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”!
For an avid reader, I’ve never been a huge fan of the so-called western “canon.” One of the biggest reasons is that it centers male stories. Consequently, one of the most interesting and wonderful things about contemporary fiction is how certain authors engage with those stories and challenge them by revisiting families tales from a female character’s point of view. In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood looks at Penelope’s life before, during, and after Odysseus’s twenty-year absence. In Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin takes a minor character from The Aeneid and expands on her story. And in Ophelia, Lisa Klein seeks to give justice to a character who receives none in her original text.
I appreciate Shakespeare. What English major doesn’t? But even though it borders on the irreverent in literature circles, I always found myself drawn more to the comedies than to the tragedies. Not only are they more fun, but they tend to feature more women and to feature them in more prominent roles. Beatrice, Viola, Rosalind—they’re all admirable and enviable in different ways. Ophelia, though? Ophelia is a very different story. She always impresses on me a deep sadness.
My freshman writing course was focused on Hamlet. I’ve seen so many adaptations and interpretations of that play that I can’t count them all, but one aspect consistently bothered me in all of them—Ophelia. She’s really handed a raw deal. Throughout the play, she’s infantilized, mocked, and forgotten. To top it all off, she goes mad and she dies. Specifically, she dies in a horrific way that’s typically coded as feminine—drowning. It’s not shown on stage, but Queen Gertrude recounts to Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, what happened:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream….
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. 
Ophelia succumbs to grief and madness after Hamlet kills her father, Polonius. When she’s collecting willow leaves to make into crowns, a branch breaks and she falls into the brook. She sings while her clothes keep her afloat for a bit, not appearing to realize she’s in danger. Then she sinks. It’s a sad fate, even sadder when you realize someone must have been close enough to see this (in order to relay it to Gertrude) but they didn’t step in to help.
In “Beware of Death by Water: Women in Myth and Fiction,” Betty Krasne examines why women and water so often go together in fiction. Typically, for male protagonists, water symbolizes destiny and rebirth. For female protagonists, though, water represents both her passive nature and her inescapable, tragic fate. When Ophelia falls, she takes no action either to save herself from drowning or to hasten her demise along. She is no master of her own fate, but nor would we expect her to be when she has no mother to teach her the ways of the world. She is alone, but not by choice. Her death can be interpreted as the result of neglect from the very people who should love her most.
Water also symbolizes purity. After having her virtue questioned by those same people—Hamlet, her brother, and her father—Ophelia is essentially isolated, and that isolation drives her, in one way or another, to the brook. Whereas male characters can be metaphorically reborn in order to find happiness in the world, women “could regain lost esteem, cleanse themselves, by being reborn into the new world”  through drowning, according to Krasne. “Perhaps it follows that there is no woman as pure as a drowned woman—one symbolically purified once and for all.”  Does her death “purify” her in Hamlet’s eyes? Even if it does, he’s not the one I’m concerned about.
The passivity of Ophelia’s death coupled with later statements in the play that suggest it was far from an accident leave us with ambiguity. Did she fall, as Gertrude suggests, and was not in her right mind enough to save herself or even, in fact, realize the danger she was in? Or, as a gravedigger suggests, did she see death as the only way to escape the cage the men in her life had created for her? Either way, her drowning instills discomfort, one Klein attempts to lessen by having her escape it entirely. With her knowledge of herbs and medicines as well as help from Horatio and even Gertrude, she’s able to fake her own death and restart her life in a convent. Though she knows no one outside Elsinore, she can’t get any more alone than she was in the castle. By paying attention to her when no one else does, Klein portrays an Ophelia who is “the author of [her] tale, not merely a player in Hamlet’s drama or a pawn in Claudius’s deadly game.”  And even though it has to smudge the source material in order to get there, Ophelia is finally granted a just ending.
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.
