Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Chivalry in Skirts

Arthurian legend has no shortage of uppity women. From Guinevere to Nimue to Morgan le Fay, the legends abound with damsels and ladies who know their own minds, set their own goals, and aren't afraid to admit their ambitions. Unfortunately, most of them get absolutely squashed. Whether by outside interference or their own backfiring machinations, scarcely a go-getting Arthurian lady gets what she came for.

So it stands to reason that when one of them does, she is vividly remembered.

Linette, the razor-tongued sister of Lady Lionors, is unique among the ladies of Arthuriana not only because she gets everything she set out to get, but because she is one of the only successful cases of character development in the legends. So many characters spring to life already equipped with their defining personality traits: Lancelot is noble and has a guilt complex, Mordred is evil and scheming, Merlin is wise, Guinevere is beautiful and capricious. We see Arthur develop in the early going from impulsive youth to mature and just king, but he's pretty much the only one.

Sir Gareth and Lady Lynette, Arthur Rackham
Besides Linette. We first meet her when she demands a champion from the king while refusing to give her name, the name of her sister (for whom she's requesting said champion), or even the common courtesy due to another person. When Gareth, incognito as a kitchen boy, calls in the favors Arthur owes him and claims her quest as his, she spits out a few choice insults and rides in high dudgeon from the court. Undaunted, Gareth catches up; equally unfazed, Linette proceeds to blister the air for days with details of his idiocy, his inadequacy, and his incapability to survive a poke, let alone a series of one-on-one combats. There is literally no reason at all to like her.

And then she gets her wake-up call. The second of four knights that Gareth trounces is a real gentleman, inviting his ex-foe and his companions to dinner. Linette does her usual awful shtick; unlike Gareth (who handles his crappy damsel with true chivalry), the defeated knight calls her on it. And suddenly Linette realizes she's been a complete hag to the one man who was willing to help her sister.

For comparison: Lancelot gets a similar wake-up call on the Grail Quest, when his sinful love for Guinevere bars him even from seeing the Grail. He gets the message loud and clear. He is the greatest earthly knight in the world; he knows just how badly he failed. And when he gets back to Camelot, he promptly forgets all about it.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Frank Dicksee
Not Linette. The very next day she apologizes to Gareth. When he fights his next foe, she acts as his own personal cheerleading squad; it's her cry of support that energizes him when he was ready to give up. The most atrociously snobby character in Arthuriana becomes, in the space of a few paragraphs, one of the most endearingly human: she recognizes her fault and takes every possible step to amend it. Some versions (Tennyson's among them) even end with Gareth marrying Linette, rather than her beautiful and anonymous sister to whose rescue he rode.

So what gives? Why does Linette get off with a scolding, while other ambitious women get utterly broken? Morgan le Fay is foiled, exposed, and vilified. Guinevere is disgraced and often portrayed as a jealous shrew. The Lady of the Lake gets her head chopped off by Balin, who offers a deeply insufficient excuse: "She was a witch!" Geraint's wife Enid, as haughty and outspoken as Linette, is mocked by her neighbors, verbally abused by her husband, and threatened with rape on multiple occasions. In
The Lady Lyonors, Katharine Cameron
contrast, Linette's only real peers are Lady Ragnell, who also takes her fate into her own hands and is amply rewarded, and her own sister Lionors, who concocts a scheme to expose Gareth's identity before she'll marry him. Unlike her sister, Lionors' uppityness is very subversive; Linette wears her heart on her sleeve, while Lionors hides her quick wits behind a frigid courtly mask and bids to control her own life behind the scenes. Neither sister suffers in any material way for daring to shape their destinies.

The answer to their mysterious get-out-of-jail-free cards lies in their circumstances. The women punished for their ambition all have men to speak for them. Guinevere's duty is to be true to Arthur; Morgan is actually married, and supposed to be subordinate to her husband, when she concocts her deadliest plots against her brother; Enid's troubles stem from her flouting of her owed obedience to husband and father. Even the Lady of the Lake uses Merlin as intercessor with Arthur; her death is the end result of the one time she came on her own. Their downfalls come about because they disregard the rules of the world they live in.

Erec and Enide, Rowland Wheelwright
But the social order and the chivalric code have utterly failed all the successful uppity ladies. Linette and Lionors are trapped by a pack of rogue knights no one challenges; Ragnell's own brother has turned against her. No one speaks for them; no one is coming to their rescue. Lacking any socially-expected champion, these women have to stand up for themselves in order to survive. In extremis, it's not only okay to own your fate - it's actually celebrated.

In that sense, Linette and her fellows are actually playing the roles of knights-errant, filling in the gaps of an idealistic system put into practice by flawed human beings. They know exactly what's due to them, they know why they're not getting it, and they possess the wit and courage to get it for themselves when the system fails. They operate within that system, fixing it as best they can, and upholding the very social order they seem, at first glance, to subvert.

Someone get these girls a couple of chairs at the Round Table.


  1. It occurs to me while reading this that Shrek might actually be based on Linette. I'd never heard her story before, but they seem to share some interesting parallels.

