Growing up, I absolutely loved the adventures of King Arthur, was enthralled by the interesting inhabitants of Camelot and adored the timeless romances it brought (step aside Romeo&Juliet). Set in the late 5th-6th century, the Arthurian legend, in all of it's valour, had won the hearts of many, including mine.
But the one thing that always perplexed me was the constant criticism of the Arthurian women as 'flat characters' especially when texts, such as the quintessential Le Morte D’Arthur (1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, were being analysed.
Okay, that’s harsh but I promise if you stick around and take a look at their stories, you’ll see why I believe that the ladies are more than that. Because just as the guys had their share of adventures, so did the ladies who defined their lives with their own rules and agency. So let’s take a look shall we?
Lynette and Lyonesse Before Elsa and Anna swept the world with all the sister love and their strength, there was Lynette and Lyonesse.
Yes, I kid you not. The lesser known sisters, often left out of discussions, exhibit so much agency then they are acknowledged for.
Lynette’s quest to save her sister, Lyonesse, from captivity, sees her persist fearlessly even when her request for a knight to aid her quest was dismissed by Arthur’s court. In fact, she persists to a victory even when sent a mere kitchen helper (Gareth) instead.
If her fiery dedication doesn't convince you, maybe her brazen intervention on Gareth's and Lyonesse's two attempts to consummate their love prior to marriage - which totallysaved their honour because it was a huge transgression then - would change your mind. In fact, her fierce devotion to them highlights her agency; her bold choice ensured that when they eventually wed, it was a marriage celebrated in honour and glory by the kingdom (p.3) as highlighted in Marxen's paper, The Role of Women in the Arthurian Material.
Isn't Lynette winning the best sister award right there?
But let's not forget about Lyonesse who exhibited responsibility in her relationship with Gareth by “[insisting] on … having Gareth both as husband and lover” - a significant move in a time where "being a paramour has a higher claim to love than marriage does” (p. 3). The fact that Lyonesse, and not Gareth, sought for the legitimising of their relationship in front of the kingdom asserts that she did not require a proxy to secure her future - a key point especially in an era where women were often sidelined, as highlighted in Sprangler's Feminine Quest in Arthurian Legends(p. 1).
More importantly, she is not merely defined as the lady whom Gareth rescues and brings with into a glamorous married life. Woohoo, you go girlfriend!
When we contrast Lyonesse declaration with Guinevere’s silence in the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot constellation, it is easy to accuse her of indecision in her relationships.
However, Guinevere had a way harder time - stuck in a precarious situation of following her heart with the “constancy [of] true [love]” with Lancelot (p. 20), as highlighted by Ajemian’s thesis, Don’t Make a Scene, while rising up to the duty of a wife betrothed to a husband who valued his kingdom's prosperity over her (p. 23)? Now that's one tall order.
She sacrificed public legitimisation of her relationship for the stability of her kingdom – because just as Arthur had a duty so did Queen Guinevere. Her quiet strength, often interpreted as passivity, is truly enduring - I wish she didn't get so much hate for it.
Elaine of Astolat On the other hand, Elaine pulls out the big guns. In acknowledging her undying love for Lancelot, she actively asks for him to reciprocate her love. However, not only does he lead her on, he eventually rejects her, goes on to trivialise her affections, as cited by Marxen, by “offer[ing] her dowry...if she marries another worthy knight” (p. 5). Frustrated at his casual dismissal, she proclaims that she would die to prove her love for him (para. 11).
I know, I know, it sounds really drastic doesn't it? It might seem as though she'd given up but that's not exactly true.
In her death, Elaine ensured that it quelled the rumours that blasphemed her name and redeemed her purity (para. 12-16). Her death is no surrender, it’s symbolic; it immortalised her voice as all of Camelot wept for her.
Morgan Le Fay Big moves like Elaine's are also seen in another lady of Camelot - Morgan - who is known for her constant efforts in finding:
In fact, that special someone happens to be her estranged half-brother, Arthur, who she spends most of her life seeking revenge on.
Her agency, "which makes [her] dangerous”, as Zafra highlights in The Female Figure as the Antagonist in the Arthurian World(p. 15), led to her characterisation as the evil enchantress. But her agency wasn't merely defined by Arthur, it's also salient in the building of her own fortress complete with loyal subjects (p. 19) and in demands for Lancelot to make up his mind between his lovers (p. 18) - daaamn Lancelot, back at it again with the lovers drama (no but seriously Guinevere+Elaine+Morgan yet more??).
Notably, Morgan’s persistence in fragmenting Arthur’s court, such as the exposé of Guinevere’s and Lancelot’s affair, revealed the chinks in the armour of Camelot which set in motion the “final apocalypse” (p. 12).
As Arthur falls, she gets the last word in one of the greatest sibling rivalries we know.
Rethinking Passivity So what do you think? The Arthurian ladies do have their own agency, don't they? An interesting commentary by Armstrong, in his book, Gender and the Chivalric Community in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, posits that the knights' identity "in its...dependence upon a feminine presence, [is] anything but free and independent” (Lancelot, Guenevere, and the Death of Arthur, p. 210).
It’s a curious thought especially since the era is imbued with male chivalry. However, the quote highlights how the ladies' definitive actions do affect the narrative of the knights around them. So, basically?
At the end of the day, I believe that the prerogatives of both the ladies and knights affect the state and politics of Camelot. They all play a key role, no matter their gender, and that’s makes the legend pretty amazing, don’t you think?
If you're still interested, or love the legend as I do, you can check out: 1. Dame Ragnell who fought to break two spells cast on her 2. Nimue who wrought control away from Merlin and became Camelot's advisor!
Thanks for hanging!! :)