Marie de France

The Twelve Lais

Part III

The Lays of Yonec, Laüstic (The Nightingale), and Milun


Anselmus Boëtius de Boodt, (1596 - 1610 ), The Rijksmuseum

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2019 All Rights Reserved.

This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.


The Lay of Yonec: The maiden in the tower

NOW I’ve begun creating lays,

I’ll labour on, and every phrase

Of those adventures that I know

Here, in rhyme, to you I’ll show.

I think that I, tis my wish of late,

The tale of Yonec should relate,

Where he was born; of his father,

How he first did meet his mother.

He who engendered this Yonec,

Was called by name Muldumarec.

In Britain, long ago, it appears

There lived a rich man, old in years;

He was acknowledged in Caerwent,

And lord of that region, by assent.

That city lies on the Duelas,

Once deep enough for boats to pass.

Now, he was in his ripe old age,

And so to hand on his heritage,

He took a wife, one who might bear

A child to him, to be his heir.

The maid was of noble family,

Prudent, courteous and lovely,

Whom they wed to this rich man.

He loved her for her beauty and,

As she was beautiful and noble,

He immured her in his castle,

Shutting her in a tower, alone,

In a chamber paved with stone.

The rich man had an aged sister,

Widowed, so without a master,

And he placed her with the lady,

To guard her all the more surely.

Other women, I think, were there,

In some other room, elsewhere,

But she spoke not to them, I trow,

Unless the crone did so allow.

For more than seven years was she

Held there in close captivity,

Produced no heir; and for no friend,

Or relative might she descend.

When he came to sleep with her,

No chamberlain or officer

Dared make entry to that tower,

Or light a torch, despite the hour.

The lady lived in great distress,

Wept, and sighed with loneliness,

Of her beauty lost full measure,

Carless of her youthful treasure;

As for herself, she wished dearly

That death might take her nearly.

The Lay of Yonec: The maiden makes a wish

THE changing year did April bring,

When all the birds do sweetly sing,

Thus her lord arose one morning,

For he’d set his heart on hunting;

And so the crone he did arouse,

Who after him would lock the house.

He commanded, and she obeyed,

Then, with his men, he rode away.

The crone had taken her psalter,

To mumble the psalms thereafter,

While the lady sunk in deep distress,

Woke in tears to the sun’s brightness.

The old crone, as the lady saw,

Had issued from the chamber door,

And so she sighed and tormented

Herself, and wept as if demented.

‘Alas, cried she, my birth was ill!

Harsh and cruel, my destiny still!

In this tower he’s imprisoned me,

And only death can set me free.

Old and jealous, what is it though

That he can fear, to treat me so?

So foolish a husband, so afraid,

Well-nigh asks to be betrayed.

I cannot go to church to pray,

Or listen to the Mass this day.

If I could speak with others, go

Outside at times, I would show

Him a far more pleasant seeming,

Though still of freedom dreaming.

Oh, cursed be all my family,

All those folk who longed for me

To marry ancient jealousy,

Forcing me to wed his body!

I tug hard at my leash, and cry:

Oh, will that devil never die!

He was ne’er baptised, instead,

In Hell’s flood they dipped his head;

His sinews leathery as reins,

Life’s blood still fills his veins.

And yet often folk would tell me,

How, long ago, in this country,

Many a fine adventure befell,

The wretched rescued, all made well;

Knights found lovely maidens where

E’er they wished, noble and fair,

And ladies they found lovers too,

Handsome, courteous, brave and true.

Nor were they blamed for it, what’s more,

Since they alone their lovers saw.

If such could be, if such there were,

If such to any maid might occur,

God, who have power over all,

Hear my wish and heed my call!’

The Lay of Yonec: The hawk and its transformation

AS she uttered that final word,

Came the shadow of some large bird,

Across the narrow window’s light.

She, knowing not what this might

Be, into her room watched it fly,

Jesses on its feet, a hawk to the eye,

Moulted perhaps five times or six.

It settled; on her its gaze did fix.

After the hawk had rested there,

After she had returned its stare,

It became a fine and noble knight.

The lady marvelled as well she might.

Her blood rose, she trembled apace,

And seized by fear, she hid her face.

The knight proved most courteous,

For he addressed her, speaking thus:

‘Lady,’ said he, ‘you need not fear.

A noble bird this hawk; though here

All seems mysterious and obscure,

Be certain you may rest secure,

If you take me for your friend!

For this is the reason I descend

Here; long have I loved you so;

And in my heart desired you; know

That I have loved no other, ever,

And none but you will love forever.

Although I could not fly at will,

Not leave my own country, until

You so requested; yet, in the end,

I may indeed be your true friend!’

Now, in answer to what he’d said,

After first unveiling her head,

The lady, reassured, replied,

Her love would ne’er be denied

If in God he believed, and there

True love might indeed be theirs;

For he was of such great beauty,

Her eyes had never, in verity,

Gazed at so handsome a knight,

None could ever match that sight.

‘Lady,’ said he, ‘you speak well,

Nor would I wish that it befell

That I gave the least occasion

For mistrust or for suspicion.

