Written at a time where the conventions of marriage were being challenged and transformed, Le Bel Inconnu charts a tale of romance and self-discovery ultimately ending in the abandonment of true love and instead acceptance of a royally approved marriage. Given the relative power of the ‘woman’ in the story, and the prominent part played by femininity in the forming of Guinglain’s identity, Le Bel Inconnu constantly portrays and problematizes the exchange between men and women. In doing so, Beaujeu arguably integrates heterosexual relations into a narrative literature characterized by the interaction between males and the dominance of masculinity.
From the opening verses of the poem, Renaut subtly asserts the homosocial nature of the society in which the story is set. In verses 31-52, a great long list gives the names of all the men present in the room, not only emphasizing the Bel Inconnu’s lack of a proper name and therefore identity, but also highlighting the significance of the men over the women in the hall, about whom the narrator writes, ‘ne les dames ne puis nommer’. This signals that although names are essential markers for men, and it is a requirement for the Bel Inconnu to be given a name, women are not worthy of the same individuation. Thus the modern reader is immediately aware of the patriarchal context in which they are dealing. It is clear that Guinglain’s mother brought him up outside the boundaries of civilization; it is the relationship between him and his mother that has made him the noble knight we see at the beginning of the story. Yet, the name that his mother gave him is ridiculed and rejected by the King, who challenges maternal authority by giving the unknown knight a new name himself, a name which is no less ridiculous than the previous one. Because the name given to him by his mother is rejected, it is suggested that our protagonist cannot have an identity until he acquires knowledge of his paternal lineage: his quest is as much to discover the identity of his father and find a homosocial bond in this discovery as a quest to rescue the maiden from peril. Thus, before the knight even begins his adventures we are distinctly aware of the assertion of masculine dominance in the narrative and the subjugation of women to the patriarchal order.
However, the turning point in Le Bel Inconnu strongly implies that male identity depends upon the aid of a feminine force, in this case the Pucelle aux Blanches Mains. Moreover, it suggests not simply that Beaujeu is experimenting with the integration of heterosexual relations into his homosocial narrative but placing femininity at the centre of the romance. He places Guinglain’s destiny in her hands and puts her in a position of power, making her the key agent in the discovery of the protagonist’s identity. The Pucelle even mocks Arthur, claiming ‘Li rois Artus mal te nomma; Bel Descouneü t’apiela, Guinglains as non en batestire’, inferring that she is a wise woman who has superior knowledge to the King himself. She undermines the desirability of the Arthurian social order, and furthermore there is a double meaning in the line ‘bien a conquise ta querele’. It could imply either the rescuing of Blonde Esmérée or the discovery of Guinglain’s identity, emphasizing that it is the Pucelle, a woman, who is giving him the ‘reward’ for the completion of his quest and not the King. However, there are two arguments that show that Renaut does not allow women to maintain any influence over men. Firstly, it is significant that the Pucelle is a ‘fée’, because we hear of her knowledge of enchantments, and that the other central woman in the novel, Blonde Esmérée, has no influence over Guinglain’s actions and has to ask for Arthur’s help in order to lure him back to civilization. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, Renaut emphatically regains control over his lady by blaming her for the unsatisfactory and unhappy ending of the romance. Thus, the narrator does explore the possibility of heterosexual relations where power is attributed to the woman as well as the man. However, the author turns decidedly away from this possibility and returns to a profound ambivalence towards women and a rejection of feminine influence over male identity.
The conflict between love and marriage, social identity and private desire, is evident throughout the narrative of Le Bel Inconnu and it is in the exploration of these themes that the experiment in question is arguably carried out in most depth. Until the point where we first meet the Pucelle, the reader is under the impression that the poem will follow the form of most other romances; that is, that Guinglain will liberate the maiden from the enchantment with the fier baiser, fall in love and therefore marry the rescued lady. However, Guinglain’s immediate reaction to the Pucelle, ‘Si bele riens ne fu veüe’ and the length and praise of the following description suggests that this is in fact the woman the knight will marry. Even though the portrait of Blonde Esmérée after she has been released from the enchantment describes her as fresh, rosy and magnificently dressed, the narrator claims ‘Fors sel celi as Blances Mains, quar nule a li ne s’aparele’. Furthermore, when Guinglain returns to the Ile d’Or, another lengthy description of the Pucelle is directly followed with a description of the power, wisdom and extraordinary handsomeness of Guinglain; their similarity in beauty and other attributes assures the reader that there is no possibility that a marriage between the two protagonists would be a mismatch. Additionally, although the Pucelle is a fairy with powers, she does not use these to benefit self-interest; she is driven by love and not by enchantment. She aided Guinglain through his earlier adventures and she only revealed his identity due to her concern for reassuring the exhausted hero. Thus, they appear to be the perfect match for marriage, and yet his life in the Ile d’Or is lacking Guinglain’s need for chivalry, male bonds and assertion of his dominance over other men. Although the Pucelle was the key to finding his identity in terms of a name and lineage, he still seems incomplete and unsatisfied with the life of love and bliss that he has the choice of leading. Again, de Beaujeu seems to refuse the idea that a woman can be formative in shaping and completing a male identity; thus, when Guinglain hears of the tournament, he immediately decides to leave his lady to return to civilization. The hope of gaining a seat at Arthur’s table and the desire to show off his new identity by defeating another potential hero appears to be crucial to his new identity as Guinglain.
