- The Girl’s King Arthur: Tales of the Women of Camelot
A growing body of fiction for adults supplies readers with feminist interpretations of medieval legend, but it can be difficult for younger women to be seduced by the Middle Ages the same way a young boy’s imagination is lit with visions of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, or Robin Hood. Barbara Lupack’s new book of Arthurian stories is a welcome intervention. The pages of The Girl’s King Arthur are filled with tales of Arthurian heroines motivated by love, altruism, magic, and a thirst for knowledge that will inspire young readers with its new vision of the past.
Lupack has crafted a series of intricate tales focused on individual characters but woven together as skillfully as a medieval tapestry. Ian Brown’s accompanying illustrations are sublimely simple but, like the tales themselves, they capture the essence of these Arthurian figures with sophistication and complexity. The Lady of the Lake greets us as the frame narrator and promises to transport the reader to an earlier time. It is a promise she fulfills: the text’s tone is refreshingly medieval even as it exhibits distinctly progressive intentions. Lupack offers us a range of Arthurian women, including Guinevere, Elaine of Astolat, Elaine of Carbonek, Iseult, Dame Ragnell, Vivien, Lynette, and Morgan le Fay. Each of these characters evokes both sympathy and admiration, and each one suffers but pursues her destiny in spite of—or sometimes because of—that suffering. Guinevere’s is the story of a young girl nurtured on tales of love and passion who is heartbroken to find that her own marriage is nothing but a sterile political arrangement. The two Elaines, perhaps the most pitied women in Arthurian romance, become heroines in Lupack’s imaginative [End Page 95] vision. Elaine of Astolat exhibits a chivalric devotion to Lancelot, and Elaine of Carbonek’s infamous manipulation of Lancelot is revealed to be a quest to heal her father and his kingdom. Other tales, like Vivian’s and Morgan’s, are platforms for social critique—the limitations placed on women’s education and the harsher standards by which women are judged, and often misjudged, for their actions—but they also serve to empower girls with steel-forged heroines who triumph even in the face of discrimination and limitations.
The book’s messages, though powerful, are merely the backbone of an enchanting body of stories. There are risks for repetition in these tales given the overlap in their sources, but Lupack avoids redundancy thanks to her skill with varying voice, mood, and tone. Nor does Lupack shy away from dark realities. Guinevere’s tale moves the reader to tears with its frustrated romance, and Elaine of Astolat haunts us with the specter of a girl whose only worth could be found in love. Iseult’s and Elaine of Corbin’s chapters may be the most powerful: Iseult’s is beautiful and gripping, whereas Elaine’s has the cold, haunting suspense of a medieval mystery. Dame Ragnell’s tale, though its moral is serious, provides a clever and charming diversion in the midst of lost love and tragedy. Finally, scholars will appreciate realistic details such as wedding customs, herb lore, and passages from medieval books.
Though this book is enjoyable for Arthurian aficionados of any age or gender, it will make a wonderful gift for young women who seek a way into Arthurian legend. Lupack embeds vital lessons within every story: the wisdom of choosing mercy over violence; the folly of punishing a woman for having the same passions, goals, or talents as a man; the importance of knowing one’s mind, and the joy of pursuing a quest. Although The Girl’s King Arthur is packed with empowering lessons, the messages are far from homogenous. Instead, like her character Vivian, Lupack teaches readers that to create one’s ‘own measure of happiness in this world’ is the ‘most significant ambition of all.’