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Malory's Magical Medieval Women - The Role and Importance of Women in Le Morte D'Arthur.

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Introduction

Word Count: 3,224 'Le Morte D'Arthur' Malory's Magical Medieval Women - The Role and Importance of Women in Le Morte D'Arthur In Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, women appear merely to exist and we are given little insight into their thoughts. Women are perceived to occupy a subsidiary relation to men in texts of this period, and in this work, the author is said to "concede to the feminine only a supporting place in the Arthurian society of the text"1. However, they make great impact in the story. I believe that women in Le Morte D'Arthur are not purely motivations for the action of knights, and that they themselves act and influence the plots of the story. However, this essay does not only deal with how important or influential Malory's females are, but questions why it should be that he couldn't see women as powerful unless they were 'magical', and what this implies. This underestimated role of women is representative of the society in which Malory lived, where women played a much more important and active role than would first be thought. The fifteenth century was an epoch of uncertainty and change, experiencing the both War of the Roses and the Black Death, the latter of which began in the fourteenth century in Asia and Europe and continued to be endemic in England for the remainder of the middle ages and beyond. At its height in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, a third of the population may have perished from this plague. These events lead to labour shortages, peasant revolts and other social ills, which made a large impact on the lives of women. 2 With knights locked in battle and such social unrest, it became necessary for women to act independently of their lords to survive. During their husbands' absences, noblewomen "fulfilled most of their tasks, from managing a large fief to organising manorial affairs and supervising the peasants who cultivated their lands"3. ...read more.

Middle

Elaine of Corbenic is identified in Malory's work as the mother of Galahad, and the daughter of King Pelles, the keeper of the Grail. Purely by association then, she fulfils an important role as the mother of the purest knight who wins the quest for the Holy Grail. However, in order to create this perfect knight, who represents the mixing of two strains of 'holy' blood, Elaine must seduce the less than eager Sir Lancelot, which she achieves by enchanting him. She appears to him as Guinevere, which causes Galahad to be engendered, and, as a result of this, the Queen to be enraged. Elaine is therefore usually perceived to be either na�ve or insincere, and her behaviour to be wicked. Paradoxically, even though Galahad is conceived in a duplicitous way by a 'wicked' woman, the result is a perfect knight who benefits the court and the Round Table greatly. This may be because, although she is wicked in the sense that she was an unmarried mother, she was merely a vessel for Galahad and so was somehow detached from him, and therefore able to produce this uncorrupted soul. In this respect she becomes almost a Mary figure, as her actions can be seen to be for the 'greater good' and to display a type of selflessness, though knowingly causing the wrath of the Queen: "So the noise sprang in Arthur's court that Launcelot had gotten a child upon Elaine, ... wherefore Queen Guenevere was wroth,...said the queen, when it is daylight I command you to avoid my court; and for the love you owe unto Sir Launcelot do not discover his counsel..."8 Elaine uses her magical powers - appearing as Guinevere - to control the situation, realising her goal and asserting herself, which without doubt makes her an important and influential figure of the story, regardless of her status as Galahad's mother. Elaine of Astolat is a prime example of the powerless woman so typical of medieval writing. ...read more.

Conclusion

Merlin has prophesied his own demise but is powerless to stop it, and through her clever manipulation of his besotted attitude towards her, Nimue succeeds in becoming his superior. This pattern of a man becoming besotted with a woman and losing his human position could be attributed to Arthur, who marries Guinevere against Merlin's advice, and also Lancelot, who cannot obtain the Grail and eventually becomes a hermit because of his involvement with the Queen. The actions of Nimue may be seen as wicked and evil, but later in the text, she protects Arthur from Morgan's treachery and uses her powers for the good of the society, in this fulfilling Merlin's role. The text also seems to "approve and confirm her freedom for such extemporising"18 by placing the responsibility for his own capture with Merlin himself: "And always Merlin lay about the lady to have hir maidenhood, and she was ever passing weary of him, and fain would have been delivered of him, for she was afeard of him because he was a devils son, and she could not beskift of him by no mean."19 The above quotation suggests the main reason for her anxiety to be free from him. Fear is a typically female weakness, and although I believe she has just cause to fear him as a "devyls son", even if it were not justified she shows herself to be strong enough to overcome both her fear and his considerable power, thus warranting her status as an important and strong female character. Reid in Arthurian Legend says "it is fitting that when he takes a mistress who encompasses his ruin; she should be of fairy origin".20 Is that why she is allowed influential 'otherworldly' status, or is it because if she is mythical, she is not real and her power cannot be recognised in ordinary women? Only one man, Merlin, is decisively associated with the practice of sorcery. ...read more.

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