Sir Launfal: A Portrait of a Knight in Fourteenth Century England
By Yejung Choi
Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, Vol.18 (2010)
Abstract: Thomas Chestre’s Sir Launfal is one of the only two Middle English Breton Lays that can be traced directly back to the lais by Marie de France. Marie’s poems were palpably popular and widely imitated, becoming the prototype of this new genre. Her Lanval, the ultimate source of Sir Launfal is one of the most appealing of the lais. Extant translations or adaptations of Lanval are found in Old French, Middle English and Old Norse. In England alone, we have Sir Landevale, Sir Launfal, and the Percy Folio Lambewell. Sir Landevale and Sir Launfal are known to have been written in the fourteenth century; the former in the earlier and the latter in the late fourteenth century, probably three quarters later than the former. Sir Landevale has been preserved in a number of manuscripts and early printed books, while Thomas Chestre’s Sir Launfal is preserved in only one early fifteenth century manuscript.
Considering the lineage of the romances disseminated from Lanval and its popularity, it is not surprising to find that the criticism on Sir Launfal has centered on the comparative study of both works, usually to the detriment of the latter. A. J. Bliss, for example, finds Lanval “civilized, discreet, even intellectual” and says that it has “psychological subtlety” and “sophisticated charm” . On the other hand, he criticizes Sir Launfal for its crudity and lack of “sensibility and refinement”. His criticism is very typical of the critical trend. C. Spearing, though acknowledging Chestre’s poem’s straightforwardness and dramatic quality, calls Sir Launfal “a fascinating disaster”.
But this criticism, in spite of a number of insightful observations of the features of Sir Launfal, does not seem to do justice to what Sir Launfal intends to portray. First of all, as many scholars acknowledge, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that Thomas Chestre consulted Marie’s Lanval, when he composed Sir Launfal. Instead, he appears to have three other sources. The immediate and primary source is Sir Landevale, a rather close translation of Marie’s poem. Another known source is Graelent, an Old French lay. This anonymous text, or some version of it, appears to be the source for four passages in Sir Launfal. And many scholars assume that at least one other source, now lost, provided Chestre with the episodes of tournament at Carlisle and the tournament with the giant. Thus, considering the lack of immediate exposure to Marie’s text, although it is undeniable that Sir Launfal is a descendant of Lanval, Sir Launfal is only distantly related to Lanval. Sir Launfal may follow the footsteps of its ancestor, but probably with a different intent.