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By Svetlana B. Likhacheva English, 620:144g
Dr. Kaylor
November 27, 1994

The rash promise and breach of marital troth in "The Franklin's Tale" by G. Chaucer and "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" by J. R. R. Tolkien: an alternative ending.

The genre of Breton lays, which was extremely popular in the middle of the twelfth century and fell into decline by the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, served as raw material not only for the Middle Ages, but to many an author of later times. The term "lay," probably derived from the Irish "laid," "loid," which means "a song", first referred to the so-called "lais de Breton." We know the term mostly in connection with the name of Marie de France, the one who is considered to be the first to have devised this particular poetic form: a rather longish poem, varying from a hundred to a thousand lines and usually concerned with some romantic story of love and wonder - using the original, oral Breton lays retold in verse. The chief source for Geoffrey Chaucer's ideas about the lays in general, was most likely the Auchinleck MS, containing three of the "original" lays; one of them, "Sir Orfeo," in some respects does parallel the Tale. In the very beginning of his narration the Franklin gives a definition of what a Breton lay is:

Thise olde gentil Britouns in hir dayes
Of diverse aventures maden layes,
Rymeyed in hir firste Briton tonge,
Whiche layes with hir instrumentz they songe
Or elles redden hem for hir plesaunce...
          (The Prologe of the Frankeleyns Tale, 709-713)

The matter of Britain, Celtic or "Breton," dominates the genre, though many of the lays that we know have nothing to do with the Welsh tradition and use many other motives besides Celtic or "Breton": Latin and French, and just "migrant themes," which are to be found in folklore tradition of many a culture. The scene of action is often referred to the Arthurian court, irrespective of the original source of the lay.

Engendered by the oral tradition, as "fait en harpe et en rote," (Marie de France. Guigemar) transformed into a specific poetic genre by Marie, and in a way canonized by a long-standing tradition, Breton lays at the later stage of development become a source of inspiration for individual authors and give birth to literary imitations. Geoffrey Chaucer is probably the first to create an original work of art by making use of the characteristic traits of the genre and adjusting them to his own needs: after all, irrespective of the Franklin's definition, his Tale is not a Breton lay in the pure sense of the word. It was five centuries later that this particular poetic form was resuscitated by the brilliant mediaeval scholar John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, namely, in his "Lay of Aotrou and Itroun," first published in the Welsh Review. One and the same conflict is the pivot of action in both Lays: a rash promise and the consequences of such. The parallels of the plot are followed by the totally contrasting endings. Both authors were using the raw material of folk ballads and lays to build up a skilful imitation, in strict accordance with the laws of the genre; and, following the same lines, they actually arrived at two distinct universes, based on two different systems of values. So very similar on the face of it, so contrasting in essence, the two works in question brought together and closely analyzed, help to penetrate more deeply into the texture of each and decode the hidden connotations and meanings of each.

Unlike the epic poems of heroic quests, Breton lays treat the subject of personal, preferably romantic relationships:

Of all the things that men may heed,
'tis most of love they sing indeed.
              ("Sir Orfeo" 11-12)

It is not the first attempt to celebrate love as the determinant force and goal of the human existence. But Breton lays, mainly concerned with love and "gentilesse," manifest a significant shift in mediaeval consciousness: from adulterous love of the Provencal troubadours' tradition to the courtly behaviour both outside marriage and within it. It is "gentle love" that is glorified, not merely adulterous or unmarried: that is why characters of the lays may be wed and still remain passionately attached to each other, as indeed many of the lays prove.

Both works in question start with a happy marriage, which, strictly speaking, is not exactly typical of Breton lays: they tend to end in marriage rather than start with it. Both marriages are based on courtly behaviour between the spouses, which ensures their mutual felicity. Arveragus serves his wife as a knight ought to serve his lady fair, a "servant in love and lord in mariage":

Of his free wil he swoor hir as a knight
That nevere in al his lyf he, day ne nyght,
Ne sholde upon hym take no maistrie
Agayn hir wyl, ne kithe hire jalousie,
But hire obeye, and folwe hir wil in al
As any lovere to his lady shal...

The relationship between Aotrou (a Breton word for "lord") and Itroun ("lady") also retains a courtly element: Aotrou waits upon his wife as solicitously as a knight wooing his lady:

Yet if thy heart still longing hold,
or lightest wish remain untold,
that will I find and bring to thee,
though I should ride both land and sea!

