Lettre, Love, and Magic in Marie de France’s Les Deus Amanz *
- Author: Yoon JuOk
- Publish: The Journal of English Language and Literature Volume 58, Issue3, p427~446, June 2012
Les Deus Amanz(“The Two Lovers”) is one of the twelve Breton lays composed by an Anglo-Norman female author named Marie de France in the second half of the twelfth century. Marie in this particular lay tells us of the tragic love story of a young princess and her lover. In this paper, I would like to observe closely the ways in which Marie engineers the love of the princess and her beloved to dissipate into disappointment and death. More specifically, I will try to explain what and who may impede the couple to consummate their love, though the magic potion is indeed of high efficacy and literally in the maiden’s hand. The grounding premise of this paper is that the princess’s beloved, who betrays himself to be a deficient and immature lover and reader, ultimately thwarts their love from fruition. Elaborating this proposition will revolve around other important themes, including the significance of reading, the inter-referential relation of love and reading, and the transformation of writing and reading into magic, the marked motifs that are persistently prevailing not only in this lay but in Marie’s several other lays. Investigating Les Deus Amanzin meta- and inter-textual context will help us to see significant points that may otherwise be easily dismissed in discussing the lay.
Marie de France , Les Deus Amanz , lettre , lover , reader , magic
Les Deus Amanzis one of the twelve Breton lays ( laisin French) composed by an Anglo-Norman female author named Marie de France in the second half of the twelfth century. This short lay that consists only of 254 lines sits in the very middle of a thirteenth-century collection called the Harley 978 manuscript housed in the British Library, if the general prologue to the collection is included in counting. Marie in this particular lay imparts to us the tragic love story of a young princess and her beloved. I admit that the first three words of the title of this essay, “ Lettre, Love, and Magic,” may sound misleading in some senses. For, first, the immediate interests of this paper do not lie in discussing the ways that lettres, in the sense of epistle, contribute to sustaining the longdistance relationship of lovers for decades, as does in Marie’s lay of Milun. Nor does this paper examine any marvelous execution of a magic potion that will mistakenly yet irrecoverably intertwine the fates of a young couple, as in the Tristan and Iseult (Ysolt) tale of another Breton lay of Cheverefoilby Marie. Rather, what I really wish to do with Les Deus Amanzis to observe closely the ways in which Marie engineers the love of the princess and her beloved to dissipate into disappointment and death. More specifically, I want to try to explain what and who may impede the couple to consummate their love, though the magic potion is indeed of high efficacy and literally in the maiden’s hand. The grounding premise of this paper is that the princess’s lover, who betrays himself to be a deficient and immature lover-reader, ultimately thwarts their love from fruition. Elaborating this proposition will revolve around other important themes, including the significance of reading, the inter-refer-ential relation of love and reading, and the transformation of writing and reading into magic, all of which are persistently prevailing not only in this lay but in Marie’s several other lays. According to Marie’s long, refined deliberation in the general prologue on the roles of the writer and the reader, and on their relationship, the reader will have to figure out the obscurities that the author deliberately implanted in the text. To Marie, reading the text does not simply mean to understand or accept what the author literally says or envisages in the text; rather, it means to enrich and expand the text further by adding the reader’s own insights to the text, which can be obtained through a sort of deep, dialectic conversation between the reader and the text. It seems that Marie substantiates in her lays this extended concept of reading or interpretation that she posits in the general prologue, including Les Deus Amanz, Guigemar, Chaitivel, and Chevrefoil. In these love lays, by featuring lovers who strive to “interpret” texts presented in discrete forms of verbal and nonverbal, or material and immaterial, signs, and lovers whose future will be determined by the consequence of their reading performance, Marie conflates the significance of the reader with that of the lover. Investigating Les Deus Amanzin such meta- and inter-textual context1 will help us to think of significant points that may otherwise be easily dismissed in the discussion of the lay.
1So far critics, including Howard Bloch and Cowell Andrew, have tried to read Les Deus Amanz in the meta-and inter-textual valence. Nonetheless, while Bloch’s efforts are only topically applicable to the lay, Andrew’s reading of the romance, despite several useful insights, often discloses insufficient or even misreading examinations of the text, for example, regarding the meaning of the magic potion, the relationship of the king and daughter, the application of the biblical exegesis, among others.
