As I mentioned last week, we get the privilege of picking two of our favorite guest posts for December’s “Favorite Things” theme. Our other favorite guest post this year was from our August theme, Lady Midnight, and it was Juliette F. Martin’s “Celtic Womanhood and the Banshee.”
It’s no secret all three of us ladies at Unbound love our Celtic mythology…so this post spoke to our hearts in that regard. But it also touched on a pop culture topic that many have heard of, but few know the origin of–the screaming banshee. We learned a lot from this article about the connection between Celtic womanhood and the origin of the banshee–so we wanted to share it one more time to give even more people the opportunity to see how women in ancient Celtic culture influenced modern day mythologies!
For my December pick, I decided to go with an article that matches the season–my April article on Mary titled “Of Hope and Expectation.” I enjoyed writing this one because I love seeing how mythology and story structure help us better understand and explore the world we live in. When we use the phrase “life’s not a fairy tale” as some sort of platitude to mean “life doesn’t always end happily,” it’s because we’ve forgotten that not even all fairy tales have “happy” endings, or even expected endings. But they do have right endings. Just because the story ends unexpectedly does not mean it ends wrongly. And just because darkness seems to have won doesn’t mean it has. We are living a story right now. The belief in a meta-narrative gives us hope that, in the end, all will end right.
My apologies to the reader for the really bad pun in the title. I just couldn’t resist.
I have a very vivid memory from childhood. I was four or five, and I was sitting in the living room of our apartment watching The Little Mermaid on VHS. My dad was on the couch watching with me. I don’t remember how I felt about the movie up until this point, but I do remember the moment that terrified me.
To add some context, I happened to be a pretty adventurous child who wasn’t afraid of much–no monsters in my closet or under my bed. No night terrors or fear of the dark. But the most scared I ever remember being as a small child happened toward the end of The Little Mermaid. It’s the moment when the sea-witch Ursula’s identity is revealed, and suddenly, she begins to grow…and grow…and grow. I remember screaming, “Daddy, turn it off!” as I covered my eyes with my hands. I didn’t watch The Little Mermaid for probably another ten years.
To date, no mythical or fairy tale creature terrifies me quite like the witch. She can steal your voice; your life; your very soul. The Slavic Baba Yaga is particularly fearsome–her house stands on chicken legs. And, well…there’s just something not quite natural about a house that’s stilted on two chicken legs.
Witches. Are. Terrifying.
And yet, one of the little-known (or little emphasized) points about the fairy tale witch is that she’s as likely to help as harm. In a Russian version of Cinderella–“Vasilisa the Fair”–Baba Yaga threatens to eat Vasilisa if she does not do as she’s told; however, Vasilisa does as the old woman requires, and it is through her patience that Baba Yaga helps her to marry the Tsar in the end.
This doesn’t make Baba Yaga good; but it does show how even the witches in these stories have their own codes of honor and are perhaps more nuanced than we often give them credit for.
In Japanese folklore, there’s the Yama Uba who, like Baba Yaga, can be harsh, but will also help a lost traveler or bestow wealth on the needy. I have heard the argument that the witch in “Sleeping Beauty” isn’t all bad–she puts the girl to sleep, after all, rather than kill her. Perhaps even she had a modicum of feeling?
Fairy tale witches–like everything else in a fairy tale–serve more as symbols than independent characters. Though, what they’re symbols for has stirred a great deal of debate.
Some argue that witches are women who represent an independence that society fears; that she is the unbridled power of women.1 Some argue that witches represent the fears of the female protagonist–the part of herself that she represses, but a very real, tangible image of what she has the potential to become.2 Still others say that the witch is a symbol of the negative aspects of femininity–rather than nurture children, she eats them; rather than create healing herbs, she dabbles in poisons and harmful potions.3 Perhaps the fairy tale witch is all of these, or at least a mixture of some.
What I think is interesting to point out when trying to determine the role of the fairy tale witch is the etymology of the word itself. For one, the word is so old that determining its exact etymology is difficult. The OED marks it of “indeterminate origin,” but that doesn’t stop there from being theories. On the one hand, it could be cognate with the words “wicked” and “wicce” (meaning “bad”). On the other, it could be kin to the words “wizard” and “wise”–both words with positive connotations.4 In many early English manuscripts, the word was used interchangeably to refer to a woman who dabbled in dark magic or a woman who used healing herbs to save someone’s life. It seems that the English language has long recognized the nuance and the duality of the term, even if they more often associate the word with the former rather than the latter.
