By: E.J. Lawrence
I once heard a saying–I don’t know how true it is–that in the ancient eras, boys were more often associated with water, while girls were more often associated with fire. The reasoning given to me was that boys spent more time in the outdoors and were more prone to fall into wells, rivers, oceans, etc., while girls spent more time indoors or around fires and were more prone to burning themselves.
Whether this is true or not (and it isn’t like our ancestors are known for their super meticulous record keeping and preserving), it is interesting how few stories one can find that associate women with water. The ones that do tend to be negative–sirens, mermaids, women on a ship as “bad luck.” Which is why I find the connection between women and water in the Arthurian legends fascinating–first, because they exist, and second, because they are equal parts “good” and “bad.”
Really, “good” and “bad” are too simplistic a way of describing the relationship women in these legends have with water. Women in the Arthurian canon are notoriously complicated characters, but they also make a valuable contribution to the medieval discussion about the roles of women. From a theological (and thus academic) standpoint, there were two primary schools of thought on women. Camp A: Women are like Eve; they are all temptresses who work to bring about the downfall of mankind and their passions must be kept in check (see: Tertullian, Augustine). Camp B: Women are like Mary; they are good and chaste and through them, we receive hope (children) for the future (see: Julian of Norwich, Hildegard).
The answer to the question “Are women more like Eve or Mary?” is probably “yes.” Also, “no.” Which is precisely how many of the Arthurian texts answer this same question. Particularly when it comes to the women associated with water.
Though there are several, I will briefly cover two Arthurian women and their complex, watery ways.
The first that comes to mind is probably the Lady of the Lake. Depending on which
version of the legend one reads, she goes by many names: Nimue, Vivienne, or simply “The Lady of the Lake”…and any spelling variations of those. Many might consider her “good”–she gives Arthur his famed sword, Excalibur, after all!
…But she does so with the caveat that Arthur will owe her a favor one day (spoiler alert: This particular deal never goes well in literature.)
The “favor” she asks for later is that he behead Balin, one of his own knights. So this would seem to make her evil again.
Arthur refuses, and Balin takes of the lady’s head instead. Arthur is unhappy, but the lady doesn’t die; she’s a fairy, after all.
She also raises a human boy as her own. His name is “Lancelot du Lake”–or “Lancelot of the Lake.” See? She’s good again!
…But later, she forces Merlin to teach her all of his secrets of magic and then traps him in a tree for all eternity, depriving Arthur of his adviser just when he needs him most. So…evil again.
When Arthur dies, he asks Sir Bedivere to return the sword Excalibur to the lake. After three tries, Bedivere finally does so and sees a woman’s hand reach up from the lake, grab the sword, brandish it three times and then disappear. It is then Arthur knows he can cross the sea to Avalon. So…perhaps she is good, after all.
Accompanying Arthur across the sea is also his sister Morgan le Fay, whom I’ve written on extensively here and here. Morgan le Fay (also a “fay” or “faerie”) shares many of the Lady of the Lake’s qualities–she, too, is sometimes “good,” acting in the best interests of Arthur’s kingdom, and sometimes “evil,” acting against Arthur and his kingdom.
But perhaps it’s best to view these two women as acting in their own interests more so than determining their morality based on how they act in the interest of others. Considering the significance of symbolism to the medieval world, I think the fact that these two women in particular are associated with water helps to show their fluid nature, as well as the fact they “ebb and flow” according to what is needed. Are they Eve or Mary?
Yes. And no.
Though this fluidity might make them seem fickle, it’s important to note there is a consistency to their actions. Both the Lady of the Lake and Morgan le Fay pursue their own interests and goals to the exclusion of others’, and while their own goals come into conflict with Arthur’s at times, everything in the Arthurian narrative works toward the ultimate goal of bringing the downfall of Camelot.
Still, this is one of the reasons I adore the women of the Arthurian canon–they are complicated. Though popular narrative has tried to boil them down to “good” or “bad” distinctions (Morgan le Fay, “bad”; Lady of the Lake, “good”), when one actually digs into the stories themselves, it just isn’t that simple. Medieval literature is known for its driving plots, not its complex characterization. Which makes it all the more interesting to see these types of nuanced female characters represented in medieval narratives.
Runner Up Idea: I really want to write about Perceval’s sister one of these months, and I thought about writing her story here since she meets the Grail Knights by boat…but the Lady of the Lake seemed to align more closely to the theme. But keep an eye out for my discussion of Perceval’s sister!
Source Note: All summaries in this article are from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, both the Winchester and Caxton MS.