Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

The Construction of Gender: Knights and Fairies or Animus and Anima in the Arthurian Legends

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

The Construction of Gender: Knights and Fairies or Animus and Anima in the Arthurian Legends

Article excerpt

Although the forest contains many terrors, it contains as many wonders. From its depths come beautiful fairy women to test and beguile the wandering knights as they ride in the forest. Many seek husbands among the Fellowship who sire sons upon them, introducing a strain of Otherworldly blood into the company.

Such a wandering knight is Sir Lancelot; he is the embodiment of the ideal of manhood, haunting the feminine imagination; he is an example of what a psychoanalyst will call the animus archetype, while the Knights of the Round Table symbolize the medieval masculine psyche. In contrast with the scarceness of the animus main characters in the Arthurian stories, we can tell that the anima archetypes abound.

Jung noted that 'anima is often personified as a witch or a priestess' since women have stronger links with the forces of darkness and the spiritual world. (...) but the unconscious called up the fairy, of whom the witch, serving the Devil, came thereafter to be regarded simply as a caricature. As creatures of the unconscious, witches and fairies are ladies with a long history behind them, recorded in the psyche, and with a complicated development of personality, transference which legend has shaped, clothed and brought to life as hostile characters.1

In the phrase 'the Eternal Feminine,' Pierre Teilhard de Chardin saw the name of love itself as the major cosmic force. It is

the meaning of a human aspiration towards transcendency with a natural instinct from which appear (1) the most commonly experienced mark of the domination of individuals by an extraordinarily broad vital current; (2) to a certain extent the source of all affective potentiality; (3) and lastly an energy especially favorable to self-development, to the enrichment of the self in so many increasingly spiritualized ways and to the contemplation of such manifold objects, and notably of God himself. 2

Woman haunts man's dreams, she is the object of his unconscious desire, she is present in those fairies of the lake and of the forest, always elusive and ambiguous, attractive and dangerous, bad and good. It is these fairies who help the hero, enthrall him, harness him asking for help, always and anywhere; such a fairy is Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, who gives Arthur the magic sword Excalibur and its scabbard which makes the owner invulnerable; or Morgan-le-Fay, who enchants the king and many of his knights; and Niniane or Viviane, who closes Merlin in a living grave.

There is a sense in which the majority of the women who appear in the Arthurian cycle are, or were goddesses. Thus Morgan le Fay, whose origins have been traced to the Irish goddesses Macha and Morrighan, becomes, in the medieval Arthurian world, a mere enchantress, at least on the surface. Thomas Malory says of her that she was the daughter of Igrain and Gorlois of Cornwall, and that after her father's death, and the events of Arthur's birth engineered by Merlin, she was 'put to school in a nunnery, where she became a great clerk of necromancy. ' (Thomas Malory, The Morte Darthur, 61) Morgan, who became known by the epithet Te Fay,' the Fairy, retained some of her goddess qualities, even in the medieval tales. Thus, with Thomas Malory, while on the one hand she is portrayed as an enchantress and shape-shifter, Morgan also figures as one of the three mysterious queens who appear after the battle of Camlan to bear the wounded Arthur to Avalon, 'there to be healed of his wounds' and to await the time of his country's need.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, recording an ancient tradition, refers in his Vita Merlini to nine sisters who dwell on an island in the sea called 'The Fortunate Isle', or 'the Island of Apples.' He continues that:

She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person. Morgan is her name, and she has learned what useful properties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies. …

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