When reading Marie de France’s Milun, I realized that it shared many characteristics with other lais that we have read, but most notably Le Fresne. Not only are the plots similar, but also the concept of unwanted children who are sent off to be raised by others, as well as leaving them with objects that ultimately become a major part of their identity.
In Le Fresne, Fresne is born with a twin sister, and the mother, believing that having twins will ruin her reputation and she will be thought of as an adulterer, sends Fresne to a monastery to be raised by a nun, and keeps one of the children. This is very similar to Milun, as he gets his lover pregnant, but because they are not married, she decides to send the baby to her sister to be raised because having a child out of wedlock would ultimately ruin her reputation. So, in both stories, children are not only sent off, but their mother’s reputations become more important than keeping their children, probably reflecting just how important one’s reputation was in a given medieval society. Also, in Le Fresne, Fresne is given a number of fine garments by her mother when she is given away. The garments become a major asset of her identity, and ultimately they define her when her mother sees them towards the end of the story and realizes that this is her daughter. In Milun, the child is given a ring, and once this is seen by his father, he goes from wanting to “put him to shame,” for having a reputation that is as strong as his, to being so happy that he kisses him. In both cases, these objects are not only crucial to the plot, but define their owner’s identities. There are also key differences between Milun and Degare. Degare is too born illegitimately, and is given a broken sword that he keeps throughout his lifetime. In the end, like in Milun, he is fighting his father, who notices the sword, and the two are happily united.
Family is a central part of the narrative in Sir Degaré. Abandoned as a child, Degaré’s main purpose is in the search for his family and, by extension, a respectable place in society.
Degaré attains knighthood through physical strength, but his journey as a character is more complex than rescuing an earl from a dragon or defeating a king in combat. In showing bravery and overcoming obstacles through sheer physical power, he is lead closer and closer to a reunion with his family. However, there are unforeseen complications. For example, he gains a marriage to his own mother (unbeknownst to him at the time) in his triumph over the king in battle.
It also struck me that the story was like an inverted version of the tragedy of Oedipus. Sir Degaré marries his mother, but realizes the error in time to avoid consummating the relationship. He fights his father in the end, but ultimately does not kill him. During the inevitable confrontation between father and son, a reconciliation occurs rather than the “standard” death of the father. This is an unusual outcome for a story dealing with issues of patrimony and quasi-incest. For instance, Mordred (the illegitimate son of King Arthur in Arthurian legend), kills his own father in battle.
In light of everything that happened in the story, the family situation is, at best, confusing. How could his mother reunite with the father in the end after she had been raped by the very same “fairy knight?” It seems like a happy ending until the implications of what they all mean to each other sinks in, which is to say: how do they all relate to one another? In fact, I would characterize the ending as curiously happy considering the seemingly uncomplicated reunion of his parents in conjunction with any lingering issues of resentment he should have felt toward them for abandoning him as a child.
In Sir Degare, there seems to be a lot of interesting things going on with the interplay between different actants within the same network, but within some sort of power hierarchy. It seems to me that there are three distinct levels of actor: objects or things like the magic gloves and all of the other tokens that Degare has been given to help him in his quest, the humans who he interacts with in the pursuit of his quest and in his life in general, and the highest on the spectrum, the fairies who seem to rise up the ordinary lives and rules of human society and in fact are the ones who ultimately call Degare to adventure in the first place because of his pursuit of his father. The mediations between these three levels interact and intervene in a Degare’s life in many different ways and without this web of actants, he would not only fail in his quest but wouldn’t even exist.
The first set of actants is probably the weakest at least if we judge it in terms of human subjectivity. These objects seemingly have no power when compared to the humans that they act in conjunction with, but the fact remains that without them human (and fairy) would fail in their execution of their will. For example, when Degare’s mother is given a token by the Degare’s father in order that their son may be known by the father when the time comes; without that token the reunion would have been impossible and thus the will being exercised is contingent on Degare being in an action network that includes particular objects.
To me though the most interesting inversion the tradition of the object-subject paradigm that places human design firmly at the center, is the way in which Degare was born. His mother was raped by a male fairy, made into a kind of object, by the more powerful and willful energies of a being that was most definitively not human. The fairy seems to think of this as rather ordinary, a turn of events that might be as every day to him as the mother using a hair brush or a fork, the only difference being that here the happens to be able to talk. This different way of viewing power dynamics gives a bit of a new perspective on where objects and humans might fall into a spectrum of an actant network. The use of a theoretically more powerful being in our consideration of object-subject relations makes us better able to understand the importance of honoring all members of the action network.
Throughout Sir Degaré, the protagonist is rewarded, either for his familial ties or his noble behaviour as a knight, with gifts. Time and again, these and other objects protect Degaré and his loved ones from bodily harm and great dishonour, and in this way assert their agency on the tale.
The woman who the main character falls in love with gives him “Gold and silver an god armur”, which is seen as generous and affectionate. However, the way in which the armour saves Sir Degaré from injury is completely ignored, thus denying it any impact on the text. Similarly, the women’s actions, namely to “Drauwe the bregge and sschet the gate” to spare themselves from “oure enemi”, take precedence, while the objects’ vibrant nature is dismissed. This pattern is present because the things in this text are often perceived as extensions of the characters personas, such as that of Degaré’s grandfather: “The King hath the gretter schaft”.
However, the effect which objects have on Degaré’s life cannot be underestimated, for the gloves and sword bestowed on him protect the protagonist from terrible, oedipal consequences. The mother only discovers Degaré’s identity through the gloves, and though she exclaims “God, mercy, mercie!” for their incestuous marriage, the things prevent the consummation of such a union. The joust between Degaré and his father is also halted by the discovery of an object, namely the sword, which puts an end to a potentially deadly dual. The protagonist’s father rightly classes the appearance of the distinctive weapon as the most important factor in recognising his son, more so than Degaré’s words: “bi thi swerd I knowe hit here”. Again, pleas of “merci” are voiced, but the sword’s assertion of its existence prevents the scene, and thus the entire tale from quite possibly ending in death and tragedy.