For I believe in the Creator,

Who from that sin, our begetter,

Adam, caused by his injurious

Bite of the apple, did redeem us.

He was, and is, and will be ever,

Light and life, to every sinner.

Should you not believe me, dear,

Then summon your chaplain here,

Say that you’ve a sudden ailment,

And you’d receive the sacrament,

That God to the world revealed,

By which the sinner may be healed;

Then I’ll assume your form and face,

Receive Christ’s body, in your place,

And speak the Creed for you as bid;

That of all doubt you may be rid!’

He, for she liked all that he said,

Lay down beside her on the bed,

And yet he refused to kiss her,

To embrace her, or caress her.

The Lay of Yonec: The two lovers

THE old crone for home did make.

She found the maiden wide awake,

And, saying twas no time to hide,

Sought to draw the curtains aside.

The maid called out she was unwell

The woman must the chaplain tell,

And bring him swiftly, by and by,

She was afraid that she might die.

The old crone said: ‘Suffer away!

My lord’s off to the woods today,

There’s none here except for me.’

The maid looked at her, fearfully,

And seemed as if about to swoon.

The crone hurried from the room

In dismay, and locked the door,

Went for the priest, did him implore

To bring the Body of Christ, and he

Came as soon as ever might be;

And yet it was the knight was fed

The wafer, and after, in her stead,

Drank of the cup, the chaplain then

Left, and the door was locked again.

The maid lay beside him as before,

And a fairer couple you never saw.

When they had laughed and toyed

Enough, and sweet words enjoyed,

The knight took his leave swiftly,

So as to fly to his own country.

Knowing he could not remain,

She begged him to return again.

‘Lady, he said, ‘whene’er you please,

Thus may I come to you with ease,

But be sure to take such measures

That none perceive our pleasures.

That old woman may betray us,

For night and day she’ll survey us,

She our love, may well discover,

And go and tell all to her master.

If it should happen as I say,

And our love she doth betray

I would not depart from here

Except to my own death, I fear.’

The Lay of Yonec: The husband sets the crone to spy on them

THUS she and the knight must part;

He leaves, yet she feels joy at heart.

Next day she rises, and she is well,

For all that week love casts its spell.

She holds her body dear once more,

Regains her looks, fair as before.

Now she’s happy with her chamber,

For now no other place seems fairer.

She often longs to see her knight,

And in him seeks her true delight.

As soon as her lord quits the tower

Then day and night, at any hour,

She has all she wishes, or may;

God grant them many a long day!

From the joy she now possessed

Seeing him often, she was blessed

With altered looks, and by and by,

Her husband, being shrewd and sly,

Knowing at heart that what he saw

Proved her much altered from before,

Began to doubt his aged sister,

And one day put a question to her,

Saying that he was much amazed

At how his wife dressed these days,

And he wondered why this was so;

The crone said she did not know,

For none could speak to the lady,

Neither friend nor lover had she,

Except one thing she might report,

That she her privacy much sought.

This thing alone she had perceived.

From him this answer she received:

‘I’faith, I think that well might be!

Now you must do a thing for me.

In the morning, when I’ve risen

And she is pent up in her prison,

Then make as if to go somewhere,

Leave her alone and sleeping there.

Hide then in some secret quarter

Where you might thus regard her,

And see what and whence is this

That brings her such joy and bliss.’

With this counsel he left the hall.

Alas! What evil must now befall

Those for whom this ambuscade

Is set, deceived, and so betrayed!

The Lay of Yonec: The husband plans to slay the knight

THREE days later, or so I heard,

Her lord departed, leaving word

That he must go to see the king

Who, by letter, commanded him;

But that he’d be returning swiftly.

The crone had risen, then did she

Lock the door, and hide behind

A curtain, where she might find

A place to see and hear, and so

Discover all she sought to know.

The lady lay there, unsleeping,

For her lover she was longing,

He comes, the air he doth climb,

Hindered not by space or time.

Together now their joy is great,

Looks and words seal their fate,

And now it is the time to rise,

And he must take to the skies,

Yet the crone espies him so,

Sees how he cometh, and doth go.

Indeed she trembles now with fear

For man and hawk he doth appear.

When her lord returned, then he,

Arriving there more than swiftly,

Heard from her thus, in verity,

Of hawk and knight, the whole story.

Then he pondered, in deep thought,

On how the knight might be caught,

And swiftly slain, and plans he made.

He readied many an iron blade,

And every blade tipped with steel,

Never one sharper did any feel.

Once he’d prepared them all,

He had them fixed to the wall,

About the window; the tips met,

In rows together, closely set,

There where the knight must pass

When he repaired to her. Alas!

If he but knew what was wrought,

What, by this, foul treachery sought!

The Lay of Yonec: The knight-hawk is mortally wounded

ON the morrow, at early morn,

The husband rose ere the dawn,

Saying he would hunt that day,

The old crone saw him on his way,

Then back to her bed she yawned,

Until the day had fully dawned.

