Breton Fairy Lore: From Homosociality to Homoeroticism

Breton Fairy Lore: From Homosociality to Homoeroticism

Written by Gajanan Vellupilai

for Prof. Charlotte Hussey

Gareth Knight’s Faery Loves and Faery Lais recounts a collection of Breton lais, some anonymous and some written by famed medieval writer Marie De France. In short, a lai is a short poem written anytime in the early 12th century. The term Breton in this genre of literature is quite nuanced. Breton in general refers to inhabitants of France without a particular focalization in time. However, the context of this term that is employed is a reference to the non-Germanic, Celtic inhabitants who occupied West Europe before the Roman Occupation, emerging as early as the Late Bronze Age (Cartwright). From a broad perspective, these Breton lais can be seen as diffusing Celtic culture and traditions given that the authors document the lais from Breton Minstrels. Although blatant codes associated with Celtic culture such as the notion of the Otherworld, magic, and elements of a supernatural force are prevalent in these lais, it is often said that it is impossible for the medieval writer to freely and openly convey an alternate worldview such as the Celtic perspective from a contradicting ideology—medieval Catholicism. Medieval Catholicism was described to have been a “patriarchal institution” and a “misogynistic ideology” (Goldberg). Nonetheless, the writer does not completely suppress acts of deviance from ideals set by the medieval Church; they’re simply couched in the narrative. Such is the case in “The Lai of Melion” when the writer has to navigate through homosocial and homoerotic spaces in the lai, which were prohibited in medieval society.

Melion’s initial choice to refrain from any sexual or platonic relationship with the opposite sex reinforces the idea that heterosexuality is not normative. At the immediate start of the “Lai of Melion”, we are introduced to Melion, the protagonist, who “vowed to never love a maiden, no matter how noble or beautiful she might be” (71). As such, the reader is indeed informed of the male lead’s abstinence from a heteronormative relationship. However, it is penned as a vow he had made in King Arthur’s court. It is important to note that any vow made in King Arthur’s court must be respected “scrupulously” (71). By creating this framework in the text, the author aims to eradicate any peculiarity around Melion denying the love of the opposite sex. In fact, this has the effect of making the reader empathize with Melion because he is now seen as a male who, despite seemingly lusting after women, cannot pursue them because of a spur of the moment choice to vow against them. He is described as being deeply affected in the lai, having made this vow and regretting it. As a result, his characterization is directly oriented away from a queer-identity and towards his strong will and obedience. Melion is therefore being justified from the medieval point of view: he cannot be seen as less of a man because he is simply abiding by the word he had made to the King. However, the reader begins to question whether this was a calculated decision on Melion’s behalf to distance himself from the sex he is simply not attracted to, since it requires a lot of physiological restraint to combat desire and lust should he even be lustful of women to begin with.

Coupled with this, when Melion does find himself in a heterosexual relationship, it is not one that is successful. This is made especially distinct in the episode in which he shape-shifts into the wolf trying to hunt “an enormous stag” (72). The woman he marries deliberately abandons him in his wolf form. This inability to sustain a heterosexual relationship symbolizes Melion’s impedance when trying to conform to the image of the ideal medieval man. We even see Melion’s struggle in dealing with the gender binary as he is seen fixated on hunting the stag that was specifically noted as being “enormous” (71). The stag has a particularly phallic undertone, and thus renders Melion’s pursuit of the large animal as an attempt to validate his hegemonic masculinity (72).

Several arguments can possibly be made, however, to justify the maiden’s abrupt departure. For one, the reader is informed that the wife is initially displaced in the story and when she does leave, she leaves to return to Ireland, her homeland. As a result, it can be speculated that the woman was purely homesick. However, she was clearly instructed by Melion to “wait for [him]” so that he can return to his human form (73). Moreover, it is not possible to rationalize her act even when considering this as common fairy behavior and viewing the maiden as a fairy herself. Several elements relating to fairy lore envelop the female lead in this story. For instance, her name remains completely unidentified. This serves to otherize her character, which is significant because the Faery realm is commonly referred to as the “Otherworld”, where physical laws governing time and space are destabilized. Both bodies parallel one another as being identities that are not completely known by the “real world”. Additionally, in most Breton lais, fairies are casted as being deceitful, cunning, and immersed with ulterior motives. Also, they do constantly evade the mortal, as Melion’s wife did. Nonetheless, in this common model, the supernatural being willingly provides a solution to the problem at the very end. In this lai, the woman re-emerges only due to compulsion. Hence, the woman’s departure can only be rationalized as the result of marital conflict. Given these points, the artificiality of heterosexuality is blatantly emphasized; Melion does not initially identify with the heterosexual standard and fails to identify with it even when he tries to conform to the standard.

