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'As a genre, romance is concerned with the self-fashioning of the male hero; the beloved woman, however prominent, is a means to this self-fashioning rather than a focus in herself.' Do you find this statement true with regard to the Arthurian romances you have read?
Women play an imperative role in Arthurian Literature, they not only influence the actions of those who hold them beloved but often wield a significant influence on the story itself. Yet however prominent these heroines may be, often their role is of just that; an object of influence, one who causes action while never acts herself. It is argued that the beloved women in these tales are passive under-developed characters, merely objects of love and desire, locked in an ivory tower, seen as nothing more than a trophy to claim at the end of battle. This essay aims to investigate whether this assessment is true and centrally whether the sole purpose of women in Arthurian Literature is to aid the construction of the hero's identity and social status. This will be proven through examining the texts 'Culwch and Olwen', 'Yvain' and 'The Lady of Shallot'.
Heroic Arthurian Literature is not only the literature of a warlike and male centred society but a celebration of the values of this society, which mostly concern fighting (Pearsall 21). In this literature it is not love and honour that are held above all else, but loyalty to one's kin or leader, revenge, and the essential necessity of asserting self through acts of power. Women in this epic literature play an imperative role as a source of action; they are not ideals and objects of adoration but victims of murder and rape, in need of protection and not objectification (Pearsall 21).
Romance however deals not with survival but with adventure, the hero not frantically defending his homestead, chooses to leave his secure bastion of wealth and privilege to seek adventures. Adventures in which his knightly values will be submitted to test and proved (Pearsall 21). 'The series of adventures is thus raised to the status of a fixed and gradual test of election; it becomes the basis of a doctrine of personal perfection' (Pearsall 22). Thus the knight is no longer propelled by dynastic and territorial objectives but chooses these adventures to prove the values by which he lives, proving his reality and identity; 'feats of arms, arbitrary in themselves, are the means to self-realization' (Pearsall 22).
The Welsh prose 'Culhwch and Olwen' (Gwyn 80) with its bardic poetic technique, is considered to be one of the earliest Arthurian tales. Although the tale contains elements of both heroic and romance literature, with Culhwch's strange background echoing that of an archetypal epic hero, his quest for Olwen's love affirms its status as a romance tale. From the very first line the idea of a woman as merely a complement to a man is evident, as Cilydd does not wish for a wife that he loves dearly but a 'wife as wellborn as himself' (Gwyn 80), suggesting that one's choice of wife will maintain and hopefully elevate ones status. Goleuddydd is not even referred to by her name alone but as 'Goleuddydd daughter of Analawdd Wledif' (Gwyn 80) suggesting the possessive nature that men feel towards women in the text. Perhaps signifying women are never completely independent individuals; from birth they belong to their fathers, who may at liberty award them to whoever they please, thus they subsequently become possessions of their husbands. This is an ideal that intensifies throughout the tale, when Olwen's father rebuffs Culhwch's attempt to marry her.
However, these suggestions pale in comparison to the most palpable allusion to a woman as a prize or possession of a man; they way in which Culhwch's father sought out his second wife; slaying her husband and by her admission 'carried me off by force' (Gwyn 81). Thus from the very beginning of the tale we are aware that the women in this tale are issued with very little freedom of choice and equality. Women appear to be greatly dependent on men and are not capable of changing the way they live their lives. Goleuddydd is a fine example of this dependence, as she seems to have always depended on a male figure in her life firstly her father and then her husband, finally even in death her will is still dependent on the actions of a man; her preceptor.
The tale also highly suggests that the purpose of women's existence is to pleasure and honour men, their most important role is their role as wives where they must be 'dispensers of gifts' (Gwyn 80) to their husbands. Thus although they begin as a prize in its own right, once won in order to remain adored and celebrate they must bestow gifts to their husbands, notably children. Another prominent example of this idea of women as male possession is evident when Culhwch first requests a favour of the great King Arthur, Arthur tells him he shall be granted whatever he should name, save many items of Arthur's Property. Arthur lists these items, such as his ship and mantle, sword, spear and dagger and at the very end of this list he places Gwenhwfar, his wife. Arthur not only proposes that Gwenhwfar is one of his belongings but by placing her last in this list alludes to the fact that she is of least value and importance (Gwyn 84).
While contemporary females may read these tales appalled at their representations of women, Harris suggests that these heroines of romance embrace the roles they are given to play. Olwen for example wishes for Culhwch to partake in his adventure enticing him by saying 'you shall win me' (Gwyn 90). Culwch's adventure although necessitated by love, reads like a coming of age tale, in completing his quest he transforms from the boy who claimed he is too young to marry to a terrific masculine Knight. Although Olwen is the purpose of his adventure, he attains much more than her hand in marriage; his identity as a courageous knight. The set of challenges he embarks on are test of his courage and abilities, on proving these he wins his prize; Olwen.
Although both Olwen and Culhwch's stepmother are prominent characters in the tale, setting in motion the plot and adventure of the tale, both of these women are completely reliant on the actions of men. Although Culhwch's mother curses him, ultimately the curse is dependent on Culhwch's action; it is his action or reaction to this curse that will decide the future. Similarly although Olwen wishes to marry Culhwch, she is passive in this desire, her prospective marriage lies in the hands of the two men in her life; her father and Culhwch, and it is their action which will decide her future.