The lady lay waiting, anxiously,

For he whom she loved faithfully,

Praying that he might come to her

And be with her then at his leisure.

As soon as she uttered her prayer

He waited not, at once was there.

In at the window he came flying,

But those spikes entry denying,

One now pierced his body deeply,

And from it the blood flowed redly.

Knowing the wound spelt his doom

He freed himself, entered the room,

And fell to the bed beside his lady,

Such that the sheets he did bloody.

She saw the wound, she saw it bleed,

Much anguished was she indeed;

Then he spoke: ‘My sweet friend,

Through our love my life doth end;

As I once said, so it comes to pass,

Your beauty’s slain us both, alas!’

The Lay of Yonec: The lady enters a faerie hill

ON hearing his words, she fainted,

With death well-nigh acquainted;

Sweetly he comforted her again,

Saying all grief was now in vain;

She’d prove of child before long,

And bear a son, noble and strong,

Who would prove her solace yet,

Kill their foe, and exact the debt;

And she must name him, Yonec,

He who’d avenge Muldumarec,

Her love, who can no longer stay,

For his wound doth bleed alway.

In deepest anguish, he did fly;

She followed him, with a great cry,

From the window she leapt in pain,

Twas a wonder she was not slain;

For twenty foot high was the wall

There, where that lady did fall.

She was naked but for her shift,

A trail of blood she followed, swift

Behind her lover, that in flowing,

Had marked the way he was going.

This trail she followed close until

Before her eyes there rose a hill,

And, behold, an entrance therein,

And traces of blood lay within,

Though she could see no further.

Thinking that indeed her lover

Must have entered the hill there,

She followed, trembling like a hare.

Within there was no trace of light,

Yet she pressed onwards, aright,

Until she issued from the mound,

Into a fair field, where she found

His blood had stained the green grass,

Which grieved her, yet she did pass

Through the meadow, in his wake;

Toward a city his trail did make.

The Lay of Yonec: The castle of silver, and the prophecy

HIGH walls did that keep surround,

And not a house or spire she found

But was constructed all of silver;

So richly ordered its every tower.

Marshlands lay before the town,

Forests, and cultivated ground.

Near the keep, on the other side,

There flowed a river deep and wide;

Many a vessel might anchor there,

Three hundred ships it would bear.

The gate lay open to this city,

Through it entered in the lady,

Still following the trail, bright red,

That through it to the castle led.

None spoke to her, in the street,

No man or woman did she meet.

She came thus to the palace yard,

With his bloodstains it was marred.

She found a chamber in the keep

Wherein lay a fair knight asleep.

She knew him not, so on she went,

And in a larger chamber pent,

She found a bed, where as before,

A knight slept, and nothing more.

She passed through, into another,

And entered now a third chamber,

Where she found her lover’s bed;

Of finest gold its foot and head;

All priceless did its sheets appear;

The candlesticks, and chandelier,

That were lit both night and day,

Were worth a city’s gold, I’d say.

As soon as ever she caught sight

Of him, she recognised the knight.

Swiftly now she went towards him,

And then fell swooning before him.

He clasped her in his arms again,

And cried aloud in deepest pain.

When her fainting fit had passed,

He comforted her, and said: ‘Alas,

Sweet friend, may God have mercy!

Now go from here, for you must flee!

I soon must die, before the dawn,

The people here will grieve and mourn,

Such that if e’er they caught you,

To the torture they would put you.

My folk know that, to their cost,

Through love of you am I lost.

It is of you that I am thinking.’

The lady said: ‘To you I cling,

For I would rather die with you

Than suffer with my lord anew.

If I return now he will slay me.’

The knight reassured his lady,

By placing in her hand a ring,

And telling her that this thing

Would keep her safe from harm;

Her lord would forget, the charm

Would wipe out every memory,

And thus guarantee her safety.

Then his sword he handed her,

And he begged and conjured her,

That she should yield it to no man,

Ere she set it in their son’s hand.

When the lad should be full-grown,

His courage and skill well-known,

Then to a feast, one day, she’d go

Her husband and her son, also,

And to an abbey they would come,

And there they’d behold a tomb,

And hear again of his last breath;

How he was wrongly done to death.

Then she must place it in his hand,

That blade; give him to understand

The tale of his birth, his father too,

Then all will see what he will do.

Once he had finished his address,

He gave to her a fine silk dress,

That he commanded her to wear,

And then he sent her from his care.

With the sword she left the palace,

Bore the ring to grant her solace.

When, but half a league or less

From the city, to her distress,

She heard the mournful passing bell,

And sad cries from the streets as well;

And her heart so drowned with grief,

It made her faint four times at least.

Her faintness caused her brief delay,

Yet to the hill she made her way,

Entered in, through it did journey,

And so regained her native country.

The Lay of Yonec: The abbey and tomb at Caerleon

FOR many a day thenceforward,

She dwelt together with her lord.

And he, concerning what she’d done,

Ne’er reviled her. And so her son

Was born, and cared for lovingly,

Cherished, and so reared in safety.

