It has always been a favorite topic of authors to discuss the role of fate in human life, and a favorite topic of analysts and critics to debate the implications of this role on the philosophy of the work. Is Odysseus responsible for his wanderings, and if not, can we give him credit for having resolved them? Is there any way Macbeth could have proved false the predictions of the witches? and so on. Each culture has its own interpretations of the relative strengths of will and destiny. From the Lais of Marie de France we get a remarkably clear view of the secular Medieval view of the realms of fate and action in human life. Particularly, from the story of Guigemar we see the division between the realm of love, which is unquestionably a matter of fate and nature, and the realm of personal valor, which is left squarely in the hands of man.
The hero of this story, Guigemar himself, allows us to study this division in detail because he switches between the worlds of love and valor sharply, several times. In the opening passages of the story, he has little respect for love, and exists purely for adventure. Then, following a tragic accident, he abandons his quest for glory and hands himself over to the world of love, knowing that it alone can save him. When he is rejected from this world, he resumes his military adventuring and forsakes love once more. Only in the final page of the story do we see Guigemar in a position to fulfil both romantic and military objectives. Because the majority of the story is dedicated to Guigemar in the capacity of either lover or warrior, but not both, we can determine which aspects of human life are "fated" by deciding in which passages of the book Guigemar had control over himself. This analysis also lends insight into the role of women in Medieval romances, and perhaps in twelfth century society in general.
In the opening section of the story, Guigemar has no respect for love. There is no doubt that he can earn almost any woman he wishes, for he is "wise, brave and loved by everybody", and clearly generous to boot, dispensing gifts handily before leaving home. We are told, in fact, that "no lady or maiden on earth" would have rejected him. However, Guigemar is not interested. It is unclear whether his lack of interest stems from deliberate scorning of the cult of love, or whether he in simply incapable of the emotion. We have evidence of both possibilities. We are told, for example, that his indifference is a "grievous wrong" on the part of nature, suggesting that the failure is beyond his control. On the other hand, Guigemar consciously rejects the advances of the women about him, preferring to build his fame as a knight. Perhaps he views with disdain the the recklessness of his fellow knights who he has seen fall in love. Certainly his fictional peers in the other lais behave with minimal regard for their own safety, sleeping with the wives of dangerous men. This abandon might be hard to understand for a young knight who had never experienced love himself, and one can easily see him consciously deciding that he would be far better off dedicating himself to the rational challenges of war rather than the seemingly pointless risks of love.
That his behavior may have been a deliberate attempt to abandon the traditions of love and instead build his personal fame and riches is supported by the unusual manner in which he is forced to abandon his military exploits. "At the height of his fame," Guigemar is hunting with his knights and spies a hind behind a bush. He lets lose an arrow and strikes the hind, but the arrow ricochets and wounds him in the thigh, temporarily ending his life as a warrior. Note that it is a hind that he is attacking when he wounds himself, one of the animals traditionally associated with Venus, the goddess of love. Symbolically, Guigemar is attacking the institution of love. The dying hind tells him that his wound will never heal until he finds a woman "who will suffer for your love more pain and anguish than any other woman has ever known, and you will suffer likewise for her." Clearly, Guigemar is being punished for his lack of love, and the cure will be his discovery of it.
It can also be argued that until this point in the story, Guigemar has been at battle with nature, both against the natural instinct to fall in love and, in more literal way, against the animals he was hunting. During the crucial passage in the forest, nature retaliates, wounding him with his own arrow and forcing him to seek the love he previously ignored. Guigemar’s ability to control his own life is about to end.
Up to the time of his injury, there is little doubt that Guigemar’s fortune lies largely in his own hands, and his ability as a fighter has stood him in good stead. Even after his injury, he rides off alone, forsaking the potential aid of his squire or knights to heal himself. He believes that success in overcoming the curse of the hind will come from his personal strength and endurance. Of course, fate and the supernatural affect the lives of men on the battlefield (the courtly audience, well-versed in scripture, would not have it otherwise), but the knight can rightly consider himself to be an agent with free will, able to shape his destiny. The occasional intervention of, say, enchanted animals, does not indicate any celestial design for Guigemar, as such supernatural elements are a staple of medieval literature and can be considered merely additional players in a complicated world.
It is however at this point in the story that Guigemar makes his crucial transition from the world of battle to the world of love. He rides to a harbor and boards the clearly supernatural boat he finds there. As he explores the center of the ship, it sets sail and carries him away. Note that the ship is unmanned and pilots itself, for this is the first time in the story that Guigemar's life is totally beyond his own control. He acknowledges that he is in the hands of God and abandons himself to fate. It is only because he is in this state of abandonment that he is able to fall in love; were he still committed to independence and control of his own destiny, love would remain out of the question.
