Deadly Letters: "Deus Amanz," Marie's "Prologue" to the 'Lais' and the Dangerous Nature of the Gloss

By Cowell, Andrew | The Romanic Review, May 1997 | Go to article overview

Deadly Letters: "Deus Amanz," Marie's "Prologue" to the 'Lais' and the Dangerous Nature of the Gloss


Cowell, Andrew, The Romanic Review


The famous "Prologue" (henceforth Pro) to Marie de France's Lais' opens with the traditional Christian admonition that one should not hide ("celer" (3)) one's talents. This admonition derives principally from patristic and medieval readings of the Parable of the Talents. Although the reference seems fleeting, I will show in this paper that the implications of this evocation are more important and extensive than has previously been recognized. The talents in question here are those of "escience"--knowledge (1) and "eloquence" (2). When they are revealed ("mustrer" (4)), they can flourish ("fluriz" (6)); their flowers are spread ("espandues ses flurs"(8)), according to the Pro. Marie then goes on to elaborate the idea of the flourishing of the tale through reference to the process of glossing (9-22).

The idea of flourishing calls to mind one of the lads in particular--"Deus amanz" (henceforth DA). In this narrative, a young lover fails to achieve the feat of carrying his beloved to the top of a mountain so that he may win the permission of her father, the king, to marry her. The failure occurs specifically because he is so filled with the joy of carrying his lady that he falls prey to excess pride and emotion, with the result that he fails to drink the magic potion which has been prepared for him in secret to assure his success at his task. Seeing him dead, his lover pours the potion out onto the mountain and then dies herself:

Puis ad gete e espaundu

Le veissel u li beivre fu.

Li muns en fu bien arusez;

Mut en ad este amendez

Tuz li pais e la cuntree:

Meinte bone herbe i unt trovee

Ki del beivre vent racine. (223-29)

Then she threw and spread from the vessel containing the portion

The mountain was well watered by it; all the land and region were

greatly improved: Many good herbs are found there which took root

from the potion. (All translations are my own)

This passage reinforces the parallel with the Pro, since it can be read as a metaphor for the "sowing" of the text and its subsequent spread and transmission through the process of gloss. The same word "espandu"--spread, found in the Pro (8), recurs here, and "trovee"--found, composed--is of course used elsewhere in the lads to refer to the act of composing poetry.(2) Marie's lads also contain several of their own "herbes," including "le fresne," "le codre" ("Fresne" 338, "Chievrefoil" 75) and "le chievrefoil," all of which are fundamental symbolic elements of her texts. Thus DA enacts the physical and metaphorical sowing of the seed that will lead to the flourishing not only of the specific Breton lai which Marie points to as the source of her own narrative in DA, but also of the lads in general.

Not only is the act of the woman in the tale paralleled to that of Marie as she puts her own tales into circulation, but other characters of the lai also echo her authorial gestures of the Pro. Marie has been "dune"--given (1) eloquence, and it is essential that it be heard by "plusurs"--many (7). Furthermore, in order "de grant dolur [se] delivrer" (27) "pur ceo comencai a penser" (28) "a grevose ovre comencier" (25) she says ("to deliver herself from great sorrow she began to think of beginning a difficult task"). In DA, the king has been given a beautiful daughter, but he "ne la volt doner"--did not want to give her (27) in marriage, refusing to continue the cycle of reception and transmission. "Plusur" (33) criticize him for withholding (due to his incestuous desires) that which he should share. The king as a result is "dolenz" sorrowful (36), and "cumenca sei a purpenser/ cumment s'en purrat delivrer"--began to think how he could deliver himself from this sorrow (378).(3) His solution is to proclaim far and wide that his daughter's hand will be given only to the one who can successfully carry her up the nearby mountain without resting. …

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