Ravishing Marie: Eugene Mason’s Translation of
Marie de France’s Breton Lai of Lanval
M. J. Maddox, University of Arkansas
Students of English eventually find it necessary and desirable to acquire some acquaintance with the poems of Marie de France. Unless they have some reason to study Old French, their acquaintance with Marie’s verse narratives will be by way of an English translation. In their course work, they may use the big gold anthology edited by Thomas Garbáty that contains a translation of Marie’s Lanval. At least it is presented as a “translation” and the editor invites students to compare it to the derivative Middle English version of the story by Thomas Chestre. Unfortunately for the student, this translation of Lanval is by Eugene Mason, an enthusiastic Victorian literary buff whose translations of Marie’s lais and other medieval French romances have gained a tenacious foothold in the academic literature. I say “unfortunately” because Mr. Mason was not overly concerned with fidelity to the original.
First published ninety years ago for a general readership, Mason’s translations of such works as Lanval, Aucassin and Nicolette, and the anonymous lay of Graelant, because of their original publication as Everyman classics which have been frequently reissued, have been and continue to be an influence on students and critics of medieval literature.
Some would argue that “Poems cannot be translated, they can only be rewritten,” but a narrative poem does contain specific details of plot and character which, if altered or omitted, will have the effect of creating a different story. To Mason, all details were open to alteration; he did not approach his work in the spirit of a modern translator intent on “fidelity to the text.” Here is Mason’s position as translator:
Not being a scholar myself, I have no pretension to write for scholars. My object is more modest. I have tried to bring together a little garland for the pleasure of the amateurs of beautiful tales. To me these mediaeval stories are beautiful, and I have striven to decant them from one language into another with as little loss as may be. To this end I have refined a phrase, or, perhaps, softened an incident here and there. (Aucassin & Nicolette, xvii)
Not only was he unconcerned with producing a scholarly translation of his original, Mason had the mindset of a Victorian male. He thought that women should be modest and submissive; he saw the Middle Ages as quaint, and he seemed to find any mention of sexual matters distasteful and in need of “refining” and “softening.”
Mason couched his translation of Lanval in a convoluted, sentimental, pseudo-medieval English. He rewrote Marie’s story in a manner congenial to the social and moral attitudes of his own day. On one hand, Mason’s rendering of Lanval is as interesting in its own right as any of the other variants of the story. However, if Mason’s Lanval is to be seen as a translation of Marie’s lai and not as a variation of it, it needs to be examined for its fidelity to the original.
The basic plot of Lanval and its variants is this:
A knight attached to a king’s court encounters a beautiful woman from fairyland who agrees to love him and make him wealthy on the condition that he keep their love a secret. The knight agrees, but later, in a moment of anger, he alienates his king by insulting the queen and loses his lover by breaking the oath of secrecy. To save the knight from being executed, the fairy lover comes to the king’s court; the knight is and departs with her to fairyland.
Mason’s translation of Marie’s Lanval follows the general story line, but it distorts Marie’s characterization, embellishes detail, and alters the plot itself. Anyone using Mason’s translations of Lanval or other Old French originals to support an argument based on plot or detail is in danger of citing Masonisms instead of elements that really do occur in the originals.
Sometimes Mason embellishes Marie’s descriptions in such a way that a student collecting examples of, say, fabrics mentioned in medieval poems, might find an example where there is none in the original. For example, when Lanval encounters the maidens who serve the fairy lady, one of them is carrying a towel. The towel that Marie’s maiden carries is simply “une tuaile” (a towel) (l.64), but Mason’s lady has a towel of “soft white linen” (341).
In the account of Lanval’s generosity with his new wealth, Marie tells us that Lanval “vesteit les jugleürs” (Lanval clothed minstrels)(l.211), but Mason says he clothed them “in scarlet” (343).
Besides embellishing phrases, Mason also includes a folk motif that was not originally in Marie’s story, that of the Fortunatus purse that is never empty. When the lady tells Lanval that he will no longer have to worry about money, Marie says:
Mut est Lanval bien herbergez: / Cum plus despendra richement, / [E] plus avrat or e argent.
(Now Lanval is well cared for. / The more lavishly he spends, / the more gold and silver he will have.) 141-142
Mason’s wording suggests that the lady has given him a literal purse:
To her bounty she added another gift besides…He might waste and spend at will and pleasure, but in his purse ever there was to spare…the more pennies he bestowed, the more silver and gold were in his pouch. 342
Editor Garbáty reinforces the impression that the lady has given him a magic purse by footnoting this passage: “This is the purse of Fortunatus which is never empty” 342 fn 11).”
The unwary student might well miss the fact that there is no mention of a magic purse in Marie’s Lanval.
Misrepresentation of character
One of the most interesting things about Marie’s Lanval is the way in which she inverts male-female assumptions and romantic conventions. Mason does his best to put things back into a proper male orientation for her. Marie’s Lanval is a foreigner in Arthur’s court. He is poor and friendless; the other knights envy him and would like to see something bad happen to him. Mason’s hero, on the other hand, is loved and admired by the other knights.
Marie’s Lanval follows the fairy messengers with misgivings, almost fearfully. He is so agitated that he forgets to tie up his horse. Mason on the other hand, assures us that Lanval was “right glad” to “do the bidding of the maidens” and that “all his desire was to go with the damsels.”
Mason seems to want to portray Lanval as being hearty and manly, even when to do so is contrary to Marie’s characterization. Marie’s Lanval is so upset when his lady refuses to come to him that he faints dead away. Mason’s Lanval only comes “nigh to swoon.”
