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The French tradition of the Arthurian legends, however, are far less overtly political in their approach to the tales and to Guinevere in particular, and though politics and loyalties are still important elements of these stories the aspects of romance, love, and sexuality are far more prominent. Beginning with the poet Chretien de Troyes, Guinevere began to take on a more active role that at once justifies the feminine and begins to suggest the degradation and un-holiness of the female body and intent. Though Man might still be the more active and potent partner, Woman can corrupt and influence Man, these tales suggest, and the character of Guinevere seems a brand new creation given her immensely increased prominence when compared to all known earlier forms of the legends (Fulton, 3).
Erec and Enide is the tale of one of Arthur's knights and the peasant maid he loves and marries, but this tale begins to introduce Guinevere's agency, sexuality, and other aspects of individual personality as well as shedding light on more general notions of gender and romance in the medieval French tradition. While Arthur and the bulk of his retinue are on a stag hunt, Queen Guinevere waits at another point in the woods and Erec rides up beside her, offering his companionship: "And the Queen thanks him: "Fair friend, I like your company well, in truth; for better I could not have" (de Troyes, Vv. 67-114). The Queen is welcoming, already beginning to show personality and agency, and this continues as the story of the poem progresses. Seeing a strange knight somewhat distant, the Queen sends her maid to ask him to approach, but she is struck by the knight's dwarf servant, who tells here that, " it is not meet that you should speak to so excellent a knight" (de Troyes, Vv. 155-274). There is a definite dismissal of the feminine as impossible of equaling the worth of a man, and yet this dismissal is given by a creature that is "rude and mean," not simply questioning its legitimacy but in fact suggesting that this treatment of the feminine is inappropriate and even evil.
The goodness and rightness of feminine intercession is quickly demonstrated; after the killing of the stag the King is expected to bestow a kiss upon the fairest maiden, and each knight is willing to fight if they are dishonored by not having their own lady chosen, but the Queen intercedes: "Sire,' says the Queen to the King, 'listen to me a moment. If these knights approve what I say, postpone this kiss until the third day, when Erec will be back.' There is none who does not agree with her, and the King himself approves her words" (de Troyes, Vv. 311-41). Erec does eventually return, having vanquished the abusive knight and having fallen in love with Enide along the way. Enide eventually wins the King's kiss to the unanimous approval of all present, and thus her feminine beauty dissuades the men from unnecessary violent action, and yet this is not accomplished without Guinevere's intercession; it is Arthur's Queen that dresses the maiden in fine clothes, and then insists that Erec and his new maid deserve the utmost honors of the royal court (de Troyes, Vv. 1479-690; Vv. 1751-844). Sexuality and gender differentiation are quite clear, yet the feminine is seen as much more active and powerful -- in a different direction and with different intentions than the male power also presented in the tale, but with no less potency.
It is in de Troyes' Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart that Guinevere truly comes into her own as a character, though, and in which the complex interactions of femininity, sexuality, loyalty, and politics are questioned and never fully defined. Written at the court and according to some at the specific behest of Marie de Champagne, this is the first surviving tale surrounding Lancelot and also introduces the concept of his love affair with Guinevere (Bruce, 327; Putter, 44). Though the figure of Guinevere is quite prominent, however, she is not given much agency throughout most of the tale: kidnapped by the King's enemy Meleagant, Lancelot -- already in love -- rides out to rescue her, with several adventures including a few hesitations along the way. This can be read as an ongoing battle between Love and Reason, which are naturally opposed, and in this tale not only is Love supposed to triumph, but the consummation of the Love between Lancelot and Guinevere is not portrayed as immoral precisely because of Love's supremacy (Putter, 48-9). Her true moment of action appears to paint her in a negative light, in fact, as an ungrateful and capricious example of femininity:
When the Queen saw the king holding Lancelot by the hand…she looked displeased with clouded brow, and she spoke not a word. 'Lady, here is Lancelot come to see you,' says the king; 'you ought to be pleased and satisfied.' 'I, sire? He cannot please me. I care nothing about seeing him…I shall never deny that I feel no gratitude toward him.' & #8230;the Queen listened as Lancelot voiced his disappointment, but in order to grieve and confound him, she would not answer a single word, but returned to her room.
(de Troyes, Vv. 3955-4030)
Not only is Guinevere ungrateful, but her response is explicitly calculated "to grieve and confound him," making it clear that feminine action is more subtle and indirect though no less powerful than the direct and often brutal power of the masculine, as evidenced by Lancelot and others in the romance.
Eventually, of course, love is restored between Lancelot and Guinevere, and Putter (49) reads Guinevere's rejection of Lancelot as an indication of her displeasure at his hesitation -- Reason should not have served to hold him back in any instance when Love was pressing him on. This not only excuses the adultery inherent to the consummation of their love but in fact compels it, making it an act of moral necessity rather than disloyalty, and thus Love is shown as transcending all political and social mores despite the clear ramifications of Love on these areas. This also places the feminine in an entirely separate sphere from that of masculine "real world" affairs, as the rules of Love that Guinevere establishes (in this reading) do not have any influence on the rules of society, political loyalties, etc., but are instead wholly distinct and "other" through their transcendence. Women are thus given more agency, but this agency is detached, different, and often incommunicative. This can be seen in Erece and Enide as well, with the initial shock at the treatment of the Queen's maid, the physical transportation and transformation of Enide, and even the custom of the kiss all strengthening the sense of feminine mystery and otherness.
The Lady of the Lai
The Lais of Marie de France are a series of twelve poems devoted largely to the theme of courtly love, but in Lanval this theme is turned roundly on its head in a very telling manner. Courtly love as celebrated in the bulk of the Lais takes place between an unhappily married lady of some wealth and nobility, but in the tale of the knight Lanval the Queen is not truly unhappy in her marriage, but lusts after Lanval regardless and essentially throws herself at him, while Lanval remains committed to the fairy lover he has pledged himself (and his secrecy) to: "Lady,' he said, 'Let me go! / I never thought to love you so!' (Marie de France). Interestingly, however, Lanval does not invoke a competing love that prevents him from taking the offer Guinevere extends, but begs off by citing his loyalty to the King. Whether this is necessary to protect his promised secrecy to his lover or not is not determined and is ultimately immaterial; the Queen accuses him of homosexuality whereupon he reveals his true affair and the Queen departs, shattered and rejected. Guinevere's dastardliness does not end there, but when the King arrives she repeats the insults Lanval levied at her with a significant twist, claiming that the insult arose when, "He'd asked her for a love-affair, / She'd said no" (Marie de France). The truth of Lanval's love is eventually revealed and he rides of to Avalon with his lover, but this is done through the female lover's eventual appearance and intercession rather than through action of his own.
Throughout this lai, in fact, Agency is seen to be almost entirely feminine, for better or for worse. Lanval is completely powerless when he first meets the fairy lover, easily pledging himself to her after she sends her maids to approach him. The knight is the receiver of the love in this case, and is shown several times to be the less powerful of the two…[continue]
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