The Lai’s Subject and Sources
Chevrefoil is a Breton lai by the mediæval poet Marie de France. A lai is a mediæval type of short tale in French literature that is usually in octosyllabic (eight-syllable) verse, often connected with King Arthur or the Round Table. Typically, Chevrefoil is the eleventh poem in the collection called The Lais of Marie de France. This lai’s subject is an episode from the romance of Tristan and Iseult (Isolde). In this poem, the symbol of love is the “honeysuckle” (“chevrefoil”). Keith Busby tells us that this lai consists of 118 lines and survives in two manuscripts, Harley 978 (MS H), which contains all of the Lais, and it is in the Bibliothèque Nationale, nouv. acq. fr. 1104 (MS S). This lai was written in the mid to late 12th Century AD, possibly in the 1170s.
The Detail of Events in the Lai
Busby says that Chevrefoil begins with a statement that others have previously sung it and that the author has seen it in written form. The story tells of the love between the knight, Sir Tristan, and his uncle’s wife Iseult. According to Marie de France, this love was so pure that it eventually caused their deaths on the same day. Banished from Cornwall by his uncle Mark, Tristan’s illicit transgressions forced him to go back to his native land in South Wales. After a year of yearning for Iseult, Tristan learns of Mark’s preparation for a large Pentecost feast at Tintagel. Tristan knows that Iseult will be there. He goes to the woods on the same day that the king’s court departs. Once in the forest, Tristan cuts a hazel branch and fashions it into a recognisable signal for Iseult, and carves his name into the branch. Marie de France says Iseult will be on the lookout for such a sign since Tristan had similarly contacted her in the past. Immediately recognising the branch as Tristan’s, Iseult asked her party to stop and rest, and went out in the woods with only her faithful servant Brangaine. The lovers spent their time together, and Iseult told Tristan how he could win back his uncle’s favour. Before Tristan returned to Wales (to wait for word from his uncle), he and Iseult wept.
Tristan and Iseult’s love is compared to the interlacing of the honeysuckle with the hazel (lines 68 through 78). The two plants are so conjoined that they will both die if they are driven apart. Tristan is said, by Marie de France, to be the original author of this lai. He is said to be a skilled bard who was able to put his innermost thoughts into a song at Iseult’s request. Keith Busby tells us that according to Marie de France, Chevrefoil is the French name for the poem. It is called Gotelef (Goatleaf) in English.
Similar Events in Connected Works, and Translations into other Languages
Related episodes to those recounted in Chevrefoil appear in longer Tristan poems. According to Keith Busby, it is feasible that Marie drew her material from a larger source. Though there are various allusions to a more encompassing “Tristan and Iseult (Isolde) Cycle”: the mentioning of Tintagel and Brangaine, for instance; Maries de France is alone in locating Tristan’s native land in South Wales, rather than Cornwall or the semi-legendary Lyonesse. According to Nigel Bryant, a testament to Marie’s popularity appears in Gerbert’s Continuation to Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished romance Perceval, or the Story of the Grail, which contains an occurrence of Tristan in disguise playing the lai Chevrefoil to his unsuspecting lover at a tournament.
One of the most discussed features of the lai is the hazel branch Tristan leaves for Iseult (Isolde). Marie de France indicates that Tristan carves his name onto the branch. Even though the length of the message is not stated, Iseult interprets the meaning correctly. Glyn S Burgess suggests the branch is merely a signal about which Tristan has already told Iseult in an earlier message. It is shown that Iseult would be anticipating the branch, “for this had all happened before”. Other scholars and critics, such as Logan E Whalen, are convinced that the lai shows Tristan had left a longer message. This “expanded” message may be represented by lines 77 and 78 or lines 61 to 78 (in their entirety). Whalen goes on to say, that in such a case, the message may have been transcribed in notches on the branch, perhaps in the ogham (or similar) alphabet, or in a fashion resembling the “tally stick”.
Concerning adulterous love, Chevrefoil is only one of several lais by Marie de France that covers this topic. Keith Busby tells us that this lai is also one of several which deal with the sexual frustration suffered by a young woman who has been married to an older man. According to Norris J Lacy, Chevrefoil is similar to other lais in that it gives prominence to the analysis of the characters’ emotions and the contrast between the ideals of love and the needs of reality. It has been speculated that Marie arranged her poems as they appear in MS H (Harley 978) to pair a short, tragic poem with a longer one on the power of love and the importance of fidelity. Keith Busby tells us that if this is true, Chevrefoil may be paired with Eliduc, the final poem in the collection. Like Marie’s remaining Lais, Chevrefoil was adapted into other languages. Isidro J Rivera tells us that Chevrefoil was translated as Geitarlauf in the Old Norse version of Marie de France’s Lais known as Strengleikar. This was possibly accomplished by Brother Robert. During the reign of the Norwegian King Haakon IV (AD 1217–1263), the cleric, known as Brother Robert, adapted various French literary works into Old Norse.
The lai of Chevrefoil contains people, places, things, and events that exist within the larger “Tristan and Isolde (Iseult) Cycle”. Marie de France may or may not have been working from this greater body of work. Yet her subject-matter for each lai, including Chevrefoil, is a testament to her skills as a poet and her influence on later versions of the tale of Tristan and Isolde, as well as on other tales (such as Gerbert’s Continuation to Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, or the Story of the Grail).