Sir Launfal: This is Why We Don’t Kiss and Tell

As we trundle steadily downhill through the second half of 2020, it’s time to tap into the gossip mill of Camelot. For this story I will be referring Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury’s translation of ‘Sir Launfal’, written by Thomas Chestre in the late 14th century, but will be comparing it to Marie de France’s ‘Lanval’ from the late 12th century because the differences (and similarities) are intriguing. And infuriating! I’ll preface this one with another reminder: I’m a Guinevere girl, and I am not even trying to be objective.

‘Sir Launfal’ opens in what we are told are the days of the ‘mighty Arthur’ and reinforces the sense of a martial heyday with a roll call of famous knights, including Lancelot and Arthur’s nephews Gawain, Gaheris and Agravaine. Launfal is listed among this impressive company. Though young, he’s made a name for himself with the chivalric tradition of gift-giving, and his generosity wins him the position of steward at Arthur’s court. I wonder if this pre-Sir Kay, or if Kay simply does not exist in this version of the Arthurian extended universe? When ‘Sir Launfal’ starts, Arthur is single, but ten years into Launfal’s stewardship Merlin arranges a marriage between Arthur and the princess of Ireland, ‘Gwennere’ – this, obviously, being Guinevere, though I’ve not heard of her heralding from Ireland before, or Merlin wanting anything to do with her either.

Guinevere already has a reputation for being unfaithful. Given that Arthur is presumably her first husband, those rumours seem quite dodgy to me, but Launfal takes against her from the start and he is not the only one. Whatever other character faults Guinevere may possess, she’s no fool; she knows who her enemies are. After her wedding, when she’s distributing gifts to the court, Launfal gets nothing. Interestingly, in ‘Lanval’ the one who deliberately overlooks Launfal is Arthur himself, and the occasion of gift-giving has nothing to do with a wedding.

If Chestre’s Launfal has fallen afoul of the new queen, you might think the political approach would be to make nice with her, but Launfal has taken deep offence and decides he can no longer tolerate life at court. He asks the king’s permission to leave court so that he can bury his father – so far, perfectly reasonable – and is not only granted that permission, he’s sent on his way with valuable gifts – very nice, thanks Arthur, no reason to think anyone’s nose is out of joint here. Sir Huwe and Jon, referred to as nephews of the king, travel with him. It’s suggested Chestre may have been referring to Gawain and Yvain here. So what exactly is Launfal’s plan? Well, he retreats to his hometown of Caerleon and takes up residence in the mayor’s orchard, where he lives off the money Arthur gave him until it’s practically all spent and he’s in such a state of poverty that neither he nor his companions have any clothes left fit to wear. This is a particular mark of shame for Launfal, because it was his responsibility to provide clothing for Huwe and Jon and a year later they’re still in the outfits they wore to leave court. Launfal is desperate for none of his friends to know how bad his situation is, so it’s unclear to me how he expects things to ever improve from here. All this because he couldn’t fake amity with his king’s new wife? This is what I’d call cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Launfal sends Huwe and Jon back to court with a frankly transparent cover story that they were out hunting and that’s how their clothes were ruined. Arthur swallows this with his usual lack of perception and cheerfully accepts Huwe and Jon’s assurances that Launfal is doing just great. Guinevere, who is still holding a grudge, also takes the knights at their word but is much less happy about it. What did Launfal say to or about her?

At the next big feast, when everyone of any importance is off to court – including Caerleon’s mayor – Launfal plays the role of Cinderella, with nothing to wear to the ball, too shabby to even go to church. The mayor’s kind daughter invites him to eat with her but Launfal is too ashamed of his appearance to accept. Instead he asks for the loan of a horse and rides out into the forest. It’s a hot day and after some time he lies down to rest in the shade of a tree.

To his astonishment, he is approached by two beautiful and exquisitely dressed young women, carrying a basin and towel respectively. Presumably they have been bathing at the nearest river. Launfal greets them bewilderedly and they tell him that they have been sent by their mistress Tryamour, who wishes to see him. All concerns about his wardrobe are put aside in favour of following the handmaidens to a luxurious pavilion, where Tryamour – daughter of King Olyroun of the Otherworld – is waiting, exposing a considerable amount of very lovely skin and literally lying on a bed like she’s been taking tips from the front covers of bodice-rippers. There’s coming on strong and then there’s Tryamour, greeting Launfal as if he’s already her sweetheart. I completely respect her gung-ho attitude, but would like to politely point out that if Launfal is into sexually confident women, maybe he should chill out on slut-shaming the queen. Unsurprisingly, he does not see things my way. He promptly pledges himself to Tryamour’s service and she rewards him with three gifts, in the time-honoured tradition of mysterious otherworldly lovers. Launfal is given Tryamour’s horse, Blaunchard, and the services of an invisible servant named Gyfre. Most usefully of all, Tryamour gives him a purse of gold that will not empty no matter how much he gives away. Launfal is even permitted to use her coat-of-arms, the symbol of three ermines. Tryamour’s only condition is complete secrecy: he must not mention her existence to another person.

Yeah, that’s going to go well, isn’t it?