In the general prologue to the lays, Marie posits the relationship between the writer and the reader like this:
How to comprehend this short passage, especially relating to the imports of the words
sen/surplusand the phrase gloser la lettre, has engendered heated polemics among critics of Les Deus Amanz. First, critics, including Leo Spitzer (100) and D. W. Robertson, have asserted that the senor surplusin line 16 signifies “obviously the ‘Christian’ attitude” or sententia,” as Robert Sturges summarizes(248). However, other critics have expressed their objections for these Old French words to be translated into such terms that are thickly saturated with conventional Christian hermeneutics. Among the critics of the contrary, Tony Hunt should be marked as the one who disproved most expressively Spitzer’s and Robertson’s identifications of Marie as an author of religious poetics. I admit Hunt as more convincing and ringing much truer to Marie’s poetics, precisely because the Breton lays attest themselves to be manifestations of what Hunt and Sturges call a “secular” and “literary” exegesis. In “Glossing Marie de France,” Hunt first corrects the logical flaw inherent in Spitzer’s argument by pointing out that Marie lived in the culture much earlier than the one on which Spitzer grounds his postulation. Then, drawing in the literary concept of integumentumas “a secular counterpart of Scriptural exegesis” (Sturges 348), Hunt criticizes Robertson’s reading of Marie as “arbitrary,” in that not only in this particular moment of the general prologue but throughout her laisMarie’s principal concerns are not with practicing biblical exegesis but with showcasing her characters’ growth (or failure in growth) on intellectual, affective, and spiritual levels (Hunt 412).3 One specific example that may attest to Marie’s no particular interests in disseminating the teachings of the medieval church is that in such so-called mal maréelays as Guigemarand Yonec, she does not condemn the extramarital union of the ladies and their lovers, even though their relationship is directly against what the scriptures and the church fathers endorsed and preached to the congregation. The author’s principal attention is devoted on whether the couple is true and loyal to each other, rarely on the fact that the lady violates her matrimonial vow to her old, jealous, and possessive husband who has abused her by imprisoning her in castle/tower/chamber. The senor surplusof the general prologue in this vein can mean no conventional and fixed religious ideologies but, as Robert Sturges well summarizes, “something the reader brings to the text himself” (249) in generation after generation, as authors of all ages would wish. This point sounds even more convincing, taken into account that Marie seems to have envisioned herself both as reader who surpasses the ancient writers by adding her own particular sento the old texts and as writer who sets up the night, as she strives to write “obscurely” her lines, such that the readers of future generations may try to add their own surplusto her texts. Marie’s revelation of how she has set down the orally transmitted tales into the words and meter of poems may insinuate the process of her own interpretative engagement with the preceding texts and of her painstaking re-renderings of them into new texts, in hopes that her readers also, as she did, would spend nights on interpreting her literary creations:
The fact that the phrase
gloser la lettrein line 15 is linked by a conjunction together with the terms senand surplusin the following line suggests that their semantic functions are overlapping with each other much closely. The Old French glosercan be translated as to explain, to gloss, or to interpret. Yet, what is more at issue relates to how la lettremay be rendered. La lettremay primarily mean, as Burges and Busby’s translation suggests, “the text” that is written or recorded in letters by the author, and in this vein to gloser la lettremeans to interpret the text set down in letters. Then, several questions may arise regarding how to gloss the text. Among them are: In what particular manner is the reader supposed to gloss the text? Different readers will conduct different interpretations of the same text. Then, whose interpretation would be assessed as the best or correct one, according to what and whose standard? With the author’s judgment? What if there is no way to know the author’s intention? With the reader’s own? Then, who in what ways can measure or guarantee the authority or authenticity of the interpreter’s judgment? What would happen to the reader who fails to gloss the text in the manner that it is to be done? Marie seems to have anticipated these questions that may be posed by her readers because her admonition about interpreting texts in the immediately following lines can be considered to, in one way or another, an extensive answer to these questions:
In this and the former quotations, Marie spends most of the lines on elaborating on what the reader ought to do in interpreting the text. Once the author finishes writing the text, Marie asserts, it is now the reader’s responsibility to study the text attentively, to undertake a demanding task of glossing the text, and finally to put the finishing touches to their meaning. Otherwise, the reader cannot “avoid future mistakes,” “guard against vice,” and “ward off . . . great suffering.” Then, why would Marie fill lines with this prolonged advice and warnings, all of which are concerned with the reader’s interpretative enterprise? One point that cannot be missed from Marie’s written discourse of what the reader ought to do is that the apparent, literal meanings that can be immediately obtained from reading the text are not all what the reader has to look for in the text. If the complete meanings of the text were written on pages in letters, and, as a consequence, if the reader had no need to examine the text painstakingly, then his or her glossing undertakings would not have to be an exacting task, as Marie did as a eader and an author. If so, the reader could simply pick up the meanings readily displayed on pages or barely buried in the letters and between the lines, as farmers would harvest vegetables and fruits from their fields. Any serious interpretative endeavors, it can be thus inferred, should go beyond what the text graphically or literally seems to convey, and any successful readers must strive to see through what lies beyond the literal presentation of the text.