At this time, we are introduced to the lady with whom Guigemar will fall in love. She has been imprisoned by her old and jealous husband who fears she can not be trusted with her freedom (a still pervasive belief, if recent legislation in Pennsylvania be representative). Should the reader have not already deduced the thematic significance of the lady, she has on her wall a mural depicting the destruction of Ovid's works on restraint in love. There is little doubt that this lady was born under Venus, and will teach Guigemar to abandon his misguided restraint. Interestingly, one implication of the thesis that only fame and valor are under the human control is that women, who are not allowed to pursue fame and fortune, are never in control of their own lives. This fits perfectly with the accustomed role of women in medieval literature. In virtually the entire story of Guigemar, the lady finds herself imprisoned by one man or another, and though she is later able to escape, it is only through the providence that her door was left unlocked, and not through her own machinations that she leaves. But we jump ahead of ourselves.
The lady finds him on the enchanted boat, washes his wounds and thereby steals his heart. The effect of unrequited love in medieval literature being rather extreme, Guigemar soon finds himself in anguish, "the pain she caused him reached deep into his heart." Thus a beautiful cycle of nature has been completed. Guigemar forsakes love for battle, and is brought down by an arrow. He abandons himself, but is saved and raised into the world of love, again by an arrow. It is quite clear that this love will be inescapable as it "has its source in nature", and is thus beyond his control.
Were the story to end at this point, its message would still be clear: to fall in love we must abandon ourselves to nature. Those unwilling to do so are doomed to purely materialistic existences, and risk the violent retaliation of nature. However, the story does not end, and Guigemar is soon caught in flagrante delicto. In an interesting statement that it is the right of a real man to be with the woman he loves, Guigemar defends himself with a "large fir-wood pole". The symbolism involved is clear, and suggests that all a true knight must do is brandish his pole, and his right to be with the lady is understood. In this case, the lady’s husband is understandably peeved, but does not kill Guigemar. Instead, he escorts Guigemar back to the enchanted boat which brought him to their castle and compels him to return home. In many versions of the Arthurian myths as well, though Arthur realizes that Guenevere is sleeping about, he does nothing. It is admitted, in literature at least, that it is the right of a knight to leads ladies to adultery.
Guigemar finds himself no longer in a position to love engage in love, as he agreed not to take on a new lover unless she can untie an impossible knot in his shirt. This leaves him with no recourse but to revert to his original state, pursuing personal enrichment. If our thesis is correct, that material issues are in the hands of man while love is a question of fate, then Guigemar should now find himself once more in control of his life. Indeed he is, in all matters but those of romance. He is able to rebuild his force of loyal knights and is soon a powerful figure on the field again. However he can not chose a new wife, as he is unwilling to lay aside the lady he was forced to leave behind. She, on the other hand, having no alternative to the realm of courtly love, and thus no alternative to the rule of Nature, has boarded the enchanted boat and escaped. That she is not in control herself is proved by the fact that that she intends to kill herself on the boat, and is incapable, and the fact that boat does not even take her to the right place - she has even less control than Guigemar does. Clearly, the lady in this story, as in many courtly romances, is a mere tool of the man's fate.
The final passage of the story of Guigemar is a tribute to the forces of love and Guigemar's valor. Fate has seen to it that the lady is brought to Brittany, and compelled the evil and cowardly Meriaduc to invite Guigemar to be his ally in an upcoming tournament. When Guigemar realizes that his lady is in Meriaduc’s castle and that Meriaduc intends to keep her, he wages immediate battle. Guigemar’s actions are not those of a man who thinks that his future is entirely in the hands of God. Clearly, he believes that it is incumbent upon him to save his lady. We see none of the passive behavior which characterizes him in the middle section of the story, when he refuses even to drown himself or which characterize the lady throughout the story, awaiting whatever salvation the world may provide. He saves her, much as she had earlier saved him.
This is appropriate, the the lay of Guigemar is essentially a story of salvation. Guigemar had been a good knight who was considered a "lost cause" by those who believed that it is the obligation of a knight to love a lady. But in succumbing to the force of nature, which has control over love, Guigemar is saved, at least in social terms. His lady, who has no possible realm except that of love, is thus totally lost at the beginning of the story, for she is totally without love for her husband and hopes he will be "consumed by hell-fire". Guigemar, by providing a target for true love, thus grants her life. Later of course, he rescues her physically as well.
The medieval mindset on the question of control was a complicated one, and different actions, or types of actions, seem to have fallen under different jurisdictions. In the idealized world of the romances, certainly in the idealized world of the Lais of Marie de France, these jurisdictions are quite rigid. A man described as tremendously brave and mighty will find himself incapable of even slipping off a boat to kill himself when he views his life as being under another's control. Guigemar resists the standard cultural mandates to relinquish personal control, and he almost perishes for it. Of course, when the conflict is set up between Guigemar’s personal desire for self-control and the impossibility to love while under your own control, it is love that emerges victorious. As the courtly audience took for granted, love conquers all.
My homework for Literature & Arts C-43, October 26 1989.