Yonec, the name they gave him,

Nor was any youth fairer than him,

Or half as noble and courageous,

Or e’er as open and generous.

Now when he was of age, outright,

They chose to dub him a knight.

And what occurred that very year,

I will tell you, and you shall hear!

When the feast-day of Saint Aihran,

Was celebrated at Caerleon,

As in many a place in that land,

The lord received his command,

To attend, with all his company;

Such the custom of the country.

With him went his wife and son,

Rich their apparel, under the sun.

Hence they went, and so did fare,

Yet, knowing not the true way there,

They took with them a youth who knew

The right road, the straight and true,

And he led them to the citadel;

Of none finer could that age tell;

And since a well-endowed abbey,

Of pious folk, lay in that city,

The youth who had been their guide

Now found them lodgings inside.

Within the abbot’s own chamber

They were welcomed with honour.

They went to Mass on the morrow,

And took their leave, about to go,

But the abbot did their steps delay,

Asked that they prolong their stay;

He’d show them the refectory,

Chapter-house, and dormitory,

And fair lodgings, of the best,

Thus they accepted his request.

Later that day, after dining,

They set out to view the building,

And to the Chapter-house did come

And there they found a mighty tomb,

With a wheel of silk covering all,

A gold-embroidered banded pall.

At head and foot and all around

Twenty candlesticks they found,

Of gold, their candles all alight.

Of amethyst were the censers bright,

Where the incense burned that day,

All set above, in honoured array.

They enquired and made demand

Of all the folk there of that land,

Whose tomb this tomb might be,

What man lay there, who was he?

The Lay of Yonec: The lovers reunited in death

THEN these folk began to cry,

And weeping thus, by and by,

They told the tale of a fair knight,

The finest, bravest in a fight,

The handsomest, most loved of all

Born in that age, yet born to fall.

Of all that land he had been king,

Most courteous in everything.

At Caerwent had he been ta’en,

And so, for love of a lady, slain.

‘Since then we have had no master,

Though, for many a day thereafter,

We have awaited that lady’s son,

For twas said that he would come.’

When she had heard all the story,

The lady to her son cried she:
‘Dear son, now do you but hear

How God above has led us here!

Here lies your father, and my true

Love, this wretch wrongly slew.

Yet you shall wield his sword anew,

That I have long guarded for you.’

She told the tale, before everyone,

That he was born of him, was his son,

And how her love had come to her,

And how her lord played the traitor.

All the tale she told him, in verity,

Then fainting on the tomb fell she.

And in that swoon she passed on,

And spoke no more ere she was gone.

The son, on seeing she was dead,

Did that vile husband then behead,

Avenging, with the sword, his father,

And the grief that killed his mother.

When all the news was swiftly known

Throughout the city, she was shown

Great respect, and thus they laid her

There, in the tomb, beside her lover.

Ere leaving, Yonec they did afford

All honour, and made him their lord.

Who heard the tale, they made a lay

A long time after, nearer our day,

All the pain and woe to record,

That for love those two endured.

The End of the Lay of Yonec

The Lay of Laüstic (The Nightingale): The two knights

NOW a new adventure I’ll relay

Of which the Bretons made a lay;

Laüstic its name, as told to me,

For so tis called in that country;

Rossignol then, in French, this tale,

And, in true English, nightingale.

Near Saint-Malo, there was a town,

In that land, twas of great renown.

And two valiant knights lived there,

Twin strongholds they owned, that pair.

Through these two barons’ bounty,

It was famed for its liberality.

Now, one knight had wed a lady,

Sage, well-bred, full of courtesy;

And she thought herself a wonder,

As was oft shown by her manner;

The other, a bachelor it appears,

Was well-known among his peers,

For his great bravery and prowess,

Willingly scattering his largesse,

Found at tourneys, spending freely,

Gave all he had, quite indiscreetly.

Now, he loved his neighbour’s wife,

And sought her love, all of his life,

And since he had great good in him,

Above all others, she too loved him,

Partly because of all she did hear,

Partly because he lived so near.

Wisely and well they loved each other,

Yet kept their true love undercover,

Such that they were not perceived,

Nor troubled once, nor misbelieved.

And they could better act this way

Because each lived not far away;

Near together were their houses

Both his manor and her spouse’s;

Scarce a barrier between at all,

Except a high brownstone wall.

The lady’s chamber it was such

That standing at the window much

Lover to lover could thus relay,

From here to there, across the way;

Sending love-tokens through the air

Tossing and hurling them, that pair.

Naught came to spoil their pleasure,

They could venture at their leisure,

Except they could not be together,

Nor thus delight in one another;

Her spouse a guard did her accord,

Whenever he chose to ride abroad.

Yet one recourse they had alway,

Whether by night or e’en by day,

Whereby they could both converse,

Since no guard, for better or worse

Could keep that wife from the window,

Whence sweet words she might bestow.

The Lay of Laüstic (The Nightingale): The song of the nightingale

AND long they loved each other so,

Till one summer, you should know,

When, woods and fields all green again,

The orchards blossom did sustain,

And little birds in their sweet bowers

Sang their joy, among the flowers.

