The Medieval Review 11.03.22

Martin, Molly. Vision and Gender in Malory's Morte Darthur. Arthurian Studies. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010. Pp. 201. $90 ISBN 978-1-84384-242-2. .

Reviewed by:

Amy S. Kaufman
Middle Tennessee State University

The past ten years have seen an explosion of critical work on medieval masculinity, and Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur is a prime candidate for this focus, steeped as it is in the masculine performances of knights. Following the trail forged by Dorsey Armstrong's 2003 Gender and the Chivalric Community in Malory's Morte d'Arthur and its examination of the ways in which a knight's masculinity is dependent upon women, Molly Martin's Vision and Gender in Malory's Morte Darthur focuses specifically on the visual dynamics of gender interdependence. Martin argues that masculinity is constructed through public performance, or more accurately, anxiously repeated performances of gender necessitated by the constant jeopardy in which the visual mechanisms of love place a knight's masculinity. Through demonstrations of physical prowess, according to Martin, knights affirm their masculinity by manipulating the gaze.

Martin's introduction begins by establishing the theory of intromissive gazing that grew in popularity in the later Middle Ages. Unlike the patriarchal cinematic gaze outlined by Laura Mulvey in her 1989 study "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," medieval romance exhibits a more complex system of gazes between lovers, a system which, according to Martin, threatens to undercut a knight's "active and powerful masculinity" (3). Courtly love, Martin explains, "regulates a highly gendered matrix of gazes and power" in which "the gazer becomes the object of the image" (3, 6). The gazer, in other words, is passive, a designation that can "destabilize and blur gendered notions of active and passive in visual exchanges" (7). Martin's thesis rests on the idea that the destabilization caused by this matrix of gazes results in a "masculine crisis" that must be remedied by intense and public displays of gender performance, especially demonstrations of physical prowess before an appropriate audience (13-14). Martin makes an important caveat that masculinity and femininity are not "essentialized as opposites" in the Morte Darthur; therefore a knight whose masculinity is in jeopardy is not automatically feminized (17). Instead, the unfortunate knight who fails to construct his masculinity properly is distanced from the Morte's "codified and sanctioned masculinity" (17). Though Martin is not terribly optimistic about women's agency in this process, her depiction of the role of women in the construction of masculine identity is symbiotic and complex. Malory's men and women are reliant upon one another for gender identity, and Martin's analysis will extend beyond the matrix of gazes between lover and beloved to multiple layers of audience, including text, author, and reader.

Martin's first chapters provide examples of knights whose performances of masculinity are largely successful because they are able to reclaim and refocus the gaze on spectacles that reinforce masculinity. Gareth is used as a sort of "gold standard," for Martin claims that "the concern for masculinity drives Gareth's narrative" (28). Though his masculinity is continually threatened by his anonymity, Lyonet's refusal to recognize his worth, and what Martin calls a "collapsed gaze"--a lack of subjectivity (29)--Gareth's repeated demonstrations of physical prowess in front of multiple audiences, spectacles of prowess that Gareth intentionally creates, suggest that when a knight is the object of the gaze, ideally he "both constructs and becomes the image" (37). Romance masculinity requires that the knight transform gaze into spectacle for both public audience and private beloved. Martin notes in particular the moments when Lyonet cajoles Gareth into looking at her sister Lyones as he fights before a large audience, for the sight of Lyones and her gaze upon him directly feed his strength.

Martin's second chapter turns to Trystram and Lancelot, who both demonstrate what Martin identifies as "the Narcissus model, in which the woman is both a reflection and a projection of the male's self- image" (50). The fact that their love is secret prevents these two knights from indulging in the same very public demonstrations of gazing that Gareth is allowed. In Lancelot's case, Martin argues, Malory exacerbates the invisibility of the love between Lancelot and Guenevere. Still, Lancelot's masculinity depends upon performances of prowess in front of the queen and other audience members. Especially compelling is Martin's argument that on many occasions, Lancelot controls the gaze on both himself and Guenevere, limiting this gaze when she is vulnerable and replacing her image with his own. Trystram's sections in the Morte, according to Martin, highlight the symbiotic relationship between male prowess and female beauty, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Castle Plewre, where the couple's lives depend on exhibiting these very qualities in the superlative. Martin's reading of this section is persuasive, as is her discussion of how Trystram's martial defense of Isode's beauty "directs sightlines," allowing for a gender performance that both confirms his masculinity and protects Isode (83). Lancelot and Trystram are excellent knights, in short, because the intense threats to their masculinity require repeated performances of prowess. The argument is perhaps in danger of becoming reductive when the absent beloved, anonymity, and madness can each be configured as a "rupture in masculinity" (74); these tropes, as well as complex concepts such as "worshyp" and "jantylness," might be folded a little too readily into masculinity and its crises.