Indeed, not all readers can accomplish such ideal level of reading. While some may stay on the superficial and literal level of reading, others may go beyond much further than that rudimentary level. Then, what creates the differences in readers’ responses to the same text? Many different factors on the reader’s side, including experience, education, training, talent, sensitivity, may be taken into account. However, what becomes ultimately at stake in interpretative performance is whether readers have the ability to discern (“read”) the presence and significance of such discrete elements in their realities, and integrate their discernments into the process of interpreting the text that the author presents. If readers fail to do so, no matter how intently they search
la lettre, they could not penetrate into its obscurities, appreciate its subtleties, and provide the finishing touches onto the meaning, as Marie as author wishes. The reader’s reading of his or her own realities thereby becomes the prerequisite for the reading of any written text. If the text, in relation to reading activities, can be defined as what one can read and from that which one can draw out meanings, then not only the literate text but the reader’s physical and psycho-social realities can also be texts to be glossed. On the surface level, it appears, Marie in the general prologue means to read what the author offers in letters with the phrase gloser la lettre. However, what can be further read from her lengthy sermon on how readers should perform their interpretative undertakings is that glossing involves the integration of the reader’s own life into the writer’s literary product. It is worth pointing out that it is, Marie says, not the author, but the reader who will make particular meanings emerge from the text (l.15). Namely, what she expects of readers is, as Sturges remarks, not simply accepting her own perspectives expressed in her text but bestowing their own views onto the text and consequently expanding the meanings of the text.
One phenomenon that is witnessed persistently in Marie’s love lays, including
Les Deus Amanz, is that, as several critics including R. Sturges, Howard Bloch (42-50), and Ashley Lee (196-97) have rightly noted, the function of the lover is analogous to that of the reader:
Namely, as the reader of the lay glosses the romance, the lover in the lay interprets texts that are presented in such distinct shapes as the beloved person, speeches, gestures, feelings, letters, narratives, love tokens, tasks, to name a few, and await to be interpreted. A sincere lover proves to be a mature reader, and a discerning reader most likely makes a true, responsible lover and lives happily ever after with the beloved. Conversely, if the lover fails to read texts whose meanings have to be grasped correctly, then s/he most likely has to forfeit the love/beloved, honor, status, property, and even life. In other words, mistakes, vices, and great sorrows, of which Marie warns her readers in the general prologue, are applicable both to the inner and outer reader-lover of
la lettre, particularly so when they fail to interpret texts properly. This inseparable union of reader and lover and the inter-textuality of reality and literature are repeatedly testified in Marie’s love lays, and this recurrent motif well explains the ways that Marie ends Les Deus Amanzwith the death of the young male lover who proves himself to be a deficient reader, which subsequently drives his beloved to death also, out of despair.
2All references to Marie’s lays in Old French are from the edition of Jean Rychner and are cited with line numbers in parentheses. All references to Marie’s lays and to the general prologue in English translation are from Burges and Busby and will be given with page numbers in parentheses. If judged necessary, Hanning and Ferrante’s translation will be supplementally looked in. 3As to how the critical debate has progressed, see Robert Sturges 248-49, especially footnote 9.
