Arthur's Women from Tales of King Arthur
Who were the Women in the Legend of King Arthur?
The tales of King Arthur are legendary
Stories of his courage and endeavour are passed down through generations, and songs are still sung of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
But who sings the songs for the Women of Arthur?
When the feats are recounted and the stories retold, what do we say of the women in this story? The portrayals of these women tell us much more about the attitude of the storytellers than about the women themselves.
The Women in the Legend
The most well known woman in the Legend of Arthur is Guinevere, Arthur's Queen, who is said to have caused the downfall of Camelot. Another is Morgan le Fay, his half sister.
His mother, the often-overlooked Ygraine, appears briefly at the beginning, her only part is to give birth to Arthur. There are also mystical women, such as the Lady of the Lake.
We also meet ordinary women in Arthur, women who are not Queens or great women of magic. Love seems to always bring them tragedy, like Isolde of Ireland, or Elaine the Fair, whom Tennyson immortalised as the Lady of Shalott.
Ygraine, the Mother of Arthur
We hear first of Ygraine from Geoffrey of Monmouth, a 12th century translator from a religious order .
Now this Geoffrey translated Welsh manuscripts into Latin in about 1136. His work was intended to be an historical record of the Welsh kingdoms but also meant a significant advancement in the church hierarchy for Geoffrey. In compiling his History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey utilised material from British legend and folklore. He also borrowed from earlier Latin accounts of the Britons but treated all his sources with great imaginative freedom - such as tracing the descent of British princes from the Trojans.
Geoffrey's Inventive Story
It's not really surprising that we don't hear much on the subject of women from a cloistered monk, apart from brief and negative portrayals, and his mention of Ygraine is no exception. The deceit practiced on Ygraine was her own fault for being beautiful and, besides, is of no account as her only reason for existence is to be the mother of Arthur..
Geoffrey said that, in an attempt to stop the advancing and destructive Saxons, Uther Pendragon called together all of the British leaders to form a plan of attack. One of the nobles at the gathering is Gorlois of Cornwall with his wife Ygraine, the "most beautiful woman in Britain".
When he sees Ygraine, Uther falls immediately in love. Gorlois, angry with the flirtatious attention directed at his wife, storms off and hides her away at the fortress of Tintagel.
Merlin casts a spell which makes Uther look like Gorlois and the King is then able to enter Tintagel and deceive Ygraine into believing he is her husband. That night, two events occur which effect the future of all of Britain.
Gorlois dies in battle outside of the castle of Dimilioc and Arthur is conceived in Tintagel.
And that's all there is from Geoffrey on Ygraine.
Guinevere, Wife of Arthur - The Medieval Story
For most of human history, the written word has been largely a male preserve, so we almost always perceive women through the eyes of men.
The church was the most powerful cultural arbiter in medieval times, and clerical opinion the highest authority of the day.
Guinevere is portrayed as a woman who defies the laws, she commits the worse sin possible in the eyes of the church. She has a love affair with another man - and while she is married!
Therefore it's Guinevere's fault that the wondrous Camelot, the saintly knights and Arthur himself is destroyed.
She is the daughter of Leodegrance of Cameliard, previous owner of the Round Table, which she brings as part of her dowry to Arthur. It is her love affair with Lancelot which causes the downfall of Camelot.
Whatever the truth may be, she is also beautiful and desirable and her forced, or chosen, affair with Lancelot condemns her, according to law.
Whatever Guinevere was or was not, she has been a useful tool in the hands of the romancers throughout the centuries and has greatly enhanced the legends of Arthur.
Another view of Guinevere - Through the eyes of a woman
The Idylls of the Queen
Morgan le Fay, Sister of Arthur
Two opposing views
Almost always portrayed as an adversary of Arthur's, Morgan le Fay is his half sister, daughter of their mother Ygraine and Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall.
Despite the motif of Morgan's enmity towards Arthur and Guinevere, she is also presented as one of the women who takes Arthur in a barge to Avalon to be healed.
How did this view of Morgan as a healer find its way into the story of Arthur? Because it's older than the story of Arthur, older than Geoffrey's stories written in the male monastic enclave, Morgan's story has its roots in Celtic mythology.
Not much is heard of Morgan after the 12th century, but 800 years later there is a renewed interest in her literary character. Marion Zimmer Bradley gives Morgan these words ..
