Fair Maids & Faithful Knights:
a survey of gender-dynamics in Malory’s “Knight of the Kitchen” and Wolfram’s ‘Parzival’.
The legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, are among the most recognizable of Occidental myths. The very names of Arthur and his Knights, are names to conjure the very type and symbol of heroism and honor, and the last, tragic defence of a forgotten ideal, against a changing world. Arthur’s reign, from their beginnings in the Welsh and Breton traditions, is imagined as a type of Golden Age, in which the isles of Britain prospered, before the sobrer reigns of the Anglo-Saxons: a final sunset of the days of myth, before the isles enter the (supposedly) more sordid realm of history; and retain that character throughout the romances of Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Arthurian references continue to this day, wherein such authors as T.H. White, Mary Stewart, Stephen Lawhead, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton, and T.A. Barron have furnished us with novelizations of the legend. Yet with occasional exceptions, the public image of the story remains incorrectly that of a ‘man’s world’, in which the women’s rôles are minimal. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A recurring theme in most Arthurian romances, though not in the oldest legends, is a direct proportion, stated and defended by Arthur and his vassals, between a knight’s gentleness toward women, and his adherence to the ideals of chivalry. In particular, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Wolfram’s Parzival, and the various Lancelots convert each hero’s martial career into a series of trials-by-combat, wherein the points at issue are the limit of a man’s rights over women, and the disposal of each lady’s inheritance. In every romance, there is always a lady of noble or royal birth (most of the so-called ‘knights’ of the Round Table are princes and kings, and their ladies tend to be princesses or queens of small city-states), menaced by a rejected suitor and rescued by one of Arthur’s deputies. When the hero wins, he sends his enemy to Arthur to be initiated into the order of chivalry, if he does not kill him outright; and the conquered knight is thereafter supposed to treat all women with respect, and especially the lady he besieged earlier. In several cases, the knight’s quest begins at the orders of a lady, as in most of Malory (Bks. II-VII), again in Chretién, and in virtually all the Grail legends.
On these grounds, the case can be made that the society depicted in the Arthurian corpus is governed by female agency: that is, the women devise the quests, and even the obstacles for the hero to overcome, and the men serve only to achieve their ends. Nor are these women the faint and helpless victims of male caprice: Lynet in The Knight of the Kitchen is notorious for abusing her sister’s rescuer, until quite late in the story when she abruptly changes her mind; and in all versions of the Grail legend, the hero Peredur/Percival/Parzival is urged and guided every step of the way by his mother, sisters, mistress, wife, and aunts, and the entirety of the Round Table stop and listen when consulted by any of the enchantresses in the story. Likewise, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the mastermind behind the Beheading Test is Morgan le fay, the archetypal enchantress of Arthurian legend.
Arthur himself is raised to power by a male prophet (Merlin); but this prophet is soon deposed and replaced by the ‘Ladies of the Lake’, apparently merely to take sole control of Arthur. With the possible exception of Arthur’s personal enemies (the Saxons, the Eleven Kings, and ultimately Mordred), the majority of evil characters are distinguished by their disdain for a lady’s rights; and the majority of heroes earn that title by ‘knightly service’ (i.e., battle; cf. our modern usage of ‘military service’) in the interests of those rights, as in the Lancelot cycles wherein the hero saves women both high and low in rank, one after another.
Perhaps the most striking examples of these themes, are Malory’s ‘Knight of the Kitchen’ (Le Morte d’Arthur, Bk. VII) and Wolfram’s Parzival. In each romance, the hero expels the enemies occupying the lady’s territory and declares himself the lady’s consort, but immediately rides away again, without apparent measures for her future security. Wolfram’s Parzival at least is constantly distracted throughout his later adventures by the thought of his thus-abandoned wife; but neither she seems to need his further protection, nor he retraces his steps in search of her. Indeed, at the end of the romance, Parzival’s bride arrives in the Grail Castle, to join the celebration of his investiture there as Grail King, and present him with their twin sons (by then perhaps two years old); and there is no mention of any danger along her path.
Of course, it is not incredible to suppose, that travelling with the majority of the Round Table (as she seems to have done) would shield Condwimurs (as Wolfram calls her) from most enemies. Nor does it require more than the slightest suspension of disbelief, to speculate that Lionors and Lynet, Gareth’s damsels-in-distress in The Knight of the Kitchen, and other similar characters, were said after their rescues to be ‘under the protection’, not of their own knights alone, but of Arthur and the Table; — i.e., under government protection, albeit of only a provisional government. Thus the Round Table demonstrates itself again as an ideal society, meant for the protection of women and children from designing men.
All this is well known to experts on the subject; but when, as now, the question of male privilege is hotly debated in public, it behoves us to consider an ideal of male conduct, of great fame among both academians and laity, and respected by both, and yet based not on the strength alone, but on the compassion, discernment, and generosity of strong men. With this remark we conclude the present essay.