“The Breton lai is a relatively short narrative poem, usually accompanied by music, that appeared in France some time about the middle of the 12th century, spread by travelling musicians and story tellers called ‘jongleurs.’ What we find important about them is that they contain a great deal of faery and supernatural lore deriving from Celtic myth, legend and folk tale.”
Thus explains Gareth Knight, scholar of mediaeval French as well as acclaimed author on various esoteric subjects, in his introduction to Faery Loves & Faery Lais. Knight’s text, a set of twelve tales taken from both anonymous medieval jongleur sources and the courtly tales collected by Marie de France, are contemporaneous with the long romances of Chrétien de Troyes, the courtly love cult of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the earliest Arthurian legends. What a time the late 12th century proved to be – far from dark it seems!
The first nine tales come from travelling poet-musicians, who collected stories from the Celtic fringes of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany on the continental mainland. These are the more ‘rough and ready’ lais, rendered by cruder and less sophisticated tongues that functioned a lot like our modern stand-up comics. Knight explains how the supernatural elements of these tales are left intact for the masses that delighted in a rich diet of fantasy and spiritual wonder: “The crux of these is to be found in the appearance and characteristics of the faery, or fée, a supernatural being, usually feminine, who is young, beautiful and richly dressed, and possesses magic powers to help a human being she likes and loves. There are also, however, male counterparts of the female faery, who may take the form of a young and handsome knight clad in red armour and riding a white charger (possibly with red ears) that is capable of galloping underwater or, ondry land, faster than a bird can fly.”
The latter three tales come from the pen of Marie de France, a courtly lady connected to the English court of Henry II. Her offering was part of a deliberate collection as she compiled various Breton lais from different language sources and translated them into Old French. Unlike the more rustic jongleurs Marie sought to recontextualise, even secularise, the material for a more sophisticated courtly audience. This meant the removal of, or a lessening of emphasis concerning the supernatural and faerie portents. As Knight explains: “Her greater interest was in the psychological and moral dilemmas of the characters – and while this may make her an important figure in medieval literary studies it lessens her importance as a recorder of ancient popular belief and faery tradition.” But with that admission comes a serious attempt by the translator to render these stories in a way that shows how aristocratic tampering has not completely obfuscated the faery presence within them.
Scholarship of both mediaeval literature and ancient myth and folklore is quite robust and Knight sites both Laurence Harf-Lancner and Pierre Gallais as informative sources. It is clear, however, that Knight prefers to cut across the grain of much contemporary analysis, resisting the temptation to recontextualise where scripts might be taken at face value. This necessitates the transportation of the scholar to the time and place depicted, a suspension of modern ‘sensibility’ rather than demanding ancient texts to meet some modern criteria. Regarding the particular study of faery lore this places Knight in the traditionalist camp of fellow contemporaries such as R. J. Stewart and Wendy Berg, themselves keen to follow the pioneering work of W. B. Yeats, George Russell, Fiona Macleod and Ella Young. So along with a very direct translation of these lais he appends a short and succinct commentary to show the connective symbols and themes between them. As with the authors above he invites the reader to make these connections through a series of “structured visualizations” which include “… standing stones, earthworks, forest paths, springs, pools, wells, woods, trees, meadows, crossroad tracks or the confluence of waters.” The reader will smart and delight in the worlds of Graelent, Guingamor, Tydoral, Guigemar, Doon, Désiré, Lanval, Mélion, Lanval and Yonec, and find swirling harmonies between them. The similarity of locale, the gender relationships, the offspring politics, the attendant animals, the strange common objects, and the restrictive ‘geiss’ that binds many of the stories become symphonic elements in the music of experience. Like so many characters in the story, and indeed the great revivers of the ‘Celtic twilight,’ the willing reader may succumb to the lure of faeryland and explore the mystery therein.
Skylight Press is thrilled to release this unique translated work from the illustrious pen of Gareth knight. Faery Loves & Faery Lais dovetails neatly with his other recent works on faery lore, The Romance of the Faery Melusine and Melusine of Lusignan and the Cult of the Faery Woman.
Faery Loves & Faery Lais is available from various retail outlets such as Amazon, Amazon UK, or direct from the Skylight Press website.