Speculations on the Celtic Origins of Marie de France’s ‘Eliduc’

Speculations on the Celtic Origins of Marie de France’s ‘Eliduc’

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Speculations on the Celtic Origins of Marie de France’s ‘Eliduc’

By Tamora A. Whitney, Creighton University

Proceedings of the Fourth Dakota’s — Nebraska Conference on Early British Literature (Peru State College, Nebraska, April 1996)

Although none of the Breton lais have survived in their original Celtic form or come down to us in the Breton-Gaelic, Marie de France has retold a dozen of them in Old French. In the Medieval Breton lai, “Eliduc,” Marie de France indicates that the story is, “a very old Celtic tale,” (1218) and that she will tell it, “at least as I’ve been able to understand the truth of it” (1218). The basic plot of the story is fantastic. There he falls in love with the princess even though he has a loyal and loving wife at home. He brings the young princess to France, but she does not survive the passage. At home, his wife discovers the girl’s body, brings her back to life then joins a convent so the knight and the princess can be married with the approval of the church.

When I first read this the resolution seemed implausible. When I taught it, my students has a similar reaction; I believe they phrased it, “No way.” I realize that the role of religion was stronger and more inclusive in 1150 than it is today, but human nature has not changed that dramatically, and it seemed unnatural to me that the loving wife Guildelüec would that quickly and easily give up her husband to another woman. However, when we look at this story in the broader scope, we can see how this could occur. Marie de France is writing in the late twelfth century in a Christian country. Any story with a hero and a happy ending must have a Christian hero and a Christian happy ending. The problem with this would be that the original story was Celtic, and the ancient Celtic world which included Brittany was not Christian. In order to make the old stories acceptable to the medieval audience, the people and ideas would have to exist in a Christian framework.

The ancient Celtic society was set up differently from the medieval Christian society. Celtic society was not monogamous. Celtic warriors and chieftains had several wives and the children from all the wives were raised together. The Celtic man tended cattle, would go to battle with neighboring tribes on occasion, and would go on cattle raid when needed. On raid the man would bring back whatever cattle and horses he could, and would bring back other spoils of battle when possible. The Celtic warriors brought back heads as trophies from war, and as spoils they liked jewelry, cloth, metal, and women. The women of the tribe worked around the house, wove, cooked, tended the fires, and raised the children. A first wife was usually pleased when another wife was added to the family–it eased the burden of the work to have another wife to help around the home. If in the original ancient Celtic story Eliduc went on a cattle raid, perhaps to England, the Celts were no strangers to water travel, and came back with a princess, his first wife would be pleased. No one would have seen anything wrong with him stealing the girl away from her father. It would be a way of building up Eliduc’s riches and those of his tribe. Guildelüec would have welcomed the new wife into the family as a sister-wife and asset to the home.

By the middle ages, however, the society had changed drastically. Brittany was by then a part of France, a Catholic country, and the stories, including the folktales, had to reflect that Christianity was firmly ingrained into the culture. While the Celts saw nothing wrong with stealing an English princess from her land and her father and bringing her back as another wife for a Celtic warrior, the Catholics did. If Eliduc was to be hero in a medieval French story, he needed to be Catholic and follow the rules of the Church. His character is changed from a Celtic warrior to a knight errant. His decision to steal the princess is fraught with guilt because of his loyal and loving wife, Guildelüec, at home, and because polygamy is against the rules of the church. Instead of raiding the city for cattle and riches, the medieval Eliduc offers his services to the king; then with the full courtly tradition, falls deeply in love with the king’s daughter. In medieval society stealing women is not acceptable, so Eliduc had to fall in love with Guilliadun. The courtly love tradition was full of romance and unrequited love. Many knights did battle in the name of a lovely woman and offered to give their lives for these women even though they were not married. Of course, Eliduc was married, and that is what causes some problems. He has promised his wife that he will be true to her and will not betray her. It is stated clearly that their married is not merely arranged or of convenience: “They lived happily for several years, since it was a marriage of truth and love” (1218). To our hero’s credit, the young princess Guilliadun makes the first move and comes on to him rather than the other way around, but they do fall deeply in love with each other. In the eyes of the church he is still the guilty one. He was well aware of the promises he made to Guildelüec. He had a commitment in the eyes of God to his wife. Guilliadun had made no such previous commitment, and was completely unaware of the situation Eliduc had left behind in Brittany. Our heroic Celtic warrior is not making such a true Christian knight.

