- Grrrls and Arthurian Stories
Why do feminist scholars (men and women) keep reading and teaching medieval stories that, like most Arthurian narratives, reinscribe patriarchal sexism? Do our politics match our reading practices? Scholars in all pre-contemporary fields ask themselves this question. Teach Hesiod's Works and Days and you perpetuate the story of Pandora (who released all evil into the world through her stupid curiosity) no matter how strongly you urge your students to resist its woman-loathing. Sure, such works spark good 'teaching moments,' yet they insidiously get inside our heads. In the last several decades, radical feminists have urged us to blast away this past by avoiding it entirely; other feminists have suggested that the interrogation of 'canonical' texts through gender analysis might equalize the gender balance; yet others suggest that we might change the temperature by amplifying access to new texts, many of them written by women. In any case, whether the protagonists and readers are men or women, our love of good stories is enduring—and Arthurian tales provides a steady stock of great stories, well told, often intellectually invigorating. One friend says we read them because they 'shine' in our emotions like sunlight hitting armor, and we identify with male and female protagonists alike. Furthermore, women often have agency—and sometimes equal empowerment with men—in medieval Arthurian texts. Modern writers pluck from these texts whatever skeletal identities suit their imaginative purposes, but they often flatten the characterization of their inherited female characters to mere names.
This collection of fine essays focuses both on how modern fiction and life represent girls and women in modern Arthurian and/or chivalric moments. Barbara Tepa Lupack's The Girl's King Arthur: Tales of the Women of Camelot is for me the strongest example of a writer whose fictive characters spring from traditional Arthurian narratives but who elaborate female achievement, thus allowing audiences of all genders to identify with women's choices. I was so impressed when Barbara showed me her draft that I immediately begged to publish this book in ARTHURIANA's Scriptorium Press series. Standing against Tepa Lupack's vision are those discussed by Laurie Finke and Susan Aronstein in their study of William Forbush's tawdry pre-World War I foundation of the 'Queens of Avalon' Club that paralleled his 'Knights of King Arthur' clubs. Like so many movements of the time (the Boy Scouts before them, [End Page 3] neo-Nazism later), these were attempts to teach both boys and girls how to submit and find contentment in rote obedience. Don't miss Amy Kaufman's hilarious yet appalling recounting of the ceremonies of contemporary 'modesty movements,' in which she argues that wounded American paternal masculinity can be assuaged by daughters who enact meta-incest rituals disguised in chivalric dress. In their essays, both Roberta Davidson and Fiona Tolhurst survey contemporary Arthurian fiction for girls. Here, the politics are depressingly mixed. None of us should be surprised that women writers are some of the worst offenders against equality. Many new fictions provide miserable female role models for girls (and, frankly, for boys also). In our era we might hope that all fiction writers and their publishers would push for stronger roles for boys and girls alike. In new Arthurian materials, we especially need strong grrrls who can think their way through situations without recourse to easy violence. Lots of 'younger reader' fiction, computer games, comics, etc. show powerful grrrls who can outrun and outmaneuver all the Evil Monkeys on my iPhone apps, but few are the new stories that show grrrls choosing strength and peace together. Perhaps we should ask such terrific writers as Sharan Newman and Bernard Cornwall to take a step in this direction. Their first question, reasonably, would be whether we warmongering tribes would buy enough copies. Would we? [End Page 4]