Upon analyzing the physical metamorphosis of Melion into a werewolf and the acts he engages in as a werewolf, it appears that medieval Catholicism’s stance on identity is further reinforced. The physical metamorphosis orchestrated in the lai relates back to Celtic cultural beliefs in shape-shifting. Shape-shifting is an integral component of Celtic paganism; it serves as a medium for protection, survival, rebirth, and punishment (White). It was fostered among Pagans that all beings were able to transform themselves spiritually and physically into a different form to serve a heightened purpose. For the Church, however, the goal was to “prove that no one except God could perform true metamorphosis” (Bettini). The register of condemnation that this creates is not coincidental when placed in context with the actions that occur in this shifted form. After Melion transforms into the werewolf, he is described as making “ten wolves his companions” (Knight 74). This elicits an image of male comradery, thereby serving as the homosocial space that the writer has been withholding from creating at the start of the lai. However, the idea of male comradery and friendship almost instantly paves its way into homoeroticism as sexually charged terms describe his intimate actions with the other male wolves: “[Melion] flattered and caressed them so they attached themselves to him and would all do his will” (Knight 74). Given that homosexuality fundamentally opposes the heterosexual identity, it can be seen from a similar perspective as shape-shifting, more specifically, as a shift in identity. The writer splices these latent homoerotic images together with an overtly dismissed notion. This splicing works to transfer the criticism of the physical metamorphosis over to the homoerotic interaction through associativity. The author does not need to be concerned with the text endorsing physical metamorphism in medieval society because it is empirically impossible to physically transform in the real world. However, if perceived to be endorsing homosexuality, the author would have been subject to scrutiny from the Church. However, through creating this register, the author is able to explore Celtic gender relations in a manner that will seem as objective documentation of the Breton minstrel, while not opposing medieval values since the negative connotation is fixed in the narrative.

Despite aiming to remove parts of Celtic culture that do not sit well with the overarching values of the middle ages, the writer either fails in doing so because the reader questions otherwise, or the writer inevitably discusses it to conserve the plot. This lai refutes the assumption that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation, which was the worldview that reigned over medieval society. Although this is achieved in the narrative’s subtext, it is understandable given the cultural limitations of the era imposed upon the writer. The writer cannot entirely suppress taboos relating to sexual orientation and ideals of male and female behavior because of the multifaceted quality to the lai; different layers unfold to reveal different elements. For instance, the queer space that is created under a register of condemnation and impracticality as to obtain approval from the medieval church simultaneously alludes to points in time when to some extent metamorphosis and homosexuality did in fact exist. Namely, this allusion is to the Celtic warriors that were their Germanic counterparts called Berserkers: men that adopted animal behavior as they engaged in homosexual penetration over animal skins. With this, the writer does not necessarily cast homosexuality to be impossible as presumed. Ultimately, the medieval writer of the Lai of Melion is only able to engage in an unparalleled realm of rich literature and history through incorporating chains of subversive subtleties that introduce ambiguity and uncertainty in regards to the sexuality of the lead male character.


Works Cited

Bettini, Jessica Lyne. “The Rage of the Wolf: Metamorphosis and Identity in Medieval Werewolf Tales.” Thesis, East Tennessee State University, 2011.

Cartwright, Mark. “Celts.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 22 July 2016, Accessed 26 Sept 2016.

Goldberg, P. J. P. “Gender And Matrimonial Litigation In The Church Courts In The Later Middle Ages: The Evidence Of The Court Of York.” Gender & History, vol. 19, no. 1, 2007, pp. 43-59. Academic Search Premier. Accessed 23 Sept. 2016.

Knight, Gareth. Faery Loves and Faery Lais. Skylight, 2012, pp. 70-79.

White, Kenneth R. “Shapeshifting in Celtic Myth.” The Druid’s Egg: Lughnasadh- Mabon, Accessed 18 Sept. 2016.

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