When Charlize Theron depicted Aileen Wuornos in the movie 2003 Monster, it was to critical acclaim, eventually winning Theron an Academy Award. Certainly, Theron’s role was a riveting portrayal, but the true story of not only the murders but Wuornos herself is complex, twisted and well… rivetting. We’ve seen the real and made-up faces of male serial killers, but few times have we seen a female one. We didn’t know what to expect. There was a nationwide gasp when the beautiful Theron transformed herself into the physicality of Wuornos through the help of make-up, but also through something more, a dark vulnerability.
But Wuornos was the not the first female serial killer, any quick Google search will come up with lists that span the centuries with crimes that will turn your stomach. Ever present on those lists is the infamous Hungarian noble, Elizabeth Bathory of the 17th century, often proclaimed as the most prolific female serial killer in history or romanticized in popular imaginations as a supernatural creature,
thirsting for blood. The flourish of storytelling that has evolved with time has helped create this image, as well from the relative proximity of the infamous Vlad the Impaler of Romania, later popularized by Bram Stoker as Dracula.
The story of Bathory is much more complex and while you may find Wuornos’s method of murder less heinous, the two woman share the same dark vulnerability despite from being from vastly different time periods, cultures and socio-economic classes.
Why did they kill?
Wuornos who occasionally worked as a prostitute, targeted men. The calculation behind the murders is uncertain, but she claims to have shot them after they attempted to sexually assault her. Unlike Bathory, we have clearer history of Wuornos’s childhood, one that seemed filled with her experiences of both physical and sexual violence perpetrated by men in her life.
Bathory’s childhood is less certain other than she spent those years mostly the family estate of Ecsed. Rumors abound on the mental health and sexual deviance of her family members, but there is no definitive evidence to prove them. She married young to Ferenc Nàdasdy. Shortly before at age thirteen, she gave birth to a child most likely fathered by a male of a lower social class, possibly even a servant. It is no surprise that the child was sent away immediately after birth. Bathory was considered a beauty in her time and following the birth of her first child, got into line with social expectations and often capitalizing on them. If anything, she seemed to become acutely aware of appearances.
Wuornos experienced a life where sex was a twisted commodity that both created the “monster” she became, but also provided money and goods. Bathory, as were so many women of her time and of the noble class, was subject to the requirements of propriety and strategic work of creating heirs. Along with that came the work of household management and the growth and/or protection of family power.
When Wuornos shot and killed seven men, most likely actual or potential johns, it was in reaction to either a real or imaged threat of sexual violence. A type of violence she had been, since childhood much too experienced with and familiar.
There is no record of Bathory consuming or bathing in the blood of her victims, but some
accounts suggest that she often tortured and murdered after social events that required her to maintain a high level of appearance. Her victims were all girls and young women, some as young as ten, but mostly those at the age of puberty, at or near sexual maturity.
In reaction to societal stressors, both killers seemed driven to take extreme actions that resulted in rebellion. What is particularly striking about these two examples of killers, is that they were not driven to murder only out of sexual deviation or some latent sociopathic fascination. They murdered because they were women, because they had experienced life as women, despite the time period and socio-economic differences.
Whatever psychosis they most likely had before they experienced the worst of life, it was the worst of their female experiences that they were reacting. Feeling sympathy for figures like these is dangerous and their crimes are very real. Particularly, in the case of Bathory, the crimes were brutal, horrid and filled with the unimaginable, which harnessed a vile concentrated form of rage at some of the darkest parts of the female existence.
In the first two posts for this month, K.P. touched on how the Christianization of Europe affected modern views of motherhood. It became a far more exalted office, in large part due to the Church’s exaltation of Mary, the mother of Christ. The “Madonna and child” became a popular theme for literature, music, and art, rejoicing not just in Jesus, but in his mother, as well.
But the question arises–why such a fascination with the mother? After all, the medieval Church did not hold that Mary was divine. And yet she receives such praise as being called “Holy” or “the Queen of Heaven.”