Chr'tien de Troyes's 'Yvain, the Knight with the Lion' (Owen 281) is an Arthurian romance written roughly one hundred years after 'Culhwch and Olwen'. Yvain begins his adventure not for the sake of love, but to redeem the reputation Sir Calogrenant, his real adventure begins after he wins his first battle and falls in love. Instead of simply taking the Queen by force after slaying her husband, Yvain appears to give the Queen a choice in the matter. However this apparent freedom of will is more complex than it seems, Yvain effectively through negotiation and deception ensures the Queen's hand in marriage, thus although he may not be as forceful as Culhwch's father, he is not completely dissimilar to him. Yvain is furthers the idea that women and love are merely a guise for adventure, as once he wins his prize; Laudine, he leaves in search of more adventure. The yearning love that he spoke of and risked his life for seems inconsequential once it is in his possession; he places this love behind his Knightly duties to test his courage through adventure.
According to Auerbach, the testing and confirmation of chivalric values are the central ethos of the romance form (Pearson 35). Yvain goes mad because he forgets his promise to his wife, thus he loses his truth and with that he loses his integrity, his identity, his self and his reality. Therefore it is not a broken heart or the loss of a loved one that sends him towards madness but the loss of his identity as a true knight, his quest to win back her love is merely another self test to win back his own values; 'What began for Yvain as mere adventures has become a more serious kind of self-testing and self-proving' (Pearson 35).
It can be seen that Laudine and later the women with the ointment have a great deal of control over Yvain's masculinity and identity (Pearson 36). Through sending the message that she no longer loves him, Laudine causes him to become completely unstable, eradicating the sense of self he began to identify with, notably her, he may have measured his own masculine identity in relation to her feminine one and 'once the other side of the dichotomy was removed he fell to the ground' (Pearson 36). The women who find him asleep reinstate his masculinity by forming that other side of femininity; in fact it is not the ointment that cures him of his madness but the idea of protecting the lady's lands, essentially restoring the male/female dichotomy by which Yvain defined himself. Thus Yvain's grief is more so at the loss of part of his identity; his masculinity and truth, than at the loss of his wife, both of which he seems to prize more than her.
Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shallot' is a poem, which also concerns gender relations, written in the nineteenth century as possibly an attempt remind Victorian society of a past utopian like world of chastity, oppressed female sexuality and the restricted space of women in society, in the hopes of maintaining the strict gender conventions of the time. The text reflects this idea of women as passive members of society contrasting with the active role men play in society. This is greatly highlighted by the Lady's relegation to a private and socially peripheral space of 'four grey walls and four grey towers' (Tennyson 10), while the 'bold Sir Lancelot' (Tennyson 13) freely and vigorously roams throughout Camelot.
The lady's decision to leave her flaccid and private world in an attempt to participate in the active world is a fatal one, perhaps emphasizing the importance of complying with gender roles. As this idea of a role reversal, in which the female and not the male is perusing adventure brought on by the desire for a beloved, is dismissed, by the Lady's untimely death. Thus it can be said that when the Lady, tempted by the colourful and glamorous Lancelot, succumbs to her sexual desire and leaves her tower. It could be said that her 'curse' is society suppressing her sexual desire, and her fatal death is a warning to women who question or defy society's norms.
The idea of a clear division between men and women in society can be seen from the very first line in the poem, in which images of partition and opposition are ever present, in this instance, in the landscape; 'On either side the river lie/ Long fields of barley and of rye' (Tennyson 11). While some argue that Tennyson encourages a change in gendered ideologies, claiming that when he states the these fields 'meet the sky'(Tennyson 11), he is suggesting that the 'meeting' of oppositions in nature, which we have taken to represent man and woman, represents a sign of equality to come (Plasa 250). However on closer inspection, the idea of land meeting the sky, is an optical illusion, it seems that here Tennyson is confirming and highlighting his thoughts that although it may seem an option, the space men and women occupy in society will never be equal (Plasa 251).
The fact that the Lady has no name and was only ever heard and not seen and when eventually she was seen she was silenced by death, could suggest the idea of women being not completely individual or whole. There is a lot of evidence in this poem to suggest this, such as her imitation like view of the world through the mirror. Her passive gaze through this mirror sees the world in parts; she perceives a segmented not entirely whole view of the world, noticing things only 'sometimes' and even then only pieces of this images impress the Lady like 'the red cloaks of market girls' and the long hair of the page in 'crimson clad' (Tennyson 12). Lancelot, is presented as a complete individual, Tennyson's description of him concentrates not only on the successive and separate parts of his armour but on his movements. The glistening Sir Lancelot fills the gaps in the poem, perhaps suggesting that women are only half-entities without a man (Colley 372).
The Lady writes her name on the boat in a futile attempt to establish her identity, some argue that her coming represents a world which does not have to depend on image and name. Unsurprisingly the last word of the poem is that of a man; Lancelot, leaving the reader with his view point, his observation of her beauty is a trivial response to the passion she felt for him.
Thus in conclusion, it is evident that the women in the first two texts serve as merely plot devices, objects of desire and as reasons to seek adventure and thus improve one's status. The 'Lady of Shalott' emphasizes the distain some felt at the disintegration of these ideals and is an attempt to resurge them. The women in these tales may not be dynamic characters in their own right but they give unity to plots which would be formless without them; contributing to a pictorial quality and refinement of tone of which Arthurian life and literature required (Harris 41). 'As inspiration for the best in man she justifies her existence, and to it she still owes her charm' (Harris 41).