Friday, 8 May 2009
This would have been a "Beauty of the Day" post, if, of course, anyone knew what Marie de France looked like. Almost nothing about her is known for sure, except the fact that she lived between the twelfth and the thirteen century; and that she wrote. Her most famous work is "The lays of Marie de France", twelve poems based on Celtic romances. A line in her work tells us her name: Marie ai num, si sui de France. My name is Marie, and I come from France. That is about all she chose to tell us.
I imagine she was a poised, observant woman, dreamy but with an ironic mind. Her Lays are preoccupied with what happens with people's hearts when they are on their own and far away: in a foreign land; alone in a forest. Marie knew that a traveller hardly returns the same from any journey. Her tales speak of an old world that kept all its secrets.
I learned about her from another writer: in his 1974 story collection "The Ebony Tower" John Fowles retells "Eliduc", a Breton romance included in the Lays. He suggests that European novel began when a young woman of good birth started looking at people and writing about what she saw, through the whimsical patterns of Celtic storytelling. Marie ai num, si sui de France: those may very well be the words that mark the birth of literature as we know it.