To answer this question, we must take a look at basic story structure. (Wait–what? Story structure? How did this blog on motherhood turn into a writing lesson all of a sudden?)
“Bear” with me a moment.
Imagine a story–Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Goldilocks who found a house in a forest. She was cold, so she went inside to see three chairs by a warm fireplace. She sat in the first chair, but it was too big. So she sat in the second chair, but it was also too big. The third chair was just right, so she warmed herself by the fire.
Presently, she began to grow hungry, so she went in the kitchen and saw three bowls of porridge. She tried the first bowl, but it was too hot. So, she tried the second, but it was too cold. The third bowl of porridge was just right, so she ate it all up.
All that food and warmth made her very sleepy, so she went upstairs to find three beds. The first bed was too hard. The second bed was too soft. The third bed was just right, so she fell sound asleep.
What? Were you expecting a bear to come back or something? Because that would be awfully disappointing to set you up expecting one thing and never actually deliver.
People generally do not like their expectations to go unfulfilled. We may not expect that it’s a family of bears, but we at least expect that this little thieving, house vandalizing girl will get some sort of comeuppance.
That’s the beauty of the fairy tale. We expect the ending, and yet…we don’t. (G.K. Chesterton has a terrific essay on this very topic here)
We expect the Prince to find Cinderella, but are pleasantly surprised when her stepsisters get their due, too. We expect the princess will kiss the frog; we don’t expect the frog to be a prince. The best stories are the ones where, at the ending, we say, “Ah ha! I knew half of it, and I’m pleasantly surprised by the rest!”
And so, the story of Mary does not begin in the New Testament, but in the Old. All the way back to the very beginning when Eve took a bite of fruit. That was the story “in the beginning.” The first woman–often called the “mother of mankind”–disobeyed God and ruined it for everybody (you can read that story here).
And so, to the early Church spreading across Europe, Eve became “the temptress.” She
was a representation of womanhood left unchecked.1
But the much of the rest of the Old Testament (in the canonized Bible) contains, in storytelling terms, foreshadowing about a Messiah. There is an expectation that the conflict will be resolved in a way that is both expected and yet unexpected.
Isaiah 7:14 says, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
I mean, every author will say foreshadowing can’t get more blatant than that.
So when it comes Mary’s moment to enter the story, a really long time has passed between Eve, Isaiah, and Mary. Maybe it’s like expecting a friend to come over, and the friend said she be there “noon-ish,” but it’s already nine p.m., and you’re tired and want to go to bed. The expectation has gone unfulfilled for so long you’ve given up on expecting it.
Until Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth and tells her she’s–expecting! (Come on…you had to know the pun was coming…)
(I would also like to pause and give a shout out to this moment of two excited cousins sharing their pregnancies with each other–which goes to show the more things change, the more they stay the same.)
To the early Church, Mary was hailed as the “new Eve.” The fault committed by the “mother of mankind” was undone by the “mother of God.”2 The symmetry is poetic.
But it also speaks to the story’s purpose to begin with. What Eve created (according to some scholars–we can debate Adam’s role in the whole thing at another time) was a hopeless situation; the child Mary bore restored the hope that was lost. That hope came, not through some divine warrior sent hurtling down to earth; not from a mysterious basket left lying in the woods with unknown parentage; nor from the planet Krypton. Rather, it came from a teenage girl and her baby.
That’s a pretty…unexpected twist. Even with all the foreshadowing.
Yet, as K.P. pointed out, the Christianization of Europe began to exalt motherhood because Mary was exalted as a mother, and prize infants because an infant became for them the hope of the world. We see remnants of this play out in the modern world as we listen to celebrities sing that “children are our future” or call out the refrain “think of the children!”
While the romanticization of children came a bit later (thanks, Romantics!), children became prized in Europe as inheritors, but also as the “hope for the future.” Practices such as exposing unwanted infants became anathema, and the status of mothers increased, as these women were responsible for producing the future.