And yet, all of that seems to be consistent with what we know of fairy tale witches themselves. They can be malicious and malevolent, seeking to harm two poor children lost in the woods or poisoning their stepdaughter with a shiny red apple. But they can also be good, helping a young maiden escape her evil stepmother and find love or casting charms of protection when it suits her purposes. But perhaps it is her unpredictability or perceived capriciousness that causes the word “witch” to give us such uneasiness. I can’t say for sure.5
Yet, I can think of no other fairy tale character as nuanced or as complicated as the witch. Even within the confines of the fairy tale universe, she stands apart as independent, making decisions as they come; wielding her skills and talents as she pleases. Whether or not this is a “good” thing, I don’t know.
I am taking a hiatus from blogging this month so to kick off our “Lady Midnight” theme for August, I’ve decided to bring you three of my favorite “modern” books featuring women who walk on the dark side…
The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander
I’ve mentioned these books before in my post on the Morrigan. They’re loosely based on the Welsh Mabinogi, but one of the chief antagonists is a woman named Achren.
I say “antagonist”…but she isn’t always. One of the things I love about this series is that it shows motives may be marbled. Achren is a powerful sorceress who’s been upstaged by her former pupil, and she wants revenge. She’ll do anything to get it, even if that means killing the protagonist…
These books are more in the middle grade set (I first read them at age 12), but they’re also books I go back to again and again and again because the story and characters are just that compelling.
“It was then Taran saw [Achren] held a weathered branch of driftwood. She lifted it high and Taran gasped as in her hands it blurred and shimmered. Suddenly in its place was a dagger.” (The Castle of Llyr)
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
This one just got re-released with a new cover design! And Carrie did a post on Attolia not too long ago.
This is, technically, a series. And Attolia–as Carrie pointed out–does undergo character development (to be fair, so does Achren in The Prydain Chronicles). However, her portrayal in this first book is nothing short of chilling. The thief of the title, Gen, works for the King of Sounis, but she offers him a chance to work as her thief…or be executed for stealing from her lands. So, not much of a choice. She’s used to getting what she wants.
“‘You are promised to someone?’ said the queen in disbelief.
‘I am, Your Majesty,’ I said firmly[…]
‘Surely I am a better mistress to serve?’
‘You are more beautiful, Your Majesty.’ The queen smiled again before I finished. ‘But she is more kind.’
So much for discretion. The smile disappeared. You could have heard a pin drop onto the stone floor as her alabaster cheeks flushed red. No one could ever accuse the queen of Attolia of being kind.”
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Okay, so this one isn’t fantasy, but it is a bit historical. I do not want to give away any spoilers for those who haven’t read it, so I won’t spend much time here except to say that this book is an excellent look at the evils of hypocrisy.
“She didn’t want to die.
She couldn’t imagine wanting to die…
Death was for–the other people…”
Of course, if you want more historical takes, there’s always anything Arthurian, The Oresteia, The Aeneid, etc. But since I’m always sharing the ancient/medieval works, I thought it might be fun to share some modern classics, too! What about you? I’d love to hear some of your favorite books that feature some “lady midnights”!
Last week, we looked at the infamous “evil queen” of Arthurian literature, Morgan le Fay, and found that she’s too complicated of a character to warrant the stigma of pure evil. These complexities I labeled the “ugly” debate. This week, I want to offer some specific examples from the text, showing times when Morgan does acts that can be considered “bad”…but also times when her acts and motivations are more “good.”
Though, as I pointed out last week, medieval literature tends to be so plot-driven that it’s sometimes difficult to discern character motivations, there are times in Arthurian literature when the audience is aware of Morgan le Fay’s motives. One example of her “bad” side would be her jealousy toward Guinevere because of her own love of Lancelot.
The few times we are explicitly given Morgan’s motives for her actions, we see a queen jealous of Guinevere, and there are several instances where Morgan tries to trap Guinevere or even cause her death via magic. One such instance is in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when Bertilak tells Gawain why his Aunt Morgan orchestrated the elaborate scheme of the Green Knight. He says that, while part of the ruse was meant to humble Arthur’s table (she thought them too proud), a secondary motive, the “icing on the cake,” as it were, was “to grieve Guinevere and to bring her to die/ aghast at that same ghoul with his ghostly speech/ with his head in his hand before the high table.”3 In other words, she’d hoped by disguising the man as a green giant, she would both prove Arthur’s knights prideful and frighten Guinevere to death. Two birds. One stone.
