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13.10.04, Tolhurst, Feminist Origins of the Arthurian Legend

13.10.04, Tolhurst, Feminist Origins of the Arthurian Legend

Fiona Tolhurst's Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Feminist Origins of the Arthurian Legend boldly argues that Geoffrey's writings on the Arthurian legend, in both the Historia regum Britanniae ("The History of the Kings of Britain") and the Vita Merlini ("Life of Merlin"), merit the label "feminist," as her simultaneously published Geoffrey Monmouth and the Translation of Female Kingship does for other sections of his work. Tolhurst rightly acknowledges the risky choice of the word "feminist," which she refers to as "the other f-word"--a nod to its divisiveness--but claims that the word is indeed portable when used with caution. The analysis of Geoffrey's texts that Tolhurst undertakes certainly legitimizes the usage. The main goal of the book is to foreground and give credit for the various ways in which Geoffrey's versions of the Arthurian legend make space for women in ways often neglected both by writers in the Middle Ages and by scholars of the period.

Tolhurst's introduction highlights the necessity and usefulness of her feminist-historicist approach through a review of scholarship that highlights the gaps in the criticism on Geoffrey's work--gaps that are surprising given the considerable attention paid to gender issues in medieval literature--and an explanation of her terminology and methodology. Most fundamental, of course, is the defense of the word "feminist," and the introduction quickly puts the reader at ease. Tolhurst's clearly stated plans to employ the word "in a period- specific sense to describe medieval texts that depart from, and implicitly reject, the antifeminist tradition of the Middle Ages" preemptively alleviate most critical concerns (10). With this settled, Tolhurst moves on to her critical framework, which is an elaboration of the tripartite interpretation of Arthurian women developed by Maureen Fries (this book's dedicatee) over two decades ago. To Fries's three categories (female hero, heroine, and female counter-hero), Tolhurst adds women functioning in roles traditionally reserved for males, such as king or hero, and uses them--sometimes closely and sometimes more loosely--to analyze first the Arthurian sections of the Historia regum Britanniae and its literary descendants, then the Vita Merlini. Throughout, the specter of Empress Matilda, namely her efforts and ability to wield power and to gain legitimacy and support for her claim to the throne, serves as a backdrop and model for Geoffrey's female characters.

Chapter One, the longest and best in the book, examines the Historia regum Britanniae, with particular attention to Uther and Igerna, Arturus and Ganhumara, and the Mont-Saint-Michel episode. The chapter begins surprisingly not with a look at positive female roles, but rather with Geoffrey's feminist males. Tolhurst uses the ideal of the vir modestus (the moderate man) as the model for male behavior, first briefly in Aurelius, and then in Uther and Arturus. Tolhurst goes on to reject the widely accepted reading of a misogynist Uther, claiming instead that he prefigures courtliness. Furthermore, in this analysis Igerna becomes a partner in marriage and governance. The chapter, like the argument as a whole, really hits its stride as it shifts its discussion to Geoffrey's females, and the discussion of Ganhumara is the sharpest in the book. Again, Tolhurst challenges the critical majority, here seeing the depiction of Arturus's queen as a strikingly positive one. Tolhurst claims that "Ganhumara fulfills her role as queen consort appropriately and competently" and--an even stronger argument about the feminist qualities of the text--shows how Geoffrey exculpates her in the betrayal of Arturus (32). Tolhurst close reading of the text, one of the great hallmarks of the book here and throughout, foregrounds the text's attention on Mordredus as the party at fault, and notes that Gunhamara's complicity in the matter is far from settled. The final section of this first chapter turns to the giant-slaying episode at Mont-Saint-Michel, an episode in which Tolhurst sees Geoffrey writing a history of the men and women of Britain. Indeed, here as elsewhere, Tolhurst reminds the reader that Geoffrey gave his work a gender neutral title: De gestis Britonum ("Concerning the Deeds of the Britons"). At Mont-Saint-Michel, the males (Arturus and Beduerus) and females (Helena and her nursemaid) all have opportunities to perform the role of the hero, as Tolhurst's well- argued interpretation elucidates. By the end of this chapter, Tolhurst has convincingly shown that Geoffrey's work is invested in feminist principles.

The following two chapters look at the two major medieval translations of Geoffrey's work in order to show how they drift--and sometimes run- -from the feminist ideals undergirding the Historia regum Britanniae. Tolhurst here takes a risk in using what comes after Geoffrey to highlight the feminist in his work. Although it seems at times counterintuitive, this method does shed light on just how much Geoffrey deviates from the misogynist traditions of the Middle Ages. The close comparison of specific sections, characters, and even words exhibits the legend's devolution into more standard gender tropes.