And now, when the world has changed and Arthur- my brother, my lover, king who was and king who shall be- lies dead (the common folk say sleeping) in the Holy Isle of Avalon, the tale should be told as it was before the priests of the White Christ come to cover it all with their saints and legends.......
Helen Mirren plays the evil and beautiful sister in the 1981 film Excalibur.
Morgan le Fay in Modern Fiction
Over four books, the story of Morgan Le Fay is recounted through the eyes of another. The fifth book is narrated by Morgan herself.
Book One : Wise Woman's Telling.
Book Two : Nun's Telling
Book Three : Blacksmith's Telling
Book Four : Taleisins' Telling :
Book Five : Herself .....
"'I am Morgan the Fay. The wicked witch, the embodiment of evil. And yet. I am the queen who takes Arthur in my arms for healing. Some editing of the story will clearly be necessary.'".
Elaine, Lady of Shalott
Elaine the fair, Elaine the loveable,
Elaine, the lily maid of Astolat,
High in her chamber up a tower to the east
Guarded the sacred shield of Lancelot;
Elaine the Fair of Astolat is a maiden who dies of grief when Lancelot can not love her.
So Elaine is the other type of woman in Arthurian legend (there are only two types - desirable and therefore evil, or desirable and not yet fully evil)
In some accounts, she is the mother of Galahad, and some also say she was the mother of King Ban, another of Lancelot's sons.
Regardless of who she mothered, the tragedy of Elaine is the same. She loved Lancelot, a love which Lancelot did not deserve and, when Elaine was made aware of the affair between Guinevere and Lancelot, the poor maiden died of a broken heart.
The best-known retelling is Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott", which inspired dozens of images of the maiden weaving in her bower, or setting out heart-broken on the barge that will bear her dead body to Camelot.
The Lady of Shalott
It starts off innocently
Elaine's father organises a jousting tournament, attended by King Arthur and his knights. Elaine falls in love with Lancelot and begs him to wear her token at the coming tournament. Explaining that Guenevere would be at the tournament, he consents to wear the token but says that he will have to fight in disguise so as not to be recognised.
Elaine is Insulted
Lancelot goes on to win the tournament but receives a serious injury. Elaine then urges her father to let her bring the wounded Lancelot to her chambers, where she nurses him.
When Lancelot is well, he makes ready to leave, and offers to pay Elaine for her services. He attempts to pay her!
Insulted, Elaine brings him his shield, which she had been guarding, and a wary Lancelot leaves the castle, never to return but now aware of her feelings for him.
Ten days later, Elaine dies of heartbreak.
Her body is placed in a small barge, clutching a lily in one hand, and her final letter in the other. She then floats down the Thames to Camelot, where she is discovered by King Arthur's court.
But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."
Isolde of Ireland
Lancelot and Tristan are called the two greatest knights and greatest lovers by Merlin, and the fairness of the two ladies whom these men love is often compared.
The basic outline of their tales is similar in that both knights are caught in a dangerous triangle of emotion that pits their love for their ladies against their loyalty to their king. It's never the fault of the men involved.
Tristan, the heroic nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, is sent to Ireland to escort the Irish king's daughter, the beautiful Isolde, to Cornwall to become his uncle's bride. During the return voyage the young couple accidentally consume a love potion (meant to ensure Isolde's happiness with Mark) together, and fall in love.
Because her betrothal to Mark cannot be broken, Isolde marries the king despite her love for Tristan, and the two lovers spend the rest of their lives attempting to satisfy their desire for each other without revealing that desire to the Cornish court.
When Mark finds out, Tristan leaves the court, marries Isolde of Brittany and subsequently neglects her, as he feels that his marriage is a betrayal of Isolde of Ireland.
Not surprisingly, his callous treatment of Isolde of Brittany is brushed aside by the chroniclers. It is the men, after all, who are important.
The Lady of the Lake
The Lady of the Lake was known by many names. Most often she is Nimue.
It was she who gave the sword Excalibur to Arthur and regained it when he died.
in Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Nimue is responsible for the downfall of Merlin.
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful.
She gave the King his huge cross-hilted sword,
Whereby to drive the heathen out.
A mist Of incense curl'd about her, and her face
Well nigh was hidden in the minster gloom;
The Lady of the Lake is either the woman responsible for destroying the great wizard, Merlin, or she is an almost disembodied arm.
The Mists of Avalon - Through the eyes of a woman
© 2008 Susanna Duffy