Saturday, August 6, 2016

WITMonth Day 6 | The Lais of Marie de France | Review

I need to open this review by criticizing this edition: As much as I normally like Penguin Classics (and for some odd reason, I've had a strong affinity for them since childhood...), The Lais of Marie de France (translated by Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby) disappointed in one simple regard: There is less than 100 pages of actual content. And the book costs as much as a 500-paged text. As much as I recognize the work that goes into translating this sort of text and I thought the introduction was fascinating, it felt absurd that such a slim volume should cost so much and furthermore that it should come with so little extra material (the end of the edition has padding in the form of two of the lais in the original Old French - super not-helpful for most readers).

Having gotten that out of the way, let's talk about these bizarre, fascinating, modern, ancient, and hilarious short stories.

I love reading old texts, I won't lie. There's something incredible about recognizing how utterly human humans have always been. We hold certain assumptions about cultures past, yet every time I explore literature from those eras, I discover that... nah, people have always been people. Cultures change, but humans don't. And so The Lais didn't actually feel all that old-fashioned.

Men and women fall in love. Women get awkwardly pregnant and try to hide it from their parents. Men and women try to awkwardly hide their affairs from their spouses. Sometimes they get caught. Sometimes "true love" prevails. Sometimes true love isn't so true after all. Sometimes a queen pettily "accuses" a knight of being gay because he brushed her off. Sometimes a young married woman complains about her crusty old husband.

Humans are humans, on full display in these stories. And they're weird stories, to be clear. A good portion lack happy endings (which rather surprised me, to be honest - I was expecting glossed over fairy tales at first), another set have ostensibly happy endings but pretty tragic developments, and then there are those that just... hey! Love story! Happy ending! Have fun!

Like most classic literature, I feel distinctly unqualified to make any scholarly remarks about these Lais. I'm sure wiser readers could comment on the morality tales, on the way sometimes infidelities are rewarded and other times dismissed, on the critique of marrying off young women to old men who hide them away in towers (a recurring theme which I actually found quite fascinating and would love to read more about), or even on the way some stories baffling just end in some horrific imagery.

But I can only point to the parts I liked. I liked when the women resisted predetermined fates, finding their own loves and lives (shockingly enough, right). I liked when parents were reunited with long-lost children, and there was no nonsense about them being "bastards" or any such talk. I liked when the stories ended happily, truthfully, because it often felt justified. Sure, the love stories themselves rarely make sense and there's a lot of descriptions of how handsome the knights are or how beautiful the fair maidens are, but these little stories often build warmly.

This isn't the greatest book I've read in the course of my classics project, nor is it the most consequential. But it's still a curious little collection that paints those familiar romantic epics in a new light. Perhaps not worth buying, but certainly worth reading or exploring if given the chance.

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