Academic journal article Arthuriana

Guiding Lights: Feminine Judgment and Wisdom in Malory's Morte Darthur

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Guiding Lights: Feminine Judgment and Wisdom in Malory's Morte Darthur

Article excerpt

From minor figures to the Morte's most important female characters, women assess and judge in matters of social and courtly behavior, chivalry, love, and morality. Furthermore, Malory opens and closes his work with a female model of noble action who influences other characters and his readers while underscoring his major themes. Malory's treatment of these female characters demonstrates the importance of the feminine in the Morte. (JJ)

Malory's Morte Darthur is a work driven by male desire, will, and action, from its dramatic opening where Uther is willing to sacrifice everything for his lust for Igraine to Arthur's death where the king chooses vengeance on Mordred over preserving his kingdom and his own life. Yet feminine influence also pervades the work. As Dorsey Armstrong argues, 'The ubiquitous and seemingly necessary presence of female characters who ask favors, bestow gifts, intercede for, and pass judgment on knights, points to the importance of the feminine in establishing, shaping, and confirming masculine knightly identity.'1 This wise, sometimes prescient, voice of judgment, evident from the first book, resonates thematically and even morally in the text. From minor figures to the Morte's most important female characters, women assess and judge in matters of social and courtly behavior, chivalry, love, and morality. Furthermore, Malory opens and closes his work with a female model of noble action who influences other characters and his readers while underscoring his major themes. A look at a few of Malory's minor characters, his anonymous female guides, will lay the groundwork for a longer analysis of Igraine and Guinevere, two characters who demonstrate the importance of the feminine in the Morte. These female figures reveal the key role women play in Malory's narrative.

Female guides, recurrent in medieval romance, are usually unnamed and generally do not play a leading role in a love plot. These minor characters lead knights to adventure, judge their behavior, and give them instruction. Malory often expands their action and dialogue in order to develop his views on knightly conduct. Eugène Vinaver has noted that chivalry, Malory's High Order of Knighthood, is a rule of conduct which concerns itself not only with the 'technique of fighting' but also with matters of 'good breeding, gentleness, and loyalty.'2 Although knights assess the masculine code of martial excellence, it is the women who often comment on matters of behavior, breeding, and gentleness. As Armstrong observes, 'The awareness of the code, in combination with the lack of a parallel code designed to regulate feminine behavior, opens up a space of feminine influence at the very heart of the masculine chivalric enterprise.'3 A few examples will illustrate.

In 'The Tale of King Arthur,' Gawain, Ywain, and Marholt ride into a forest grove and meet three damsels-aged 60, 30, and 15-sitting by a fountain. They explain their function: 'We be here...for this cause: if we may se ony of arraunte knyghtes to teche hem unto stronge aventures' (1:163). Yvain and Marholt both benefit from their guides' instruction, but Gawain 'loste' his damsel (1:179). He quickly proves himself unworthy in her eyes by failing to defend Sir Pelleas when he is attacked by ten knights. Although just fifteen, the damsel shows she knows what is required of a knight worthy of the name: '"Sir," seyde the damesell unto sir Gawayne, "mesemyth hit were your worshyp to helpe that dolerouse knyght, for methynkes he is one of the beste knyghtes that ever I sawe." "I wolde do for hym," seyde sir Gawayne, "but hit semyth he wolde have no helpe." "No," seyde the damesell, "methynkes ye have no lyste to helpe hym"' (1:164). Dissatisfied with his conduct, the damsel almost immediately leaves Gawain for another knight: 'for I may nat fynde in my herte to be with hym...And therefore let us two go whyle they fyght' (1:165). When they all meet again at the fountain a year later, she makes public Gawain's failure. …

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