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Miren Lacassagne

Exile and return in the Chanson de Mainet

Hans-Erich Keller

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  • 1 Bollingen Series, 17, 2nd ed., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.
  • 2 See, for instance, Wendy Doniger, «A Very Strange Enchanted Boy,» in The New York Times Book Revie (...)
  • 3 E.g., Julia Kristeva’s demonstration of her semiotic approach using Antoine de la Sale’s Petit Jeh (...)

1The present study will attempt to demonstrate the importance of the folkloristic approach to the chansons de geste based on the arche-typal theme of the hero’s displacement by illegal forces and his triumphant return after a period of learning and maturation. The methodology of my article is deliberately based on the late Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces1, which will frequently be cited here precisely because of the fact that this anthropologist has recently been the subject of quite negative publicity2. Indeed, more often than in Europe, American scholarship, confronted with a new approach, has the tendency to «throw the baby out with the bath water», rejecting in its enthusiasm the advances earlier viewpoints have made to scholarship and failing to preserve them while concomitantly evaluating the new ideas and integrating their contribution into our knowledge. In terms of scholarly contributions now conside-red passé, the psychoanalytical research of my compatriot Carl Gustav Jung is another case in point. In my view, it is the material that determines the method and not a given method that is demonstrated at the expense of a more or less appropriate text3.

2I would like to illustrate these considerations by utilizing Joseph Campbell’s folkloristic research into the motif of exile and return of the hero and demonstrate hereby that methods developed in the past can still serve us to understand certain texts. For over one hundred and twenty-five years, scholars of medieval French literature have had at their disposal a nearly complete inventory of the entire corpus of the chansons de geste in Léon Gautier’s Epopées françaises, dating from the years 1865-1868. But while Wilhelm Grimm’s Die deutschen Heldensagen, published in 1829, has now also been tho-roughly analyzed from a folkloristic point of view, its French counterpart has hardly held any interest for scholars as folklore «material» – except in the United States, where in 1949 Joseph Campbell published The Hero with the Thousand Faces, one of the folkloristic masterpieces of all times.

3It had not escaped Campbell’s attention that the Chanson de Mainet – which dates at the latest from the end of the twelfth century and is preserved in six fragments, edited by Gaston Paris in Romania 4 (1875), 303-337 (to be completed by Charles Samaran «Lectures sous les rayons ultraviolets», Romania 53, 1927, 291-297) – corresponds exactly to the theme of exile and return. Here is a resumé of it as found in John Robin Allen’s excellent dissertation, «The Genealogy and Structure of a Medieval Heroic Legend: Mainet in French, Spanish, Italian, German and Scandinavian Literature» (University of Michigan, 1969), p. 2f.:

Pepin rules France with his queen Berte and their son Charles, the future Charlemagne. Pepin also has two other sons, Heudri and Rainfroi, by another woman who, through deceit, had taken Berte’s place for a while after the marriage. In an attempt to take over the throne of France, Heudri and Rainfroi secretly poison both Pepin and Berte. Charles is too young to wear the crown so the dying king, not knowing who his murderers are, entrusts his throne to Rainfroi until Charles is old enough to take possession of his heritage. In order to consolidate their power, Heudri and Rainfroi plan to kill Charles whom they have forced to work in the kitchens, but before they can do so the future emperor escapes from Paris.
The incident which precipitates this departure is a banquet at which Charles is forced to serve the two brothers. Charles, in disguise as a court jester, throws a flaming peacock at his tormentors and, before being recognized, escapes into the night with some of the nobles sympathetic to his cause. Heudri and Rainfroi suspect that Charles was the author of this act and they confide their plan to murder him to one of their counselors, David. The latter, however, is loyal to Charles and reveals the plot. It is then decided that Charles and his friends, including David, should take assumed names and go to Spain to serve the pagan king Galafre as hired soldiers. Charles takes the name Mainet and David calls himself Esmeré. Galafre, who is at war, gives them a warm welcome, since he knows well the bra-very of the French. The latter are then brought to Monfrin to meet an especially large enemy force. There Charles, who is but fifteen years old, is forced to remain behind while others go off to ambush the enemy.
Soon it appears that the French have failed in their attempt to achieve victory, but then Charles, who has escaped from his confinement, comes to the battlefield with a large number of followers. His prowess is so great that he rescues his friends and is knighted by Galafre while Galafre’s daughter Galienne falls in love with him. Meanwhile, the greatest enemy of Galafre, Braimant, threatens to conquer Toledo. To avert this danger, Galafre offers the hand of Galienne to Charles if he can succeed in killing Braimant, which Charles accomplishes in a duel outside Toledo where he wins Braimant’s sword, Durendal. These accomplishments arouse the jealousy of Galafre’s son Marsile who tries to kill Charles, but the plot is discovered by Galienne who helps Charles to escape. Charles then goes with his army to Rome to rescue the Pope Milon from a Saracen attack. At this point the fragments end but the rest of the plot can be derived from other versions of the legend: Charles returns to France at the head of a victorious Christian army, kills the traitors Heudri and Rainfroi and is crowned king of France.