Therefore there is a conflict between heterosexual relations and the homosocial narrative literature where true love is concerned. In romances, inevitably the role of heterosexual exchange is a central theme in the formation of masculine identities. However, clearly de Beaujeu does not see the discovery of true love and desire as the final missing piece of the puzzle that will complete a masculine identity, because in Le Bel Inconnu the hero’s identity is constructed in relation only to other men. For example, although the discovery of his identity was dependent on the Pucelle, ultimately Guinglain’s identity was described in relation to his father, Gauvin. The crucial revelation came with the line, ‘Li fuis a mon signor Gauvin’ and it was not necessary to actually mention Guinglain’s name for another fifteen lines. Furthermore, throughout his earlier adventures with Hélie, he sends his vanquished foes to Arthur’s court to announce his progress: it is the recognition from Arthur’s court, a homosocial recognition, that spurs him on to complete his quest and construct his identity. It is through other men that Guinglain wishes to have his identity confirmed. Nevertheless, the story still ends unhappily; with Guinglain marrying a woman with whom he is not truly in love and unable to return to his fairy, who shut him out after his decision to accept the challenge of the tournament. Therefore, this experiment that Renaut has carried out appears to be one that decidedly fails. Guinglain is integrated into the Arthurian social order, but is alienated from his private desires. The feminine is his agent of self-discovery, but also the potential cause of his alienation: the hero of the romance is a split self, torn between an impulse towards social integration and the homosocial life which characterizes narrative literature, and a counter-impulse which is socially alienating but fulfills his true desires.
Renaut’s romance remains without a conclusive ending, perhaps because of the paradox that the hero is bound to choose social integration over an antisocial life of private bliss. He has an overwhelming need for homosocial relations, but is never able to suppress the private desires that he has sacrificed for a life of chivalry in the public eye. The experiment remains unsolved as we read in the epilogue: although ‘li roumans’ may have ended, Guinglain’s story, ‘l’istoire’, can never end. His paradoxical and problematic identity is too complex and contradictory to ever come to a close. Although heterosexual relations do appear in Le Bel Inconnu, the honest and happy exchange between Guinglain and the Pucelle cannot be permanent and identity ultimately remains a masculine gendered construct in this romance.
- DE BEAUJEU, R. Le Bel Inconnu (Honoré Champion Editeur, Paris. 2003)
- GAUNT, S. Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
- COLBY-HALL, A.M. Frustration and Fulfillment: The Double Ending of the Bel Inconnu, Yale French Studies No. 67 (Yale University press, 1984)
- SCHWARTZ, D.B. Guinglain and Lancelot: The Nightmares in the Bel Inconnu, Arthuriana Vol. 12, No.2 (Scriptorium Press, 2002)
- STRUM, S. The Bel Inconnu’s Enchantress and the Intent of Renaut de Beaujeu, The French Review Vol. 44, No. 5 (American Association of Teachers of French, 1971)
-  DE BEAUJEU, R. Le Bel Inconnu (Honoré Champion Editeur, Paris. 2003). Verse 56
-  GAUNT, S. Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1995) p105
- DE BEAUJEU, R. Le Bel Inconnu. (Verses 3231-3233)
-  ibid. (Verse 3242)
-  ibid. (Verse 2218)
-  ibid. (Verses 2219-58)
-  ibid. (Verses 3273)
-  COLBY-HALL, A.M. Frustration and Fulfillment: The Double Ending of the Bel Inconnu, Yale French Studies No. 67 (Yale University Press, 1984) p124
-  DE BEAUJEU, R. Le Bel Inconnu (Verse 3216)
-  GAUNT, S. Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature. P107-111
-  GAUNT, S. Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature. P115