Medieval Mindsets: Narrative Theory and The Mists of Avalon
By Bridgette Da Silva
1 October 2007
We all know the story of King Arthur, the hero who brought peace and prosperity to a formerly violent Britain. No one can say whether he was a real man or a myth, but one thing is certain: the tales about him change depending on who is telling them.
Some themes have stayed the same for centuries. One of the more popular motifs handed down to us from earlier storytellers center around his troubles with women. We know that his wife Guinevere had an affair with his best friend Lancelot. We know that Morgan le Fay betrayed him as well, in trying to ensure the downfall of the Good King.
These betrayals are so embedded in the consciousness of Western society they could be deemed "master narratives"—those well known stories that help us make sense of ourselves and our world, according to philosopher Hilde Lindemann Nelson. They consist of "stock plots and readily recognizable character types" (pg. 106) and function as a shorthand for understanding people, especially groups of people. For example, the idea of the "dumb blonde" is very familiar to us in the West (pg. 86). That stereotype serves to explain the putative vapid tendencies displayed by women possessed of light hair. Of course, master narratives need not be true to be widely accepted, or even just repeated.
Guinevere and Morgan are specific forms of a wider narrative familiar to us: Woman as Temptress. Either women are unwitting accomplices in evil, which Guinevere often is accused of (her very womanliness is blamed for his seduction), or they intentionally destroy men, as Morgan did (by seducing Arthur and giving birth to Mordred, who eventually ended Arthur's reign).
Master narratives can be used to oppress certain groups of people, Nelson says in her book Damaged Identities: Narrative Repair, when the story portrays a group as unable or unwilling to make moral decisions. The Woman as Temptress motif functions in this way, reinforcing the patriarchal value that women are less morally capable than men. As such, it seems that the King Arthur myth functions as an oppressive master narrative, at least where the women are concerned.
Master narratives are ultimately connected to a person's identity, Nelson argues. What is identity? She suggests it is the union of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the stories others tell us about ourselves. Some of those narrative constructions are borrowed from master narratives. When a person borrows from an oppressive master narrative, her identity reflects that. For example, if part of a woman's identity consists of the Woman as Temptress motif, in the case that she is raped, she may come to believe that she brought it on herself. Other people who buy into Woman as Temptress may believe the same thing. And that is important because, again, a person's identity is made up of not only her understanding of herself, but others' understanding of her: "Who I am depends to some extent on who others will let me be" (pg. 99). This master narrative of the Woman as Temptress serves to justify oppression.
Master narratives can be replaced, however, with what Nelson calls a counterstory. This kind of tale offers alternative plots and archetypes for people to identify with. If a counterstory comes to be accepted by the dominant group, then it becomes a master narrative.
In her novel The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley offers a counterstory for the women of King Arthur, who are subjected to the harmful master narratives of fifth century Britain. Bradley does not reduce Guinevere and Morgan to Temptresses, but rather reimagines them in more sympathetic terms. That is not to say her characters are saints. But that is the point. By giving the women characters a voice in her narrative, she humanizes them. In doing so, she offers a counterstory to the oppressive Woman as Temptress master narrative.
Those that affect Morgaine (Bradley uses the Welsh spellings: Morgaine, Lancelet, and Gwynhwyfar) dictate what womanhood, normality, and beauty should be. Women were subordinated to men at this time, and women acting on their own without the sanction of a man were severely frowned upon. Even the nuns could not act freely: for the most part the priests oversaw their activities. They were not autonomous, for they still served a male figure, albeit a divine one. As for normality, any woman experiencing visions (referred to as the Sight) as Morgaine does was immediately branded as a sorceress.
Perhaps the master narrative that hurts Morgaine most is that which dictated the strict definition of beauty in fifth century Britain. Women who were thought beautiful typically had fair hair and skin and were tall, whereas Morgaine is petite and dark. It would seem that the reason paleness was so praise-worthy had to do with the fact that the women who had such a feature were most often indoors, out of the sun. The master narrative of patriarchy states that a woman's place is within the home, and thus it would be logical that women who had pale skin because they never left home would be most desirable.
The oppressive master narratives that affect Gwenhwyfar the most deal with women's roles in relationships. Women in patriarchal master narratives are not considered moral agents, and one example of this manifests itself in the marriage process. A high-born girl is always retained under the auspice of male authority—first her father's, then her husband's. When she is under her father's "protection," she is sold off to the man he chooses when she reaches marriageable age (often woefully young by modern standards). When under her husband's "protection" she is expected to remain sexually available to him and only him. Love for a man who is not her husband is usually punished severely.