Les Deus Amanz(“The Two Lovers” in English) is a story about the two young lovers who fail to consummate their love in the form of marriage and die on the same day at the same place. To recapitulate the story in brief: The king of Pitres in Normandy has a beautiful daughter as his sole heir. The princess has been the king’s only comfort, ever since the death of his queen, such that he would not let the daughter marry any suitor away. In attempts to prevent any young man from marrying her, the king had devised a scheme, according to which only the one, who successfully carries the princess in his arms to the top of a high mountain located near his town without rest, can win her in marriage. A young man, noble and fair, the son of a count, falls in love with the princess. Because he frequents the court and importunes her to grant him her love, and more importantly because the king thinks highly of him, she finally accepts his love. The couple loves each other secretly. The youth at first well endures the grief caused by the secrecy of their love. However, love gradually becomes such a great affliction to him that he can no longer bear the pain. So, one day he begs the beloved to elope with him. However, she refuses to do so, saying that she loves her father so dearly that she would not want to break his heart by secretly disappearing with him. Instead, she discloses an unexpected plan to him that she has one aunt in Salerno whose potion will help them resolve the deadlock situation, and she sends him away with a letter to the aunt in the remote Italian city. Reading the letter and examining the youth, the aunt finally prescribes a magic potion that will help him to accomplish his mission to carry the princess to the mountain top. The young man happily returns to the beloved with the potion; however, he refuses to drink it during the test. He succeeds in carrying the princess without a pause, but soon after that he dies of complete exhaustion. After sprinkling the potion onto the surrounding area, the broken-hearted the princess soon dies also.
Because one principal attention of this essay is devoted onto explaining the ways that Marie delineates love in
Les Deus Amanz, I would like to look briefly into the ways that Marie as author renders love and relevant issues in her lays. In the collection of the twelve lays, Marie offers a widely colorful landscape of lovers and their aventures, physical and mental, that may (may not) lead them to happiness and harmony in the end. Love is the most compelling and prevailing subject matter that functions as both foreground and background, and as both beginning and ending, to the whole collection of the lays. It may be no choice of fortuity that the opening and ending lays of the collection are Guigemarand Eliducrespectively, where the knight-protagonist’s journey into the unknown realm of love occupies the center of the romance. What is evidenced over and again in the lays is that, as Emanuel J. Mickel astutely observes, love is “approved when it is of high quality” but “condemned when it remains only as concupiscence or selfish love” (42-43). In addition, to the author, love invariably involves suffering and ills, as she overtly states in length in Guigemar:
Lovers of several lays, as in
Guigemar, Milun, and Eliduc, begin their love that is at its onset considerably analogous to lecherie(l.480) or passio, in that the lovers’ initial attention is most often a varied mix of selfcentered, flirtatious, sexual, possessive, and insincere interests. However, they later learn to ennoble such a “villain[ous]” (l.489) love by realizing the genuine worth of the beloved and by taking precedence over loyalty and compassion to the beloved. In a way, the happy reunion and marriage of lovers with their beloveds can be perceived as a sort of prize to the couples who together have successfully completed the roller-coaster-like adventure of love despite so “long and tortuous” “itineraries” of it Burgess 1995, xxvi). On the other hand, if lovers fail to elevate their initial self-seeking, cupidinous concerns to a higher level of love, then they, as in Equitanand Bisclavret, are almost always seen to face the rest of their lives in irrevocable, bitter mishaps or even the instant death that seemingly looks untimely but indeed justifiable, considered Marie’s stern Lettre, Love, and Magic in Marie de France’s Les Deus Amanz435 attitude towards the love/lover that lacks sincerity and integrity.4 As a whole, as Glyn Burgess well summarizes, in the lays, Marie “evidently abhor[s], whether it be in a man or woman, any form of promiscuity, hypocrisy, flirtatiousness, fickleness, insincerity, or abuse of power”; instead, love to her must be “pruz [noble] and fin [true] and be the product of true understanding and genuine worth”(1995, xxvii).