Who that his lover might desire,

Tis no wonder, then, if he aspire;

And to speak truly of this knight,

His thoughts on loving did alight;

And the lady, with all her heart,

In looks and speech, took love’s part.

On nights when the moon shone brightly,

And her husband slept not lightly,

Then she’d oft rise from his side,

And wrapped in a cloak thus hied

To the window, for well she knew

That her lover would be there too,

For each would for the other’s sake

Stand there half the night awake.

Delighted to gaze at one another,

Since they could not be together.

She rose so oft, so oft she stood,

That her husband, in anger, would

Many a time question why

She stood there gazing at the sky.

‘Sire,’ she answered with deceit,

‘There’s no joy on earth so sweet

As hearing the nightingale sing.

It is for that I stand listening;

So sweetly does it sing at night

It seems to me tis pure delight.’

Tis such joy, I long for it so,

That rest or sleep I thus forgo.’

When he had heard the lady,

He smiled at her maliciously,

One idea possessed his thought,

That the nightingale be caught.

There was not a servant there

That with trap or net or snare

He did not to the orchard send,

Nor chestnut nor hazel stem

That was not dipped in lime,

So he might enact the crime.

When the nightingale was caught,

To the husband it was brought.

Happy to grasp it in his hand

To the lady’s chamber he ran,

Calling out: ‘Where are you, lady?

Come here now, come speak with me!

For I have trapped the nightingale,

That with his song did you regale.

Now you may safely sleep in peace,

He’ll wake you not, his song doth cease.’

The Lay of Laüstic (The Nightingale): The nightingale is slain

NOW when this news she received,

She was angered and sorely grieved.

She demanded the bird, but he

Laughed, and killed it violently,

Twisting its neck in his hands,

As villains do, you understand,

And threw the body at her so

Down her slip the blood did flow,

Across the front, above her heart;

Then, with this act, he did depart.

The lady took up the little body,

Weeping, she cursed those, loudly,

Who the nets and snares had brought,

Who the nightingale had caught,

And robbed her of all delight.

‘Alas,’ she cried, ‘no more at night,

Shall I rise now, ill comes to me;

Nor at my window shall I be,

Where I was wont to see my love.

One thing I fear, by heaven above,

That now he’ll think I am untrue;

I must take counsel on what to do.

To him I’ll send the nightingale,

And hence relate to him the tale.’

The bird she wrapped in rich samite,

Twas all adorned with gold bright,

With this she enveloped the bird,

And summoned a servant to her,

Charged him with her message

And to her lover sent the package.

The servant bore it to the knight,

Greeted him and speaking aright

The lady’s message, every word,

Gave him the nightingale from her.

When he had spoken, and shown all,

And the knight knew what did befall,

He was deeply grieved by the tale.

Filled with goodness, he did not fail

To command a goldsmith to create

A casket, iron nor steel did rate

In its design, twas of pure gold,

With many a precious gem, all told,

And wrought with a tight-fitting lid.

In this the nightingale he hid;

And then the reliquary he sealed,

To carry it ever, so concealed.

And yet the story was sung of old,

It could not long remain untold.

Bretons who made it, call the lay

Laüstic, Nightingale, to this day.

The End of the Lay of Laüstic

The Lay of Milun: He loves a maid and gets her with child

WHO would diverse stories tell,

Must start each separate tale well,

And speak it eloquently, for then

It delights both women and men.

I’ll tell you the story of Milun;

Here, in brief, since I’ve begun,

I’ll tell you how and why this lay

Was so wrought, in a former day.

Milun was born in South Wales;

Once he was dubbed, so run the tales,

Nary a knight was to be found

He failed to topple to the ground,

For he was a most worthy knight,

Courteous, strong, good in a fight.

This was he known for in Ireland,

And in Norway too, and in Jutland,

In Logres and in Albany,

Where he did arouse much envy;

Yet was he much loved for valour,

And by princes held in honour.

There lived a baron, in this same

Land, though I know not his name,

And he possessed a daughter fair,

A sweet maid, she’d a courteous air.

Now she heard Milun spoken of,

And would have him as her love;

And sent to say he may have her,

If twould please him, as his lover.

Milun, at this, felt great delight,

And sent to thank the maid, outright;

Gladly he’d take her as his lover,

Nor would he part from her forever.

Thus he framed a courteous reply,

While granting friendship thereby

To her messenger, with a reward.

‘Now,’ said he, ‘I wish, my lord,

To speak, if I may, with my love,

But secret must our meeting prove!

Bear to her this, my ring of gold,

And then, from me, let her be told

When she please to come to me,

Or I could go to her, equally.’

He took his leave without delay,

And the lord to her made his way,

Showed the ring of gold; his task,

He said he’d done as she did ask.

The maid was delighted indeed

That her love was well-received.

In an orchard near her chamber,

Where she walked, she and her lover

Milun, would oft meet together,

And speak there with one another.

He went so oft, love so beguiled,

That the maid was soon with child.

