Marie de France’s Chevrefoil

Marie de France’s Chevrefoil is a text about communication. In it, communication operates on many levels: Tristan communicates to Isolt via hazel rod, Isolt and Tristan communicate with one another in speech, thought, and physicality, Tristan communicates to an unspecified public through the composition of a lay, and Marie de France communicates to the reader or listener through her own lay (often directly, in second person). It is these series of communications and their processes and significations that Marie de France concerns herself with, saturating her text with words of communication’s lexical field: tell, recite, write, message, send, speak, give, and their variations.

Marie de France brackets her lay with two sets of three lines, closely related in structure, dedicated to informing her listener or reader of her purpose: that is, to tell you, the reader, the truth. Thus we begin and end with communication; this is a lay not only about communication but very directly and specifically designed to communicate (of course all lays and texts are meant to communicate on some level). Furthermore, the last action of one of the two central characters of the poem is to compose a lay of his own, meant to remember and thus communicate “the words” (111) of his communication with his beloved and the joy that had been made possible “by means of the stick he inscribed” (109). It is not for nothing that Marie de France emphasizes that Tristan composes to remember “the words” shared between himself and Isolt, emphasizing the importance of their communication; throughout the lai it is this communication which takes center stage. In the blissful 11 lines the lovers spend with one another, two are given over explicitly to their communication: “he spoke to her as much as he desired / she told him whatever she liked” (95-96). Of the remaining seven, five concern the content of some of their communication, two are her arrival, one is her departure, and one tells us that “they took great joy in each other” (94)—a “joy” steeped in sexual connotation. From these proportions, it becomes clear that in their bubble amidst the storm, Marie de France privileges their communication above their (sexual) pleasure. It is not physical entwinement with which Marie de France is concerned, but a more spiritual entanglement, represented by the mingling of minds and souls in communication, both verbal and symbolic.

This latter type is most extensively examined in the description of Tristan’s message to Isolt regarding his whereabouts, his love for her, and their symbiotic relationship and her reception of that message. This communication is really less of a message and more of a sign:  it is something which only she knows to look for and can interpret in full (and, interestingly enough, the message it contains proves quite elusive—in a literal sense—to Marie de France’s reader, who is, after all, not its intended recipient) as “she should be on the watch for it / … / she’d know it when she saw it, / that the piece of wood had come from her love” (56, 59-60). The footnote tells us it’s unclear what exactly Tristan carves into the hazel staff—whether simply his name or a more complex message containing all of the information in lines 63-78 (perhaps in runic inscriptions as the footnote notes, which might be the implication of “she recognized all the letters” (82)), however I argue that all he carves into the staff is his name as “When he had prepared the wood / he wrote his name it with his knife” (53-54) explicitly tells us. These are the only two lines which deal with the preparation of the hazel rod; immediately after them, we turn to Tristan’s anticipation of Isolt’s finding of it. From there, Marie de France gives the “message of this writing” (61): “writing” presumably referring to his name carved in the wood, as that is the only writing that has been mentioned thus far, something underlined by the use of the determiner “this,” referring to something previously mentioned. Thus that one word “Tristan” in combination with the hazel rod is imbued with the message which Marie de France recounts and which Isolt receives. Because this situation “had happened before” (57), Isolt needs no more than the combination of her lover’s name and the hazel to understand all she needs to. She sees the hazel rod and immediately thinks of the honeysuckle, as Tristan expects her to (and as Marie de France expects of her reader). Those two lines which end the metaphorical description of their relation, the only directly reported speech in the poem, are as his speech (on a previous occasion?) echoing in her head, signified to her by the hazel. The message, then, is not in the name, but in the hazel; the name merely marks the hazel out to be noticed. This practically wordless communication symbolizes completely the depth of their entwinement, which goes far beyond the physical as noted earlier.

It is interesting to note that the construction of “With the two of them it was just / as it was with the honeysuckle / that attaches itself to the hazel tree” (68-70) does not allow any determination of which of them is the hazel and which the honeysuckle.* This emphasizes the equality of the relationship: they each depend on the other so completely that they are interchangeable in their relation. Despite this insistence on equality between the two lovers and the two plants of the metaphor, the lay itself, in both Tristan and Marie de France’s versions, is not called the Hazel and the Honeysuckle (Le Coudrier et Le Chèvrefeuille), which would maintain that equal treatment, but merely Chevrefoil (the honeysuckle), apparently privileging one half the relationship over the other.** However, when viewed in terms of the analysis of communication, this title takes on a deeper implication, which maintains the balance of equality between the two. If Marie de France’s lay is indeed about communication, then its title is both commemoration and celebration of the poem’s greatest moment of communication: Tristan’s message in the staff to Isolt. In naming the lay for the honeysuckle, Tristan and Marie de France name it for the triumph of that communication. The honeysuckle is representative of Isolt’s ability to make the leap from hazel to honeysuckle and thus decode and unpack the significations of her lover’s message. Whether she is the honeysuckle or the hazel does not matter: she and Tristan are so equally dependent on and tuned to one another, that they can communicate in symbols meaningless to an outsider.

In this way, Marie de France presents their happiness as being closely tied to and predicated on their communication. Without the successful communication of the hazel rod, Isolt would never have found Tristan and they could not have enjoyed their blissful 11 lines of happy communion and communication, so rare in a relationship so cursed.*** In a poem so pervaded by a sense of doom (Marie de France makes it clear from the outset that her protagonists are destined to die), constantly encroaching upon the lovers’ momentary respite, Marie de France offers if not hope for the lovers, hope for the preservation of their love for and joy in one another. The two lays of Tristan and Marie de France serve to commemorate and transmit that joy so predicated on communication, and ensure that though it could be but ephemeral in life, it will live on in song.

*In a traditional view, one might automatically assume the honeysuckle to be Isolt and the hazel Tristan, as the honeysuckle is supple and thin and does the entwining, circling about the sturdy, steadfast hazel. Traditional views of gender aside, it might be that Isolt is the hazel while Tristan is the honeysuckle as, in their current situation, she is the one with the power, as queen, married to King Mark, while he is in exile. He even recounts that he inscribed the stick “as the queen had instructed” (110), emphasizing her control and power. She, in her role, possesses a certain stability which he lacks, making her appear a more likely candidate for the hazel (this is supported too by the genders of the French nouns—le chèvrefeuille is masculine while the old French for hazel—la coldre—is feminine). In the end, though, the question of which of the lovers is which of the plants isn’t all that important: the two are equal and equally co-dependent.

** If indeed Tristan is meant as the hazel, this might simply reflect his naming his lay after the plant he conceives of as representing his love.

***I think it worth noting, even if it falls outside the bounds of Marie de France’s text, that the tragedy of Tristan and Isolt’s deaths comes about through a breakdown in communication. It is the lie told to Tristan by Isolt of the White Hands about the color of the approaching ship’s sails that kills him. In lying to him, Isolt of the White Hands breaks his system of communication with his true Isolt. The sails, like the hazel, were symbols imbued with specific significations for a select few—Isolt, Tristan, in this case, Caerdin—and when those symbols are usurped and the lines of communication they represent are broken down, the people who rely on them break down as well.


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