King Arthur and the Women Behind the Round Table

Our lives are made up of stories which are neither wholly nonfiction nor completely fiction. Things happen to us, sure, but our telling of them becomes a narrative. No person alive has ever related something that happened to them or that they experienced without omitting certain things and embellishing others. But here’s the thing about narratives: we, the audience and/or reader, have a tendency to accept them at face value. I think that it is a subconscious instinct to believe what we hear. It’s easy and comfortable to think that what someone is telling you is the truth (whatever that is). This is a bad instinct. Every so often we learn that what we had blindly accepted as truth is anything but that, but still more frequently we go through life with the simple assumption that things we have been taught, such as the Arthurian legends, are true. Not true in the sense that these events all actually happened necessarily, but rather in the sense that we do not question the perspective from which the story is related, and almost never consider that there may be another side to it.

It’s like how you felt as a high school student, learning in a passive, osmosis-like way about such grand sounding things as manifest destiny, conquistadors, and imperialism. When we are teenagers, we often accept as true what we are told by teachers and parents, figures that we have been taught to regard as the final word, the guiding light of  “what really happened”. Conscious critical thinking is something you may or may not have developed as you matured. I remember taking my first American Indian studies course in college and later a class on American Involvement in Central American Issues and sitting in my seat, stunned and horrified. We did WHAT?! I felt ashamed by what my country had done (is doing), ashamed of the color of my skin, the complicity of my ancestors, knowing or otherwise, in the injustices and genocides (a term NEVER applied to the U.S. in high school history) that happened on their watch. As uncomfortable an experience as those classes were for me, I learned something invaluable: never take narratives at face value. You have to make a conscious decision to keep in mind that there is always at least one other side to the story. There is always a different perspective from which to view the action.

The same is true for fiction as it is for History. In the novel I just finished, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which just so happens to be my first deviation from The List, perspective is everything. It is a story most of us know by heart. The legend of King Arthur is one of the most famous tales in the English language, but it’s usually told from an outsider’s perspective; not an ambivalent one, but one who focuses on the doings of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and on Merlin. Never have we heard the story from the perspective of the many important women in the story, like Arthur’s mother Igraine or his famous sister Morgan le Fay. Most of us never even realized that we were lacking this perspective. This is exactly what Bradley gives us in The Mists of Avalon: the side of the story we never knew we needed.

This is how deeply our subconscious tendency to believe what we’re told runs: never once, in all the times that I’ve read or watched some version of this story, whether it’s that one made-for-tv Merlin with Sam Neill or Bulfinch’s Mythologies or Camelot on Netflix instant watch, have I stopped and wondered, “I wonder how Morgan le Fay felt about having her brother’s baby” or “I bet Igraine wasn’t too happy when she realized that Uther had tricked her into sleeping with him by using magic to resemble her husband, the Duke of Cornwall (whom Uther had killed, though Igraine didn’t know that yet)”. Bradley answers all these questions, although usually not in the manner I was expecting. She imbues these characters with life, gives them their own motives and passions, fears and weaknesses, thereby fleshing them out in intriguing and believable ways. In Bradley’s version, these women are not the passive porcelain dolls flung about by the ambitions of men in the games of lust and power, but main characters in their own right. The lineage of the Lady of the Lake, which includes Igraine and her daughter, Morgan, are responsible for setting Arthur on the throne and later for casting him down when he betrays Avalon and the old ways for the Christian religion. Gwenhyfar (Bradley’s spelling) herself is the one who fights fiercely for the christianization of Britain. None of these women are helpless. In fact, they often appear to be stronger than the famous men of the story: Morgan holds enormous power over Arthur and many of the men in her life. Gwenhyfar, who appears strikingly weak at first, turns out to be much stronger than her lover, Lancelet. The mastery of Bradley’s telling is the dynamic nature of her female characters. The reader’s opinion when they first come to know Igraine, for example, will be worlds different from their opinion later on, and the same holds true for most of the women in the story.

The long and the short of it is that I found myself deeply surprised by the fact that I had never considered this story from the perspective of the women. I learned all about reading through different critical lenses in college, the feminist viewpoint being one of the ones I focused on most. What surprised me wasn’t that Bradley was able to take these minor characters and transform them into world-shaking valkyries, but rather that I had never even considered that possibility. To me, that is evidence of just how deep-seated is our inclination to believe, and not question, what we are told is just “the way the story goes”. That my conscious mind simply allowed what I had previously heard and read to be true without questioning what may have been omitted is a scary thing. If I open that can of worms, what other things does my consciousness accept without the slightest tremor of doubt?

 

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