  • 4 Ibid., p. 322.

4The main elements of the legend are that Charles is forced by his stepbrothers to leave France and that he will return victorious to occupy his legitimate throne. He goes to Spain, where he becomes a very successful fighter, defeating a powerful enemy and winning the magic sword that Roland will later use in the Chanson de Roland; he then returns to France and is crowned king. Campbell categorizes this kind of legend within the theme «Transformations of the Hero» under the subcategory «Childhood of the Human Hero4». More generally, however – still according to Campbell, but also supported by Stith Thompson in his Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (2nd ed., Bloomington & London, 1966) – it belongs to the archetype «The Adventure of the Hero», with the logical passage from «Departure» through «Initiation» to «Return», as will be demonstrated in this paper.

  • 5 Ibid., p. 58.

5As often is the case, the legend derives from a moral blunder: in addition to fathering the legitimate heir, Pepin has also begotten two bastard sons. This beginning is not different from, e.g., the story of Odysseus’ men eating some of the cattle of the Sun pasture against his orders, an act that enrages the Sun god Helios so much that he whips up a gale in which Odysseus’ ship is destroyed by a thunderbolt and from which Odysseus alone escapes. As Campbell observes: «This first stage of the mythological journey... signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual cen-ter of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown5». Indeed, in the Chanson de Mainet, Heudri and Rainfroi also plan to murder Charles, a plot from which he only escapes thanks to a loyal friend who helps him to flee to Spain. Charles moves from the realm of culture into the pagan world of non-culture, as pagans are often considered natural beings.

6This pagan world of non-culture belongs to what Campbell calls the «zone unknown», which he describes as follows:

  • 6 Ibid., p. 97.

Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials.... The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region. Or it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage6.

7In the Chanson de Mainet, nearly all the features mentioned above by Campbell are combined: while his French friends participate in King Galafre’s war, Charles-become-Mainet must remain behind since he is but fifteen years old and still a squire. Our hero must thus suffer the frustration of inactivity although he knows quite well that he is capable of fulfilling the tasks of a knight. Exactly the same theme is found in the chanson de geste Aspremont, in which the so-called enfants, among them the young Roland, are barred in the city of Laon from participating in the war against Agolant and even hear the army pass close by (v. 2124): «Li emfant [sic] l’oent dire, por poi de doel ne fendent» (‘The boys heard them speak, they nearly burst of anger’). Analogous to Roland and his friends in the Chanson d’Aspremont, the «boy» Mainet escapes in order to face his next trial: as Roland will eventually kill Agolant’s son Eaumont, our hero rescues his French friends, who had unsuccessfully tried to ambush Galafre’s enemies, and both Mainet and Roland are knighted for their feats.

8But for Charles the ultimate trial in the foreign world still lies ahead: King Galafre tries to avert the conquest of Toledo by the mightiest of his enemies by enticing the young hero to fight a duel against the giant Braimant, lured by the prospect of the hand of his daughter Galienne. In this episode two archetypal features are combined: the most difficult trial, combined with a second mythical element that in Campbell’s words is «a benign power supporting him in his superhuman passage», in this case with the help of the pagan princess Galienne. For the moment, we will keep the two features separate.