Of course, this caused other problems such as allowing women to become prized only for what they could produce, but that is a topic for another time. Since our theme this month is motherhood, we can at least address the important role mothers played in Europe in the Middle Ages and understand their status increased, in large part, because they were seen as bearers of hope. In some (hotly contested) theologies, motherhood was even seen as a way to “escape” Eve’s curse.
Which brings us back to our quote for this month’s theme–“hail our life, our sweetness, and our hope” says the prayer, and it is addressed from the “banished children of Eve.” The banished children who remain banished no longer.
Somewhat unrelated (but kind of not), I thought I would put in a shameless plug for one of my favorite poems on the hope of a new life from early feminist (and Mary Wollstonecraft rival) Anna Letitia Barbauld:
To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible
Germ of new life, whose powers expanding slow
For many a moon their full perfection wait,—
Haste, precious pledge of happy love, to go
Auspicious borne through life’s mysterious gate.
What powers lie folded in thy curious frame,—
Senses from objects locked, and mind from thought!
How little canst thou guess thy lofty claim
To grasp at all the worlds the Almighty wrought!
And see, the genial season’s warmth to share,
Fresh younglings shoot, and opening roses glow!
Swarms of new life exulting fill the air,—
Haste, infant bud of being, haste to blow!
For thee the nurse prepares her lulling songs,
The eager matrons count the lingering day;
But far the most thy anxious parent longs
On thy soft cheek a mother’s kiss to lay.
She only asks to lay her burden down,
That her glad arms that burden may resume;
And nature’s sharpest pangs her wishes crown,
That free thee living from thy living tomb.
She longs to fold to her maternal breast
Part of herself, yet to herself unknown;
To see and to salute the stranger guest,
Fed with her life through many a tedious moon.
Come, reap thy rich inheritance of love!
Bask in the fondness of a Mother’s eye!
Nor wit nor eloquence her heart shall move
Like the first accents of thy feeble cry.
Haste, little captive, burst thy prison doors!
Launch on the living world, and spring to light!
Nature for thee displays her various stores,
Opens her thousand inlets of delight.
If charmed verse or muttered prayers had power,
With favouring spells to speed thee on thy way,
Anxious I’d bid my beads each passing hour,
Till thy wished smile thy mother’s pangs o’erpay.
Alexander, Flora. “Women as Lovers in Early English Romance.” Women and Literature in Britain: 1150-1500. Ed. Carol M. Meale. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
“Death by Eve, life by Mary” — Saint Jerome (Epistle 22)
Shadow on the Crown is the first book in Patricia Bracewell’s trilogy about the real-life Emma of Normandy, who was queen of England twice over. Emma was married off to King Æthelred of England in 1002 by her brother Richard, the duke of Normandy, to form an alliance they hope will keep the Danes away from their shores. Although Æthelred’s first wife was only a consort, Richard makes Emma’s crowning a requirement of the treaty.
In the context of the novel, men view women as having one purpose—to bear children. Kings, especially are in need of heirs. Before the news of her marriage, Emma overhears her brother speaking with Swein Forkbeard, the king of the Danes. She’s surprised that their conversation moves “from the breeding of horses to the breeding of children” so easily. 
Because men need women in order to further their own lines, in a way, childbirth is also where women’s power originates. Æthelred disrespects Emma and resents that her brother made crowning her part of the treaty. The one thing that would solidify her place as queen would be to give birth to a son. Before she sails for England, her mother tells her, “Never forget that your first and most important task is to bear a son. It is your son who will be your treasure and your protector, even while he is yet a babe. It is your son who will give you power, who will bind the king to you in a way that he can be bound to no other living woman.” 
