This year, fiction I read included Erec and Enide, Paradise Lost, Idylls of the King, and The Return of the King. So yes, lots of traditional, old-fashioned representations of manhood, womanhood, and gender relationships. Fascinating, often swashbuckling, stellar quality literary pieces, to be sure. And they also included plenty of fodder for an interesting discussion.
Erec and Enide by Chrétien de Troyes
The plot of this little piece of Arthuriana is totally foreign and inexplicable to the modern reader not steeped in 12th century French culture. Nevertheless, with a little background it can be appreciated as an exciting adventure story complete with over-the-top fight scenes and dramatic emotional plotlines.
Erec is one of the noblest, strongest, handsomest knights of the Round Table, and on a quest for the stately Queen Guinevere he meets and falls in love with the most beautiful woman in all the land. She’s also apparently the most feminine and perfect, and that seems to play a role in her not uttering a word until well into the poem.
After these two perfect, beautiful, idealistic people are married in Camelot, they eventually move back to the court of Erec’s father, where Erec will someday inherit the throne. It is here that something odd happens – Erec becomes so enthralled with his wife that he rarely leaves their room. Enide, happy as she is with this, begins to worry she is the reason for her husband’s falling reputation: the court is gossiping about how Erec has lost his knightliness, and has become effeminate and uxorious. She whispers something about this to herself as he sleeps, not knowing that he hears just enough to think she is mocking him and suspects her fidelity.
So Erec starts out on a quest. No one knows the purpose, or the destination, or the enemy, or anything else one typically knows when one drops everything and suddenly runs off on an adventure. He just leaves, apparently intent on reclaiming his manhood, and for some reason has Enide come with him. He then commands her to remain silent throughout their trip. She is to obey him and not say a word. What is she to do, then, when she trots on ahead and sees bands of scoundrels lying in wait to attack her husband?
And there is your plot. Multiple attacks by multiple bands of scoundrels, known only by a wife commanded to be quiet and repeatedly left to argue herself whether she should listen or warn him. It’s odd, to be sure, and easy to become exasperated by the blatant sexism (as evidenced by scribbles left by the previous reader of my used copy, who noted “Erec is an ass” and “WTF?!” throughout the margins.)
But here in the Bay Area, we like to talk about tolerance and cultural appropriation. What if imposing our Western gender norms on 12th century French culture is – I don’t know – historical misappropriation?
I know, I know. But hear me out here. Let’s give de Troyes the benefit of the doubt for a minute. The author doesn’t seem to expect any such outrage from his audience. He expects them to accept it as perfectly normal. And directly after each instance of this, we are presented with the inner dialogue of Enide.
Enide has been given an (apparently reasonable) command. It is her duty to honor that command, and in doing so, honor her husband. At the same time, his life is in danger, and only she can save him. Enide is supposed to be facing a moral dilemma! And she chooses the one that protects her husband, bringing herself into disobedience (yup, Erec gets annoyed at her selflessness – even after fighting off the bad guys she tips him off to.) She does this multiple times, not considering herself, in more dramatic circumstances at each event.
In his own odd way, De Troyes is presenting us with a heroine. She is no damsel in distress – she is a strong, selfless, capable woman who protects her man with no regard to her own reputation. The author seems to expect we empathize with her dilemma, and then admire her moral bravery. She is a hero in the story, every bit as noble and selfless as Erec (or at least, as he used to be.)
But fear not, the couple is eventually reconciled. And the story doesn’t end there; we get to see some maturity in Erec as he learns to be more selfless, more concerned with the joy of others rather than himself.
What am I to make of this? It’s a little silly, for sure. But giving the author a little leeway shows a couple growing together in love, sacrifice, and forgiveness. We certainly see differences in gender stereotypes with Enide’s strength vs. Erec’s strength – but in the end that works to amplify, via a little juxtaposition, the virtues of the other.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Milton’s subject is Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall brings sin into the world. And with that as his subject, I am inclined to be soft on the author. How can anyone present the perfect man, perfect woman, perfect marriage? Such a topic is subject to the author’s life and times, cultural views around him, and his own opinions and experiences.
