In honor of International Women’s Day, (I’m late but it still counts!) I wanted to discuss the role of the woman in Arthurian legend. It’s changed drastically since the 1180’s, when women started to play a more central part in the tales. From submissive maidens floating around towers to warrior women dominating and bending societal standards to their will…the woman plays an ever-important role in our legend that stars a bunch of guys. But is that role, no matter how independent, still relevant with today’s expectations of women?
Let’s start with a gal we all know. Guinevere was the ideal woman. French poet, Chrétien de Troyes, was the first to pen the story of Lancelot and Guinevere in The Knight of the Cart. Guinevere was everything a woman was expected to be. She was inhumanly beautiful, elegant, graceful, well-spoken… um…that’s about it. That’s all that was allowed. (Aside from obedience, which we all know she was not, at least not in her love life.)
Lady Enide was the same, in Chrétien’s Erec and Enide. “More beautiful than ever a lady has been described before or since”, as Chrétien says; elegant, graceful…un-spoken. Even better. Enide is married off to Sir Erec by her father, as a prize for Erec’s win in a tournament. She had no say in the matter. Oh, except for when Erec told her she needed a new dress if she was going to be his wife, and asked if she wanted one, and she said yes because she didn’t want to be punished. On the way back to Camelot, he made sure she was riding her horse behind his– never in front, or even on the side– and that she was only speaking when spoken to. Normal, right? I mean, how dare she speak up on the road to warn him of thieves and brigands up ahead. Twice, at that. Luckily, Erec sort of sees the error of his ways by the end of the story. Kind of. Regardless, this behavior was expected of all women that were not of nobility. Are you Queen Guinevere? No? Then shut your yipper.
Lady Blanchefleur is another perfect example, in The Story of the Grail. Once again, inhumanly beautiful, elegant, graceful…ooh, and a damsel in distress. Bonus points! The weaker and more desperate a woman was, especially if she was crying, the more desirable she was. (Sir Yvain even finds the weeping Lady Laudine insanely attractive the more she cries.) This was the case from Chrétien’s work all the way up until T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, where the role of women was allowed a bit more bravery and independence. Back to Blanchefleur– she literally enters Sir Perceval’s room in the middle of the night, weeping her eyes out because she’s afraid he won’t fight her enemy the next day. (Which he never once said he wouldn’t do. Also, might I clarify that her enemy is a man who has vowed daily to take her from her home and marry her against her will, though she’s never said a single word to defy him, or even beg otherwise, even though she’s the lady of the house.) She staggers over to Perceval’s bed– because she’s too weak from sobbing to walk like a normal person– crawls on top of him and cries each tear onto his eyes, so that he’ll wake up. Cause, y’know, gently nudging his shoulder would have been far too nonchalant for a damsel.
But to her defense, this is how you won a man over. With beautiful, twinkling tears and sighing breaths and fainting atop his chest. I call these girls the “damsels”.
Lady Laudine was a “damsel”. Her husband was killed and now she has to run a manor and a town all by herself. How inappropriate for a woman! What in the name of Camelot was a woman to do with that kind of power? What a terrible dilemma. Isolde was another “damsel”. Fenice and Soreadamors from the Greek romance, Cligés…both damsels. The Lady of Shalott? The epitome of the word. And don’t even get me started on poor Igraine, mother of Arthur, himself. Like. Girl. Hear me out: a creepy-ass king disguises himself as the man you love, makes love to you, begets you a child and upon revealing himself, you give him no punishment? Oh, and then Merlin comes to take away your newborn baby because he made a sketchy deal with that king and you’re never to see your baby again. And the creepy king gets to kill the man you love and marry you now. Oh, and your first-born daughter is heir to the throne, not you, so you don’t even get to be queen. AND your daughter thinks you’ll get in the way, even though you’ve been nothing but a kind, sweet mother this entire time, so she sends you to a convent. And you go with no fight. THAT, ladies and gentleman, is a damsel.
But the thing is…women agreed with this. This was what men desired. And so it was honestly what you desired. It was simply what was done; to only speak when asked, to ride behind your husband, to provide his every will. You were simply to be a beautiful prize for young, lusty knights to snatch away on any given day, and bear him beautiful children. Or you were nothing.
Perhaps that’s why the “nothing” girls are the most exciting ones.
