Perception of Women of the Arthurian Legend in the Middle Ages and in the Twentieth Century
By Marie Štefanidesová
Introduction: The Arthurian legend, often referred to as the “Matter of Britain”, is one of the most important parts of the British national heritage; over the centuries, it has developed into a symbol of British patriotism, a consolation in bad times and a religious alegory of searching for the Truth. These interpretations are usually centered around the male characters of the legend and promote the patriarchal division of the society; still, many more possible views on the legend have been expressed. In my thesis, I will investigate two twentieth-century views and contrast them with the traditional Christian ones by analysing three of the crucial literary works based on the legend; In this analysis, I will concentrate on the female characters appearing in these rewritings. The aim of such comparison is to demonstrate in what ways the time period as well as the society where the author lives, along with his or her beliefs and political opinions, affect the treatment of the particular material, while at the same time the work itself offers diverse ways of understanding the society, its history and development.
Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory, a detailed prosaic description of the events of the legend, is undoubtedly one of the crucial works concerning the topic. It was first published by Caxton in 1485 and has formed the basis for all the Arthurian literature ever since; Malory’s impact can be traced even in the twentieth century fantasy fiction. Malory’s work reflects the Middle-Age stereotype of women as evil and responsible for the original sin only to a certain degree, the influence of courtly romances in which women were praised and adored creates a more favourable depiction of them. The social and political conditions of the twentieth century which differed radically from those in the Middle Ages are naturally reflected in literature and in the perception of the Matter of Britain, too.
The role of women in the society and, consequentaly, in literature, altered dramatically; the general tendency was to draw more attention towards them, their emotions and motivations; this can be observed in two important Arthurian novels, in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) and in particular in The Mists of Avalon (1979) by Marion Zimmer Bradley. While White portrays the female characters with sympathy and understanding, he uses them mainly as a means to find out more about his male heroes. Bradley, on the other hand, makes women the central characters of her novel and describes thier struggle to retain their power and dignity in the patriarchal society.