Now what we see is in a way blending of Christian and courtly values within the marriage: Christian fidelity and humility ("I wol be youre humble trewe wyf") in exchange for the courtly refusal of "maistree"; thus a perfectly harmonious world is created - a world, where two sets of values, in the late mediaeval times viewed as two conflicting forces (cf. "Parzifal," "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight") are well-balanced and result in the mutual happiness of the spouses.

But the paradise-like world on earth is but fragile: in both cases the state of bliss is disturbed: there appears a cause for grief and dissatisfaction. In Aotrou and Itroun's case the affliction of the husband springs from a natural source: the marriage is not blessed by children.

No child he had his house to cheer,
to fill his courts with laughter clear;..
his pride was empty, vain his hoard,
without an heir to land and sword. 

In the "Franklin's Tale" it is the very code of courtly behaviour, retained as an essential part of the marriage, that seems to become the initial source of conflict, as well as of the forthcoming crisis: Arveragus has to leave his loving wife "to seke in armes worship and honor"; that is what expected of an exemplary knight to celebrate the name of his lady. His behaviour is in strict accordance with the code, and, apparently, Dorigen, who adheres to the same system of values, lets him go; but there is no denying that as a Christian, "trewely humble wyf" she is miserable. Now if we remember that Arveragus has promised her "ne kythe hir jalousye," we cannot help observing that he does give Dorigen a cause for grief by leaving her for such a long time: in a way, Arveragus is the first to break his initial troth and to drive his wife towards the trap of the "rash promise"; for which he is partly to blame.

Both marriages are sorely tested. The motif of test is very common in mediaeval literature, and depending upon the genre, different virtues might be put under the trial: courage and love in romances, patience and faith in miracles. In Breton lays, it is courtly behaviour that is most often put to the test. The world of the original Breton lays is based on a-Christian ethic: norms and dogmas of Christianity are often sacrificed to the code of courtoisie, so that the code should emerge triumphant. For example, Gueldeluec, one of the principal characters of "Eliduc," generously takes the veil so that her husband can marry his "amie" Guilladon. In "Yonec" the sympathies of the author are given to the courtly fairy-lover against the old and jealous husband. Chaucer's world is based upon a curious mixture of both sets of values. Dorigen's guilt in breaking her troth to Arveragus is virtually literal, not factual: actually her intention was quite the opposite: to prove to the "lusty bacheler" by an ingeniously chosen metaphor how unbreakable her troth is and how futile all his attempts would be. Dorigen behaves in strict accordance with the courtly behaviour expected of a "belle dame sans mercy": though in this case the "belle dame sans mercy," strange as it might seem, stands up for her Christian marriage. But there is another thing for which Dorigen is to blame: she definitely lacks faith, one of the principal Christian virtues. She does not put her trust in Providence to bring her husband back to her safe and sound: she pines and weeps, she complains, she questions the God's design and in a way rebels against His will:

But, Lord, thise grisly feendly rokkes blake,
That semen rather a foul confusion
Of werk than any fair creacion
Of swich a parfit wys God and a stable,
Why han ye wroght this werk unresonable? 

In her obsession Dorigen protests against the natural order of things, and would prefer to change it by recourse to supernatural means: those of magic. Nobody is able to see the supreme design: Dorigen believes the rocks to be the principal source of her grief, while they are the essential condition of her joy: Dorigen's marital happiness is in peril only when, and because of the rocks disappear. Of course, she is not the only one in her world, that is, the world of the Tale, who is guilty of this sin: E. Benjamin believes, that in wishing to change the order of things for his own ends, Aurelius is guilty of the same kind of moral flaw as Dorigen; the lusty bachelor's experience duplicates that of his intended victim: a rash promise - inability to fulfill - a release. Aotrou, who is on the brink of desperation, also seems to give up his faith in Providence; deliberately and conscientiously he takes recourse to magical powers of Corrigan the witch, asking her for the fertility potion:

Thus counsel cold he took at last;
his hope from light to darkness passed. 

Jessica Yates supposes, that if the Breton lord had been patient under his trial, he might have been rewarded with children born naturally. Dorigen's foremost desire, her husband's safe return, was already granted by natural means, when, to her consternation, the fantastic wish she used to entertain also came true. It is impatience and lack of faith that drive the two characters, Dorigen and Aotrou towards the linguistic trap of a treacherous promise.