Now when she realised her state,

She summoned Milun, and did berate

Her lover, told him that, to her cost,

Her honour and her rank were lost.

When all was known, what is more,

She’d suffer the weight of the law,

For she’d be put to the sword,

Or sold into service now abroad,

The punishments for such a crime

In olden days as in their time.

The Lay of Milun: The maid bears a son, secretly, who is sent away

MILUN replied that he would do

Whatever she might ask him to.

‘When the child is born,’ said she,

‘Then to my sister, send it swiftly,

Who in Northumberland doth dwell;

Noble and wise, she married well;

Write to her, and so instruct her,

And tell her the tale in your letter;

A child will be born to her sister,

Who for it shall be made to suffer.

See that, whether it is a son or

A daughter, it is well-cared for.

From its neck I’ll hang your ring,

And wrap in linen the little thing,

With a note that names its father,

And tells the story of its mother.

When the child is fully-grown,

At that age when, as tis known,

The mind is fit for reasoning,

Let it receive the note and ring,

So that it may guard them well,

And from them its parents tell.’

Thus to this counsel they held firm,

Until the maid came to full term,

And at that time she bore a son,

Aided by an old woman, one

Who, knowing of her secret lover,

So concealed and hid the matter

From all eyes, that none heard,

Of this fair son, a single word.

Then forth the mother did bring,

And hang around his neck, the ring,

And a small silk purse, where she

Placed a note, so none could see.

Then in a cradle he was lain,

Wrapped in linen, clean but plain,

And a soft pillow upon this bed

Placed beneath the infant’s head;

And over him then a coverlet,

Bordered all with sable, she set.

This to Milun the crone did bear

Who waited in the orchard there.

He commended his son to those

Loyal to him, whom he so chose.

In the towns along their way,

They rested; seven times a day,

The child was nursed, and then

Bathed and freshly wrapped again.

They followed the route demanded,

And found the sister, as commanded.

She took the child, for he was fair,

Found the note in the silk purse there,

And when she knew who he was,

Cherished him, in a marvellous

Manner; those who brought him she

Sent back to seek their own country.

The Lay of Milun: The lady is wed to another lord

WHILE Milun left that same country,

To seek his fate, as a mercenary,

The maid she remained at home,

Till her father wed her to a known

Man of wealth, a baron, nearby,

Of worth and power, a fine ally.

When she first heard of her sad fate,

Her grief and outrage were great,

And often she longed for Milun;

For she feared what might come;

When her lord found she’d borne a child;

They could ne’er be reconciled.

‘Alas,’ she said, ‘what shall I do?

To wed a lord! Here’s grief anew!

The virgin I may act no more,

I’ll be his serving maid for sure!

I never dreamed of this, instead,

I thought to my love I’d be wed.

Between us we hid all our affair,

To none may I the truth declare.

Rather than live I long to die,

Though not free so to do, say I,

For I have guardians, for my sins,

Young and old, my chamberlains,

Who, ever, hate the path of love

And of others’ misery approve.

This must I suffer here, since I

Cannot achieve the means to die.’

When the time came she was led

To the altar, and her lord did wed.

The Lay of Milun: The swan-messenger

MILUN returned to his own country,

And sorrowful and pensive was he,

For he had heard the news, was led

By sorrow, and yet was comforted

By returning thus to a place where

He had known such love, and there,

He took thought as to how he might

Send the letter he sat down to write,

Such that it might not be revealed

That he’d returned; signed and sealed,

He tied it round the neck of a swan.

This bird he had once chanced upon,

Nurtured, and cherished it thereafter;

Thus in its plumage he hid the letter.

Then Milun he summoned a squire,

And told him what he did desire.

‘Go now, change to hunting-dress,

And hasten my lady to address;

Carry this swan to her from me,

And let no maid or servant be

The one to give the swan to her,

Be sure now that she sees the letter.’

The squire then took up the swan,

And, as soon as he could, was gone,

Upon a road, at Milun’s command,

He knew like the back of his hand.

Through the town he bore the same,

Until to the castle gate he came,

And summoned the porter, hastily,

‘Friend,’ he cried, ‘now hark to me!

I am a wild-fowler by trade,

And here’s a fine catch I’ve made;

In a water-meadow near Caerleon,

Beside the lake, I took this swan;

To honour her, tis my duty

Thus to present it to your lady,

So that I may hunt quite freely

And untroubled in this country.’

The porter at the gate replied:

‘Friend, none speak with her,’ he sighed,

‘Yet nevertheless I shall go,

And if one may see her, know

That I’ll return and then lead you

To her, so you may see her too.’

Into the hall did the porter fare

And found two knights seated there,

At a great table, playing chess,

Who closely did the board address.

Swiftly returning to the squire,

He led him then where he desired;

From all eyes they went concealed,

And so to none were they revealed.

To her chamber they came; a maid

Opened the door as the porter bade;

Before the lady the squire came,

He presented the swan to the same;

She called her own servant to her,

And said to him: ‘Now take care,

That this swan is well looked after,

And has sufficient food and water.’

