The Medieval Review 11.10.10

Guyénot, Laurent. La mort féerique: Anthropologie du merveilleux XIIe-XVe siècle. Bibliothèque des Histoires. Paris: ditions Gallimard, 2010. Pp. 406. . . 24.50 EUR. ISBN 978-2-07-013005-4.

Reviewed by:

Miranda Griffin
Cambridge University

In this wide-ranging work, Laurent Guyénot focuses on the representation of the supernatural, "féerique" and "merveilleux" in a selection of literary works in French taken mainly from the genre of romance from the twelfth tothe fifteenth century. The central argument of this book is broadly informed by an anthropological approach (as the title suggests), and proposes that marvellous and magical motifs in these texts are constructed by a tension between--on the one hand--a preoccupation with death, and--on the other--the impulse to deny the inevitability of mortality. As many scholars have done before him, Guyénot sets out to trace the various encounters between a set of apparently competing influences on the composition of medieval French literature: the oral and the written; the Christian and the Celtic; the learned and the folkloric. In doing so, Guyénot weaves between a series of texts--some canonical, others less so--in medieval French, often juxtaposing them with medieval sources composed in Latin by authors such as Walter Map, Gervais of Tilbury and Gerald of Wales, who claimed to be recording folkloric beliefs and practices. Texts in English, German, Irish and Welsh are also discussed.

Guyénot's Introduction presents a stimulating angle on this familiar approach and material, arguing that scrutiny of the origins and function of "les féeries romanesques" reveal them to be anchored in a meditation on death and the afterlife, notions which are informed by both Christian and non-Christian imagery and beliefs. Because death can be considered as a kind of transformation, Guyénot claims in his first chapter that fairy figures in these works can be understood as embodying memories of the dead who have, by virtue of the coincidence of their absence from the world and their enduring presence in memory, become infused with superhuman qualities. Material pertaining to the supernatural, then, commemorates within narrative not just the dead, but also the transformative process of commemoration itself, in a narrative tradition which in turn becomes an inheritance to be commemorated and transformed in later textual production.

This is the suggestive thesis which underlies the smoothly unfolding argument of the next ten chapters in which Guyénot examines a series of recurring figures and spaces in medieval romance. In the second chapter, Guyénot explores the dialogue between the contemporary discourses of hagiography and romance, which can be seen to borrow from one another from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, with particular reference to mortality and eternity. In the third chapter, Guyénot explores the way in which a number of medieval romance heroes (most notably King Arthur and the eponymous hero of the anonymous lai Guingamor) seem to defy death as their narratives close. The fourth chapter deals with figures, such as Merlin, Tydorel and the "Chevalier au Cygne," whose supernatural or quasi-diabolical paternity places them in the realm of the undying or undead. Chapter 5, "Les noces funèbres" explores the representation of a supernatural realm as an afterlife in which a human can be united with a fairy beloved, the lais Lanval and Graelent offering the best illustration of this. Building upon this conception of the otherworld as a fantasised space of erotic fulfilment which awaits the hero after death, the next three chapters focus on the specificity of the "autre monde." Chapter 6 explores the threshold between the world of the court and that of the "merveilleux" as a line of conflict, basing its discussion on Erec et Enide, Yvain and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In Chapter 7, the motif of abduction into fairyland is illustrated with reference to Le Chevalier de la charrette, the prose Lancelot and Sir Orfeo; and Chapter 8 offers a brief but thought-provoking discussion of the motif of the "paradis terrestre." The following three chapters concentrate on the use of animals in figuring death and the changes it effects: a stimulating concatenation of readings of La Naissance du Chevalier au Cygne, Le Chevalier au Papegau, Le Conte du Graal and Tyolet is followed, in Chapter 10, by an account which juxtaposes Guigemar, Le Bel Inconnu, the Lay of Emaré, La Mannekine and Le Vair Palefroi in order to propose the motif of the flight from love or unwanted attention as a means of figuring the death of a young person who has not experienced love. These two chapters culminate in a reading of the text towards which Guyénot has been steering throughout his book: the fifteenth- century Mélusine. Mélusine is read as a creature akin to a banshee and her curse as referring to a purgatorial eternity which effaces that which Guyénot argues is most desired by the medieval authors and readers of these texts: a "good death." In the final chapter and his conclusion, Guyénot explains his understanding of the evolutionary process which structures his reading of this wide range of texts: the commemoration of death and the dead within the metaphors employed by traditional legends becomes effaced as these tales are retold and rewritten throughout the Middle Ages: "A mesure qu'il s'émancipie du funéraire et s'inscrit dans la fiction littéraire, le féerique se constitue autonome" [As it is freed from the funerary and becomes inscribed within literary fiction, the fairy constitutes itself as autonomous] (385). Guyénot's project throughout this book is, then, to read between the lines of these texts back to the origins of the marvellous and the fairy, origins which lie in the imagining and denial of death.