Both women chafe under these master narratives; however, Morgaine has a counterstory that allows her to repudiate the traditional master narrative, while Gwenhwyfar does not.
When Morgaine is a young child, she is introduced to several oppressive master narratives, including one that places an extraordinary emphasis on beauty (a narrow definition of beauty that she did not fit). In addition, the master narrative that denounces any spiritual influence outside Christianity affects her, as she experiences visions.
Fortunately, Morgaine had been exposed to a counterstory in Avalon, an isle off the coast of Britain where women worship a Mother Goddess and take on leadership roles. Spirituality expressed in visions was encouraged there, so Morgaine's ability was embraced.
Goddess worship in itself carried dynamics not found in Christian worship. In Christianity, women serve a male God. But the women of Avalon learned to accept their womanhood, for what could be so wrong with it if their very Goddess was female? Certainly the Goddess was not ashamed of her femaleness, so why should mortals be ashamed of being born female? They are born in the Goddess's image. Christian women more often than not, in traditional master narratives in the fifth century A.D., were taught to be feel shame about having a female body. The first woman, Eve, had cast humankind out of paradise, thus Christians took that to mean that all women would be easily tempted into evil and would be more predisposed toward tempting men the Woman as Temptress motif. Not so in Avalon.
As for beauty, in Avalon little emphasis was placed on appearance; no particular set of features was valued over others. The priestesses dressed in simple robes. All in all, the women of Avalon were introduced to conceptions of womanhood, spirituality, and beauty that were not available on mainland Britain that allowed them a greater sense of power. This worldview undermined traditional master narratives by providing women an alternative, more positive way of looking at themselves.
Despite this, Morgaine could not shake the oppressive master narrative concerning beauty. It becomes all the more important to her when she falls in love with Lancelet, who seems interested in her as well. That is, until he meets Gwenhwyfar, a woman who certainly fit the blond haired, blue eyed standard of beauty in Britain.
And so the identity-constituting narrative that Morgaine lacked beauty was formed. This torments her throughout the novel. It affects her sense of self and is the only narrative that forces her to think of herself in negative terms. Thus Morgaine's identity was influenced by three factors: her acceptance of her womanhood, acceptance of the Sight, and self-loathing due to her appearance. For the first two, she was exposed to counterstories that allowed her to value these aspects of herself. The women of Avalon had identified the oppressive master narratives and gave the pagan women a healthier sense of self. They also tried their hardest to bring that counterstory into the rest of Britain, but to no avail. Nelson points out that for a counterstory to be optimally successful, it must be embraced by the dominant group in society. Those from Avalon never reached that point. However, they did repair the damaged narratives of the women who came to Avalon from Christian Britain. Even Morgaine eventually repaired her damaged identity. After living outside of Avalon for years, she finally adopted the counterstory that Avalon had supported all along: she was beautiful even though she did not conform to the rest of Britain's traditional standards of beauty.
Gwenhwyfar's identity is, in part, influenced by Lancelet. She lived in a convent the day she met him, when she crossed into Avalon through the mists. Right away it is clear that Lancelet will tug at her traditional Christian loyalties.
By the time that she and Lancelet meet again, Gwenhwyfar has already become much more affected by oppressive master narratives than Morgaine, having internalized the values of patriarchal Britain. We see that her father is fond of calling her demeaning names and that he expects her to serve him. She comes to judge herself as negatively as her father does.
And yet, after spending time with the charming Lancelet, she begins to feel more empowered: "For the first time she felt pretty and bold and brave" (pg. 256). It is clear that both have feelings for the other, but her father won't hear of a marriage between them. Part of the patriarchal master narrative makes women the property of men, and at that time, Gwenhwyfar was literally the property of her father, to be used to make alliances through arranged marriages. He is ambitious and plans for her to marry Arthur, and so dismisses her fear of such a marriage. In the end he fully convinces her that he is doing it for her own good, and she thus has no reason to complain. As a result of his constant patronizing, Gwenhwyfar learns to dismiss her own feelings when they conflict with those of the powerful men in her life or the master narratives they uphold. She also comes to see herself through others' eyes. Rather than define herself, she allows others' interpretations of her to predominate.