‘Lady,’ said he who had brought it,

‘None but you have seen such a gift,

Ne’er was there so royal a present,

See how fine this is, and elegant!’

He placed it in her hands, and she

Received the swan most graciously.

She stroked its neck and, as she did,

She found the note where it lay hid.

She blushed, on that you may depend,

Thinking it might be from her friend.

So she rewarded the squire, and then

Commanded him to depart again.

The Lay of Milun: The lady receives Milun’s letter

WHEN the two had left the chamber

At once she called the maiden to her;

So freed the note and, there and then,

They broke the seal on it, and when

They had done so found the name

‘Milun’ was written on the same;

She kissed the letter, and did weep,

A hundred times ere she could speak.

Then she perused the note and saw

That he had written of his dolour,

The trouble that had come his way,

And of his suffering night and day;

Twas in her power, he did sigh,

Whether he should live or die.

If she sought a means whereby

She might send him her reply,

She could write a letter and then

Send the swan back to him again.

First let it be kept from eating,

For three whole days running,

Then to its neck her letter tie,

And let it go, and it would fly

Straight to its first home again.

Once she’d read the letter, when

She’d understood all he had said,

She kept the swan by her, unfed,

In her room, cherishing it well.

You shall hear now what befell!

When by design she had obtained

Ink and parchment she took pains

To frame a letter, as he’d planned,

And hide it in a ring from her hand;

She tied it to the neck of the swan,

Freed it, and swiftly it was gone.

The bird was famished, and it flew

Back to the only home it knew,

To that fair place its wings did beat,

Descending there at Milun’s feet.

Seeing the bird he was delighted;

Seizing it swiftly, as it alighted,

He called his steward to his side,

And had it fed the food denied.

He took the letter from his friend

From its neck, read it end to end,

Every word that she had written

And with love again was smitten:

Without him she’d nothing good,

Let him reply whene’er he could,

By means of the swan as before.

This he did, and loved her more.

For twenty years they did so,

Between them the swan did go,

A messenger between the two,

For naught else might they do.

She denied it leaves and grain

Before she freed the bird again,

And those there to whom it flew

Fed the bird whom they well-knew.

Nor was it ever so constrained

Nor e’er in any way detained,

Such that it could not find its way,

But flew between them many a day,

The Lay of Milun: The son of Milun and the lady leaves home

THE sister who had raised her child,

Had taken such good care the while

That he, once he had come of age,

Was dubbed a knight for his courage.

A noble youth he was, and winning.

She gave him the note and the ring,

Then told him about his mother,

And all the story of his father,

And how he was a noble knight,

Both brave and skilful in a fight,

And that there was none better

Than him for worth or valour.

When he had listened to the lady

And understood the tale, then he,

Delighted with her every word,

Rejoiced at all that he had heard.

He thought to himself and said,

Mulling it over in his head:

‘That man acquires little praise,

Who, being born to such ways,

With a father of such wide fame,

Does not seek to win the same,

Beyond the shores of his own country.’

He’d not stay; he’d done his duty.

On the morrow, he took his leave,

She gave him her advice, and she

Exhorted him to do good deeds,

Giving him coin enough indeed.

To Southampton he made his way,

And went aboard that very day.

He disembarked next at Barfleur,

And straight to Brittany did spur.

He appeared at many a tourney,

With the rich, broke his journey,

And never fought in any melee

Without him carrying the day.

He befriended the poorest knight;

What he won from the rich, at night

He would give to those without;

He gave freely, there’s no doubt.

None but fulfilled his every wish.

Now, in many a land after this,

He won every prize for valour,

Knew every courtesy and honour.

The news of his generosity

And prowess reached his own country,

Saying that one in knightly guise,

Who’d passed the sea to seek a prize,

Had done such deeds through his prowess,

His courtesy and his largesse,

Those who knew not his name, there

Called him The Peerless, everywhere.

The Lay of Milun: Milun hears of the knight’s fame

MILUN heard this fulsome praise

And how the knight did all amaze.

He was saddened and complained

That a knight who was so famed,

Was not challenged where’er he went

By others, at every tournament,

And that a native of his country

Was not so blessed with victory.

He determined it should be he;

He’d pass swiftly over the sea,

Joust there with this young knight,

And conquer him in goodly fight.

In his anger he’d lay him low;

If he could work his overthrow,

Then great honour would be won;

And after, he’d go seek his son,

Who had vanished from his place,

For of his son he found no trace.

So he told his love of his intent

And sought her leave ere he went.

His whole heart he exposed to her,

Sending his news in a sealed letter,

By the swan’s path; despite her woe,

She commended his wish to go!

For reading thus of his intention

She gave thanks; he’d seek their son;

And he must leave his own country,

To look for him beyond the sea;

For their son’s good he must go,

On his account she’d not say no.

The Lay of Milun: The tournament at Mont Saint-Michel

SO, on receiving her permission,

He dressed richly for his mission.

To Normandy he sailed, on a day,

And next to Brittany made his way.

There he spoke to many a knight,

Asking where they planned to fight.