The next three chapters of the book are, without question, the sharpest. Here Martin launches into a study of complexities in gender production for characters on the margins. Chapter Three focuses on "aberrant masculinity," knights whose actions are "inconsistent with the prescribed norm" and trouble "the male communal identity" (87-8). Martin shifts her gaze to Dynadan, whose lack of love object and avoidance of audiences and battles threaten to interrogate the text's masculine norms until Malory turns Dynadan into an opportunity for other knights to perform masculinity. This chapter also examines Alysaundir, who remains only an image in the matrix of gazes and fails to control the spectacle, which ultimately renders him invisible; Gawain, who tends to kill his audience members; and, most compellingly, Palomydes. Martin affords important consideration to Palomydes's marginal status as a Saracen within her formula. This alongside his constant rejection by Isode, her refusal to "look" at his prowess, render him a permanent outsider, always excluded from the masculine community.

Chapter Four examines the grail quest and within this section, Martin argues that Malory refuses to rid the book of romance norms even in spiritual settings. Her comparative work reveals that Malory rejects the French prohibitions against courtly gazing in his redaction and makes changes to ensure that the construction of masculinity will remain the same on this quest, despite consistent injunctions to grail-seeking knights that they abandon earthly concerns. The grail narratives instead rely "on at least a partial conflation of spiritual and romance visual tropes" (141). Hence, Lancelot, Gawain, Percival, and Galahad must juggle courtly and spiritual performance, a balance that Lancelot, whose performances in the courtly realm have been so successful, cannot maintain. Martin pronounces that "the grail becomes analogous to the women in the romance matrix of gazes" (147). Still, though spirituality complicates the visual dynamics of romance, it is ultimately rendered less important than the beloved in the construction of a knight's masculine identity.

Finally, in Chapter Five, Martin turns to women's public performances of gender, asserting that the construction of femininity is "less rigid" than the requirements of masculine performance (148). Elaine of Ascolot is subject to the same matrix of intromissive gazes that affects knights when she is entranced by the sight of Lancelot. Femininity, too, is public performance and yet, though Elaine attempts to perform the roles of nurse, wife, and paramour to Lancelot, only her final performance is successful. Elaine of Corbin, on the other hand, engages in a masterful manipulation of audience and gaze. Martin's analysis of enchantment and darkness as controlling intromissive vision is keen here, as is her assessment that Elaine intentionally directs sight and audience when she goes to Camelot richly arrayed. Though it fails to impress her beloved, Elaine's performance awards her precisely the reception she desires from king, court, and reader. Martin's final analysis is of Percival's sister, whom she reads as a "mirror" to Galahad, whose gender performance involves visual elements both courtly and spiritual. Martin argues that Percival's sister is both masculine and feminine, "both the noble virgin and the knight coming to the aid of both her fellows by preventing further battle on their parts and the ailing woman who demands this succor" (171). Throughout this chapter, Martin repeatedly stresses that though it tends to be "less singular" than masculinity, femininity is intentional and constructed, and its construction is just as dependent upon men as masculinity is upon women. That gender is performed is not news to anyone, but it is refreshing to see the analysis of a medieval text acknowledge femininity's public face.

Vision and Gender might have been enriched by an inclusion of gaze dynamics in other medieval texts (Hope Weissman's work on Chaucer, for instance) as well as by a larger and more diverse sample size. For instance, Martin argues that Percival's sister is unique in her combination of gender roles, but presents only the two Elaines for comparison. Likewise, as with many studies of masculinity in Malory, men who are not knights tend to be neglected. Martin briefly includes Arthur in her conclusion, explaining that he "sanctions the performativity of gender" and "functions on both sides of the gaze" (176), but does not address the ways in which the masculinity of a king, surely a public performance itself, figures into the formula of audience and gaze. Still, these are minor quibbles mostly derived from a desire to hear more of Martin's ideas about vision and the public performance of gender. Martin's study, all in all, is a smart, solid, and timely combination of medieval and contemporary theories of love, gender, and sight.