Marie de France ‘Chevrefoil’

This is, as typical of lais, an episode from a larger narrative and the author relies on the fact that her audience is bound to be familiar with Tristran and Isolde’s story. King Mark is getting suspicious and he has banished Tristran to his home in south Wales. There Tristran spends a year, pining for his beloved. Finally he decides to go back to Cornwall, where he hides in a forest by day and comes to peasants’ huts by night. He learns one day that Mark together with his household are going to celebrate Pentecost at Tintagel and the cavalcade will be certainly passing through the nearby road. Overjoyed by this, he goes to the forest, cuts off a hazel branch, squares it and carves his name onto it. Then he puts it as a sign on the hillside near the road. These are lines which still are unclear to scholars: did Isolde know that Tristan was going to contact her? Because if she didn’t, then she must have been very sharp-sighted, to notice one peeled hazel branch in the forest. Anyway, she does. She tells her knights that she wants to take a walk in the forest [I strongly suspect it was “I want to pee], goes to the forest and has a brief joyous meeting with Tristran. She tells him that the king is going to forgive him and asks him to wait for a message from him. Tristran then composes a song about this meeting, which is this very lai – its English name is goatleaf (Marie actually uses the English word here), and its French name is Chevrefoil. This ties up very nicely the symbolism of the tale, because Marie writes earlier that Tristran and Isolde were like a honeysuckle (the contemporary name for goatleaf) and a hazel bush, so entwined that one would die without the other. Tristran uses the hazel switch as a signal, so Isolde is presumably the honeysuckle.

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