In Sir Thomas Mallory’s, Le Morte d’Arthur, the majority of the characters face serious conflicts with chivalry and romance. This essay however will analyze female characters and their roles in Mallory’s rendition of Le Morte d’Arthur and how these female characters handle the pressures and restrictions placed on them as women. Queen Guinevere and Elaine of Ascolot represent the ideals of women in Arthurian romance; both Guinevere and Elaine are beautiful, Arthurian, aristocratic ladies that love hard and are willing to put everything they care about on the line for the sake of their love and their lover. Although Queen Guinevere and Elaine of Ascolot are both considered ideal lovers by Mallory, their gender reveals the boundaries set for women in chivalry and romance through their similar struggles with the patriarchy and their differences in how they express their love.
The similarities between Queen Guinevere and Elaine of Ascolot follow a common theme of women being controlled or repressed by men. We see this in many examples with Guinevere because she is constantly being accused of some kind of heinous crime and then needs to be defended by a man, specifically Lancelot. She can never defend herself; she always needs a man to do it, even when she uses her words to try and defend herself she more or less gets nowhere with Arthur’s court because she is a woman and her words are considered meaningless. Which is why a man, or Lancelot, has to come in and fight on her behalf and save the day. Here we see Guinevere trying to explain herself for the mysterious death of a knight who happened to die after eating a dinner she had prepared: “‘I made this dinner for a good intent, and never for no evil; so Almighty Jesu me help in my right, as I was never purposed to do such evil deeds, and that I report me unto God’” (Mallory, 407). She really could not have been any clearer in what she was trying to saying to defend herself against the accusations the court was rising against her. Yet a few lines later we see Arthur dismissing what she says and asking where Lancelot is to defend her word. Why does she need a man to defend her word? This proves that judicial outcomes in Camelot and within Arthurian romance are only considered just or truthful when a man is defending the case or issue. “‘Where is Sir Lancelot?’ Said King Arthur. ‘And he were here he would not grudge to do battle for you’” (Mallory, 407). This is a perfect example of how Guinevere is put down by a patriarchal society, and although she is an ideal lover and even though she is a member of high society, her opinion is still regarded as unimportant or less important than a man’s opinion. However, Guinevere is not the only female character who gets ignored and abused by the patriarchy.
Elaine of Ascolot, another female character, is again described as an ideal lover: “So this maiden Elaine never went from Sir Lancelot, but watched him day and night, and did such attendance to him that the French book saith there was never woman did never more kindlier for man” (Mallory, 427). Elaine is described as ideal; however, even though she is described as the most kind and loving woman, she still gets taken advantage of when it comes to romance and chivalry. As the tale continues, poor Elaine gets completely manipulated and used by Lancelot; her good nature and his selfishness creates a toxic combination and ends up getting her heartbroken and ultimately results in her death. We see in many examples with Elaine, how she is confined to a certain feminine role because of her gender. An example of this inequality would be when Lancelot tells Elaine and her family that he has to leave to go back to Camelot. Lancelot explains that he has no intentions of marrying Elaine even though he had led her on by wearing her sleeve to a tournament which is an obvious symbol of love in Arthurian romance and he also expressed his fondness of her earlier when she nursed him back to health. However the scene continues and we see clear sexist gender roles when Elaine’s brother, Sir Lavain, professes his love for Lancelot also and says he wants to stay with him and understands why his sister wants to kill herself if she looses Lancelot. Lancelot says, “Father,’ … ‘I dare make good she is a clean maiden as for my lord Sir Lancelot; but she doth as I do, for sithen I saw first my lord Sir Lancelot, I could never depart from him, nor nought I will and I may follow him” (Mallory, 433). This quotation shows how a man can do something a woman cannot in Arthurian romance. Elaine wants to stay with Lancelot and be with him forever, but she cannot, because she is a woman. However, her brother, because he is a man, can be made a knight and follow Lancelot and be with him forever. Even though Elaine saved Lancelot and nurses him back to health and had a very active feminine role, she still cannot be made a knight and as a result she can never stay or be with Lancelot. The only way Elaine could still be with Lancelot would be if she was his lover or his wife, both possibilities were rejected by Lancelot.