In another instance from Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Morgan le Fay casts a spell upon a shield, which she gives to Sir Tristram in hopes that he will fight Lancelot. The shield, she tells him, represents Arthur, Guinevere, and a “knight who holdeth them both in bondage.”4 Her plan? To have Tristram fight this knight (whom Morgan knows is Lancelot) and expose Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair because “Queen Morgan loved Sir Launcelot best, and ever she desired him, and he would never love her nor do nothing at her request, and therefore she held many knights together for to have taken him by strength.”5 The plot fails at exposing Lancelot as a false knight, but does succeed in allowing Tristram to dominate at the tournament. However, I can’t really fault Morgan for wanting to expose Lancelot–Lancelot is in many ways a “false knight.” What one can fault Morgan for is her petty, jealous motive.
But at the outset of this post, I mentioned Morgan le Fay could not truly be categorized as “evil.” Rather, like most human beings, she is marbled, and for the most part, the medieval narratives treat her thus. There are two instances in particular which show Morgan le Fay using her magic for more positive ends. In one, she shows a side to herself that is just. A knight leads another knight behind his horse, bound and blindfolded, toward a lake. The two men cross paths with the Queen, and she asks the man on horseback who his prisoner is.
The knight explains he caught the prisoner sleeping with his wife, and now he was going to take the man to the lake and drown him, and then throw his wife in after.6 Morgan questions the prisoner–is this accusation true? The prisoner denies that it is, and says he is a knight of Arthur’s court and cousin to Accolon of Gaul, a man whom Morgan had loved.
“Ye say well,” says Morgan. “For the love of him, ye shall be delivered, and ye shall have
your adversary in the same case ye be in.”7 And with that, the prisoner is loosed and the other man is bound. Though the text does not say overtly, it implies that Morgan’s magic allows for this switch. The former prisoner then promptly throws his captor into the lake, where he drowns.
Morgan has, at this point in the story, fallen out of Arthur’s good favor. Yet, rather than tell them knight, “Hey, be sure you tell my brother what I did for you so that maybe he won’t be angry with me anymore,” she tells him, “Tell [Arthur] that I rescued thee, not for love of him, but for love of Accolon, and tell him I fear him not while I can make me and them that be with me in likeness of stones.”8 Their feud, then, isn’t ended there, though Morgan does send him a peace offering a few days later, which Arthur accepts, saying “but little” except that she is a “loving sister”9 (perhaps a bit sarcastically?). However, it’s worth noting that many of the knights were so angry with her words, they called for her to be burnt at the stake, and though it’s clear Arthur is angry, he is more willing to allow peace rather than continue their passive-aggressive argument. Their relationship, more so than the relationship between Arthur and his other sisters, is not much different from how we perceive sibling relationships today. They fight, but at the end of the day, they are family. Even if one’s a king and one can call upon demonic powers.
Perhaps the best example of this love-hate relationship is at Arthur’s death. He commands Bedivere to throw Excalibur in the lake and then to put him on a barge where there are “three queens,” one of whom says, “Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? Alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold.”10 The implication is that this is Queen Morgan herself, come to her brother’s side. Her words make it clear that she wishes he had come to her sooner; then, perhaps, she could have helped him with her magic. As it is, he is too wounded even for her powers, and she ferries him toward Avalon from where, as the legend goes, he will return when England most needs a king.
Women play no small role in Arthurian legend. And many of the female characters–perhaps, most especially, Morgan le Fay–are complex. Which is why it continues to surprise me when I read articles about how there are so few women in fantasy novels because medieval women did not live very interesting lives…so why would they exist as major characters in medieval-style fantasy novels? Yet, one only has to go to the medieval narratives themselves to discover a world in which women do more than sit at a spinning wheel and gossip. And if one digs a little deeper, going beyond the plot-driven narrative of a medieval story, one can even find women with motivations and desires strikingly similar to the motivations and desires people have today. At her core, Morgan le Fay is the good, the bad, and the ugly side of humanity altogether in a single person. Just like most of us, I’d wager.
As a mother, I’m quite aware of the gap of stories of girls who are self-motivated and independent (not in need of saving) for children. Things are improved, but there are so many stories to tell that are historically based, of strong women who acted and not merely acted-upon… a theme so vital to our interests here at Unbound.
