03.01.04, Wheeler and Tolhurst, On Arthurian Women

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Carolyne Larrington

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.004


Wheeler, Bonnie and Fiona Tolhurst, eds.. On Arthurian Women: Essays in Memory of Maureen Fries. Dallas: Scriptorium Press, 2001. Pp. xvi, 408. ISBN: 0-9651877-1-3.

Reviewed by:
Carolyne Larrington
St. John's College, Oxford

This handsome, generously priced book is a splendid tribute to Maureen Fries, who died suddenly in 1999. It contains twenty-two essays on women in Arthurian texts and a further nine pieces on women Arthurians. A memorial of Maureen Fries concludes the book, balancing an introduction which makes the honorand come vividly alive, even for one who never knew her. The editors have achieved a remarkable feat in commissioning and publishing quite so many new essays in so short a space of time, and there is much in the book which will interest Arthurians of every stamp.

Many essays engage with Fries's most lasting contribution to the study of Arthurian women: the identification of three types of female character: the Heroine, who upholds Arthurian society through traditional feminine behaviour, the Female Hero, who has to step outside the normal roles, and the Counter-Hero, those women like Morgan le Faye who act in opposition to the male paradigm of the Round Table and its values. Fries's model structures the organisation of the first half of the book where essays on Guenevere, the two Elaines, Arthur's sisters, various less prominent characters, and some modern treatments of Arthurian women are to be found. The essays on women Arthurians vary in informativeness; Rachel Bromwich's account of Lady Charlotte Guest and the Mabinogion and Norris Lacy's re-evaluation of the much maligned Jessie Weston are important contributions to the history of the discipline; Sue Ellen Holbrook's second piece in the collection, on Vida Dutton Scudder and Sigmund Eisner's account of Helaine Newstead illuminate forerunners whom we are in danger of forgetting. Henry Peyton's account of Roger Loomis's three wives adds little to what can be discovered from Who's Who in America, though it contributes a memorable anecdote of Margaret Schlauch's reaction to the news that Laura Hibbard had pipped her to the coveted position of Mrs. Loomis no. 2. Fanni Bogdanow contributes a forceful and moving autobiographical piece, Elspeth Kennedy recounts more drily how she came to dedicate herself to the Non-Cyclical Lancelot. Tributes to living scholars, Rachel Bromwich and Valerie Lagorio, however heartfelt, seem less appropriate in a memorial volume.

The essays on Arthurian characters vary in length, in theoretical approach, and in substantiality. Some pieces are slight, little developed from the Kalamazoo papers they once were: Jo Goyne's account of Olwen in Culhwch ac Olwen for example; others, such as Michael Twomey's discussion of Morgan le Faye as empress of the desert -- an epithet found in a tantalising gloss in MS Royal 12. C. xi, combines with a re-punctuation and convincing re-interpretation of the puzzling passage in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ll. 2445-51, use its brief length to solve one question and open some others. Several of the pieces offer close readings of a character's activities, often in a single text; Dorsey Armstrong's account of Morgause in Malory, though it makes reference to the Suite de Merlin might have benefited from considering the Post-Vulgate account of the affair between Arthur and King Lot's wife also. Elizabeth Sklar's account of Elaine, mother of Galahad, argues that this complex and interesting character has been neglected by recent critical reception, precisely because she is so unlike her more acceptable counterpart, the 'lily maid'. Other essays are more substantial, applying theoretical approaches, often to good effect: applying Bakhtin's idea of the carnivalesque is scarcely revolutionary in medieval criticism, but it has not made much headway in Arthurian studies previously. Melanie McGarrahan Gibson provides a convincing identification of the carnivalesque in 'The Tale of Sir Gareth', and less plausibly, in Yvain. Maud Burnett McInerney makes good use of the concepts of the homosocial and homoerotic in exploring the puzzling episode in Malory in which Lancelot is shot in the buttocks by a 'lady huntress'; she finds the return of the repressed here, where Malory permits himself an eruption of scorn and antagonism towards the hero whom he normally reveres.

A few articles put forward controversial, even revolutionary arguments, such as the late Beverly Kennedy's contention that Malory's Lancelot and Guenevere were adherents to the fifteenth-century code of 'trew love', as outlined in Lydgate's Temple of Glas, Christine de Pizan's Le livre du duc des vrais amans and Richard Rolle's Fire of Love. This code recognised the possibility that two lovers, drawn to one another as much by admiration of each other's virtues as through sheer physical attraction, but sexual consummation of this love remains out of the question while either lover is married. The best such lovers can hope for is that death will free them to marry at some future date. Kennedy argues that the changes Malory makes from his sources in the direction of erasing any certainty that Lancelot and Guenevere ever had intercourse -- the 'pleasaunce and lykyng' that Lancelot enjoys during the Knight of the Cart episode may be the pleasure he gains from watching his lady sleeping -- show that his lovers subscribe to the code of 'trew lovars', the epithet Malory applies in his own authorial voice to Guenevere. Kennedy thus does nearly as much as Malory himself to rehabilitate Lancelot from the charges of perjury and adultery that critics have levelled at him. Meanwhile, whether or not Lancelot is chaste with regard to Guenevere, Ellen Lorraine Friedrich ingeniously discovers an amorous liaison in Le Chevalier de la Charrete; the episode of the comb is revealed, through decoding its puns and metaphors, as a sexual encounter between Lancelot and the lady who is guiding him. Friedrich shows just what an attentive reading, alive to puns and multivalent metaphoric systems, can uncover in the playful linguistic textures of Chretien's poems.