    More on topic: I think this theme persists outside of Arthurian legends. Women betrayed by the system that's supposed to protect them, or simply women with no men to act on their behalf, have a much, much greater ability in stories to act on their own without any negative consequences. Not only does this go beyond Arthur, I think it continues through the victorian era and possibly even today. I mean, Kill Bill?

    1. I never thought of that either. But now I can't unthink it. And it's kind of awesome.

      It is interesting that women taking preventative rather than curative action don't have nearly as much luck. The system REALLY has to fail them before they can make a move with impunity. (The exception being Tolkien and the story of Idril the awesome, proving once again that he was about as far from being a misogynist as he was from the moon.) But you're right, once they've been failed, they can just go to town on pretty much whoever they want. Eliza Doolittle freaking owns her life on multiple occasions, Moll Flanders just doesn't quit, Katniss routinely flips the bird to a never-ending parade of systems that screw her over in every possible way. And more Tolkien: Eowyn gets overlooked and abandoned one too many times, and lo and behold, she kills the Witch-king. They really try to make it work, but when it doesn't, the universe acknowledges it.

      (I guess that's how we know they're stories. In real life, prevention often works, and people seeking justice get screwed over even more. Sigh.)

    2. I'm about to read your new post but before I get to that, more comments!

      I'm thinking 1) once the system has failed a woman, she has basically been removed from her status AS a woman. Especially in older stories, there's only a few positions a woman can occupy w/ the approval of her society. If she is cut off from those proper gender roles, it may be easier to understand why she is no longer ACTING like a woman.

      Also, 2) there's a certain degree of madness to many of these women. Many of them have already lost whatever they have to lose. Some are passionately vengeful and others are desperate to survive. Regardless of the situation, they have been pushed too far, and have snapped.

      In that sense, these stories are as much a warning to men as they are anything else. Like, look dude, you best do your job and not let your lady down, or she will go batshit crazy and cut a bloody swath to fix things.

    3. Well, THAT is straight-up Medea right there. Talk about a woman failed. (By which I mean, I love this.)

      And it's interesting, too, to see all of it apply to women in later, more permissible ages than Greek myths and Arthurian legends. Even when society expands the acceptable place of a woman, there's still the threat that she will go out of control if things screw with her.

      But that also creates the vision of women as irrational and frightening, which is great for some stories but no good as a way to view a gender. Which I think is why I love the women who fix their shit without losing their minds. As you point out, it's very rare in comparison to the ones who do go off the rails. But the women who take charge of their destinies without needing to destroy the entire world are (at least to me) more intriguing than the ones who snap. (Although I will always agree that cautionary tales about women with frightening power are better than pablum about women who have no power at all. At least the first option acknowledges that women are people.)

    4. This comment thread is so much fun. :D

      I mean, I have a special place in my heart for mad, powerful women. They're badass. And there are moments where we would all like to just throw social norms out the window and do what we want to do.

      But you're right - definitely not particularly helpful with views of gender. At the end of the day it's just another stereotype born out of men seeing women as Other instead of equally human. Like, really women are all monsters hidden under pretty hair just waiting to destroy male power.

      I think women enjoy this paradigm because, as you've noted, women don't get to be powerful very often, so we'll take what we can get. And I think that that's why this archetype persists in society today: men still see us as irrational and frightening, and we still do not enjoy equal power. The contrast still exists, too, where women are *supposed* to be very civil (more civil than men) and demure and soft, but these powerful characters break all that apart.

      Don't even get me started on how race factors into this mess. Diary of a Mad Black Woman, anyone?

    5. Oh my god, yes. Sometimes I wonder if I started this blog in part so that we could just toss feminist theory back and forth FOREVER.

      The "monsters hidden under pretty hair" line is taking me to this creepy-as-hell Irish fairy tale that scarred me when I was about 8, involving a farmer whose otherworldly beloved is revealed as a hideous flesh-eating demon when he gets a look at her reflection in water. Which seems pretty much EXACTLY what you're talking about in that line. In the majority of folklore, mythology, legend, etc., women are a well-baited death trap for innocent or unsuspecting men. Very much Other, without motive beyond their femininity.

      (I'm also thinking, because I will relate anything and everything to her, of Lady Ragnell, who SEEMS monstrous but is in fact both powerful and good. Her story is a gigantic flipped bird to that Other archetype, restoring her beauty so as to make her humanity more visible rather than letting beauty be a cover for her lack of humanity. Not to mention that she can only reenter human society BECAUSE Gawain expressly gives her power on a level with his own. BEST STORY EVER.)

      And oh god, race. I have not even addressed that yet in this blog. And I really should. That would be terrifying and fascinating.

  2. What is interesting is that as you move into the victorian and then the modern era, things branch out a bit. Like, to start with, beauty represents innocence and goodness. But! not always! The femme fatale as we know her today is born. She's not even really a monster, but usually just a tragic but still dangerous character.

    Race is just... a mess. lol. Anyway, it's not really applicable to all your pre-modern era discussions. On the other hand I'm totally up for like, the incorporation of African mythology into American culture. :D