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…

‘Marie of France’ lived and worked in late 12th century England.  We do not know her real identity, only her first name. In one of her stories she tells us that that she is from France; but her main writing language is Anglo-Norman, the educated language of England, not Francian, the language of the Ile-de-France. This suggests she was brought to England as a child and educated in Anglo-Norman, as well as learning Latin and Middle English – at the time, the language of commoners and rarely used in literature until the 14th Century.

Besides her famous 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 translated into Anglo-Norman Aesop’s Fables (from the Middle English version), several Francian texts, and adapted Latin texts. It’s likely she could read Breton, having adopted the lai from Breton literature. 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 came to England with Eleanor.

marie-de-france

Her lais are filled with fantasy and fantastical elements – instances of faery intervening in human affairs, strange coincidences, dark, almost Gothic passages, which started a literary tradition in England that has continued to this day.

Yonec is one of her loveliest lais, in modern English and the original Anglo-Norman. A sad lady prays for deliverance and happiness. Through her window flies a hawk:

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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