In his efforts to depict Lanval as unfailingly masculine, Mason obscures the way that Marie makes use of gender reversal. Marie’s Lanval does not behave like the typical knight of romance. Even taking into consideration conventions of courtly love, Marie’s Lanval behaves more like a woman than a man. His lover gives him clothing and money. She visits him in secret, solely for sexual encounters. When he reveals their relationship, she drops him. When that happens, he weeps and faints and begs like an abandoned woman and has to be tended by the other knights. After a great deal of humiliation and abasement, he is at last rescued by a lady on a white horse.
Mason’s improvisations also alter the queen’s character. She is not nearly so frank in Mason as in Marie. In Marie the queen plainly offers sex: “Ma drüerie vus otrei” (267). Drüerie always carries the meaning of physical love. The queen uses the word again when she maligns Lanval to her husband and wants to make him angry enough to take action: “E dit que Lanval l’ad hunië / De drüerie la requist” (317). In Graelent, another victim of Masonification, the knight uses this word drürie just after he has raped the lady in the wood, specifying the kind of relationship he wants to have with her. (When Mason translated Graelent, he left out the rape.) The scene in which the queen accuses Lanval of having homosexual preferences is definitely one that Mason judged to be in need of “refining.” In Marie’s Lanval the queen’s insult is explicit:
people have often told me that you have no interest in women. You have fine-looking boys with whom you enjoy yourself.
Both Mason and Garbáty skirt the fact that the queen is accusing Lanval of pederasty. Mason translates this passage this way:
“Lanval,” she cried, “well I know that you think little of woman and her love. There are sins more black that a man may have upon his soul… “
Garbáty backs him up by footnoting the passage this way:
The queen accuses Lanval of misogyny, if not more. This was a serious matter in a courtly, chivalric society based on the code d’amour, but evidently especially repugnant to a woman of her passionate temperament. The accusation is poignant enough for Lanval to break his vow of silence. (344 fn21)
From beginning to end, Mason plays down anything that is remotely erotic and does his best to portray Lanval as a strong, in-charge kind of guy. Such a characterization turns Marie’s story on its head.
In Marie’s story it is the knight who is weak and submissive, not the woman. The woman, not the man, sets the geis and dictates the terms. She leaves Lanval without a word when he breaks the contract. He swoons and weeps and must be cared for by others. No matter how he abases himself, she turns a deaf ear to his suffering and refuses to come to him. Whatever the conventions of courtly love, in terms of the reality of a woman’s life in 1150, Lanval’s predicament is that of a woman; he is not in charge of the situation.
Mason does the greatest violence to Marie’s original in his rewriting of the final scene. In Graelent, Landevale, and Sir Launfal, the hero rides away from the king’s court with his dignity intact. In Graelent, which precedes Lanval, and Sir Launfal, which derives from Lanval, the knight rides away on his own horse. Marie deprives Lanval of the very thing that makes a knight a knight—his horse.
Marie’s final scene emphasizes the submission of the man to the woman. It is clear that Lanval’s former lover does not intend to take him with her. She only comes back to save him from being executed. She is in a hurry. She rejects the king’s offer of hospitality, even after preparations for a visit have been made on her behalf by her maidens. Lanval, however, does not wish to be left behind. While the lady is mounting her palfrey at the palace door, Lanval is scrambling up onto a mounting block which is in the yard for the use of “heavy men.” As the lady rides past the block, Lanval takes a flying leap and lands on the rear of the horse. The lady ignores him, and the noble knight goes off to fairyland riding pillion behind the lady (or, as a biker might say, in the “bitch seat.”)
Perhaps this undignified, submissive image of the knight offended Mason’s masculine Victorian sensibilities. Perhaps he just misread the original. In any case, he completely reverses the image that Marie intended to leave us with. Here is Mason’s description of the final scene:
Now without the hall stood a great stone of dull marble, where it was the wont of lords, departing from the Court, to climb into the saddle, and Lanval by the stone (i.e. mounted by the stone). The Maiden came forth from the doors of the palace, and mounting on the stone, seated herself on the palfrey, behind her friend. (348)
This is what Marie wrote:
Outside the hall stood/a great stone of dark marble
where heavy men mounted/when they left the king’s court;
Lanval climbed on it./When the girl came through the gate
Lanval leapt, in one bound,/onto the palfrey, behind her(633-640)
Finally, in her careful choice of words at the end, Marie drives home the idea that this knight is in the position of a woman. A medieval listener or reader as familiar with the types of horse as we are with the difference between a pickup and an “SUV” would not miss the significance of the fact that the knight who rode into the story on a destrer (war-horse) rides away on a palefrei (lady’s saddle horse). Her choice of the word “ravi,” is another example of her careful choice of a demasculinizing word. It is amazing to me that Mason actually translated it as “ravished,” especially since both Chestre and the Landevale poet avoided the word. Sir Launfal “was take ynto fayrye.” Landevale was “broughte” there. Marie uses ravi to put the crowning touch on her picture of the feminized knight making his final submission: “La fu ravi li dameiseaus” (644). Mason actually translates this final line as: “The Bretons tell that the knight was ravished by his lady to an island”(348).
From beginning to end, Lanval is the story of a man who is dominated by a woman in the manner that medieval women were dominated by men. In trying to make Lanval conform to his idea of what the relationship of a knight and a lady should be, Mason altered the central theme of the original.
Mason’s translation gives us the story of “knight meets lady; knight suffers a little for lady; knight rides off with lady clinging to his manly back.”
Marie de France’s Lanval is the story of “lady summons knight; lady ravishes knight; knight is carried off clinging submissively to lady’s back.”
In “decanting” Marie’s story from Old French into English, Mason has left much of the original story in the bottle.