have handled the Prologue, although I’m told not typically on the first day of class). I suggested that she’s at once claiming the mantle of the ancients and disputing the social value of literary interpretation: perhaps all glossing, she suggests, is a waste of time (or worse!). If, however, she’s sinking, she plans to take the whole literary edifice down with her at the same time.
I also played with the metaphor of blooming by linking it with her address to the King. Cf.:
Quant uns granz biens est mult oïz,
Dunc a primes est il fluriz,
E quant loëz est de plusurs,
Dunc ad espeandues ses flurs. (5-8)
When a great good is widely heard of,
then, and only then, does it bloom,
and when that good is praised by many,
it has spread its blossoms.
to her praise of Henry (?): “e en qui quer tuz biens racine” (46; in whose heart all goods [nb: “biens” means goodness, as in l. 5, and also wealth or property] take root [modified trans.]) and to Marie’s description of her heart, which thinks and decides (“mun quer pensoe e diseie” (49)).
Hers is the heart that thinks; his is the heart in which she means to plant her flower. In other words, he is the reproductive body, the recipient of her rational seed, the biens, the flurs, she gives him. Typically, we speak of the writer as pregnant with the work he or she brings forth (“my hideous progeny”), but here, reversing Mary’s impregnation by the Verbum Dei, she herself fertilizes the king!