In “Medieval Mothers Had to Marry and Murder to Get Their Way,” Carolyn Harris writes, “Queens were supposed to value their roles as both wives and mothers, but when forced to pick between the two, the children always came first.”  Like with Emma, there is a breaking point where queens who are both wives and mothers must choose to honor and elevate their husband or their children. Many choose their children because motherhood imparts greater power than mere wifehood.
If bearing children confers power on women in general and on queens in particular, it’s a power that isn’t absolute. Æthelred’s first wife dies in childbirth, and Bracewell mentions that Emma’s own mother had lost three children in addition to giving birth to eight surviving ones. Emma’s rival for the king’s affections, Elgiva, knows that if Emma has a child, it will reinforce her standing as queen. When Emma becomes pregnant, Elgiva has her waiting woman slip poison into Emma’s wine to cause her to miscarry. There is no easily available source for Emma experiencing a miscarriage, so it’s safe to say this is a fictional part of historical fiction. However, the point stands. Forcing Emma to miscarry is a way for Elgiva to take Emma’s power away and to assert her own.
Fantasy fiction, on the other hand, allows authors more leeway with how they represent traditional relationships. While historical fiction should adhere to facts as thoroughly as possible, fantasy, though often based on history, has no obligation to history. In Shadow on the Crown, although Emma is a queen, her power is limited. In Daughters of the Storm, Kim Wilkins presents a medieval-Norse-inspired fantasy world where women can take the throne and rule. Women are seen as more than simply vessels for bearing children, but that doesn’t mean they can always escape the importance of motherhood.
The book follows five sisters who are daughters of the king of Thyrsland. A few years prior, Rose, the second daughter, was married off to a neighboring king, Wengest, in order to promote peace. Her central conflict is tied to her motherhood. She’s given birth to a daughter, Rowan, but Rowan’s true father is Wengest’s nephew. The king himself seems to be barren, though he doesn’t yet suspect. Unlike her historical counterparts, Rose feels a lack of power in her situation. She wrestles with her duties as a mother and a queen as well as her desires as a woman. Ultimately, much like as the historical queenly mothers Harris writes about, Rose realizes that “[s]he was a mother before she was a lover.”  Her identity as a mother, particularly the mother of a future ruler, outweighs all else.
The importance of family line comes into play with Bluebell’s story, too, even though she doesn’t have any children and expresses no desire to have any in the future. The oldest and already trained as a warrior, she’s the natural choice for her father’s heir. Wylm, the sisters’ stepbrother, is goaded by his mother into wanting his ailing stepfather’s crown. Consequently, he must come up with a plan to best Bluebell, who is said to be unkillable.
Through a misunderstanding, Wylm comes to the mistaken belief that Bluebell has a child she’s kept secret. Wylm is able to persuade the boy, Eni, to accompany him and uses him as a hostage when he confronts Bluebell for the crown. When he finally sees his stepsister, he cries out, “Is he important to you, Bluebell? Do you love him? I find it hard to believe that there’s a heart inside you.”  His opinion of Bluebell is so low that even though he believes Eni to be her son, he seems to doubt she’d give up the crown to keep Eni safe.
Wylm believes Bluebell cannot be a mother figure as well as a warrior or ruler. He believes she must choose. Consequently, when Wylm tries to push Bluebell into the role of mother and use that seemingly compromised state to his advantage, she’s able to resist that push. She’s compassionate enough to give herself up so Eni will be safe, but she’s also strong and determined enough to best her stepbrother anyway. In this, Bluebell has managed to sidestep the usual expectations that women, especially women who would be queens, marry and bear children to further the royal lines.
The common thread in Shadow on the Crown and Daughters of the Storm is that the prospect of bearing children often imparts a certain amount of power upon women. While not universally true, women like Emma of Normandy who were able to seize and use one of the few forms of power available to them can be inspiring to read about.
At one point in Daughters of the Storm, one of the sisters advises a dying woman afraid of leaving her son alone to tell herself “that, in him, you will live still. And in his children, and in their children.”  This doesn’t have to be limited to literal children, but rather legacies of any sort. Emma of Normandy lived a thousand years ago, and yet her legacy lived on through her children, and it lives on today through the stories we tell of her. So, you see, immortality is already within our reach.