Oft in fine lodgings he did stay,

And gave graciously on his way.

All one winter, or so I’m told,

Milun roamed about of old;

Many a knight he entertained,

Until Easter’s moon had waned

And the tourneys started, for then

Many a battle began again.

To Mont Saint-Michel they repaired,

Normans and Bretons were there

And the French, and the Flemish,

But not so many of the English.

Milun, among the bravest alive,

Was among the first to arrive.

He asked for the peerless knight;

Many were there to set him right,

Show the place there in the field,

Point out his banner and his shield.

They showed Milun this, and more,

And he took note of all he saw.

The tournament, it then began;

He who’d joust might find his man;

He who in the ranks would battle,

Might win the prize or lose his all,

In encountering some companion.

This will I tell you of Milun:

That he did bravely in the fight,

And he was much praised at night,

But the peerless youth, say I,

Above all others had the cry,

Nor was there any to compare,

In the jousts or combat there.

Milun saw how he did behave,

Attacked, defended, ever brave;

He was the one he envied most,

A pleasing beauty he did boast.

In the ranks they met together,

Thus they jousted with each other,

Milun so fierce in his advance,

That he shattered his strong lance,

But failed to down his enemy;

The youth struck so well you see,

Milun it was that took the fall.

The youth was troubled by it all;

As Milun fell his head was bared,

Revealing his grey beard and hair.

So seizing the horse by the rein

The youth presented it again,

Saying to him, ‘Sire, remount!

For I am grieved on your account,

No man indeed of your ripe age

Should suffer here such outrage.’

The Lay of Milun: He recognises his son

MILUN leapt up; while remounting

He recognised the young man’s ring,

And from the saddle he thus replied,

For addressing the knight, he cried:

‘My friend, grant me your consent,
For love of God, the omnipotent,

To ask the name of your father!

Who are you! Who is your mother?

For I would know the truth; much

Have I seen, have wandered much,

Through many a land have sought

In many a joust and battle fought,

But ne’er a blow from man, before

Has sent me tumbling to the floor!

You in the joust have bettered me,

And yet I love you wondrously!’

Said the youth: ‘This much I gather,

Tis all that I know of my father,

That in South Wales he was born,

Milun that name I would adorn;

My mother a rich man’s daughter

Did secretly bear me; thereafter,

To Northumbria I was sent,

There my childhood was spent,

My aunt it was who cared for me.

She raised me most carefully,

Horse and arms she granted me,

And sent me her to this country.

And here it is I long have dwelt.

Yet the one longing I have felt,

Is to sail swiftly o’er the sea

And return to my own country,

So I might learn how my father

Came indeed to know my mother.

To him this gold ring I’d show,

And speak so that he might know

Who I am, and recognise me,

Love me dearly, nor deny me.’

Now, when Milun heard this, he

Spurred forward, unrestrainedly;

Grasping a fold of his mail-shirt:

‘God,’ he cried, ‘heals all my hurt!

Friend, by my faith, you are my son,

It is to seek you I have come

To this land, from my own country,

I sought for you, and tis you I see.’

Both dismounted, and the youth

Ran to kiss his father; in truth,

Such fair seeming twixt the two,

With such fair words spoken too,

Were witnessed there, those who did see

Wept from joy, in sympathy.

When the tournament was done,

Milun departed, for with his son

He was eager to speak at leisure,

And learn what might be his pleasure.

In lodgings then they passed the night,

And all was joy there and delight,

With many a knight in company.

Milun told his son the story

Of his mother and of their love;

And how her father did approve

Her marriage to a lord of that land;

How, with Milun denied her hand,

She yet loved true, as he loved her;

And of the swan their messenger,

Who carried their letters to and fro,

Trusting in none but it did know.

His son replied: ‘I’faith, my father,

I’ll reunite you with my mother,

The lord she wed I’ll slay him too,

And I’ll ensure she’s wed to you.’

The Lay of Milun: The lovers are reunited

WITH this the conversation ceased.

On the morrow they were pleased

To take leave of all the company,

And so return to their own country.

Swiftly o’er the sea they sailed,

For the fair winds never failed.

As they took to the road, in sooth,

They encountered a fair youth,

One sent there by Milun’s lover,

Of her message he was bearer,

And so was bound for Brittany.

Yet now was he set at liberty.

He gave Milun the sealed letter,

From which the knight learnt further

Her spouse was dead; he must away,

She urged: depart without delay!

When he’d read all that she did state,

He marvelled at this turn of fate.

He showed the letter to his son,

Saying that now they must press on;

Thus they, by galloping full swiftly,

Reached the castle, where the lady

Was much delighted with her son,

The noble knight he had become.

No other kin now did they summon;

Nor looked for counsel from anyone,

With their son did simply gather;

He gave his mother to his father.

Thenceforth, blessed in every way,

They lived sweetly, night and day.

And of their love and of their fate,

This lay the Bretons did create,

That I, who now their story write,

In its telling, might find delight.

The End of the Lay of Milun and of Part III of the Lais