Books Featuring Female Antagonists

by E.J. Lawrence

Dear Readers,

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…

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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)

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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.”

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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”!

The Lady of the Lake: The Good, the Bad, and the Complicated

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).

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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

CRANE_King_Arthur_asks_the_lady_of_the_lake_for_the_sword_Excalibur
(Walter Crane, 1911)

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!

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Beguiling of Merlin (Edward Burne-Jones, 1872-1877)

…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.

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The Death of King Arthur (James Archer, 1860)

 

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.

Morgan le Fay: Evil Queen or Loving Sister? (Part 2)

by E.J. Lawrence

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.

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When you think about it…it’s kind of amazing Morgan’s plan to kill Guinevere in this manner didn’t work

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.

 

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Lancelot and Guinevere (Herbert James Draper)–Gee, when you put it like that, no wonder Morgan couldn’t stand them

 

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

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Drawing of a Knight on Horseback (Randolph Caldecott)

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.

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The Death of King Arthur (James Archer)

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.

 

  1. SGGK, stanza 99, http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/GawainAndTheGreenKnight.htm#anchor_Toc178583491
  2. Malory, 346, http://www.heroofcamelot.com/docs/Le-Morte-dArthur.pdf
  3. Malory, 346
  4. Malory, 123
  5. Malory, 123
  6. Malory, 123
  7. Malory, 124
  8. Malory, 732