Preserve and Pass It On: Comparing Tombs and Lais in Marie de France’s Laustic and Yonec
In both Yonec and Laustic, Marie de France describes tombs that house the unfulfilled love of her characters. The tombs function to preserve the physical bodies of a love that could not be fulfilled during the characters’ lives. In both lais, the tombs are overwhelmingly beautiful, ornate, and described in stunning detail, like a piece of art. However, the tombs are finite and conclusive, which makes them an incomplete version of the story that is insufficient in carrying it on in the future. Contrastingly, the lais are a dynamic form that constantly changes with every retelling. The transformational nature of the lay makes it an animate art form, as opposed to the tomb which is a fixed art form. While the tomb preserves the physical remnants of the characters’ love stories, the act of composing these stories into lais preserves the love between these characters forever. While tombs preserve the physical characters, they are finite and therefore cannot actively carry on their story. However, the lay as a form that is constantly changing and animate possesses the power to both preserve the past and continue to carry on the story.
Both the tomb and the lay are pieces of art, even though they are very different. The tombs in both lais are described as beautiful pieces of art. In Laustic the dead nightingale is wrapped “in a piece of samite, embroidered in gold and writing,” (135-136) at first, and then placed in “a small vessel fashioned with no iron or steel in it; it was all pure gold and good stones, very precious and very dear; the cover was very carefully attached” (149-153). In Yonec the tomb is “covered with a cloth of embroidered silk, a band of precious gold running from one side to the other. At the head, the feet, and at the sides burned twenty candles. The chandeliers were pure gold, the censers amethyst, which through the day perfumed that tomb, to its great honor” (499-506). Both tombs are described beautifully and are essentially pieces of art; they are beautifully decorated and adorned with stunning materials like gold and marble. The tomb, then, in and of itself is a piece of art. The lay is also an art form that “put[s] [adventures] into word and rhyme” (Prologue 41). In this way, the tomb and the lay are different. While the tomb is decorated beautifully with pure materials like gold and marble, the lay is simply words composed into a rhyming sequence. It is not primarily visually appealing, but rather auditory and thoughtful. The lay and tomb are also different from one another in terms of finality. The art of the tomb is finite and complete once the construction of it is done, while the lay is always changing and can be revised and transformed infinitely through transposition and retelling. The lais of Marie de France are translations from “from Latin to Romance” and then again from French to English (Prologue 30). These lais are constantly changing and not finite like the tomb, making the lay a more animate and dynamic art form.
The finite tomb and the dynamical lay function differently in preservation as a result of their contrasting natures. The tombs preserve the physical and encapsulate unfulfilled love in both lais. In Yonec when the lady is confronted with her lover’s tomb years after his death, she “faint[s] over the tomb, and in her faint, she die[s]… [then] they [take] the lady with great honour and [place] her in the coffin” (538-548). Even though she could not be with him during her life, the lady is ultimately buried with her lover – a sign of her “great honour” by the people in the city (547). In this way, the tomb will preserve both their physical bodies and the love between them. Similarly, the tomb described in Laustic preserves the body of the nightingale, which is a symbol of the forbidden relationship. The love represented in Laustic is different; it is never described as true love but rather a superficial love where “each took pleasure in the other’s sight since they could have nothing more” (77-78). When the lady realizes she “won’t be able to get up at night or and stand in the window where [she] used to see [her] love” she sends her lover the dead nightingale to relay the message. The knight is “very sad about the adventure but he [is not] mean or hesitant,” and he gives up on their relationship as easily as she does (147-148). Neither sacrifice for one another or even attempt to continue their relationship, and so the tomb created for their love story is simply the dead nightingale in a casket, as opposed to Yonec where the lovers are buried together. The knight “ha[s] the casket sealed and carrie[s] it with him always” as a small token of their relationship (155-156). The casket preserves the dead nightingale as a symbol of their love: a token of their affair and the only remnant of their relationship. Both of these tombs are finite and cannot be changed because of the nature of the tomb. As a result, their stories in this form are fixed and unchanging, and therefore incomplete. In Yonec, the lovers buried together might suggest that the two were married and spent their lives together. In Laustic, a dead nightingale wrapped in a casket does not express the entire story of the lovers. While the tomb preserves the physical remnants of the story, it is an incomplete version of the tales.
The lais suggest that while the tombs preserve the physical bodies, they are incomplete forms of the love story because of their fixed nature. However, the lais as a dynamic and animate form are able to both preserve the love story and continue to carry it on for generations. In Yonec as the lady, her husband, and her son approach the tomb of the knight they ask the people of the city about the knight that lies there. Without the living people of the city there to explain, the tomb is ineffective in communicating the knight’s story. Furthermore, as the knight predicted years ago to the lady, she would hear his story and explain the adventure to their son. After listening to the people of the city, the lady “call[s] aloud to her son” (526) and “reveal[s] for all to hear… the truth” (533-537). The story behind the tomb needed a living component to continue it and carry on. Not only this, but the son proceeds to avenge his father and kill his stepfather to “avenge his mother’s sorrow” (544). The living continuation of the story, the lady, alters the story, as well, because Yonec becomes the lord of the people of the city and changes his bloodline. The tomb, as a finite entity, is incapable of change and therefore insufficient as a means of carrying on the true story. While it may preserve the physical bodies, by its nature it is only a partial representation of the adventure. Similarly, the ending of Laustic suggests that a living component is necessary to pass on the story. As the knight has “the casket sealed” and “place[s] the nightingale inside” he conceals their story by shutting the nightingale in the vessel (154-155). However, “the adventure was told, [as] it could not be concealed for long,” which suggests that the act of living people retelling the story is what allows it to be passed on despite being enclosed in the finite casket (157-158). The lay as a dynamic form undergoing change constantly makes it an animate form, especially when contrasted with the fixed and final nature of a tomb. As a result, the lay is a more effective means of carrying on a story as it can change and remain living in a way. The composition of the lay allows the story to live on and gives the unfulfilled lovers a legacy; their love is able to thrive in the continuous retelling of the story.
In both lais, Marie de France describes beautifully detailed tombs that conserve the physical remnants of two relationships. The tomb in Yonec allows the lovers who could not be together during their lives to at least be buried together and rest together in death. The tomb in Laustic is the only physical remnant of the relationship between the lady and the knight, and is a token and symbol of their love affair. However, the tombs in these lais only serve to encapsulate physical remnants of the relationships and are therefore incomplete versions of the stories. Tombs as a finite and fixed form do not allow for change and transformation, and so they remain inanimate and insufficient accounts of the love affairs. In contrast, the lais are dynamic and animate art forms. They are able to both preserve and carry on the stories of the lovers in their retelling as a living component is necessary to complete and continue the story. While both the lais and the tombs are art forms that preserve, their contrasting natures make the lay a more effective means of continuing and carrying on the stories.
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