After Eliduc steals the princess, and that part is left reasonably in tact, although she is a willing participant in the theft she is taken without the permission of her father, he takes her back to France. In the Celtic, as we have said, Eliduc’s bringing a wife back from a raid would have been a boon, not a problem, but in the medieval this is not the case. This aspect of the story is not adequately explained. Eliduc has returned to Brittany to help his old king, then returns to England to get Guilliadun and bring her back home with him. The reader immediately assesses the problem. He already has a wife at home. This is medieval France and now two wives are not acceptable. What is he going to do with Guilliadun once they get back to France? This question is never dealt with at all. Eliduc knows that when he gets back he will have in his possession one wife too many and he never has any explanation for how he will deal with Guilliadun, or what he will say to Guildelüec, neither of whom know about the other. Divorce is not an option in this Catholic society. He has taken the other girl by force from her father, so he would not be welcome to return there. Polygamy is illegal. This problem is too big to be taken lightly, and is never appropriately dealt with in the medieval story. From the Celtic, there would be no reason for explanation because there would be no problem. Bringing a wife back from a raid would be a good thing, but this adaptation for the medieval is not assimilated well.

On the trip home there is a terrible storm at sea. The others in Eliduc’s company blame the bad luck on Guilliadun.

One of the sailors began to shout “What are we doing? My lord, it’s the girl you’ve brought aboard who’s going to drown us all. We’ll never reach land. You have a proper wife at home. But now you want another woman. It’s against God and the law. Against all decency and religion. So let’s throw her in the sea, and save our skins” (1226).

Eliduc, not Guilliadun, is going against the law of God. This is the first she has heard of a wife at home. Eliduc is the one who has made an oath before God to be faithful and he is the one who is breaking the law. The sailor should want to throw Eliduc overboard, but Eliduc is his lord and someone else must take the blame and be the scapegoat. The old Celtic ritual of the wicker man incorporates one person dying in a ritual bonfire for the good of the others and for the crops. The druid sacrifice tradition was based on a person willingly coming to the sacrifice for the good of the others. This idea is of course also evident in Christian myth, as seen in the sacrificial lamb. The old Celtic religion was what we would consider very superstitious. A storm at sea such as this, especially coming as it did after smooth sailing, must have some cause to it. Somehow the gods of the sea must have been angered or some ritual must have been neglected or performed wrong. In the Christian retelling, the problem is that bringing Guilliadun back as a wife is going against the laws of God. From the Celtic, the explanation must be purely speculative. Perhaps Eliduc did not give proper thanks to the gods after the raid so his spoil is to be taken from him. Perhaps he angered a druid or a bard and they have called up the elements against him. He took Guilliadun away from her father who is described as a “very powerful old man” (1218). His power in the original Celtic may have been more than political, it could have been magical. By angering her father Eliduc has brought this bad luck onto himself and his companions. In their minds, the only way to rid themselves of this bad luck is to rid themselves of what caused it: Guilliadun. Guilliadun, “seasick and riven by what she’d just heard: that her lover had a wife at home … fainted and fell to the deck, deathly pale; and stayed like that, without breath or sign of consciousness” (1226).