Featured image: The Ordeal of Queen Emma, William Blake.
 Bracewell, Patricia. Shadow on the Crown. Harper, 2014.
When Constantine became Roman Emperor in 306 AD, it was to a transforming Empire. His official conversion to Christianity was reflective of the strong spread of the religion into Roman culture.
This form of Christianity held a strong Roman identity, the spread having first moved through the aristocratic classes. Remarkably, Constantine legalized the collection of exposed infants for the purpose of enslavement. While the option of slavery is potentially horrific, Constantine’s act of legalizing such activities is a significant shift in social perspectives on babies. He would later outlaw the practice of infant exposure altogether. What has become known as the Christmas story, glorifies the potentiality of the infant Jesus with associations of hope. Constantine’s ruling indicates that infant life is worth preserving, even in conditions of slavery without other options.
The Church would eventually equate infant-hood as the moment humanity was the closest to the divine, being newly emerged into the mortal world, theologically asserting that infants exemplified purity. By 787, we see the establishment of the first orphanages in Christianized regions of Italy. In Milan, the Archbishop had a special revolving cradle installed so women could anonymously leave children. Interestingly, this acknowledges social stigmas surrounding women who either had children out of wedlock or were unable to care for their child. Clearly indicating that at this point, infant exposure was not generally practiced and the involvement of a male head of family in the decision to keep or reject a child, such as the paterfamilias was diminished or nonexistent. Further, the Church had developed authority in the matter and became particularly concerned with preserving new and unborn life. An Anglo-Saxon penitential dating from the late 7th century states:
Women who commit abortion before [the foetus] has life, shall do penance for one year or for the three forty-day periods or for forty days, according to the nature of the offence; and if later, that is, more than forty days after conception, they shall do penance as murderesses, that is for three years on Wednesdays and Fridays and in the three forty day periods. This according to canons is judged [punishable by] ten years.
What we see here is a significant transformation. The Roman concept of abortion that essentially considered newborns in a late stage of fetal development and acceptance of infanticide changed to the Early Medieval belief that life began during pregnancy. This argument is quite familiar to the modern world, where political pundits frequently argue over the moment when life and therefore personhood occurs.
But it wasn’t just a sense of heightened morality and compassion instituted by religious conversion that created these changes. After the failings of partible inheritance, primogeniture developed, a system of inheritance that depended on first-born children of the sovereign. This system was not only in the interest of the ruling family, but to the fiefdoms of early Medieval Europe who also practiced primogeniture in their own households. In the post-Roman world, hyper-localism reigned in order to maintain pockets of stability. Broken systems of inheritance or uncertain heirs often led to fractured support of the elite classes who contributed to military power. When this happened, the already tenuous balance would shift and ultimately led to grabs for power, conflict and war. The birth of heirs, became overwhelming stressed for the preservation of social and economic order.
Additionally, the Church called for the spread of Christianity. The call came from a religious and spiritual motivation. But it also came from the intent to establish Western Europe as a region that essentially played by the same political rules. While the Roman Empire held the original authority to recognize claims of kingship to Western European kingdoms, in its absence that authority transferred to the Church in Rome. This resulted in the concept of “Christendom,” religiously described as a vision of God’s kingdom on Earth that politically bolstered the claims of kings and lords as well as preserved the Church itself. Church leader, Augustine intentionally promoted higher rates of childbirth in Christian marriages as part of building Christendom.
The value and role of motherhood rose greatly in prominence. Women continued to have limited legal rights, and due to the need to ensure the true stock of any children born to her, women’s access to easy movement became limited. Power for elite women, was derived from her family, husband and particularly her position as mother of male heirs. Mothers were responsible for the basic indoctrination and instruction of their children into Christian values. Oddly enough, mothers became the backbone of the perpetuation of their own suppression, but also the elevation of children as important parts of the social order. Advanced education for boys, occurred after this period by male instructors.