The project, Rejected Princesses, present with endearing illustrations the stories of women and girls who have not been featured in the popular awareness. Created for children, the stories are accessible, fun and positive. The interest and introduction to reading and the knowledge, themes and ideas that they convey are vital to the education of children everywhere. Books can change the world.
I recommend perusing the Rejected Princesses site and although modern, in the interest of our monthly theme, read the story of Soraya Tarzi.
Pick up a collection of fairy tales and you often see two types of women – the Maiden (Cinderella) and the Evil Queen (Stepmother). Fredegund, a Merovingian queen of early Francia, appeared to play both roles. Historical texts, particularly ones written by Gregory of Tours, associate her with the kind of cruel ambition that drives many of the female villains in folklore, and it is clear that Fredegund can be linked to many despicable attempts to retain power. What isn’t clear, largely because there are only a few sources for the time period, is whether these machinations were the only way women could exercise political agency.
The Merovingian dynasty was cemented by Clovis in the early 500s. By 550 the kingdom consisted of what is now the north of France and stretched as far East as modern-day Czech Republic. Unfortunately, the Merovingians had the habit of dividing the kingdom among their heirs, which made for dramatic feuds among brothers, cousins, and their wives. Technically, Fredegund was a queen of only a portion of Francia – Soissons, the part her husband inherited.
Because Fredegund was not born to a noble family, becoming a queen required considerable gumption. Some may consider Cinderella too gentle and passive, but even in the Disney version, Cinderella comes forward when she asks to try on the glass slipper at the end. Fredegund, a servant in King Chilperic’s house, similarly speaks up. As a lady’s maid to his wife, she points out the queen’s flaws, and the king becomes convinced that he should divorce his wife in favor of Fredegund.
The reversal – the rags-to-riches story – is one key part of the Cinderella fairy tale. “A dream is a wish your heart makes,” as they say. But pushing aside the other woman is just a glimpse at Fredegund’s modus operandi. In the Merovingian empire, queenship was fraught with the fear that you would be replaced next, and Fredegund dealt with this by regularly plotting against adversaries. When King Chilperic takes a third wife, she dies within a year – strangled – presumably at Fredegund’s command.
As a mother, reflecting on the political rivalries at play during this time period, I’m not sure how I would handle the fear that my children would be killed off by a rival at any time. But Fredegund’s schemes are truly awful. She solidifies her status as a villainess not only through actions devoid of any diplomacy, but also through a tendency toward self-preservation even over her children. For example, she tries to kill her own daughter, Rigunth, after they argue about who should be mistress. This account has been cited by folklorists as inspiration for the stepmother in an early version of the Cinderella story.
Maddingly, there is evidence that Fredegund even recognized her misdeeds. In one account, when two of her sons fall ill with dysentery, she tries to atone for her sins (in this case, extorting money from her subjects) by burning tax records. However, considering her other actions, I have to wonder if there were other motivating factors behind the destruction of these documents.
In at least one assessment of this time period, I read that queens like Fredegund and her main rival, Brunhild (a sister-in-law), were powerful because of their status as regent mothers, suggesting that their chief source of authority was the royal lineage of their sons. This undercuts the raw ambition, at least in Fredegund’s case, that landed her in that role in the first place. It also doesn’t explain why the exercise of this power was so particularly brutal.
I don’t think this female cruelty was limited to the Merovingians. Certain wives and mothers of Roman emperors expressed political agency in the same cruel fashion as Fredegund did. Not to mention the countless other myths and legends from early Europe that recount brutal queens or female warriors.
Fredegund was clearly ambitious from the start, but what was the catalyst for her to become the Evil Queen? Was it when her husband tried to cast her aside? Was it going toe-to-toe with her sister-in-law Brunhild, who was working to maximize power on behalf of her children also? Once married, did King Chilperic allow Fredegund to exercise authority or could she only work behind the scenes?
It doesn’t appear that Fredegund tried to hide her plots. For this reason, I imagine that she had to capitalize on fear to compete with the male-dominated, military style of leadership that valued strength and agnatic succession. At the very least, she may have believed instilling fear was her only option for success.
Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Boston: Wyatt North Publishing, 2012. E-book.
Larrington, Carolyne. Women and Writing in Medieval Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. Print.
Wickham, Chris. The Inheritance of Rome. New York: Viking, 2009. Print.