Judged in this dynamism of love that Marie deploys wherever love is at issue in her lays, the young man who loves the princess in
Les Deus Amanzwill most likely fall into the second category of the problematic lovers who fail to accomplish their aventureson account of their deficient love and reading. In the opening lines of the lay, Marie a couple of times calls the young man “noble,” “fair,” “wise,” and “worthy” ( gent e bel, l. 58, pruz .. e curteis, l. 67, & sages, pruz e beus, l.82). However, it is not long before readers call into questions the credibility of these initial laudatory remarks of the author on the youth and grow convinced that the author must have been sarcastic in complimenting the young man who soon in a series of episodes discloses himself much disappointingly, unlike the author’s initial, high estimation of him. His beginning both as lover and as reader looks fairly agreeable, even better than male lovers in other lays, in that he at first attempts to bear the suffering caused by his secret love to the princess, and he reads wisely the vulnerability of the relationship: “This suffering caused them much grief, but the young man considered it better to suffer these misfortunes than to make too much haste and this fail”(83). However, his original resolution is seen to soon dissipate into impatience and complaints to the point that he importunes the princess to steal with him away from her father and the court. He comes up with this unwise idea because, it is said, he can no longer tolerate the suffering: Ne poeit mes suffrir l’enui(l. 86), and also because the king, who loves his daughter extremely dearly, would not grant her to him unless he accomplishes the task in public, as the king has already proclaimed to all likely suitors of the princess (ll. 87-91). This youth’s fate as a failed lover begin to be sealed from this very point, no other than because he refuses to accept suffering. As discussed above, lovers in Marie’s lays will have to confront and overcome pains and ills in order to consummate their love with the beloved. Now that love is suffering in the world of the lays, to avoid it in essence signifies to dismiss love and the beloved.
Furthermore, the youth exposes cowardice and unworthiness in the sense that, once aware of his insufficient strength to carry the princess as demanded by the king, he attempts to take her secretly away from the king. In so doing, he reveals himself to be exclusively interested in ameliorating his own pain, and he expresses no compassion toward the beloved and her old father whose only consolation is her and pays no second thought to what would happen to the poor father if he snatches the daughter away from him. Perhaps, one might try to justify this youth’s attempt to separate the princess from her father, by lining him up with his countrymen who have blamed the king for holding the daughter only to himself (ll.34-35), assuming that the father’s affection to the daughter is mostly immoral and hence better to be thwarted. Considering many ancient narratives in which the father, after losing his wife, is shown to fall in incestuous love with his own daughter and tries to marry her, it is not surprising to see people from both in and out of the romance to identify the relationship between the king and his daughter in this lay as immoral.5 However, I would propose a different reading of the fatherdaughter relationship that Marie captures in the lay. Take the following lines, with which Marie suggests what may indeed underlie the king’s secluding his daughter from the circle of suitors:
In these lines, Marie focuses her elaboration on delineating the king as an old, helpless man who does not seem to have fully recovered from the loss of his wife and still mourns it, despite a long time lapse since. Given this, his excessive attachment to the only daughter becomes amply understandable. Because she reminds him of and connects him with his diseased wife, he cannot let go of her; if he did, it may mean to let go of the wife and the past. Perhaps, one may argue that the father’s denial of his daughter’s readiness and necessity to live her own life ultimately precipitates her untimely death. Still, this line of argument can not be extended to support that his incestuous longing drives her to tragic denouement. Perhaps, as she delineates the old king and his young, unmarried daughter, Marie was conscious of the influential narrative tradition of the incestuous father-daughter relationship, as some critics have maintained. Even so, as usual, Marie seems to have added her own interpretation of that particular cultural tradition that may include such compelling issues that had been neglected or misunderstood as the loneliness and despair of the old, widowed father and his affective attachment to the offspring. It is worth to point out that, when learning about his countrymen’s disapproval or misconception of his affection towards the daughter, Marie says, the king was “very sad and disturbed” (82). If Marie had really colored the father’s love to the daughter with incestuous obsession, she might have said that he felt shamed and remorseful at his natives’ condemning whispers. Despite his love being possessive and stifling to the daughter, she is represented as the only soul who truly understands him and hence can be genuinely compassionate with him. At her beloved’s proposal to elopement, she replies: “Truly, I love him so much and hold him so dear that I would not wish to grieve him” (82). Indeed, she penetratingly and compassionately reads her father’s deep helplessness and desperation buried under his inexorable and even ridiculous proclamation that has repelled many likely suitors of hers and consequently kept her “unmarried for a long time, as no one wanted to seek her hand” (82). Unlike the princess as daughter, the young man does not appear to penetrate into the old king’s psychology and to read the girl’s special concerns about her old father. If he did, he would not press her to steal away with him. While the princess continues to display herself as a perceptive reader in subsequent episodes, the young man rarely engages himself as an acute reader; instead, as the story spins further, he more increasingly solidifies his image as a failed lover and reader.
