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Milun

A summary
"Anyone who intends to present a new story must approach the problem in a new way
and speak so persuasively that the tale brings pleasure to people." So, does Marie begin
this lay with a statement of purpose, after which she states her intention to tell how the
name of the lay was composed.

Milun, a knight born in South Wales, was the best knight in all the land, and his inability
to be bested in battle or tournaments was known throughout several countries. When a
beautiful girl, the daughter of a nobleman, hears tell of Milun, she "conceived a deep
love" and sends message to him that she will give herself at his wish. Milun is happy to
hear it, and promises his loyalty and love. He asks her messenger to arrange a secret
meeting, and sends to her his golden ring as token of his promise. The messenger
complies, and the lovers begin to meet in secret, until one day she discovers she is
pregnant.
The lady laments to Milun how she will be punished for her sin, perhaps tortured or sold
into slavery. Milun promises to do as she asks, and so she asks him to take the child to
her married sister in Northumbria to raise. The sister is to be told the entire story but to
withhold it from the child until the child is old enough to learn the truth and receive
Milun's gold ring. At that point, the child can seek out his or her father.

A trusty old woman servant helps the lady conceal her condition until she gives birth to
a son, at which point they prepare the baby for travel. They hang around his neck the
ring, a silk purse, and the letter, and give him to Milun, who leaves for Northumbria. He
stops to rest seven times a day, and treats the child well on the journey. The girl's sister
gladly accepts the baby to raise as her own.

Milun leaves his home to "seek fame as a mercenary." Meanwhile, his beloved is
betrothed by her father to a nobleman, which both saddens her from loss of Milun and
frightens her since her husband might discover she is no longer a virgin. She laments
that she is not free in the world, and must continue to suffer. Her new husband takes her
away.

When Milun returns from his travels, sad over his separation from his beloved, he is
happy to learn that she now lives near his own home. He composes a plan wherein he
sends a letter to her hidden within the feathers of a swan. He entrusts a squire to trick
his way into the woman's home to give to her the bird. The squire makes good time to
the castle, and there convinces the castle porter that he has caught a lovely swan that he
feels obliged to present personally to the lady of the castle. Though the porter initially
insists that nobody is able to see the woman, he decides to facilitate a meeting between
them. The squire is led to her bedroom, where he gives her the swan. She asks one of
her ladies to look after it, but he insists she must receive it herself. It is then that she
feels the letter beneath its feathers, and "her blood ran cold."

She is overjoyed to read the letter from Milun, to discover that because of his sadness in
being separated, he will do whatever she asks so they can be reunited. He asks her to
devise a way for them to meet, and send the particulars through the swan. He tells her to
starve the swan for three days and then tie the letter around its neck before releasing it,
so that it will surely fly back home for food. She keeps the swan well-fed for a month,
after which time she writes the letter, starves the bird, and then sends it to Milun, who is
joyful to receive it. He follows the same process to get back in touch with her, always
feeding the swan for a while before putting it through the starving again.

The lovers continue this means of communication for 20 years, using the swan as
messenger. "No one can be so imprisoned or so tightly guarded that he cannot find a
way out from time to time."

Meanwhile, the lady's sister raises the son as a fine youth and becomes a knight. Finally,
she tells him of his past, and he is delighted to learn of his father's prowess and fame.
He is encouraged by the story to set out and seek even greater fame, to give honor to his
family name. He leaves immediately on this mission and heads straight for Brittany,
where he quickly gains a reputation as "the best combatant" in all tournaments. He is
likewise known for his generosity to poor knights, and becomes known as "The Peerless
One."
One knight who is discouraged by the news of the Peerless One is Milun, who does not
wish to have his reputation as the best knight eclipsed. Thus, he decides to "quickly
cross the seato humiliate him and damage his reputation." He plans to defeat the
Peerless One and then take advantage of the trip to locate and reunite with his son. He
tells his beloved of his plans, and she is happy to hear it.

Milun heads to Brittany, where he passes the winter spending lavishly and making
friends. When the season of tournaments comes, he prepares himself and arrives early at
his first one, where he is directed towards the Peerless One. Milun performs well that
day, but not as well as his adversary. However, he finds himself not only envious but
also impressed and proud of the skill displayed by the other.

Finally, the two are paired in a joust. Milun strikes his son hard enough to break the
latter's lance-shaft, but does not unhorse him. When the boy strikes Milun back, Milun
is unhorsed. The boy sees beneath his father's visor the white hair of age, and is shamed
for having shown such aggression. He apologizes for the slight, and asks Milun to
remount his horse. Milun is enlivened as he looks up and recognizes the ring on the
boy's finger, and he asks the boy to tell his story, saying "You have unhorsed me: I could
love you tenderly."

The boy tells his story, and Milun realizes the truth. Thus, are they reunited, and spend
time together. When Milun tells the boy his own story, the boy promises to kill his
mother's husband so that his parents can be united together in marriage. They return
together to Milun's land to carry out this plan, but are met immediately upon landing by
a messenger who tells them that the lady's husband has died of his own accord. They
travel quickly to her, and the family is reunited and "lived night and day in happiness
and tenderness."

Analysis
Many of Marie's lays have messages with complexity belied by the charming or
seemingly simple nature of the stories. This is particularly true of "Milun," which
praises and celebrates both the nature of the protagonist's love and his desire for fame,
while also undercutting both of those elements on closer analysis.