Now, to complicate the matters, the third system of values enters the primary opposition of the two: the powerful force of magic, with its own unpredictable laws and dubious effects. The Celtic origin of Breton lays accounts for the presence of magic and the Fairy World as an essential part of the plot in most of the lays that we know. Kathryn Hume would place a particular stress upon the third element of the genre: the "un- Christian nature of many of the plots", which, to my mind, in some respect overlaps with the second: the use of magic. The tension between the Christian World and the World of Faery, typical of the mediaeval mind-set, does not seem to exist in the world of the original Breton lays: the two realms harmoniously exist side by side: fairy beings wed mortals, as in "Lanval," or guide them on their quests, as in "Eliduc." In Breton lays magic is definitely a constructive and beneficial force: it is often by magic means that the principal courtly values, true love and loyalty, emerge triumphant out of any adversity. It is not so in more sophisticated writings. In both works in question the protagonists take recourse to magic: but for Geoffrey Chaucer (the pious pilgrim) and the author of "Aotrou and Itroun" magic is the source of evil: dark arts, as practiced by Corrigan the witch, or, at least, under a quasy- scientific cover, a means to achieve an evil purpose of seducing a young wife. Magical figures are in a way parallelled: Corrigan the witch is unquestionably heathen and vile:

A witch there was, who webs could weave
to snare the heart and wits to reave,
who span dark spells with spider-craft,
and as she span she softly laughed;
a drink she brewed of strength and dread
to bind the quick and stir the dead...

The clerk of the University of Orleans, dealing with occult sciences, is in a way a sorcerer-figure too, elaborately weaving his "magyk natureel":

His tables Tolletanes forth he brought,
Ful wel corrected, ne ther lakked nought,
Neither his collect ne his expans yeeris,
Ne his rootes, ne his othere geeris...
He knew ful wel how fer Alnath was shove
Fro the heed of thilke fixe Aries above,
That in the ninthe speere considered is...

The tension of the Tale is considerably less dramatic, than in the Lay: after all, the Clerk's magic is but illusory, and, therefore,easier to dissipate: the rocks disappear but for "a wyke or tweye." Corrigan's magic is powerfully real, and so are the gifts obtained with its help: "a manchild and an infant maid." The Clerk's magic but obscures the truth; Corrigan's sorcery changes the reality, introducing a different kind of truth, hostile to Christianity. Such magic would definitely not allow trifling with, it will not be dissipated by a mere act of courtly generosity.

In the two stories roles are reversed: in the Tale it is the wife who makes a rash promise: she knows what is required of her, but deems the condition impossible to fulfil:

I seye, whan ye han maad the coost so clene
Of rokkes that ther nys no stoon ysene,
Thanne wol I love yow best of any man;
Have heer my trouthe, in al that evere I kan. 

In the Lay it is the husband who plights his troth: Aotrou acts blindly, he means to reward the witch, if her spell proves a success, but he does not know what would be required of him:

He thanked her, trembling, offering gold
To withered fingers shrunk and old.
The thanks she took not, nor the fee,
But laughing croaked:"Nay, we shall see!
Let thanks abide till thanks be earned!...
But we shall meet again  one day,
And rich reward then you shall pay,
Whate'er I ask: it may be gold,
It may be other wealth you hold."

Both protagonists get trapped: the essence of the promise is actually the same for the husband and the wife: a demande d'amour; adulterous love, which, by nature, breaks the already pledged marital troth. Aotrou and Dorigen eventually have to face the same dilemma: a dilemma between the courtly and Christian values.

Through interference of the "unnatural" means of magic both desires are granted: the rocks apparently disappear, Itroun gives birth to the twins. The moment of payment comes. It is at this point that the two plots, following precisely the same lines, diverge. Dorigen and Aotrou find themselves in one and the same trap, but they act differently: the two works in question show alternative approaches to the same problem. Dorigen is compelled by her husband to keep her word: courtly values take the upper hand over the Christian values; Arveragus pushes his wife towards adultery for the sake of being true to her word. Arveragus is concerned for his wife's troth more than for her chastity. It is interesting to see how much the compelling motives of the husband's decision vary according to the system of values of different sources, the decision being the same: the husband of the Filocolo believes that the lover deserves his reward for all his labours, and in the Decameron the husband is afraid of the magician's revenge. From the Christian point of view Arveragus's decision is unrighteous; according to the Fathers of the Church, rash promises which lead to sin should not be kept. However, strange as it might seem, it is Arveragus' adherence to the courtly values that brings forth a happy end and restoration of Christian values: moved by his generosity, Aurelius renounces his claim upon Dorigen, to be released, in his turn, by the no less generous Clerk of Orleans, who is as much part of the social system as Arveragus and his squire. According to E. Benjamin, "one feels that Aurelius (and possibly the Clerk of Orleans too) had realized they were treading on forbidden ground tampering with God's privity - and were not sorry of the opportunity to relieve themselves." Therefore it is not only Dorigen who is finally allowed to remain a chaste Christian wife, "the treweste and the beste wyf," as proclaimed by Aurelius; but all the unobtrusive driving to something very close to damnation is brought to naught, since all those involved refused to profit by the results of recurring to unnatural means, however successful the results might have proved.

