From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Sir Launfal is a 1045-line Middle English romance or Breton lay written by Thomas Chestre dating from the late 14th century. It is based primarily on the 538-line Middle English poem Sir Landevale, which in turn was based on Marie de France's lai Lanval, written in a form of French understood in the courts of both England and France in the 12th century.
The story of a powerful (fairy) woman who takes a lover on condition that he obey a particular prohibition is common in medieval poetry: the French lais of Desiré, Graelant, and Guingamor, and Chrétien de Troyes's romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, all share plot elements with each other and with Lanval. Chestre borrowed several episodes and details from Graelant.
Sir Launfal participates in the chivalric tradition of gift giving to such an extent that he is made King Arthur's steward, in charge of celebrations. He eventually leaves King Arthur's court when Guenevere, King Arthur's new wife, shows ill will to him by not giving him a gift at the wedding. He leaves Arthur's court and so loses his status, income, and retainers. On Trinity Sunday he borrows a horse and goes for a ride. He stops to rest under a tree. Two ladies then appear and bring him to a lady they call Tryamour, daughter of the King of Olyroun and of Fayrye. She offers him herself and several material gifts including a bag that will always produce gold coins, all on the condition that he keeps their relationship secret from the rest of the world. She tells him she will come to him whenever he is all alone and wishes for her.
Sir Launfal uses his new wealth to perform many acts of charity. He also wins in a local tournament, thanks to the horse and banner given him by the lady. A knight of Lombardy, Sir Valentyne, challenges him (on the honor of his beloved lady) to come fight him. Launfal makes the voyage, and defeats Valentyne, thanks to his invisible servant who picks up his helmet and shield when Valentyne knocks them down. Launfal kills Valentyne and then has to kill a number of his fellow Lombardy knights in order to get away.
Launfal now, seven years after leaving court, comes again to King Arthur's attention and is asked to serve as steward for a long festival beginning at the Feast of St. John. During some revelry at the court, Guenevere offers herself to Sir Launfal. Sir Launfal refuses, Guenevere says some harsh words, and Launfal boasts that he has a mistress whose ugliest handmaiden would be a better Queen than Guenevere. Guenevere is furious. She goes to Arthur and accuses Launfal of trying to seduce her and also of his actual boast. Knights are sent to arrest him for this insult to Arthur.
Sir Launfal realizes that, because of his boast, Tryamour will no longer come to him when he wishes for her, and her gifts have disappeared or changed. Now he is brought to trial. Since his jury of peers all know the Queen is more likely to have propositioned Launfal than the other way around, they believe Launfal's version of the encounter. However, he is given a year and a fortnight to produce the beautiful lady as proof of his boast; Guenevere says she is willing to be blinded if he manages to produce such a woman. As the day of the proof progresses, the Queen presses for him to be executed while others express doubt, particularly when two parties of gorgeous women ride up. Finally Tryamour arrives and exculpates Launfal on both counts; she also breathes on Guinevere and blinds her. His former invisible servant brings his former horse up, and Tryamour, Launfal, and her ladies ride away to the island of Olyroun. Once a year Launfal's horse is heard and a knight may joust with him in that place.
Notes on geography, Arthurian legend, and relationship to source
In this story, Arthur is king of England (also referred to as Bretayn) and holds court in Carlisle and Glastonbury, particularly during such summer feasts as Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and St. John's Day. Guenevere (Gwennere, Gwenore) is from Ireland, possibly the daughter of King Rion (an enemy of Arthur in most other medieval Arthurian stories). Launfal's home base seems to be Caerleon. The realm of Fayrye is located on the island of Olyroun (probably Oléron, near Brittany). Also mentioned are knights of Little Britain (Brittany), and the need to cross the salt sea to reach Lombardy.
Marie de France's lai was composed at a time when the story of Arthur was not fully developed, and almost certainly before the story of the love between Lancelot and the Queen had been added to it (by Chrétien de Troyes and his patroness Marie de Champagne). Thomas Chestre, writing 200 years later, seems to have wanted to "open up" Marie's story by situating it temporally in the history of Arthur's battles, reign, and marriage. Marie begins her story at a time when Arthur has cleaned up his northern borders and proceeds quickly with the story; the narrative seems to last at most a year and to take place entirely in Carlisle. Chestre ignores the idea that there was war on the Scottish border; instead, a 10-year period during which Launfal prospers at Arthur's bachelor court is followed by the expedition to/against King Rion in Ireland, and then Arthur's marriage to Guinevere. In the 13th-century French Arthurian romances, Merlin warns against this marriage; in Chestre's poem, he arranges it, though Launfal and others foresee trouble because of her wandering eye. A further seven years elapses before Guenevere makes her move to seduce Launfal, and yet another year before his lady rescues him. The blinding of Guenevere would seem to preclude the story of her love affair with Lancelot (or Mordred--both stories were current in 14th-century England) which brings about "the Death of Arthur."
Many passages of Chestre's poem follow Marie de France's Lanval line by line (presumably following the earlier English romance). However, he adds or changes scenes and characters, sometimes working in material from other sources, and he has his own agendas. Chestre makes explicit and concrete many motivations and other aspects of the story which Marie left undiscussed; for example, the fairy purse and other gifts (horse, invisible servant, armor), which disappear/become useless when he breaks his promise not to boast, are not in Marie. Chestre adds two tournament scenes, allowing him to show off his ability to compose these "action" episodes and also changing the emphasis on his hero's character. Arthur comes off much better in Sir Launfal than in Lanval, and Guenevere much worse; she is promoted to a major character, with more speeches and actions, and her comeuppance is the climax of the poem. Chestre also adds a character, the Mayor of Caerleon, whose attitude to Launfal in his poverty points up the "moral" of kindness to those who are dispossessed; this gives extra gloss to the generosity Launfal shows when he obtains the fairy purse. In general, whereas Lanval is a story about love, Sir Launfal is much more an adventure story which includes a love element.
Fairies in Romance
Fairies appeared in medieval romances as one of the beings that a knight errant might encounter. A fairy lady appeared to Sir Launfal and demanded his love; like the fairy bride of ordinary folklore, she imposed a prohibition on him that in time he violated.
- Stephen H.A. Shepherd (Ed.) (1995). Middle English Romances. USA: W.W. Norton and Company. ISBN 0-393-96607-0.