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Milun and the Swan

Marie de France, ‘Milun’ in The Lais of Marie de France, ed. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby, 2nd edition (Penguin, 2011)   Dr Naomi Howell, University of Exeter

Accuracy A story in which a beloved pet swan acts as a messenger for two lovers in a clandestine affair might not seem the most likely candidate in looking for realism –or even maternity. Yet ‘Milun’, a 12th century lai, or short romance, surprises its readers in this respect. The meeting and initial courtship of the knight Milun and his beloved is dealt with very briefly. On hearing about his knightly deeds, the unnamed-but-nevertheless-enterprising lady ‘conceives a deep love for him’. She writes him a letter, they arrange meetings in her garden, and there, ‘Milun visited the damsel so often and loved her so much that she became pregnant’. Terrified of the consequences for herself and her unborn child, the girl comes up with a plan.

Milun
”                                         “Milun” by Laura Amie.

The lovers’ tribulations intensify when the girl is married off to another man, but ultimately, the reunion of the lovers and their son is as joyous as it is improbable. Though the lovers have kept in contact over the years with the help of their swan-messenger, Father and Son do not at first recognise each other when they meet as combatants—the two most renowned knights—in a tournament at Mont Saint Michel. At length they speak and recognise each other, and when the lady’s husband conveniently dies, the three are joyfully reunited.

The author, Marie de France, makes realistic details of motherhood (details often omitted or disregarded as unnecessary in similar contemporary stories) central to the coherence of her tale, for instance in her description of how the heroine negotiates the perilous transition from pregnancy to married woman, safely getting her child into the world and into the loving care of her sister.

Empathy Details such as the helpfulness of an experienced and sympathetic confidante suggest the author’s insight and empathy. The young lady confides in an old woman, who ‘concealed her and shielded her so well that neither by word or by outward sign was her condition discovered.’ When the baby boy is born, they lay him in a cradle with identifying tokens and a letter. Cushioned on an expensive pillow and wrapped in a white linen sheet and a coverlet hemmed with marten fur, they place him into the care of several servants and a wet nurse, who care for him on his journey to his aunt. Travelling by the most direct route possible, they stop seven times a day – which seems like an accurate estimate! – to feed and wash him, and to get him back to sleep. They succeed in getting him safely into the loving care of his aunt, who raises him.

Style Eventful and exciting, with love, battles, impossible reunions and a happy ending! Available in various modern translations.

The Pregnancy Test: Positive. Accurate and sympathetic descriptions of pregnancy and childcare in medieval romance literature have received little critical attention until recently, but ‘Milun’ provides an excellent example, as does Marie’s ‘Le Fresne’. Whether or not she ever personally experienced pregnancy, Marie surely belonged to a community of women who shared these intimate, yet practical, details.

 

 

Book: Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) – made into a film the following year by Roman Polanski. Both were extremely successful.

Accuracy:

Early edition of Levin’s novel

Not very. Leaving aside the whole question of how likely it is that you’ll end up sharing a New York brownstone with a witches’ coven who get your husband to impregnate you with the Devil’s seed, and prevent you from getting a medical second opinion that might dissuade you from going to term with the Son of Satan, this is a very perfunctory account of childbirth (and recovery). The birth scene is eclipsed by Rosemary’s dawning realization that she is at the mercy of her husband, her neighbours (who are really witches), and her doctor (also one of the coven); every so often she remembers to have a contraction; then they give her an injection that makes her contractions feel ‘faint and disconnected from her floating eggshell head’. And that’s it, until she wakes up to feel ‘pain between her legs like a bundle of knife points’ (ouch). Post-partum, she takes to a breast pump with highly unrealistic ease.

The description of quickening (‘Something moved in her […] where nothing had ever moved before. A rippling little pressure’) is charming and accurate.

Empathy: Total. Rosemary focalizes every scene, so we see her vain, manipulative husband and her repulsive neighbours through her sympathetic and forgiving eyes; but we also share her reluctant but determined recognition that they are all plotting to subvert her pregnancy (wrongly, she thinks they’re planning to use her infant as a blood sacrifice to Satan).

Style: Fast-paced and highly readable (unsurprisingly selling 5 million copies within a year of publication).

The Pregnancy Test: Is this a book about the power or  the vulnerability of pregnant women? Rosemary’s Baby doesn’t give us any new insights into how pregnancy feels; Rosemary is a very typical, nice young woman with vaguely Lamaze-inspired aspirations for natural childbirth. But her battle to control her pregnancy and to protect her child could be read, as Karyn Valerius proposes in her informative article “‘Rosemary’s Baby’, Gothic Pregnancy, and Fetal Subjects“, as a reflection of  American women’s struggle to decriminalize abortion, particularly in the wake of the thalidomide tragedy. Roe vs Wade was not passed until 1973.  P.A. Boswell in Pregnancy in Literature and Film (2014), although she discusses the film rather than the book, argues that the former provides ‘our first glimpse of a mature pregnancy narrative in contemporary film: pregnancy reveals the power of the pregnant woman’ (120). It’s true that in the book, Rosemary ultimately accrues status from her devotion to the child and her undeniable position as Satan’s Mother, but her influence is back-dated: during her pregnancy, she is tricked and manipulated. I like to read this novel as an updating of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal 1892 “The Yellow Wallpaper”, in which a (childless) woman slowly goes mad, well-meaningly neglected by her husband and doctor as she becomes increasingly convinced that a woman is trapped behind the yellow wallpaper in her room. In Rosemary’s case, there really is a woman behind the wallpaper; she doesn’t have to go mad to become free. She does, however, have to have a child with claws, horns, and golden-yellow pupils.

Verdict: Positive.