Sue Ellen Holbrook revisits her classic study of Nimue, Merlin's nemesis and Lady of the Lake by reconsidering these figures in terms of Goddess theory. Holbrook carefully positions herself vis-a-vis the amateur Arthurians: Nikolai Tolstoy, Goodrich, Markale, the Matthews, whose speculative treatment of these types of character have been either castigated or ignored by the academy, suggesting that though the evidence she considers may not stand up to rigorous scrutiny, it may yet be suggestive in terms of illuminating connections between Nimue-types and aspects of landscape in the medieval texts. Holbrook's essay, for this reviewer, persuades rather, that Goddess-aficionados can assimilate any one or anything to the Goddess; the chances of enlightenment on this particular path are a matter of faith rather than reason. Another long essay by Lorraine Kochanske Stock presents the Celtic sheela-na-gig figure as analogous to the description of Morgan le Faye in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Invoking Celtic analogues to the plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Stock notes that Morgan is characterised as a goddess within the poem; we see her in castle and chapel, the sites where sheela-na-gigs are normally found, and her physical description focuses on the grotesque. Such evidence -- and the many striking photographs of sheela-na-gigs in situ is interesting in itself, but even the pudenda-like structure of the Green Chapel, the threatening genitalia of the goddess waiting to engulf Gawain, does not entirely convince.

Among the other medieval essays, Anne Berthelot's treatment of change in Nimue and her problematic identification in the French sources and Malory is exemplary in its consideration not only of the Vulgate texts, but of Livre d'Artus and the Prophecies de Merlin. Berthelot traces how the fairy who nurtures the infant Lancelot, clearly an ondine or mermaid in origin, whose child-snatching is not always easily construed as beneficent, becomes identified with the nemesis of Merlin. Her original supernatural provenance is effaced; as with other enchantress figures her knowledge of magic is no longer innate, but attributed to dealings with Merlin. Berthelot convincingly shows how the three enchantresses of Arthurian legend, Morgan, the Lady and Nimue interact with and displace one another. "At the most, the story can absorb one enchantress, one 'Queen of Air and Darkness'" (100). Margaret Jewett Burland makes a substantial argument for Enide as a figure who resists easy classification into one of Fries's three categories; Burland sees Enide as victim of a crisis in her own subjectivity, finally learning how to inhabit her social role without anxiety: "Chretien's heroes learn how to be more fully themselves by rising above the stereotypes by which others judge them" (182).

The essays dealing with post-medieval reception of Arthurian themes include Donald Hoffman's identification of Tristan themes in Jude the Obscure, while Kathleen Coyne Kelly joins a growing number of critics who quarry the medieval -- or in this case, the Victorian legendary themes of A.S. Byatt's Possession, tracing the connections between the Lady of Shalott and the principle female characters of Possession, Christabel LaMotte and Maud Bailey, regretting that, like the Lady, neither character can ultimately position herself as an autonomous subject, but both succumb to living unhappily -- or in Maud's case happily ever after, but a happiness only achieved through male agency. Alan Lupack adds to the growing number of articles dealing with the styles of individual illustrators of Arthurian material, by exploring the work of Dora Curtis who is revealed as favouring Fries's counter-heroes in her illustrations. Kevin Harty tracks down a 1911 film by Ugo Falena, Tristano e Isotta, which gives an enhanced and unexpected role to Morgan, a figure to whom Maureen Fries returned several times in her scholarly career.

In addition to the essays discussed at length above, there are pieces on Guenevere in the Alliterative Morte Arthure by Rebecca Beal, and in Malory by E.D. Kennedy; on Elaine of Astolat by James Noble, on Belacane in Parzival by Susann T. Samples, Merlin's Mother by Charlotte A.T. Wulf, and a highly enjoyable account of Hellawes the necrophiliac enchantress in the Stanzaic Morte and Malory by Janet Knepper. No one who is interested in Arthurian women can afford to ignore this weighty book; its combination of substantial field-altering essays, intriguing close readings, illuminations of overlooked episodes and its survey of the contribution women have made and continue to make to the discipline make it a valuable addition to an increasing body of work exploring the Arthurian feminine.

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Author Biography

Carolyne Larrington

St. John's College, Oxford