Here she has died for their good. Eliduc gets them to shore, but he is devastated by the loss of Guilliadun. He takes Guilliadun’s body to the chapel of an old hermit monk who lived near his house. The Hermit has just died, but Eliduc leaves Guilliadun’s body there until he can figure out how to have the grave blessed and arranged to build a church on the site to her memory. He vows that he will renounce the world the day he buries her and will enter a monastery. He does not tell his wife the reason for his despondency, but she follows him to the chapel one day and realizes the reason for his grief. At this point the modern reader expects all hell to break loose. The wife has now found out about the mistress. It seems reasonable to the modern reader to expect Guildelüec to confront Eliduc with this information and to demand reasons for his betrayal. Instead, she is as taken with Guilliadun’s beauty as Eliduc was:

“She’s as lovely as a jewel. She’s my husband’s mistress. That’s why he’s so miserable. Somehow it doesn’t shock me. So pretty … to have died so young. I feel only pity for her. And I still love him. It’s a tragedy for us all” (1228).

This doesn’t even seem right for medieval literature, human nature being what it is. A wife would surely not be this accepting of a mistress, regardless of the circumstances. Unless having another wife would be beneficial to the first wife, as it would have been in ancient Celtic society. Guildelüec would have been as upset as Eliduc was at the sorcery that occurred on the seas. Here Eliduc was bringing home the spoils of battle including a woman from good stock when she was taken from him by magic. This would have been the conflict in the original story, the loss of the girl and the attempt at restoration of Eliduc’s wealth. In this story Guildelüec’s page clubs a weasel so it won’t run over Guilliadun’s corpse. When the weasel’s mate sees it dead, the live weasel picks a red flower and places it in the dead animal’s mouth. The animal is instantly restored to life. Guildelüec uses the flower to restore Guilliadun to life. The modern reader does not understand this. Why doesn’t Guildelüec leave well enough alone and keep her husband to herself? What woman in her right mind would bring her husband back together with his mistress? A woman who had as much interest in another wife as her husband would. A woman who was interested in restoring to her family the wealth that was taken from them. As a matriarchal head of a Celtic family, Guildelüec would have been well versed in herb lore and magic. She would have known what plants were helpful and which were baneful. In Celtic society the women were the healers and used the local herbs in a variety of ways. She would have known what plants would restore life and which would take life. As the true and loving wife she was, she was able to restore to her husband and their tribe that which was taken from them. So here was the crux of the Celtic story: the girl that was lost was restored and they all lived happily ever after.

In the movement to the medieval story, however, this is not an appropriate resolution. We still have one wife too many. We’ve got to get rid of one wife, and since we’ve just brought one back from the dead, it doesn’t seem right to kill or banish her. Back to the idea of sacrifice, Guildelüec now offers herself as a sacrifice to God. She joins a convent so Eliduc and Guilliadun can marry with the full blessings of the church. This ending is an obvious added resolution to appease Christian moralities which cannot bear the idea of polygamy. The only appropriate thing is for one of the wives to leave, and since divorce is not allowed, she has to leave in a way approved by the Church. Here Guildelüec becomes a nun and renounces all worldly things. Eliduc and Guilliadun do marry and live happy generous lives for many years until they too renounce the world. Eliduc joins a monastery and sends Guilliadun to his first wife Guildelüec at her convent where “Guildelüec received her as if she were her sister and did her great honor, teaching her how to serve God and live the religious life of the order. They prayed for the salvation of Eliduc’s soul, and in his turn he prayed for both of them” (1230).

This ending brings the story into the scope of the medieval morality, but is obviously contrived. Stripping away the Christian references, we get a basic Celtic plot of a warrior who leaves his wife to go on raid. He steals the daughter of a powerful foreign man, and while bringing her home he is caught in a dreadful storm during which she dies. He is despondent at her loss, as is his wife. His wife is able to bring her back to life, and they live happily together, the first wife as the wise older woman teaching the young girl about their religion, customs and lifestyle. The morality of medieval France however, could not allow this pagan situation. The theft of Christian women and the idea of polygamy were not the proper subjects for a hero, so the situations must be changed in order to bring the story into line with appropriate behavior. The warrior becomes a knight, the stolen woman becomes a willing accomplice, and the first wife sacrifices her worldly life for the happiness of her husband. They all join the religious life to live happily ever after in an ending as contrived then as it seems to us now.


Marie de France, “Eliduc.” John Fowles, trans, in Maynard Mack et al eds., The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, sixth edition,Volume 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1992, 1218-1230.

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