Aotrou, on the other hand, sacrifices his knightly honour to Christian values and breaks his word: the word that would still be valid according to the standards of "gentilesse," no matter that it was given "blindly" and to a person socially unacceptable. Having sinned once, the Breton lord refuses to compromise with "unnatural means" any longer:

I gave no love. My love is wed;
my wife now lieth in child-bed...
and I will ride to mine own home
and the waters blest of Christendome.

Cursed by the witch to die in three days, Aotrou takes the consequences and places his trust in Providence again:

In three days I shall live at ease
and die but when it God doth please
in eld, or in some time to come
in the brave wars of Christendom.

He remains true to the Christian values of marriage, fidelity and patience, disregarding the values of courtoisie: but, strange as it might seem, the order is not restored; as promised, Aotrou passes away in three days, his wife dies of broken heart and they are buried together. The world of "Aotrou and Itroun" would not helpfully close its eyes on careless "tampering with the Devil", as the world of the Tale would; once broken, the harmony is impossible to restore. In a way both husband and wife are punished: they will not see their children grow, the children, for whose sake Aotrou took recourse to such desperate means. The desires, accomplished "against the law", prove futile:

Beside her lord at last she lay
in their long home beneath the clay;
and if their children lived yet long,
or played in garden hale and strong,
they saw it not, nor found it sweet
their heart's desire at last to meet.

The outcome of the two lays is strikingly different: the Tale sacrifices Christian dogmas to the courtly values, when both are endangered by the "unnatural" force, and both emerge triumphant; the unnatural proves to be but an illusion, easy to dissipate if one remains loyal to the prevailing values of the social system. The Lay sacrifices troth to faith, and results in tragedy: in this world the magic, deprived of its due, is allowed to take revenge, and the Christian values, against which the protagonist originally sinned remain damaged; the hope and promise come not from this world:

Of lord and lady all is said:
God rest their souls, who now are dead!...
Sad is the note and sad the lay,
but mirth we meet not every day.
God keep us all in hope and prayer
from evil rede and from despair,
by waters blest of Christendom
to dwell, until at last we come
to joy of Heaven where is queen
the maiden Mary pure and clean. 

Chaucer's world of courtly values is a stable world, permeated with the sense of harmony - the world of mirth, where the affliction is but a test, where the balance is easy to restore by an act of unselfishness. Having passed the trial, the protagonists return to the state of bliss of the opening lines. The world of "Aotrou and Itroun" is a less convenient world, where "mirth is not met every day", and, once disturbed, is difficult to restore. This world is but a preparatory stage to the pure joy of Heaven; it is eternal values, not earthly joys, that are endangered and put to the test in case of deviation from the "blest waters of Christendom"; that is why the conflict acquires the morbid sharpness of a tragedy, that is why trifling with these values is not easily expiated. The illusion that deceives Aotrou is that the unholy means of magic might avail in time of need: and the dissipation of this illusion results in the painful truth restored: the perfect joy is not to be obtained in this world.


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  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
  • Cooper, Helen. Oxford Guide to Chaucer: the Canterbury Tales. NY: Oxford UP, 1991.
  • Hoepffner, Ernest. "The Breton Lais." Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History. Ed. Roger Sherman Loomis. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959. 112-21.
  • Hume, Kathryn. "Why Chaucer Calls the Franklin's Tale a Breton Lai." Philological Quarterly 51 (1972): 365-79.
  • Loomis, Laura Hibbard. "Chaucer and the Breton Lays of the Auchinleck Manuscript." Studies in Philology 38 (1941): 14- 33.
  • Marie de France. The Lais. Trans. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante. New York: E.P.Dutton, 1978.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun." Welsh Review 4.4 Dec. 1945: 254-66.
  • Yates, Jessica. "The Source of "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun"". Leaves from the tree: J.R.R.Tolkien's shorter fiction (The 4th Tolkien Society Workshop.) Ed. T.A. Shippey. London: The Society, 1991.