Although Queen Guinevere and Elaine of Ascolot are described as ideal lovers, they do express their love differently. While Queen Guinevere has a more demanding approach to how she handles her love with Lancelot, Elaine has a generous or endowing way of expressing her love. While Lancelot rejects Elaine and serves Guinevere, the issue at hand is still gender. Elaine’s love is not seen as legitimate to Lancelot because she is not his lover, therefore a woman’s love is only considered valuable if she is his lover, which is a double-standard within Arthurian society. Queen Guinevere tends to be considered the perfect Arthurian lady and lover; she is beautiful, graceful, and puts her love for Lancelot above all, she truly believes and inflicts all the ideals of romance and chivalry, as does Elaine. However, Guinevere tends to be more taxing and demands Lancelot’s full attention and devotion, if he does not comply with her demands or expectations Guinevere will think that he does not love her because he is not demonstrating the ideals of chivalry. An example of Guinevere’s overdramatic expectations would be in the very beginning of The Tale of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, a few lines in we see Guinevere scolding Lancelot for his lack of attention: “Sir Lancelot, I see and feel daily that thy love beginneth to slacken, for ye have no joy to be in my presence, but ever ye are out of this court. And quarrels and matters ye have nowadays for ladies, maidens, and gentlewomen, more than ever ye were wont to have beforehand” (Mallory, 403). These idealistic attributes that Guinevere lives up to and strives to achieve are simply expected of her, they are expected of her because she is a beautiful woman. If Guinevere were a peasant, or a less attractive woman, such strict ideals would not be as critical to her life. Therefore proving that these dramatic ideals and rules she expects from herself and Lancelot are just implemented in her by the patriarchal society she lives in. However, the debate is not about class or beauty, because Elaine was also an aristocrat and she was also very beautiful, the point is that women can only be loved by a man if she is his lover. A woman who is not his lover, such as Elaine, is considered meaningless, and her love and feelings are disregarded because she is a woman who he is not in a relationship with.
As for Elaine of Ascolot, her approach to loving Lancelot differs from Guinevere’s in the sense that she does still believe in the ideals of romance but she executes them differently. Guinevere shows her belief in chivalrous ideals by expecting perfection and expecting the ideals of romance to be executed fully. While Guinevere demands perfection from Lancelot and waits for him to make a change, Elaine takes a more active approach and instead of demanding Lancelot’s attention she provides attention and care towards him, such as when she rode out in the middle of the night to find him or when she nursed him back to health after he was wounded in the tournament. Guinevere never took that kind approach to loving Lancelot, she simply called for him and he would come and do her bidding. If Elaine felt she needed to see Lancelot she would go and find him herself and take on a more progressive feminist role, she does in fact bend gender roles in many scenes such as when she goes to find Lancelot. Eventually Elaine becomes the martyr for women in romance as a whole because she is so wronged by the romantic ideals she believed in so much at the beginning of the tale.
After Lancelot breaks Elaine’s heart by selfishly leading her on and then leaving her and telling her that he will never marry her, but will instead pay her off every year after she does find a husband, Elaine sees the serious flaws within romance and the roles women have in it. Elaine has an awakening and she decides that without Lancelot, and because of the way he has hurt her and shattered her dreams, that she will kill herself as a martyr and take control of the situation to prove a point about how women are being mistreated by men. Elaine starves herself and sends her dead body down a river to Camelot with a letter attached to her body for Arthur’s court to read. A section of her letter stated: “Therefore unto all ladies I make my moan; yet for my soul ye pray and bury me at the least, and offer ye my masspenny, this is my last request. And a clean maiden I died, I take God to witness. And pray for my soul, Sir Lancelot, as thou art peerless” (Mallory, 435). Her letter is directly calling on women to see the flaws in the romantic society they are forced into, she asks them to pray for her soul and also calls out Lancelot for hurting her and altering her view of romance. She is trying to warn and advocate for all the women who have been mistreated by men in romance. Overall Elaine takes a much more active role than Guinevere because she not only actively pursues Lancelot and has a much more generous attitude towards romance, she also literally kills herself for the cause of women being treated unfairly in romance. Elaine dies for the ideals of chivalry and romance, whereas Guinevere suffers with self pity and guilt after the fall of Camelot and ultimately believes that the ideals of romance are flawed themselves, while Elaine believes that men are just not living up to the standard that ideal romanticism requires which is why she made herself a martyr after Lancelot left her.
Although Queen Guinevere and Elaine of Ascolot are both considered ideal lovers, their gender reveals the boundaries set for women in chivalry and romance through their similar struggles with the patriarchy and their differences in how they express their love. Elaine expresses the boundaries set for women in romance by making herself a martyr for the cause and recognizes that there are aspects of her society that limit her opportunities because she is a woman. Queen Guinevere on the other hand, is still also considered an ideal and true lover, but she takes on a less active role when it comes to loving Lancelot and demands more of the romantic expectations she had been taught to care about by the patriarchal society she lives in. Overall, both female characters’ roles are key to showing the boundaries set for women in Arthurian society and romance.