The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIII. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: I

§ 10. Breton Lays

“Breton lays” have been mentioned; the name meant for the English a short story in rime, like those of Marie de France, taken from Celtic sources. Some of these were more complex than others, but they were never spun out like the romances of Beves and Guy, and the best of them are very good in the way they manage their plot. Moreover there is something in them of that romantic mystery which is less common in medieval literature than modern readers generally suppose; it is not often to be found in the professional fiction of the Middle Ages. But the Breton lays are nearer than other romances to the popular beliefs out of which romantic marvels are drawn, and they retain something of their freshness. The best in English are Sir Orfeo and Sir Launfal. The first of these, which is the story of Orpheus, is a proof of what can be done by mere form; the classical fable is completely taken over, and turned into a fairy tale; hardly anything is left to it except what it owes to the Breton form (of thought and expression.) It is a story like that of young Tamlane in the ballad, a rescue from the fairy, for Pluto has become the fairy king, and everything ends happily; Eurydice is brought back in safety. There is nothing wrong in the description of it as a “Breton lay,” for it is wholly such a tale as the Bretons, and many other people, might have told without any suggestion from Greek or Latin. The English poem (no original is extant in French) is an utterly different thing from the rambling tales of chivalry. It has much of the quality that is found in some of the ballads; and in time, through some strange fortune, it became itself a ballad, and was found in Shetland, not very long ago, with a Norse refrain to it.