The Lays of Marie de France in relation to short stories and the history of epic fantasy fiction

As mentioned previously, this has been a year of writing short stories for me, so I’ve been thinking rather more about shorter form fiction than I would have done if I’d been focused on writing a novel.

So naturally I seized the chance to contribute to SF Signal’s Mind Meld on ‘What Makes the Perfect Short Story?’ There are a whole load of other excellent contributions by very fine writers, including a good number of recommendations for you to follow up – since, as many people have been noting over the past year or so, short form fiction is currently going from strength to strength as people are finding it very well suited to reading on smart phones and tablets etc, on their daily commute and in other snatches of downtime.

The thing is though, this is nothing new – and I don’t only mean we should celebrate the role of magazines and periodical publications, especially in creating popular genre fiction, from The Strand Magazine publishing the Sherlock Holmes stories through to Hugo Gernsback and the launch of Amazing Stories.

My pal Julia recently lent me this book; Lays of Marie de France and Others. According to the author biography Marie was, ‘Born circa 1140, probably in Normandy. Spent most of her life in England. Died circa 1190.’

MdFr_0002

Not much to go on there. Well, (published in 1966, so now rather dated), the book’s cover flap copy gives us a little more –

She wrote in the last quarter of the twelfth century in a dialect known as the Langue d’öil but she may have come from any part of Northern France between Lorraine and Anjou, she may have been a Norman or Channel Islander, an Anglo-Norman or Norman-Welsh. After all the academic debate of the last sixty years her identity remains as misty as ever. But this lady, who seems to have composed her tales for the very sophisticated court of King Henry II, was an admirable narrator, and the justness and fineness of her sentiment in all that concerns the delicacies of the human heart are also remarkable. A more excellent writer of romances it would be hard to find. It was something of a feat alone to have written a story about a werewolf neither horrific nor disgusting.

The werewolf story was the one Julia and I were discussing – and believe me, a retelling would easily find a place in any modern urban fantasy anthology – but obviously I read the others. I was struck time and again, how well they tick all the boxes for what we consider to be the merits and appeal of modern popular short fiction, once allowances are made for the archaic language and the fact they were meant to be recited aloud rather than silently read. Which shouldn’t really be a surprise, since these were the popular fiction of their day. Let’s not forget that taking the long view of humanity’s relationship with narrative fiction, the novel and private reading are both comparatively recent developments.

I’ve always been interested in looking for the origins of fantasy fiction beyond the founding fathers who are usually cited. And yes, I use that term advisedly because so often it’s the female writers who have historically been ignored or dismissed for writing ‘women’s stuff’. That’s not in the least to disparage those male writers. Anyone looking for the origins of epic fantasy should assuredly go back to Beowulf, and to The Song of Roland, The Arthurian Cycle and all the rest.

But as this book makes so very clear, that’s by no means the whole story. Marie’s tales are full of action, treachery, tragedy, love, betrayal, magic and high heroics by men and women alike. Everything that keen readers are looking for in the best of modern epic fantasy writing – long and short. My understanding of the history of our genre becomes so much richer and more complex when I come across authors like her.

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