As Nelson argues, without social and material support, women are at the mercy of society's master narratives. Morgaine has found such support in Avalon, but Gwenhwyfar has not. She is forced to leave the convent, despite her wishes, and is forced into marriage with a stranger, despite her wishes. Furthermore, the narratives of women she learned while in the convent exist simultaneously with those she learns in her father's household, so that they legitimate and reinforce each other. This is most easily seen in Gwenhwyfar's self-talk as she tries to stifle her anger at the fact that she is helpless to decide her own fate:
She wanted to be a nun and stay in the convent . . . but that was not suitable for a princess; she must obey her father's will as if it were the will of God. Women had to be especially careful to do the will of God because it was through a woman that mankind had fallen into Original Sin, and every woman must be aware that it was her work to atone for that Original Sin in Eden. (pg. 268)
After Gwenhwyfar is welcomed as Arthur's wife and queen, it appears that she has three important commitments in her life: one is her love and loyalty to Christian values (as defined in the fifth century A.D.), the second is her duty to Arthur, and the third is her love and loyalty to Lancelet. Unfortunately for Gwenhwyfar, the first two commitments utterly conflict with the third. Her commitment to the maintenance of the master narratives of pious Christian woman and loyal wife of her King are in direct opposition to her commitment to Lancelet. In fact, it drives her to madness, expressed in an increasing fanaticism about Christianity.
Like Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar maintains a negative self-narrative fraught with self-deception. Her mind is so weighed down by it that she associates her inability to produce an heir with a moral failure on her part. She projects her feelings of hurt and inadequacy onto Arthur, assuming that he feels the anger she feels about failing her duties as queen. She concludes that Arthur never wanted her in the first place and believes that he thinks her as useless as she feels.
Evidence suggests Arthur thinks of her in a more flattering light. Yet due to oppressive master narratives and the narrative of worthlessness she created to help explain them—confirmed by her inability to carry out her duties as queen—she believes Arthur thinks her worthless too. Her first person narrative is self-deceiving.
The institutions that upheld patriarchy, such as the Church, damaged her identity by curtailing her agency. It disallowed her the one thing in the world she wanted: sexual autonomy. In promoting the master narratives that said that women were mere temptresses and channels through which the devil could work evil, the church encouraged Gwenhwyfar and other women to think of themselves in such a way. Nelson argues that:
Oppression often infiltrates a person's consciousness, so that she comes to operate, from her own point of view, as her oppressors want her to, rating herself as they rate her [. . .]. If a counterstory moves her to see herself as a competent moral agent, she may be less willing to accept others' oppressive valuations of her, and this too allows her to exercise her agency more freely. (pg. 7)
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in a small section of the novel involving a discussion of women and harps. A courtier mentions to Morgaine that he would not let his daughter play the harp as she does, because it might encourage her to step out of her place (pg. 288). The harp is an instrument of agency. Indeed, Gwenhwyfar replies that she was beaten once for touching one. She has never had that opportunity to learn to play the harp, which could have helped produce an empowering counterstory. Playing the instrument would have allowed her the chance to think of herself outside of the master narrative that imprisoned women within narrowly defined roles. But the impulse to develop this counterstory was beaten out of her. We know that her father did not want her to buy into a counterstory that would allow her to develop agency.
In addition to growing up in Avalon, being allowed to sing and play an instrument afforded Morgaine the opportunity to develop a counterstory. Gwenhwyfar has never been introduced to one, to the benefit of patriarchal Britain, represented by her father. Morgaine may have had issues with feeling ugly, but in Avalon she was allowed the ability to develop skills that women on the mainland were not. Harp-playing was a counterstory that allowed her to see herself as more than just an object of beauty.
In the end, Gwenhwyfar is forced to give Lancelet up. Not only has her identity and sense of agency been damaged by years of oppressive master narratives, but those narratives—the most damaging being the one that associates her barrenness with her "evil" desires for Lancelet—play a part in her leaving the court forever. She, a woman with the highest post in the land, is unable to escape pernicious master narratives by creating a subversive counterstory. Her story ends in sadness and tragedy. Morgaine, on the other hand, has access to such a counterstory and is able to change her understanding of herself. She is given social and material support, and comes out of a society, even one so used to damaging women's self-narratives, with her own positive counter-narrative intact.
Whether Marion Zimmer Bradley intended to or not, by exposing the West to her version of the King Arthur myth, she also presented a possible counter narrative that women could adopt in their own lives. In providing a positive counter narrative for Morgaine, readers are exposed to a new narrative that challenges patriarchal notions of womanhood, normality, and beauty. In showing how patriarchal master narratives damaged Gwenhwyfar, Bradley invites modern audiences to think about the ways patriarchy finds its way into their own self-narratives.
Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Del Ray/Ballantine, 1982.
Nelson, Hilde Lindemann. Damaged Identities: Narrative Repair. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.