The first flight of English fantasy

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a large bird approached and then

entered her room. It looked like a hawk

but unlike most birds it could talk.

The creature alit on the chamber floor

and folded its wings. Then, before

her eyes, it changed its form…

This poetic story is more than 800 years old, and a woman wrote it.

The poet known as ‘Marie of France’ lived and worked in late 12th century England.  We don’t know her real identity, only her first name. In one of her pieces, she tells us that that she is from France, but her main writing language was Anglo-Norman, a kind of franco-English dialect used by the educated people in England from a generation after the Norman Conquest until the 14th Century.  This suggests she came to England as a child. As well as Anglo-Norman, she knew Latin, Breton and the language that became Middle English.

She wrote a form called lais – a cycle of twelve narrative poems of courtly love, featuring powerful and passionate women, the men they loved and the men that persecuted them (usually horrible old husbands!).  She was also a translator. She adapted Aesop’s Fables from Middle English into Anglo-Norman, several texts from the Francian (the French spoken in France), and Latin texts. Because of her popularity at the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her intimate knowledge of it, she might have learnt Occitan as well,  the language of the troubadours and jongleurs who arrived in England with Eleanor.

marie-de-france

Her stories are filled with fantasy and fantastical elements – instances of faery intervening in human affairs, strange coincidences, dark, Gothic passages.  She started a literary tradition in England of fantasy and gothic literature that continues to this day.

Yonec is one of her loveliest lais. In the passage below, a sad lady prays for deliverance and happiness, when a hawk flies in through her window:

Yonec, translated into modern English by David R. Slavitt

The poor girl’s eyelids, as she prayed,

were closed. But, then, at the moment she made the sign of the cross and said Amen,

a large bird approached and then

entered her room. It looked like a hawk

but unlike most birds it could talk.

The creature alit on the chamber floor

and folded its wings. Then, before

her eyes, it changed its form to that

of a noble knight — exactly what

she had been praying might appear.

She was stricken nonetheless with fear

and she covered her eyes. But into her ear

the creature spoke: “Be not afraid,

for I am the one for whom you prayed.

I mean you no harm. A hawk, as you know,

is a noble bird. I swear this is so,

and I also swear that my love for you

is as ardent and steadfast as it is true.

I have never loved another but I

could not come to you save by

your invitation. I heard your words

floating upon the air where birds

soar and swoop. And now I am here.”

Yonec – in the original Anglo-Norman language.

Quant ele ot fait sa pleinte issi,

l’umbre d’un grant oisel choisi

par mi une estreite fenestre.

Ele ne set que ceo puet estre.

En la chambre volant entra.

Giez ot es piez, ostur sembla ;

de cinc mues fu u de sis.

Il s’est devant la dame asis.

Quant il i ot un poi esté

e ele l’ot bien esguardé,

chevaliers bels e genz devint.

La dame a merveille le tint ;

li sans li remue e fremi,

grant poür ot, sun chief covri.

Mult fu curteis li chevaliers,

il l’en araisuna primiers.

’Dame’, fet il, ’n’aiez poür,

gentil oisel a en ostur,

se li segrei vus sunt oscur,

Guardez que seiez a seür,

si faites de mei vostre ami !

Pur ceo’, fet il, ’vinc jeo ici.

Jeo vus ai lungement amee

e en mun quer mult desiree ;

unkes femme fors vus n’amai

ne ja mes altre n’amerai.

Mes ne poeie a vus venir

ne fors de mun païs eissir,

se vus ne m’eüssiez requis.

Or puis bien estre vostre amis ! ’

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