Comparing the Role of the Outsider in Beowulf and Marie de France’s Lanval
The character of the outsider can be identified in a diverse range of medieval works, including the Old English heroic epic and the Middle English lai. Indeed, both Beowulf and Marie de France’s Lanval prominently feature characters who are outsiders, although these characters are presented quite differently within each work. In Beowulf, the characters of Grendel and his mother are outsiders with respect to the heroic society of Beowulf and his kingdom, and in Lanval, Marie de France’s titular character begins his lai in a melancholic state as he struggles to understand why his king neglects him and favours the other retainers. While both of these works feature outsiders, though, the reasons why they are outcast from their respective societies are quite different. Grendel and his mother are outcast because they are descendants of Cain, whose bloodline God condemned after Cain killed his brother Abel. As a method of taking vengeance for his exclusion, Grendel attacks the court of King Hrothgar every night for many years, killing as many of Hrothgar’s loyal retainers as he possibly can. Conversely, Marie de France does not suggest that Lanval bears any similar condemnation; instead, she indicates that he is unjustly cut from society because his king forgets him and the other retainers are jealous of him. Despite these differences between Grendel and Lanval, both characters function to comment upon the nature of their respective civilizations; however, where Grendel effectively reaffirms the importance of the hall and the king’s relationship with his retainers, Lanval does the opposite, and instead serves to question whether life in King Arthur’s court actually benefits those who live within it.
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