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les deux amants

28 may 2023

The two lovers in Marie de France's brief lai are buried together on top of a hill, their fate a fairy tale gone wrong.

It's the result of one of these situations where a king poses an unreasonable challenge to anyone who wants to marry his daughter. Applicants in this part of Normandy must carry the princess up to the top of the hill without stopping to rest. Even though the princess commits herself to a pretty strict diet, the hill is just too high, or the Norman aristocracy perhaps not in the best of shape.

The princess can't marry, but that doesn't prevent her from dating. There's a likely swain in the neighborhood, and "Pur ceo ke pruz fu e curteis" (210), because he is brave and courtly, she becomes his lover. But the necessity for subterfuge is a stressor in their relationship. What if he could carry her uphill?

The princess knows a wise woman of Salerno, and sends her boyfriend on a mission to bring back a potion from that faraway center of medieval medical research. Were it not that there are documented tales of such long journeys in the high middle ages, one might think that "Salerno" is located at some fantastic distance from "Normandy"; but people of means went farther for less prospective payoff all the time back in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The potion works fine, but the boyfriend is an idiot. He doesn't want to waste the time it would take even to take a sip of the stuff along the way. Unfortified by performance enhancers, the boyfriend gets to the top of the hill, all right, but then drops dead. The princess dies in turn, just out of sympathy, but not before she pours the potion all around, which does wonders for the hilltop vegetation.

I'm not sure Les Deux Amants has a moral. It might be, don't be an idiot, but wouldn't taking the potion constitute cheating? The young man tries to play fair, but it's just too much for him. Certainly the girl's father is an idiot. Maybe the moral is, just let your daughter marry who she wants, without too strictly vetting the candidates.

Marie de France. Les Deux Amants. Translated by Philippe Walter. In Lais. Paris: Gallimard, 2010. 206-221.