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The construction of gender: knights and fairies or animus and anima in the Arthurian legends.

Although the forest contains many terrors, it contains as many wonders. From its depths come beautiful fairy women to test and beguile the wandering knights as they ride in the forest. Many seek husbands among the Fellowship who sire sons upon them, introducing a strain of Otherworldly blood into the company.

Such a wandering knight is Sir Lancelot; he is the embodiment of the ideal of manhood, haunting the feminine imagination; he is an example of what a psychoanalyst will call the animus archetype, while the Knights of the Round Table symbolize the medieval masculine psyche. In contrast with the scarceness of the animus main characters in the Arthurian stories, we can tell that the anima archetypes abound.
   Jung noted that 'anima is often personified as a witch or a
   priestess' since women have stronger links with the forces of
   darkness and the spiritual world. (...) but the unconscious called
   up the fairy, of whom the witch, serving the Devil, came thereafter
   to be regarded simply as a caricature. As creatures of the
   unconscious, witches and fairies are ladies with a long history
   behind them, recorded in the psyche, and with a complicated
   development of personality, transference which legend has shaped,
   clothed and brought to life as hostile characters. (1)

In the phrase 'the Eternal Feminine,' Pierre Teilhard de Chardin saw the name of love itself as the major cosmic force. It is
   the meaning of a human aspiration towards transcendency with a
   natural instinct from which appear (1) the most commonly
   experienced mark of the domination of individuals by an
   extraordinarily broad vital current; (2) to a certain extent the
   source of all affective potentiality; (3) and lastly an energy
   especially favorable to self-development, to the enrichment of the
   self in so many increasingly spiritualized ways and to the
   contemplation of such manifold objects, and notably of God himself.

Woman haunts man's dreams, she is the object of his unconscious desire, she is present in those fairies of the lake and of the forest, always elusive and ambiguous, attractive and dangerous, bad and good. It is these fairies who help the hero, enthrall him, harness him asking for help, always and anywhere; such a fairy is Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, who gives Arthur the magic sword Excalibur and its scabbard which makes the owner invulnerable; or Morgan-le-Fay, who enchants the king and many of his knights; and Niniane or Viviane, who closes Merlin in a living grave.

There is a sense in which the majority of the women who appear in the Arthurian cycle are, or were goddesses. Thus Morgan le Fay, whose origins have been traced to the Irish goddesses Macha and Morrighan, becomes, in the medieval Arthurian world, a mere enchantress, at least on the surface. Thomas Malory says of her that she was the daughter of Igrain and Gorlois of Cornwall, and that after her father's death, and the events of Arthur's birth engineered by Merlin, she was 'put to school in a nunnery, where she became a great clerk of necromancy. ' (Thomas Malory, The Morte Darthur, 61) Morgan, who became known by the epithet 'le Fay,' the Fairy, retained some of her goddess qualities, even in the medieval tales. Thus, with Thomas Malory, while on the one hand she is portrayed as an enchantress and shape-shifter, Morgan also figures as one of the three mysterious queens who appear after the battle of Camlan to bear the wounded Arthur to Avalon, 'there to be healed of his wounds' and to await the time of his country's need.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, recording an ancient tradition, refers in his Vita Merlini to nine sisters who dwell on an island in the sea called 'The Fortunate Isle', or 'the Island of Apples.' He continues that:

She who is first of them is more skilled in the healing art, and excels her sisters in the beauty of her person. Morgan is her name, and she has learned what useful properties all the herbs contain, so that she can cure sick bodies. She also knows an art by which to change her shape, and to cleave the air on new wings like Daedalus. (Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini, 21)

Elsewhere in Thomas Malory's book, Morgan makes use of her shapeshifting ability by turning herself and her followers into rocks when they are pursued by Arthur and his knights.

Geoffrey of Monmouth's description of the wondrous island, with its sisterhood of nine, conforms in every detail to other accounts of the Celtic Otherworld. It is clear enough that Morgan is the tutelary spirit or goddess of this place, and that her animosity towards Arthur (who as her half-brother, has fairy blood himself) is merely an aspect of the challenging and testing role which such figures eternally offer, in order to discover who among their many servants is truly worthy of favor.

Morgan appears again in this guise in the marvelous Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (3) where she is the organizing principle behind the appearance of the monstrous green giant at Camelot. The story is typical of the role fulfilled by such goddesses in Arthurian literature. In this extraordinary tale, which derives ultimately from an ancient Irish source, Morgan's role is made to seem slight by the poet, who sought a Christian allegory in what was, essentially, a pagan midwinter tale. Yet he called her Morgan 'the goddess,' as other medieval writers did. We shall say only that it is Morgan's presence which motivates the story.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight it is specifically stated that the reason why Morgan sent the Green Knight to Arthur's court was to frighten Guinevere. On one level the reason for this was an old rivalry, dating from the time near the beginning of Arthur's reign when Guinevere had banished one of Morgan's lovers from court, thus beginning long-term hostilities. On another there is quite a different sort of rivalry between the two, that of two goddesses of very different aspect.