They eat an excellent meal together and then spend the rest of night having sex. In the morning Tryamour gives Launfal one more promise, that she will come to him in secret any time he calls to her. They exchange parting kisses and Launfal returns to Caerleon, where he is promptly followed by a parade of pack-horses carrying all kinds of valuables. The town, having accustomed itself to Launfal’s poverty, is agog at his renewed fortune. The mayor, recognising that he has not supported Launfal during the young knight’s time of poverty, tries to rewrite history with himself as Launfal’s friend. Launfal is having none of it, pointing out that the mayor never asked him over for a meal while Launfal was living in his orchard (though his daughter did, so how about a thank you to her?)

Launfal’s first priority: dress UP. Next priority: become a one-man charitable organisation, winning over Caerleon with his generosity towards the poor. Thirdly: re-establish his martial reputation by winning the local tournament and defeating the giant Sir Valentyne in battle. He then fights his way through the dead Valentyne’s supporters. All of this hue and cry draws Arthur’s attention. The king asks for Launfal to take up his old post of steward and Launfal make a triumphant return to court. Guinevere watches him dancing amidst her ladies and the other knights, and decides to seduce him. The first chance she gets, she tells him that she has loved him these last seven years, and clearly expects he’ll tumble straight into her bed. When he shows himself uninterested, Guinevere spits out that he must love no woman. It’s worth noting here that in ‘Lanval’, Guinevere outright accuses Launfal of being gay in an attempt to utterly ruin him. Under such circumstances, it’s unsurprising that in both versions, Launfal’s defensive response is to declare his love for a woman he describes as far more beautiful than the queen.

Guinevere doesn’t appreciate the insult. Sick with fury, she goes to Arthur with a confusing story of how Launfal propositioned her then boasted of having a mistress queenlier than herself. Arthur wants to send Launfal to be hung and drawn. Launfal calls to Tryamour, but of course he has betrayed their agreement and she doesn’t come. Gyfre has vanished with Blaunchard; the bottomless purse of gold is empty. Launfal is on his own. All he can do is repeat his story, that the queen tried to seduce him and that he rebuffed her. The court leans towards his side, but no one is willing to actually oppose the thwarted queen or the incensed king. Launfal is told that his life will be spared if, and only if, he can produce his beautiful mistress within a year and a fortnight and show her to the court. Guinevere goes one step further and declares that if this woman exists, may her own eyes be blinded.

Well, the allotted time passes, and there’s no sign of Tryamour. At the last minute, however, a procession of radiant maidens ride into court. Gawain calls to Launfal to tell him that his mistress is on her way and sure enough, there’s Tryamour, fashionably late and dressed in royal purple with a crown on her head. The court compares Guinevere to Tryamour and agree emphatically with Launfal’s original statement. Even Arthur acknowledges it. Tryamour holds Guinevere viciously to her word, stepping close to breathe upon her eyes, and blinds her.

This does not happen in ‘Lanval’.

Tryamour then departs, Launfal swinging up on Blaunchard behind her. In Chestre’s version they go to Olyroun, while in Marie de France’s they go to Avalon. Either way, Launfal never returns to Arthur’s court. Once a year, on a certain day, Launfal reappears and a knight who finds him may challenge him to joust – but he belongs to Tryamour now, and to the Otherworld.

I managed to get through all of that without rage-shrieking like a pterodactyl, for which I deserve due respect.

Chestre was clearly drawing on the very old tradition of Guinevere as the faithless wife. After all, heavens forbid the male heroes of myth and legend ever have to take responsibility for their own actions when a woman is in the vicinity to take the blame. Undoubtedly Chestre’s original audience would have had much greater sympathy with the character of Launfal than I do. Launfal is the one who, at the beginning of the story, chooses to leave court instead of trying to repair the relationship with Guinevere, and he does literally nothing to try and improve his situation. If a fairy princess had not taken a fancy to him, what was he going to do? I do feel for him in the second half of the story. Launfal was put in a horrible position when turning down the queen’s attempt at seduction, though his eagerness to insult the woman he hates leads him to betray the woman he loves.

Guinevere’s behaviour in ‘Sir Launfal’ is remarkably similar to Tryamour’s – both women are confident to approach men they find attractive, and quick to exact vengeance when they feel themselves wronged – but Guinevere is demonised, a predatory figure, while Tryamour, secure in her role as Fairest of Them All, rides off into the sunset unquestioned. I do like Tryamour, just to be clear! I love that the story ends with her sweeping her lover off his feet in a dramatic rescue. The penultimate line of ‘Lanval’ actually describes Launfal as being ‘ravished by his lady to an island’, which is a delightful turnabout of the usual roles! I just wish that the whole thing wasn’t dependent on turning Guinevere into a pantomime villain, her character apparently existing purely to torment the virtuous Launfal.

The queen’s blinding at the end of ‘Sir Launfal’ also puts me uncomfortably in mind of the wife in ‘The Lay of the Were-Wolf’, whose nose was bitten off as punishment for her betrayal of her husband. It is a brutal, simplistic version of morality. Give me the complex, consistent characterisation from Chrétien de Troyes and Thomas Malory any day. Their Guinevere was always more than her pretty face, and her life was more than a glorified beauty pageant.

Source: https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/laskaya-and-salisbury-middle-english-breton-lays-sir-launfal, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11417/11417-h/11417-h.htm#VI