|This collection of tales written by a 12th century French woman presents us not only with enchanting stories in the vein of Arthurian legends, but also a glimpse into the controversies over love, marriage, and the role of women during the Middle Ages. These tales (poems in the original, but rendered as prose in this translation) were likely written during the lifetime of Eleanor of Aquitaine –- the strong-willed woman who ended up as Queen of both France and England (at different times) and in many ways shaped the course of European politics for years to come. Not only was Eleanor powerful, she was literate (a rare feat for a woman in those days) and perhaps her boldness gave courage to Marie de France in writing these lais. The stories certainly deal with issues that were highly charged in their day, especially the tension between forced and loveless marriages and condemned but meaningful love. I found the seeming incompatibility of love and marriage in these tales disturbing but sadly indicative of the times.
The characters we meet in these lais are varied and diverse: wives locked in towers by jealous husbands, shamed mothers in illicit affairs, wandering knights, young men dying in pursuit of their beloved –- even werewolves and herbalists who mix love potions. Some are charming, other horrifying –- several merely archaically confusing to our modern sensibilities. But they are all worth reading, both as intriguing stories and as windows into the social issues of the past.