9Mainet’s duel with the mighty giant Braimant is a very well known mythical type of trial for the hero. It suffices to refer here to Heracles or, for the model of a medieval myth, to David’s fight against Goliath, a myth that is already represented both in Roland’s duel with the giant Ferragu in the early twelfth-century Pseudo-Turpin and also in Oliver’s duel with the giant Fierabras in the chanson de geste of the same name, composed in the early thirteenth century. In itself a giant is neither good nor bad, but merely a quantitative amplification of the ordinary; hence, as the case may be, there are some legendary giants who are protectors and others who are negatively aggressive. This sense of the giant as ‘that which surpasses’ human stature – here symbolic of power and strength – can also symbolize an image of the unconscious, the ‘dark side’ of the personality menacing the Jungian Selbst: as Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant formulate it so well in the article «géant» of their Dictionnaire des symboles: «Le mythe des Géants est un appel à l’héroïsme humain. Le Géant représente tout ce que l’homme doit vaincre pour libérer et épanouir sa personnalité». In medieval mythology this Jungian interpretation of the ultimate trial of the emerging hero being a duel against a giant applies to all the heroes facing a giant – to begin with David and Goliath – thus also to Charles-Mainet, except that in this case we find an additional symbol: our hero concomitantly conquering Durendal, exactly as Roland wins the same sword from Eaumont in the Chanson d’Aspremont. Now, the sword is first and foremost the symbol of power, with, however, a dichotomous aspect: the power of the sword is primarily destructive, but the destruction can also be turned against injustice, malfeasance, ignorance, and the like and thereby obtain constructive values and as such establish and maintain the peace. This is clearly the function of Durendal, acquired in view of the final fonction of the future Charlemagne to rule as emperor over the secular world. It is only because the different chansons de geste had to be arranged in a later period so that they would not contradict each other that in our story Durendal is subsequently stolen: in Aspremont, it will have to be reconquered by Roland from Agolant’s son Eaumont. In this same spirit we must also interpret the fact that Mainet attacks the giant Braimont with another famous sword, the one which had belonged to Clovis, the first Christian king, and whose name is «Joiouse»; it is the sword usually associated with Charlemagne.

10A mythical motif such as a giant or a sword is never found in its pure state. Here, too, the topic of the ultimate trial is combined with one belonging to a totally different range although still being a part of our theme of «exile». In this case Mainet is covertly aided by the pagan king’s daughter Galienne, who falls in love with our hero when, still a squire, he is able to rescue his friends in their fruitless attempt to ambush Galafre’s enemy. Her love is of particularly great value when her brothers, Marsile and Baligant, conspire against Mainet to kill him, for Galienne denounces their plan to her father. However, since the latter is increasingly inclined to believe his sons, she alerts Mainet and his Frenchmen in person and arms the young hero herself.

11Again, this motif of a «benign power», as Campbell terms it, is in the Chanson de Mainet mixed in with another mythological topic, found in the very surprising episode in which Galienne offers herself to Mainet, who, needless to say, refuses to commit this «biau pechié», as the chanson calls it, because it is conditioned upon his conversion to paganism. However, the episode is highly symbolic per se because it deals with the phenomenon of the hero confronting feminity. As Campbell explains it:

  • 7 Ibid., p. 116.

Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who cornes to know. As he progresses in the slow initiation which is life, the form of the woman [Campbell writes «goddess»] undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be greater than himself [in our case, Galienne is a pagan while Mainet is a Christian], though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending. She lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters [in our case, Galienne arms Mainet].... The hero who can take her as she is, without undue commotion but with the kindness and assurance she requires, is potentially the king, the incarnate god, of her created world7.

  • 8 Ibid., p. 116.

12In the Chanson de Mainet, we do not know how the relationship between Mainet and Galienne ends, for the Chanson is only preserved in fragments. It is likely that Galienne converted to Christianity and followed Charles in his quest and legitimate conquest of the Frankish throne – that, at least, is the conclusion of the early fourteenth-century poem Charlemagne by Girard d’Amiens, but also of, among others and much earlier, the conclusion of the love affaire between Gloriande and Ogier in the Chevalerie Ogier and between Floripas and Guy de Bourgogne in Fierabras. In other words, despite the fact that woman in the Campbellian optic is «the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure», in medieval legend she remains «by deficient eyes... reduced to inferior states8», i. e. she has to become a Christian in order to merit her hero. This is certainly quite a deviation from the archetypal model of Eve for woman’s function as initiator in the hero’s trajectory.

  • 9 Ibid., p. 217.

13Campbell rightly calls the hero’s return «the crossing of the return threshold9», since the coming back to hither cannot be accomplished without great difficulties because it represents the passage from one world into the other. Our hero adventured out of the land we know into darkness; there he successfully underwent a series of increasingly difficult tests until he mastered the yonder. Now he must reintegrate himself into the known, a test that can only be achieved by new tests affording proof that what he learned in the other world has made him fit for ours. This is not always the case, as Marie de France demonstrates in Lanval, where the hero cannot profit from his experience in the fairy world, is put on trial by the Arthurian court – here representing our world -, and is carried back by his fairy into her realm. However, it is true, as Campbell observes, that the two kingdoms are actually one:

  • 10 Ibid.