Chapter Two focuses on Wace's Le roman de Brut, which Tolhurst argues undermines Geoffrey's feminism by marginalizing female characters and divesting them of political significance as well as by turning them into victims. Males in Wace are likewise re-envisioned to obscure or eliminate the feminist qualities with which Geoffrey endowed them. Here Tolhurst examines the same figures discussed in the first chapter, with additional attention to Anna. Throughout, Tolhurst stays close to the texts, often putting Wace's words directly into conversation with Geoffrey's. The reader learns about both texts as Tolhurst points out Wace's changes, which often serve to eliminate the feminism of his source. As a result, Tolhurst sees the women relegated to traditional female roles: Ygerne becomes a passive domestic object, for example, and Anna loses much of her significance. Likewise, Genuevre fulfills a more stereotypical medieval female role; she represents a troubling courtly culture and is villainized for her moral turpitude (although, as Tolhurst notes, Wace follows Geoffrey in laying the bulk of the blame on Mordret and even heightens the degree to which this is the case). Following his general pattern, Wace's version of the Mont-Saint-Michel episode deepens the divide between male and female. Tolhurst notes the almost monstrous nature of male heroism and the reduction of Eleine and the nursemaid to victims and perhaps objects of titillation.

Chapter Three continues the exploration of Geoffrey's legacy as seen through translations and transformations of his work, with Layamon's Brut the focus. Tolhurst argues that Layamon greatly increases the spotlight on Arthur and valorizes a warrior-king ethos. As a result, "Geoffrey's feminist version of the Arthurian legend gets displaced by a misogynist one in which the development that female figures receive problematizes, marginalizes, and demonizes them" (84). Tolhurst focuses on the same central figures who dominate the earlier chapters and again bases her analysis on close readings of the text, even contrasting all three versions (Geoffrey's, Wace's, and Layamon's) at times. Igærne's passivity becomes paramount in the Brut, and Anna's significance wanes more than it did in Wace's earlier version. Tolhurst enters into an already active debate about Layamon's Wenhauer, noting the English poet's clearly negative stance toward her. She is a "narrative afterthought" (96) throughout much of the Brut, and only comes to the foreground to be more complicit in the treachery with Mordred against her husband and king. The Mont- Saint-Michel episode likewise continues down the tracks laid by Wace. Eleine and the nursemaid are again victims, and the nature of the attention on the atrocities committed against them heightens the possibility for titillation. Tolhurst also notes that the episode focuses squarely on the men, with Eleine's rape manifested as an insult to her (male) relatives, for example. The chapter ends with a quick overview of the continuing gender implications in later versions of the legend. Although Tolhurst rightly leaves these later texts behind to focus on the goals of this book, the reader will most likely want more insight. This desire for more is a testament to the quality of analysis throughout the book.

The fourth and final chapter shifts back to Geoffrey of Monmouth, but now attention turns to his Vita Merlini. While the preceding chapters feel like a complete argument in and of themselves, this chapter tells us more about Geoffrey as a feminist. As Tolhurst notes, the Vita Merlini was composed after Empress Matilda's political failure in England, so its pro-female stance perhaps hints at Geoffrey's more personal beliefs about gender roles. Tolhurst's analysis of the Vita Merlini relies on a comparison with its probable source, Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei chwaer ("The Conversation of Myrddin and His Sister Gweddydd" or "The Prophecy of Myrddin and Gwenddydd, His Sister"), thus nicely reversing the tactic employed in the earlier chapters. Tolhurst notes the centrality of the women in the poem, focusing on Guendoloena, Ganieda, and Morgen, the latter two of whom seem to surpass Merlinus in various ways, and all three of whom exhibit the author's flexible notion of gender. Morgen fulfills the role of the female hero in this analysis. This chapter is shorter than the previous ones, and its approach a bit different, but it relies on the same analytical framework and crosses into critical territory too often neglected. It should open doors for continued scholarship.

Tolhurst ends her book--a delight throughout--with a short summative conclusion. Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Feminist Origins of the Arthurian Legend is smart, solid, and even. Its clear and precise prose makes it a highly enjoyable read. The reader leaves reevaluating gender ideas about the Middle Ages. Most important, Tolhurst makes it quite hard--even impossible--not to accept that Geoffrey was a feminist of his day. There is, perhaps, not as much attention to the historical matter and its influence on the writers and writings; however, this minor flaw is mitigated when one reads this book in conjunction with its companion--a move recommended for this reason, as well as for the quality and value of that text on its own. Scholars of Geoffrey, Wace, and Layamon will find this book enlightening and indispensable, as will Arthurian and medieval gender scholars more broadly.