Arthurian legends have been read and embellished in order to preserve King Arthur’s fame and legacy. Even today, fifteen centuries after the death of the historical King Arthur, his memory lives on, retold in countless ways. The story of the First Quest of the Round Table is complex and rather ridiculous, but its purpose is clear. It teaches the Knights of Camelot the concept of chivalry and endows them with a sense of honor. While most women in the Middle Ages were domestic and obedient, one exception stands out above all others. Morgana le Fay, sister of Arthur and infamous sorceress, rises above the typical female archetype. Usually seen as evil, the description is not necessarily justified by her actions because she merely acts upon her beliefs and ambition, much as a man would. The basis of chivalry is the protection of the stereotypical damsel while those who refuse the code are automatically labeled as witch.
Though women are deemed insignificant, they play a vital role in the concept of the Code of Chivalry. When Arthur decides that he needs a wife, his heart is set upon Guinevere. Permission is sought from her father, but she never has the chance to express her own opinion. Since women depended on men, society in the middle ages expected women to be subservient to men and remain compliant to their every need. Creating a glorious image for their husbands as well as inspiring them to seek and accomplish greater deeds were the sole purposes of women. The Code of Chivalry requires men to protect ladies. Their first duty above all else is to “right any wrong done to any woman in the world” (63). At the first gathering of the Knights of the Round Table, women are not acknowledged nor even considered. The First Quest, embarked upon by Sir Gawain, Sir Tors, and King Pellinor, brings about a change in their attitude toward women. Rather than being nonexistent, the image of women became that of helplessness and passive victims. However, this new perspective makes women a necessary element in the order of knighthood. As in the first quest, dueling over women is the most popular way to gain fame, and glory. When a dishonorable knights besieges a woman, his intention is not to capture the girl but to challenge other knights that seek to save the damsel as stated in the Order of Chivalry. Virtuous women, despite being looked down upon and seen as entirely dependant on others for their wellbeing, are fundamental to the entire concept of knighthood and chivalry.
However, there exists another type of women, which opposes the archetypal façade set by the Code of Chivalry. From Women and Arthurian Literature by Marion Wynne-Davies, this type of woman possesses a sinful nature. The criticism regards this category of women as sinful and treacherous to a man’s glory and strength. They do not care for what is expected of them, but rather for what they believe in and as long as they possess greater power than that of a man, they are hazardous to a man’s dominance which is forbidden by the Cod of Chivalry. Morgana le Fay, Arthur’s sister, falls under this category and performs great deeds of evil and retribution towards anyone who opposes her plans, as portrayed in this line, “Queen Morgana le Fay, thinking him to be dead, was continuing at Camelot with her wicked plans.”(74) Morgana’s first malicious deed is her attempt to kill Arthur through misleading Sir Accolon into fighting Arthur using Excalibur and the magic sheath. Her second is the attempted murder of her husband, King Urience that was prevented by her son, Uwaine. Her final accomplishment is her attempt to discard Excalibur’s sheath. The only task she succeeds in is her actions in disposing the scabbard. Nonetheless, Morgana possesses intelligence, magic, and power exceeding that of a man and using the criticism in “Women and Arthurian Literature,” she fits perfectly into the role of the independent, yet malicious woman.
The Arthurian legends are fueled by conflicts between the male and female archetypes. The females who do not fit the weak and submissive gender role are automatically characterized as evil sorceresses. However, the line that resides between good and evil is a thin one. Those who are stereotypically evil can easily do good whereas the pure can unwittingly cause evil. Yet, no woman who wishes to be considered virtuous can have the right to equality with men, being forced instead to serve and depend on men. Those that wish to think for themselves, that resent the control that men have over their lives, are severely punished. No matter the circumstance, evil or good, powerful or meek, the women of Arthurian legends will always be forced to play a secondary role to the glory of men.
1. Wynne-Davies, Marion. Women and Arthurian Literature. New York. St. Martin’s Press Inc. 1996