The princess’s determination to seek for the help of her learned aunt in a remote Italian town stems from her glossing of the impasse that she faces both as the only daughter to the father who has been emotionally dependent upon her and as the beloved to the young man who lacks of perseverance and sympathy. In short, the princess’s turn to the magic potion that the aunt will make is the consequence of the girl’s astute readings of the texts called the old, helpless father and the immature and impatient beloved. She amply anticipates that if she went away with the youth, then her old father would be so distressed that he would spend the rest of his life in unbearable sorrow and despair. She also rightly perceives the reality of the lover who can neither bear the pain that accompanies their clandestine relationship nor win the extremely strenuous test of carrying her without a pause to the mountain top on his own: . . .
jeo sai bien, / Ne m’i porter ïez pur rien:/ N’estes mie si vertuus!(ll. 93-95). Judged from the fact that the aunt is a noted herbal pharmacist who can produce magic potions, the princess seems to believe that it is only through a sort of extraordinary method that her stalemate relationship with her father and the lover can be resolved:
The magic potion that the aunt concocts for the couple is a materialization of the princess’s
lettres, which contains her reading of the lover. In other words, she is the first reader who commits herself to the creation of the potion. Producer of the potion, the aunt is the other reader whose commitment is the most exhaustive and ultimate. Explaining the aunt’s occupation in which she has been practicing herbal medicine for the past three decades in Salerno, the famed medieval city of medicine, Marie, as Mickel notes, appears to take a great care to portray her as a lay woman leech or pharmacist whose medicine must have “nothing to do with witchcraft or the black magic”(footnote 28).7 The texts that she has to read in order to create potions are multi-faceted. The aunt’s regular texts to read are suggested as plants and medical books that may explain the efficacy of plants, prescriptions and applications for patients, etc. Then comes the princess’s lettres in which it is explained why the youth is sent to her and why the girl asks her to concoct a magic potion for him. It is said that the aunt reads her niece’s letter very thoroughly, from start to finish ( el l’ot lit de chief en chief, 1.140), and then finally she “reads” (examines) the youth himself closely, as a doctor examines a patient, until she knows everything about him ( Ensemble od li l’a retenu/ Tant que tut sun ester ad sell, ll. 141-42). Based on her examination of him, she treats him with some medicines to strengthen him, and finally formulates a potion that, “however weary, afflicted, or burned he might be,” “it would refresh his whole body, even his veins and his bones, and restore all his strength to him as soon as he had drunk it” (83-84). This potion is just what the young man needs, and if he takes it, he will be able to carry the princess to the top of the mountain and then the king will have to admit him as her husband, as the girl has dreamed. Yet, the little phial that contains the potion and travels with the youth back to the kingdom comes with a little invisible tag attached with the author’s warning: Mes jo creaim que poi ne li vaille, / Kar n’ot en lui point de mesure(ll. 188-89). Translators have done slightly different renderings of these two lines.8 Nevertheless, the crux of their translations may be the same as the author is skeptical whether the potion would be really helpful, for the young man owns no moderation or self-control at all. If we translate the word mesure into “wisdom” or “prudence,” another meaning that the Old French-English Dictionary provides for the word, then the lines can be rendered like this: precisely because the youth possesses no wisdom or prudence, the author cannot be sure whether the potion will really work. Indeed, as I have discussed, this young man has betrayed no wisdom and prudence as both lover and reader. As expected, the author’s worry comes to realization later when the youth refuses to drink the potion.