Milun exemplifies the chivalrous value of fame. A knight is expected to compete in


tournaments, to test his mettle against his others, and to value such glory above all else.
And Milun, as the greatest knight in all the land, clearly embraces this value system.
Marie does not explicitly condemn it, but in fact suggests its resonance by having a
heroine who falls in love with him merely because of his reputation, sight unseen.
Likewise, Milun's agreement to meet her could suggest that what matters most is the
flattery of a great admirer (since it is only this that she could have related to him in her
initial communication with him).

Lots of the lays explore the way that a secret, private love cannot flourish in a public
world, but rarely is the 'world' so exemplified by the protagonist and lover himself.
Though his love is selfless in the vocabulary of the lays in total and he cares deeply
for the woman, he is strangely passive about challenging her husband, something which
the son will later immediately agree to do. Their relationship has then to it a romantic
and tragic air which perhaps speaks to the chivalrous nature of their relationship
(appealing to him), as well as leaving him free to seek fame as mercenary or knight
while she stays in a relationship that is not only stifling (the husband is clearly
protective) but also dangerous (he might find out she is not a virgin, at which point she
could be tortured or sent away as slave).

Marie uses one phrase twice in the lay "the straightest path." It is this that Milun takes
to the woman's sister, and also that the squire takes to first deliver the swan. The
suggestion is perhaps that love itself is the "straightest path," the purest emotion, and yet
it is corrupted by the forces of the world, in this case the dependence on fame. Notice
how the love of fame corrupts the entire family dynamic. The son, when he learns of his
heritage, is driven first to honour the family line by seeking fame, rather than attempting
to find his parents. This is literally not the straightest path since it involves him going to
a different land first. Similarly, when Milun hears about this praised knight, his impulse
is to first defeat the knight, and then to seek out his son. The love of their family takes
second place to the virtues of chivalry imposed on them by the world, leading them off
the straight path. Lastly, this love of fame threatens to corrupt their relationship, since
Milun's admiration for the young man's word is tinged with a bitterness and resentment
that obviously will need to be overcome to enable the reconciliation.

The swan is an interesting symbol in many ways. The plan to starve it certainly is
symbolic of the undernourished love between Milun and his lady, which flourishes
briefly in their communications (the same way they feed the swan upon receiving it),
but then must go through a period of neglect. However, the swan's continual return
home also symbolizes the way that love will find its way to the "straightest path" and
right the wrongs. It is a reminder that love is a way out of the crummy world, a possible
escape since love in its pure form knows where it should go.

And indeed, this lay has a happy ending that suggests this latter symbolism. Not only is
the family reunited, but the husband dies of his own accord. No action is needed, and
the secret love is made public in a way that brings happiness to all. Again, the lay is a
rather intense criticism of how the world's values will pervert and ruin a pure love, even
as Marie shows her storytelling proficiency by making it appear to be a celebration of
some same values (Milun is a good guy, after all) and also by framing it so enjoyably.
It's a masterful use of irony.
Lastly, this lay shows an intense locality. Marie spends more time than usual naming the
locations where the events take place, perhaps to appeal to a particular audience who
wished to hear their own homelands mentioned.
As is the case with Marie de France herself, very little is known about her collection
of lays, including for whom or why they were written, and whether they were even
intended to be presented as a unified collection. The date of composition has been
placed between 1160 and 1199, though for a long time it was believed that they were
written as late as the 13th century (a belief no longer substantiated by the evidence).
This was a period of cultural renaissance in the midst of the Early Middle Ages (the
period commonly called 'the dark ages'), and Marie is one of several authors from that
century whose work continues to resonate. What was unique at the time was the use of
vernacular (French or English, the spoken languages of the two cultures that thrived in
this renaissance), rather than the traditional Latin. For the first time, the use of
vernacular was not immediately considered inferior to Latin, and her use of French
suggests that the purpose of the work fit within a larger entertainment context than had
existed before.
The narrative lay was a somewhat new form, amongst the more popular romances
and chanson de gestes. Marie is one of the earliest writers who wrote narrative lays--
essentially short narrative poems--whereas the more traditional lays were based on a
much older form that was used primarily to immortalize heroes or carry on folk tales,
and was traditionally performed alongside music. However, there is much reason to
believe that Marie did not intend these lays to be performed to music, but rather to be
read or perhaps narrated. Marie wrote the lays in French octosyllabic couplets, and they
range from about 115 to 1180 lines.
Whether or not Marie intended these works to be presented as a single collection, it is
worth studying them as a unified whole because of the depth Marie's vision takes when
one notices the parallels that emerge between the stories. She drew upon an eclectic
wellspring of influences ranging from Celtic folklore to classical myths and stories to
legends popular in her contemporary chivalrous culture (such as King Arthur).
However, she adapts them all to a Briton setting very immersed in the courts of chivalry,
suggesting that she wanted to please her particular audience.
Overall, the lays present a subversive examination of the popular values of chivalry
(particularly the selfishness and self-glorification contained in them) while at the same
time celebrating that same culture. Characters tend to lack psychological personality
even when Marie uses omniscient perspective, although they are ultimately defined and
judged by the actions they take. While the lays are primarily concerned with love, Marie
uses these romantic situations to probe various questions of, for example, obligation,
fate, and class, through them, with a willingness to present different values for different
situations, ultimately revealing a profound understand of the innate human tendency
towards contradiction and complexity.