Guigemar and Milun

I have been working on a series based on the Lais of Marie de France. Who was she? No one knows much about her, besides that she wrote down these charming Breton narrative poems, or “lais” as they are called. She wrote them in the 12th century, approximated between 1155-70. She was writing during the dawn of the courtly romance. Her twelve lais revolve around the love relationship. She writes about relationships that work, those that don’t, and loves that never even got off the ground.

Guigemar hunting the White Hind (acrylic)

Guigemar is the first tale I have illustrated. He is a knight of Brittany, and has no interest in love. While hunting, he comes across a white hind with antlers… a notably strange deer because it is both sexes. He shoots the deer and his arrow bounces off its breast bone and ends up in Guigemar’s thigh (a euphemism for something much worse). The dying deer speaks and curses him. The deer says that only a woman can heal Guigemar’s wound. Then he climbs aboard a mysterious ship, which takes him to a tower on the coast…. you will have to read the whole lai if you want to know how that turns out.

Detail of Guigemar hunting

The second lai I have illustrated is one of my favorites, Milun. Milun is a knight of South Wales and he has a fling with the daughter of a baron. The girl becomes pregnant and can’t keep the baby because she had it out of wedlock. So she gives their son to her sister and he’s raised elsewhere. In the mean time, the baron keeps his daughter under tight security, and doesn’t let her have visitors or much correspondence. Milun wants to contact the Baron’s daughter again, but has to do it secretly. So he has a bright idea: he writes a letter to his ladylove and hides it in the feathers of his loyal pet swan.

Milun, acrylic

So Milun has his squire take the swan to the Baron’s daughter. She is rather charmed by the handsome swan and pets him and finds the letter ingeniously hidden in his feathers. She also notices that the swan is really hungry, so she feeds him and keeps him around for a few days. She writes a reply to Milun, and when the swan is really hungry again, she puts the letter in his feathers. The swan flies back to Milun’s castle, looking for another meal. The couple carries on like this, even after the Baron’s daughter gets married to another man, they send letters by swan for no less than TWENTY years.

The Baron's daughter holding a basket of swan food, detail

The idea of this correspondence is kind of ridiculous, and indicative of the sort of irrationality that peppers medieval literature. But I particularly love this story because of its central theme of communication. And it has a very satisfying conclusion.