Before I turn to the denouement where the deaths of the couple are dramatically showcased, I would like to take a moment to speculate on the significance of the two words,
mescines(l.107) and leituaires(l.113), which the princess (or Marie) employs as synonyms for potion in her speech quoted above. Marie’s employment of vocabulary in the lays is generally peculiar, in that words are not semantically transparent or fixed, though they look so syntactically. Instead, the real meanings that the author may have intended very often start to emerge in the process of examining the (near) homonyms of the words. Naturally, doing so incomparably enriches the meanings of the relevant words and of the entire lay. In Les Deus Amanz, Marie eems to play the same game of burying the intended meanings of certain words in their (close) homonyms. First, the Old French mescine, if Howard Bloch’s acute observation on the word is borrowed, can mean both “remedy” / “medicine” and “a young girl” (90), significantly enough. When the princess introduces her aunt Que mut est saive de mescines(l.107), she seems primarily to mean that the aunt is well informed of medicine, as Burges and Busby translate. If taken “a young girl,” the other meaning of mescine, however, the same line can be rendered very differently, as follows: the aunt is well informed about young girls ( mescines), like the princess herself. Considering the youth’s imprudent and disappointing history as the princess’s lover, as manifested with his whining and importuning behaviors, it is illuminating to say that, by using this particular word mescinethat means both “medicine” and “young girl,” the princess may hope him to obtain from the learned and experienced aunt some advice on what young girls, like herself, may want, as well as a magic potion that will remedy their predicament. Perhaps, the princess may send the youth away for the long journey from the northern France (Normandy) to Salerno in the southern Italy and back home again, in hopes that he may grow strong and mature, both physically and mentally. In addition, if we take both potion and a young girl for the meanings of mescine, the youth spurns not merely the potion but also the princess, as Bloch notes (91), when he refuses to take the potion three times, during the aventureto carry the princess to the mountain top.
Though not as pronounced as in the case of
mescine, the word leituairesis another synonym for potion employed in the princess’s speech. The Old French leituairesmay be rendered as “electuaries” in English,” which the Oxford English Dictionarydefines as “A medicinal conserve or paste, consisting of a power or other ingredient mixed with honey, preserve, or syrup of some kind” (1.a.). There may be little dispute that the princess uses the word leituairesprimarily as this meaning in her speech. However, Bloch here again offers a very useful point that the word leituairesin some editions is shown to have been transcribed as lectuaires(90). The sound of lectuaires, Bloch goes on, resounds much alike with the Latin word lectio, which means “reading” (90). It is illuminating to this project to point out this phenomenon where the old French leituaires becomes the Latin lectio, that a medicinal remedy or potion becomes “reading,” or rather that “reading” becomes “potion.” Despite its rather intuitive explication that needs even more elaboration, this insight still provides a suitable avenue to envision a sort of alchemic interaction at work between reading and magic.
As already anticipated, the magic potion turns out to be of no help, not because it is defective in itself but because the youth says no to it. After returning with the potion from his journey to Salerno, the youth visits the king and asks him to give the princess to him, if he succeeds in carrying her to the top of the mountain in the manner that the king has commanded. The youth carries his beloved half way at a good pace. Soon after, however, he gets increasingly tired. It is the princess carried in his arms who first reads the weakened bodily state of him; naturally, she over and again pleads with him to drink the potion in order to recover his strength.9 However, each time, he turns down her pleading, saying that he still feels strong, and if he stops to drink the potion, the crowd would will mock them with loud noise:
He finishes the mission, but only at the cost of his life and of his beloved’s. His failure to read his own bodily state, or his denial of his corporeal limit, makes both him and his beloved die young. Critics, such as Emanuel Mickel (53), have criticized this youth whose prideful, selfish obstinacy has prevailed over his love and faith10 to the beloved. Realizing that he has already breathed his last breath, the princess bitterly laments him, sprinkles the potion around the mountain top, and dies out of despair. Marie’s warning in the general prologue for the misfor-tunes that careless readers would fall prey to seems to resound through the valley of the mountain where the graves of the couple are added anew. With the help of the potion, it is said, many good plants or herbs (
racine) later take roots in the same mountain (ll.223-29). The potion has proved to be working well, as prescribed, after all.