There is much of interest in this book: it is crisply written and covers an impressively wide range of texts and traditions. There are shortcomings, however, chief amongst which is Guyénot's repetitive insistence on revealing that the various characters and motifs he examines across works in several languages from four centuries are always figures for death. This approach can lead to a flattening of the material Guyénot uses to punctuate his argument, and results in the kind of circular argument expressed, for instance, in his declaration, "Il n'existe, dans la pensée médiévale, qu'une seule sorte de créatures à la fois humaines et surnaturelles : ce sont les morts." [There exists in medieval thought only one sort of creature which is at once human and supernatural: the dead] (305). This kind of statement is only really defensible if one has been convinced by Guyénot's claim that all creatures combining aspects of the mortal and the supernatural which feature in medieval literature are in fact representations of the dead. But if the funerary aspect of the marvellous had become, as Guyénot argues, obscured by the medieval aesthetic of rewriting and retelling, then surely the medieval mind, having forgotten or occluded the funerary origins of the "merveilleux," would have readily conceived of a vast range of fairies, shape-shifters, monsters and demons: creatures which are portrayed precisely as transgressing the division between human and supernatural. Similarly, by Guyénot's own admission, the saint is a figure which both influences and is influenced by the treatment of eternity and mortality in the romance, and is surely a very particular kind of "mort" in the medieval imagination.

This homogenous interpretation of characters who are framed in romance as partaking in the supernatural can result in readings which demand further nuancing. Guyénot refers a few times in this book to his 2010 work, La Lance qui saigne, a systematic application of his approach to Le Conte du Graal. This previous work may explain the rather unglossed declaration that the 'Roi-Pêcheur' in this romance is dead, whereas a more careful reading might have understood this character, and his avatars in other verse and prose romances, as existing in a zone between life and death. Along the same lines, it seems somewhat reductive to read Lancelot's enigmatic presence in the Charrette as marking him as a "super-revenant" [209]. It is indeed interesting to observe that the first appearance of this character in written literature suggests a previous tradition involving Lancelot, but what Guyénot calls Lancelot's "invisibilité" is surely explained less by the idea that Lancelot is in some way the walking dead, and more by the neatly ironic trope of the cart, which Chrétien uses as a figure for the simultaneous debasement and exaltation of courtly love. And when a stag metamorphoses into a knight to speak to the eponymous hero of the lai Tyolet, the shape-shifting figure may certainly recall Tyolet's father or refer to him, but simply to declare "il est donc le fantôme du père de Tyolet" [he is therefore the ghost of Tyolet's father] (285) seems a little simplistic.

Some readers might look in vain for references to particular works or moments from them: the "Val sans retour" in the prose Lancelot, for example, is absent from the discussion of supernatural spaces in which time is suspended, and no mention is made of Floire et Blanchefleur in the section on the influence of Islamic culture on the depiction of earthly paradise. Very little reference is made to the influence of Ovid on medieval conceptions of corporeal change and stability, whereas the group of texts known as "Ovidian lais" would have offered an illuminating slant on the confluence of the classical and the folkloric in Old French. Of course, omission and abridgement are inevitable in a work of such scope. More serious and more surprising, however, is the lack of engagement with previous anthropologically-informed analyses of death in the Middle Ages: very little mention is made in this book of Philippe Ariès's work on medieval death, or the widespread influence of this work on anthropologically-informed literary scholarship. While rather dismissive references are made to "la critique littéraire moderne" (e.g. 246), it is unclear exactly which critical work Guyénot has in mind, since much contemporary scholarship on medieval French romance is absent from his references. Some focus on the literary nature of these texts might, however, have been instructive, for instance in thinking about the specificities of the two different fifteenth- century versions of the Mélusine story. Coudrette's verse text is privileged as closer to the tale's source, but little consideration is given to the reasons Jean d'Arras might have had for choosing to compose his version in prose. A more rigorous awareness of literary form might also have helped to nuance the brief discussion of Aucassin et Nicolette, which Guyénot calls a "chantefable en prose," when in fact the "chantefable" (of which Aucassin et Nicolette is the only example) is precisely characterised by an alternation between verse and prose sections. Although a useful and thought-provoking work, then, ultimately this is a book which does not sufficiently explore the implications it raises.