There are plenty of positives – idyllic scenes of happy life in an beautiful garden, and Milton’s own writing suggests he was being countercultural in hinting at the marital bliss of the couple (he feels inclined to remind his audience, God created this first, you know. He blessed them and told them to multiply . . . )
Adam is depicted as admirably strong and gentle, and Eve full of joy, trust, and innocence. Both are quick to praise each other’s beauty or wisdom. But Milton makes plenty of statements that fall sharp on delicate modern ears. Adam is a rational being; Eve, soft (for the life of me I have no idea what this means). Most cringeworthy are implications throughout implying that Adam somehow stands between Eve and God. Eve clearly adores this God that Adam keeps telling her about, but there’s a sense of distance between the two. Is Eve a critical thinker possessing a personal relationship with the Creator she loves? Or is Adam her conduit to the divine? It’s at these moments I am most critical of Milton – how much of this was influence from his own views and/or culture, and how much of it became an influence on Christian culture afterwards?
The Bible, after all, depicts God sending His messages directly to women, no male guardian required as an in-between (Judges 13:1-7, Luke 1:26-38). And the Bible doesn’t present men listening to women as some sort of threat to their manhood (Genesis 21:8-14, Esther 4:15-17). Milton appears to have missed this, however, and in his zeal for presenting Adam as the head of his wife, he stumbles into making Adam Eve’s earthly god.
Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The Idylls is a collection of poems Tennyson published over the course of six years. The first few are adventure stories of various knights of the Round Table and their ladies, and the last few trace how Camelot reaches its collapse.
This book combines High Chivalry of Arthuriana with Victorian hyperbole and romanticism. It’s very excessive, so should be read as such.
Here, women at their finest are beautiful and virtuous; women at their worst are beautiful, manipulative, and petty. Women of both sorts hold incredible amounts of influence: the noble ones inspire the men around them (whether there is romance involved or not) to be courageous and honorable knights. The ignoble ones toy with men for selfish purposes. Their influence, even among the virtuous women, isn’t always in a passive damsel-in-distress kind of way; you also have the high-strung spitfire in Lynnette.
As such, women aren’t terribly weak here, and carry a great deal of influence throughout the poems. Arthur himself acknowledges this power, stating near the end that the Code of Chivalry holds men to a higher standard than he could ever command from them himself. This concept, of course, has a dark side. There is a Victorian lie still flitting about today, that women are responsible for the moral lives of men. And the reader can certainly interpret Tennyson’s Camelot as employing that sort of feminine influence – does it imply that women are to blame when men fail?
In this respect, I think Tennyson, to his credit, notes the flaws in his male characters as independent from the women who may be tempting them. In the case of Merlin and Vivian, Vivian is certainly presented as sly and seductive – but Merlin isn’t exactly shown as the wisest chap for falling for her tricks. In the case of Lancelot and Guinevere, we see psychological struggles with sin, temptation, and repentance from both characters. Lancelot does not shift culpability for his own failures, and neither does Guinevere. Both take responsibility in the role they each play in the downfall of Camelot.
The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien
I loved The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But after a while, I honestly saw the women as kind of boring. It seemed every female character is introduced in swaths of golden sunshine, possesses long golden hair falling past her waste, and is met by men standing in awe before her. She often provides wisdom and council, and is carefully heeded. And hey, those are all positive descriptions. But after a while, it devolves into a banality.
Éowyn is a nice departure from this trend, with a character showing strength and sacrifice, and we get to see her mature from warrior to healer as Middle Earth transitions from turmoil to peace. Lest any reader interpret her turn to medicine as a turn to the stereotypically feminine, Tolkien also presents Aragorn as healer, implying it’s a fitting trait for any leader to possess.
- How were women presented in the fiction you read last year?
- If you’ve read any of the above novels/poems, do you agree or disagree with my impressions of female characters and relationship dynamics? Are there positive or negative dynamics I missed?