4Despite his ostensible similarity to the knight-lover of this second category, in that they commonly suffer untimely death, the hawk-knight, father of the young eponymous Yonec in Yonec, ought to be treated separately from them. The hawk-knight’s unexpected, pitiful death is brought to him not because of any poor quality of love on his side but because of the murderous jealousy of his beloved’s old husband. After all, he dearly and sincerely loves his beloved even to his death. The death of the worthy knight who happens to love a lady of the so-called mal marée must not be read as a sort of poetic justice either, in that several other knights who also fall in love with the ladies of themal marée, as in Guigemar and Milun, become happily reunited with their beloveds. Rather, the hawk-knight being trapped and murdered by the jealous husband of the lady should be reaffirming the old man’s depravity and cruel wickedness. 5At the turning of the twenty century, for example, Oliver M. Johnston explained the peculiar father-daughter relationship of Les Deus Amanz within the long literary tradition of the incestuous father daughter union (34-36). And toward the end of the century, critics, such as Andrew Cowell, still maintained that the father’s keeping the daughter close to himself be incestuous (par.15). 6This translation of the lines is taken from footnote 1 of Hanning and Ferrante (126). The original text reads as follows: Li Reis o tune fille bele E mut curteise dameisele. Fiz ne fille fors li n’aveit ; Forment l’amot e chierisseit. De riches homes fu requise, Ki volentiers l’eüssent prise ; Mes li reis ne la volt doner, Kar ne s’en poeit consirrer. Li res n’aveit autre retur, Pres de li esteit nuit e jur. (ll. 21-30) 7Additionally, one thing that can be noticed from the ways in which the potion is created is that, unlike other medieval romances and medical treatises where creating drugs very often involves “occult” elements, ranging from prayers, incantations, and rituals, to use of arcane language, astrological consideration into the effects of starts and planets, efforts to maintain the purity of the substance, etc. (Kieckhefer 12-13), no reference to such supernatural things can be found in the preparation for the potion in this lay. This may be Marie’s deliberate device to prevent the aunt from being associated with witches in her readers’ mind. 8“I fear it will be of little avail to him, because he knew no moderation”(Burges and Busby 84); “I am afraid the potion did him little good, / because he was entirely lacking in control” (Hanning and Ferrante 131). 9“Amis, fete le, kar bevez! / Jeo sai bien que vus alassez. / Si recuvrez vostre vertu!” (ll.195-97). 10Starting the test of carrying the princess , it is said, the youth asks her to hold the potion on behalf of him because “he well knew that she had no wish to let him down” (84). If he had really believed in her, one may amply argue, Marie would not have added this seemingly unnecessary line. With this very line, in other words, Marie probably hints at the youth’s insufficient faith in his beloved.
It is wrong, as Michel asserts (54), to try to draw an analogous relation between
Les Deus Amanzand the Tristan story, on which Marie’s fragmentry Chevrefoilis based, simply because these two romances end with the death of the young couple, and because a magic potion is present between the young man and woman. In the Tristan story the potion works to unite the couple and symbolizes the inseverable love relationship of the young couple. The potion in Les Deus Amanz, however, does not represent any fatal love of the princess and her beloved. Instead, it can be considered to be the consequence of multi-layered reading endeavors carried out by different readers. It is the princess who takes the initiative in creating the magic potion, as a way to find the solution to the deadlock situation caused by the possessive father and the impatient lover. To her, these two men represent texts for her to have to read, and in doing so, she proves herself as an astute reader and wise lover. Unlike her, the young man betrays himself as both a failed lover and reader. More than anything, as a lover, he is witnessed to reject suffering and ills, with which the author defines love. What is worse, he fails to read what his beloved really wants and what his own body needs. In this vein, it is he who brings his love relationship with the princess to tragic ending. Taking into account Marie’s regret about the youth’s lack of wisdom or prudence, as well as the episodes that over and again captures him as unqualified for reading and love, I would not take the title of this lay (“The Two Lovers”) as laudatory, as many critics of this lay have done so; instead, I take it as the author’s implied sarcasm over the couple’s love as a failure, for which the youth has to answer the most.