So strong came the drive for the birth of male heirs, other children and mothers suffered. The Church recognized not only this struggle for women, but how the practice could diminish survivability of other children in a world where infant and child death were common place. Further, the Church noted that infants who were nursed by a healthy mother had greater chances for survival. In the late 6th century, Pope Gregory I insisted that women should not only nurse their own children, but husbands should abstain from intercourse with their wives during that period. This reveals a basic understanding that nursing promotes infant health, but with new pregnancies, milk tends to dry-up.
Further, her husband ought not to cohabit with her till that which is brought forth be weaned. But an evil custom has arisen in the ways of married persons, that women scorn to nurse the children whom they bring forth, and deliver them to other women to be nursed. Which custom appears to have been devised for the sole
cause of incontinency, in that, being unwilling to contain themselves, they think to scorn to suckle their offspring. Those women therefore who, after evil custom, deliver their children to others to be nursed ought not to have intercourse with their husbands unless the time of their purification has passed, seeing that even without the reason of childbirth, they are forbidden to have intercourse with their husbands while held of their accustomed sickness; so much so that the sacred law smites with death any man who shall go into a woman having her sickness.
This statement from Pope Nicholas in the late 9th century echoes many of the same sentiments.
“A woman’s husband should not approach to lie with her until the infants, to whom she has given birth, have been weaned. But a depraved custom has arisen in the behavior of married people, that women despise nursing the children whom they have born and hand them over to be nursed by other women; and this seems to have happened solely because of incontinence, since those who refuse to restrain themselves, despise nursing those to whom they have given birth.”
Simultaneously, we see a rise of iconography in glorification of Mary, particularly in
the role of exalted motherhood. Resulting in the first popularization of the “Nursing Madonna,” which often enmeshing local pagan beliefs. This type of Marian depiction would continue well into the Renaissance. But if we look at its development with what would become secular law, we can see that Mary became not only revered, but an example for motherhood. Additionally, infants were no longer results of disposable fertility and that the relationship between women’s freedoms and the value of infants are interestingly linked, with often unexpected outcomes.
In ancient awareness, trees have continually played an important role in symbolism across the world, through many cultures and belief systems. Some examples include the Celtic Tree of Life, the Norse Yggdrasil (symbols particularly popularized in the neo-pagan movement of modern day), the Bodhi Tree, its very name meaning the awakening or enlightenment of Buddha, and the Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition. In each depiction, there are strong connections to humanity and the human experience. While the divine, or immortal may be connected to the tree, it is often in a human-like capacity that ascends into some type of enlightenment (in the case of monotheism, knowledge that leads to disaster). This can be explained by the idea that the tree is a mirror of humanity itself – ever rooted to the Earth by reaching for something greater, something higher, caught in a state in-between.
As symbols of humanity, there are plenty of male and female connections to them. However, there are very specific demonstrations of female links that seem to be repetitive in Western culture. I’d like to examine these through the lens of the Greek myth of Daphne, the nymph lustfully pursued by Apollo until she is transformed into the laurel tree in order to escape. It is a timely myth to revisit for the modern audience, as many women via the Me Too movement have spoken out against male sexual misconduct, particularly from powerful men. It has spurred not only conversations on the sexual harassment, pressure and assault on women, but questions concerning sex and power dynamics.
In Greek mythology, there are plenty of stories that feature a deity and a mortal love-interest. In many cases, the female mortal or lesser immortal (such as a nymph) is unwilling, and is subsequently seduced, pressured, tricked or raped into compliance to the god’s desires. Frequently, these women become pregnant from the encounter and face tragedies or suffer greatly because of it. Because of this, it is not surprising that women would spurn interest from a god as at least an unwelcome complication, or greater, a life-threatening or ruining possibility.