Lunete is one. Featured as Laudine’s maid in The Knight with the Lion, Lunete is a plain, unremarkably-faced servant who behaves as it pleases her. And that doesn’t get her very far in society. When she goes to Camelot to ask for help, not only do they turn up their noses and refuse, but they laugh. She is not “beautiful”. She is not elegant and graceful; she is clumsy and has a deep voice and laughs heartily. So society casts her out with every other woman of the lower class. But it is because of her sharp mind and her witty tongue and her bold manner– all qualities fit for a man– that she convinces Lady Laudine to ever marry the gallant Sir Yvain at all. It’s a wonder anything gets done in that manor without her.
As the 12th century left and the 15th century rolled in, the role of the woman began to adjust. There had been a few fiery, lion-hearted queens in Europe by now. The writers of the new Arthurian tradition were inspired. The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell features Ragnell, the Loathly Lady. It is the ugliest description of a person one has ever put to paper. Every detail from her teeth, to the snot in her nose, to the stuff in her hair that I don’t want to think about, to her body odor… a disgrace to the human eye, thanks to a curse laid on her by a witch. Yet she, the highest possible level of a “nothing” girl, was the one singular person in all of Britain who could save King Arthur’s life. Because she knew what women want most in the world.
In a nutshell, she tells him that we simply want “the freedom to make our own decisions”.
She also, in an obviously unconventional way for a woman, forces Arthur to make Gawain marry her, in exchange for telling him this sacred knowledge. Which he does. Of course, it’s also a nice detail that this knowledge provokes Gawain to ask the very question that breaks Ragnell’s curse. A decision about her beauty, or lack thereof, that he could have easily made for himself, as man of the relationship. But he let it fall to her. Thus, because woman got to choose her own fate, the curse was broken and she was made beautiful again. And not just on the outside.
Women became bolder after this. On the topic of my boy, Gawain, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight features the lady in a green belt that we all know. Sir Bertilak’s wife does a superb job of taking the great and mighty Sir Gawain and trapping him helplessly in his bed, like a deer in headlights, simply with some whispered words and a kiss. The role of Guinevere even thickened a little. Then there’s Morgan. Morgan le Fay, everyone’s favorite badass, becomes a much stronger character throughout the years. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur turns her into a dark and powerful sorceress. Though she doooes become one of the staple Arthurian villains of all time, one has to admit that she doesn’t lie victim to her problems. She does not take her tragedies and become a “damsel” but instead, finds something higher, stronger, to master and use against her enemies, doing what she thinks is right.
Then we enter modern day. Women’s rights and equality boomed after the 1920s– at least more than it did in the 14th century! And it only kept growing. The role of the woman changed in society; so it had to change in Arthurian legend. Newer retellings gave women much more power. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, for example. Mary Stuart’s The Crystal Cave and the rest of her Arthurian Saga, Vivian Vande Velde’s The Book of Mordred, or Lisa Ann Sandell’s Song of the Sparrow. Even television and film retellings improved the voice of the Arthurian woman. BBC’s Merlin series is a favorite of many, where Guinevere is portrayed with elegant strength, wisdom, power, kindness, unconditional love (for the right man this time), and even diversity. The film, King Arthur, stars Kiera Knightly as a fierce, pagan warrior version of Guinevere. The film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, features a powerful and mystical sorceress who helps Arthur along the way in his journey to bring peace to Britain. Even Gerald Morris’s children’s series, The Squire’s Tales, is filled to the brim with several stories of strong, courageous young girls and women who look danger in the face and chase their goals with a sparkling ferocity. It makes me wish I could befriend them all.
And still, even with this rise in women’s equality throughout the centuries, the ancient tradition of Arthurian women is still somewhat relatable. Granted, not as relatable as it might have been a few hundred years ago. We wear pants now, for heaven’s sake. But we, as women, all still relate to wanting to be loved, just as they did then. We relate to seeking equality. Most of us relate to wanting to be beautiful, many of us relate to seeking adventure and destiny. Sadly, some of us, in some parts of the world, still relate to longing to be more than a man’s plaything; longing for vocality, for freedom, for liberation. And we all still desire what Dame Ragnell said best: the ability to make our own decisions. We always will. Thank goodness most of us do.
So, yes, the Arthurian woman may often have issues that seem distant to us. But there will always be a small flame of something in them that we have within us, too. Whether hearing the tale of a delicate damsel, or a quirky servant, or a warrior queen…women are women. There is beautiful strength lodged within us, if we only look. And as long as new storytellers keep writing of that strength and beautiful depth, no matter the century…the picture of the Arthurian woman will only continue to grow more complete.