The realms of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we knovv. And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero. The values and distinctions that in normal life seem important disappear with the terrifying assimilation of the self into what formerly was only otherness10.

14Nevertheless, from the standpoint of normal consciousness, there will always remain – as Lanval illustrates so well – a certain incon-sistency between the wisdom brought forth from the other world – the Jungian deep – and the prudence usually found to be effective in the present world. Therefore, the hero’s very last and most difficult task will be to render in our language the speech-defying pronouncements of the dark. Campbell formulates it this way:

  • 11 Ibid., p. 218.

How represent on a two-dimensional surface a three-dimensional form, or in a three-dimensional image a multi-dimensional meaning? How translate into terms of «yes» and «no» revelations that shatter into meaninglessness every attempt to define the pairs of opposites? How communicate to people who insist on the exclusive evidence of their senses the message of the all-generating void11?

15The author of the Chanson de Mainet found a typical medieval answer: Mainet goes on a crusade. As a matter of fact, in the last preserved fragment we see Mainet and his army freeing Rome and the pope Milon from the siege by the Saracens, after already having destroyed their fleet in the mouth of the Tiber. By applying the idea of the advancement of the omnipresence of Christianity, in itself a transcendent concept, to a practical purpose, that is to say, the liberation of Rome and its pope, Mainet crosses the threshold of the two worlds and is thus able to again become Charles, the legal heir to the Frankish throne. And although the end of the chanson is only preser-ved in later versions – and differently – in the French and other literatures, it is evident that our hero will overthrow the illegal rule of his stepbrothers and ultimately become the famous Charlemagne.

16The purpose of this study has been to serve as a model for results that can be borne out by the method called here «folkloristic». In order to illustrate the richness to be found in the results of this method, I would like to refer, for instance, to the fact that the Franco-Veneto chanson de geste Entrée d’Espagne, written by an anonymous author of Padua in the middle of the fourteenth century, is built on precisely the same model as the Chanson de Mainet, except that the hero here is Roland, who commits a blunder for which his face is slapped by Charlemagne; he leaves the French army and travels to the Orient, where he helps the pagan admirai win the kingdom of Persia and gains the love of his daughter. He then returns to a Charlemagne repentant of his irrascible act and aids him to conquer Pamplona. Another variant of the same model is yet found in the Spanish epic El Cantar del mio Cid, in which the hero’s career as a courtier is ruined at the beginning of the poem by the intrigues of the great magnates. The Cid then proceeds to fight the Saracens and finally even conquers the city of Valencia; thanks to his new importance, his king recalls him and at the end of the poem marries the Cid’s two daughters to the princes of Navarra and of Aragón, rendering the Cid a kinsman of the kings of Spain. Many other examples of the same model are quoted by Campbell and Stith Thompson, examples which, of course, are reminiscent of the story of Achilles who, after being offended by Agamemnon, who had taken Briseïs from him in compensation for having to return his own captive, Chryseïs, to her father, refuses further service but is finally reconciled with Agamemnon and goes out the next day to rout the Trojans and kill Hector.

17However, it should be stressed again that the model «Exile and Return» is only one among many folkloristic themes: we need only consult the three volumes of Stith Thompson’s repertory in order to realize what a mine of information still remains untapped for our complete knowledge of the medieval French heroic legends. Thus may the young researcher hasten to explore it!


1 Bollingen Series, 17, 2nd ed., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

2 See, for instance, Wendy Doniger, «A Very Strange Enchanted Boy,» in The New York Times Book Review, 2-2-1992, p. 7f.

3 E.g., Julia Kristeva’s demonstration of her semiotic approach using Antoine de la Sale’s Petit Jehan de Saintré as object in Le texte du roman. Approche sémiologue d’une structure discursive transformationnelle. Approaches to Semiotics, 6. The Hague: Mouton, 1970.

4 Ibid., p. 322.

5 Ibid., p. 58.

6 Ibid., p. 97.

7 Ibid., p. 116.

8 Ibid., p. 116.

9 Ibid., p. 217.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., p. 218.

© Presses universitaires de Provence, 2000

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