Daphne, faced with Apollo’s lust (which is sometimes described as love but is clearly of a purely sexual nature) rebuffs him because she has declared a life free from the complications of men in the model of the goddess Artemis. Daphne treasures her freedom and lives a life hunting and roaming free in the woods. Edith Hamilton remarks that Apollo saw Daphne in a state of physical disarray while she hunted, yet he was entranced saying, “what would she not look like properly dressed and with her hair nicely arranged?”
This is a significant statement, as it alludes to “taming” something wild. The trappings of civilization, where society will ultimately insist on marriage, childbirth and domestic activities for women, are all things Daphne wishes to avoid. The pursuit of Apollo can be symbolic of the pursuit of society for women to acquiesce with societal expectations. Further, submission to male authority.
Daphne is described as athletic and when she flees, she gives a difficult pursuit for Apollo. But he is ultimately a god, so he is able to gain ground on her. Despite Daphne’s abilities, she cannot escape Apollo’s will. We could read this as despite female abilities and potential, women cannot escape society’s will.
Except Daphne does escape. She escapes by changing form, calling upon her father who transforms her at the last minute into a laurel tree. At this point, the myth describes Apollo’s continued “love” for her and elevation of the laurel tree in his esteem. But that glosses over the significance of Daphne’s shape-shifting as a proclamation of both the extremes women’s struggle with patriarchal cultural construction as well as a dire but possible avenue of escape. Daphne’s transformation makes her untouchable, even from men of power.
But what does that mean?
The cover of trees in both history and storytelling have provided exiles from society to
practice religions of their choosing, avoid capture and to create new lives. We might first think of Robin Hood’s Band of Merry Men. Yet it is the overtures of female mysticism that are strongly associated with the woods. In Western lore, the image of the forest dwelling witch pervades mythologies, fairytales and later religious persecution. In the latter, late medieval and early modern witch-hunts believed that women witches held ecstatic gatherings in the woods under the cover of darkness where they dedicated themselves to and engaged in sexual acts with Satan. The Maenads, the cult of Dionysius (or Bacchus in the Roman period) featured similar ecstatic and sexual forest gatherings of mostly women that often resulted in acts of violence.
The forest has often been a place of hiding, where things deemed socially unacceptable were practiced. It can offer refuge, but not without threat. The Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition is forbidden, but Eden partakes unwittingly in a trade of knowledge for the withdrawal of God’s protection. In Celtic culture, trees, or a grove can serve as a gateway to the realm of the faery, a mysterious world of amazement and entrapment, rife with equal parts wonder and danger. Such transformations and withdrawal from societal cooperation are by nature threatening to that society, but there is a freedom that can be found.
These examples have been loud ones, stories and events that often served as subconscious warnings against the desire for liberation from patriarchal structures. Yet the mythological figure of the dryad, or other faery stories such as “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” construct a different outcome. In the case of the dryad, a female nature spirit that lives within and/or is one with a tree, the transformation and womanhood coexist. If we considered Daphne’s transformation into the laurel, akin to the existence of the dryad, then indeed, Daphne not only escaped Apollo but society itself, becoming instead a protective presence.
John Keats describes the faery woman – la belle dame sans merci (the beautiful lady without mercy) as Apollo may have described his sighting of Daphne as she hunted. But the power structure is different, the rules of society reversed or if you will, transformed. Here the faery woman has the power.
We could consider this from a negative perspective, that such a link is a sinister one, a warning to men of what could happen if women were allowed such self-direction. Indeed it hints at the very destruction of male power structures, “…pale kings and princes too, pale warriors, death-pale were they all.”
However, in its place is the woman, forced to transform in order to escape. Despite this, she has changed herself and her reality. By doing so, she has saved herself from abuse and violence, and further has claimed an unconventional power over her person, ultimately escaping patriarchal cultural requirements.