Three of the Best Lady-Driven Stories From Arthurian Legend
Netflix’s new reimagined Arthurian series Cursed has been an interesting watch, as someone who is familiar enough with the broad mythology. The legends of King Arthur are notoriously always changing depending on the writer, so there are always different takes to pull from. Cursed focuses on Nimue, one of the many Ladies of the Lake that appear in the story.
Her version is very different from previous ones and without getting into any spoilers, there are … choices made, but it is what it is. Still, the show made me remember why I’d always been drawn to the female characters in the stories of King Arthur: They were all so morally ambiguous.
From Guinevere and Morgan le Fay to Lynette and Lyonesse, the women in Arthurian legend are seductive, malevolent, manipulative, noble, and tragic—open to being more deeply examined by a writer, but very easily placed into stereotypical boxes if appropriate care is not taken. Here are three of my favorites:
Elaine of Astolat:
I first heard about her from an Emilie Autumn song, but the best telling of her tale is in Le Morte d’Arthur. Elaine is the daughter of a noble who hosts a jousting tournament. There, she locks eyes on the sexiest knight of them all, Lancelot. Elaine asks him to wear a token of hers, but Lancelot is currently sheath deep in an affair with Queen Guinevere. So, he has to disguise himself so that his married girlfriend isn’t too offended.
During the tournament, Lancelot is injured, and Elaine tries to pull a classic “nurse him back to health until he loves me” maneuver. Lancelot parries. Heartbroken, Elaine pulls a Padmé and dies, but asks to have her body put in a boat and floated down the river to Camelot. She is discovered by King Arthur and Lancelot, who feels sadness over her death and pays for her funeral.
Yeah, it’s sad, but I like it.
There are a lot of different versions of Nimue, but the one I am most familiar with is this one: Before Nimue becomes the Lady of the Lake, she’s a woman who Merlin is very much infatuated with, despite her telling him no, several times. Eventually, Nimue decides that if he’s going to keep harassing her, she’s going to get something out of it: magic.
Nimue tells Merlin that he isn’t getting any loving until he teaches her all that he knows. Merlin, busy being a gross old dude, is like, “Cool, cool, cool.” So, he teaches her magic, and once she knows enough, Nimue enchants Merlin to trap him so he can’t bother him anymore. Most of the time, he’s stuck in a tree, but sometimes, like in Le Morte d’Arthur, it’s under a rock—either way, harassment ended.
Good for her.
So, in medieval literature, there was this trope called the “Loathly lady.” Basically, these are stories about men falling in love with unattractive women, but then realizing that they are being assholes and shallow—only for it to be revealed that the unattractiveness was a curse, and true love breaks the spell. One of the most famous versions of this is in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. However, it takes place during the time of King Arthur, so it totally counts.
Here’s the thing about King Arthur’s court: Magical knights were always showing up and making threats. In this particular tale, Sir Gromer Somer Joure tells King Arthur that he needs to “discover what women desire the most,” or else off with his head. This makes Arthur and the knights go up to every woman and ask them, “So, what do women want?” They have a year to figure it out, but don’t manage until one day Arthur meets a “loathy lady” in the forest who says she can answer the question, but in exchange, she wants to marry Sir Gawain.
Gawain agrees, and the woman, Dame Ragnelle, tells Arthur that women really, really, want is the ability to make their own decisions—which, you know, I feel like his wife should have been able to tell him that, but whatever.
The wedding happens, and at first, Gawain is hesitant, but then decides that he is going to go to bed with his wife and treat her with the respect she deserves. What a concept! When Gawain looks at his hag bride, surprise, she’s hot now! Ragnelle tells her new husband he had been under a spell, and now she will be attractive for half the day. Ragnelle asks if he would rather that she be beautiful at night when they are alone or in the daytime when people can see?
Gawain then does something quite legendary: He asks her what she wants. That breaks the curse for good, and Ragnelle’s beauty is fully restored.
Despite the beauty standard bullshit, I love this story because Ragnelle just does whatever she wants. She acts grossly during the feast, and even if Gawain hadn’t picked the right answer, she was still going to be married to the nephew of the king.
All in all, not a bad endgame.
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