Morgan, as her origin in the savage figure of Morrighan indicates, is a dark goddess, representing the powerful earthy qualities of winter and warfare. Guinevere, who, on the other hand, was also once a goddess, is of the type called the Flower Bride, representing spring, the unfolding of life, the burgeoning of growth. As such, these two are in polarized opposition for all time, and it is even possible to see, in the story of Guinevere's love for Lancelot, who becomes her champion and brings about the eventual ruin of the Round Table, a pattern of the elemental struggle between the champions of summer and winter for the hand of the Spring Maiden.

A version of this is told in the Mabinogion tale of Pwyll, who changes places for a year with Annwn, the Lord of the Otherworld, and undertakes, as one of Annwn's ritual tasks, an annual fight with Hafgan (Summer Song) for the possession of Creiddylad, the Maiden of Spring. We may judge the importance of this theme from the fact that echoes were still to be found as late as the 19th century in Wales, where teams of people led by a Lord of Summer and a Lord of Winter, engaged in mock battle for the Maiden.

Thus, in the Arthurian tales, Lancelot, who is Guinevere's champion, becomes the bitterest foe of Gawain, who is, the Knight of the Goddess, Morgan's champion. To begin with the two men are friends, and this lasts through many adventures until Lancelot accidentally kills Gawain's brother (significantly while rescuing Guinevere). Before this come numerous challengers who either insult the queen, accuse her of falseness to Arthur, or abduct her. This last event is significant for a number of reasons. It is one of the roles of the Flower Bride to be stolen away by one of her suitors, and then to be rescued by other, thus forming an endless shifting of polarities with each succeeding seasonal change. In the case of Guinevere, we can mention this role, in a story contained in the Life of Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan. (4) In this text, which deals with the deeds of a 6th century saint who may actually have known the historical Arthur, we read how Melwas of the Summer Country carried off Guinevere, who had then to be rescued by Arthur, though not without the intervention of the saint. This story reappears in several versions within Arthurian literature, where the abductor is Meliagraunce, a knight who desires Guinevere for his own. Then, the rescuer is Lancelot, rather than Arthur, a seeming continuation of the various surrogate figures who stand in for the King at certain points in his life.

The identity of Melwas or Meliagraunce is not hard to fathom. In the Life of Gildas he is called King of the Summer Country, a name for the Otherworld. In the later versions, Meliagraunce is the son of King Bagdemagus of Goirre or Gor, both names standing for the Otherworld. In the story of Pwyll he is identified as Annwn, King of the Celtic Hades. Hence we have a scenario in which Guinevere is carried off into the Otherworld by the king or his representative, to be rescued by her champion. The Flower Bride is brought back in triumph to the court of her lord, who is King of the Land.

I'd like to resume that, at an earlier stage in the development of the Arthurian tradition, Gawain was the Queen's champion. In the later texts he has changed allegiance from one aspect of the goddess to another, and has thus become the opponent of the Flower Bride's champion. This is, of course, a vastly simplified scenario; each aspect of the goddess has its own multifarious aspects, as indeed we may see from the sheer variety of roles fulfilled by the various Otherworldly women in the Arthurian world. So many of these appear at Arthur's court, usually beginning as suppliants, but ending as initiators, that it is not hard to perceive a clear pattern. One story in particular is worth mentioning. This is Thomas Malory's Tale of Sir Gareth from the Morte Darthur. This story is one of several which tell of 'The Fair Unknown,' generally the son of a great hero who appears at court incognito, has various adventures, fights with his own brother or father, and is finally recognized and honored by all. In each of these there is also a figure not unlike Lynette, who performs the function of leading the hero through a series of adventures designed to test his skill and prowess. Almost without exception she possesses magical abilities and is active in arranging his eventual recognition. Lynette herself actually appears as Lunete in another major story from the cycle, Ywain, the Knight of the Lion by Chretien de Troyes. Here she rescues the hero several times from death and gives him a ring which conveys the power of invisibility. A passage from Chretien de Troyes's poem makes her true identity clear:

I would like to make a brief mention of the friendship that was struck up in private between the moon and the sun. Do you know of whom I want to tell you? The man who was chief of the knights and honoured above them all should indeed be called the sun. I refer to my lord Gawain. And by the moon I mean she who is so uniquely endowed with good sense and courtly ways. Her name is Lunete. (Chretien de Troyes, Ywain, the Knight of the Lion, 39)

Once again we recognize the figure of the goddess or Otherworldly woman who, once we have identified her, will be seen to appear in a hundred different guises throughout the Arthurian tradition. Her function is to guide and initiate tests and trials which bring about the transformation of the Round Table Fellowship from a simple chivalric order to a band of initiate knights. It is she who stands behind so much of the action and adventure in the stories, whether as Morgan le Fay sending a magical cloak which consumes to ashes anyone who puts it on, or as Ragnall setting Gawain to the supreme test of courtesy and love.

Such figures are an essential part of the inner dimension of the tradition. They are the initiators who cause things happen, leaving the neophyte changed forever after. They are the polarized energy which drives the vast epic of Arthur from its dramatic beginnings to its climactic end. Without them the stories would be nothing more than a parade of meaningless images; with them they become a stately procession of wonders which open ever more and deeper doors into the landscape of the Otherworld.

I consider that an alchemical reading of The Tale of Sir Gareth would be interesting. Although Gareth begins, as we know, as a kitchen knave, he soon meets and defeats a series of different colored knights, one black, one blue, one red, and one green, and then a second red knight, the Red Knight of the Red Lands. I dare suggest that these defeated opponents make Gareth into an astrological hero who defeats the rainbow, the sun (the Red Knight of the Red Lands, like the sun, grows stronger until noon) and then, the moon, Lynette and Lunette, two representations of it. Though it is not unlikely that the original of Gareth was some kind of conqueror of the heavens, a more satisfying explanation of the colored knights and the marriage with the moon is found in the language of alchemical lore, which would explain both the presence of the black knight and the existence of a second red knight. Medieval alchemical texts were usually allegorized so that metals and the reagents with which they were mixed were described as human beings, and the final act of the base metal/protagonist was a marriage. Each of the metals was identified with a heavenly body which runs in ascending order to provide the following hierarchy of metals: lead was Saturn, tin Jupiter, iron Mars, copper Venus, mercury Mercury, silver Moon, gold Sun. Metals are the planetary elements of the Underworld, and planets are the metals of the Heavens, the symbolism of each running parallel with the other. Metals symbolized cosmic energy in condensed and solid form, with different influences and attributes. (5) The base metal would go through a series of struggles with the personified reagents. In such a system Gareth's meeting with the Black Knight would be the mortifying of the original reagent, and his confrontation with the Red Knight would be immersion into the waters rubifying. In a pattern of alchemy, the defeat of the second red knight, the Red Knight of the Red Lands would signify conclusion of the alchemical process, the base metal becoming gold (in the Middle Ages gold was thought to be red, not yellow, in color).

Gareth's stint as a kitchen knave would increase the likelihood of this alchemical reading, since alchemical experiments were seen as literally "cooking things up," for which the Renaissance coined the term for the alchemical brew, concoction. Whether Thomas Malory would be aware of the alchemical imagery in his tale is uncertain, but it is worthy to note that early in his life, there was a flurry of interest in alchemy in England which led to the publication of some English alchemical texts. What might have struck Thomas Malory about these texts was the inclusion of Geoffrey Chaucer, because of The Canon's Yeoman's Tale, as an alchemist. The alchemical reading of The Tale of Sir Gareth would reinforce the theme of the growth of the hero so that he can reclaim his name, earn his knighthood, and marry his bride. At the tournament which ends this tale, events are ordered so that all appears right in Arthur's world.

I'd like to come back to the Otherworld and its denizens where we shall hear another story: that of Sir Launfal, who wanders into the Otherworld, meets and marries a beautiful fairy and is sworn to secrecy on pain of losing his love forever. Yet he is unable to keep silent when Queen Guinevere herself approaches him with words of love, and in desperation he declares that even she, for all her renowned beauty, is no match for his own dear love. Earning in this way the enmity of the queen, Sir Launfal faces death or banishment rather than speak further, and is finally vilified by the appearance of the fairy herself, who enters the court and outshines every woman there, and who then carries Sir Launfal away with her, 'to Avalon, it is believed.' (6)

However, not all such women encountered in the forest are as fair of face and speech. Ragnall, one of the many archetypes of the sovereignty, bestowing goddess of the land, appears as a hideous, loathly lady who tricks Arthur into promising her the person of Sir Gawain in marriage in return for a favor. Her subsequent appearance at court, her gross manners and appearance, perhaps in part, prepare one for her transformation, which occurs on the wedding night, when Ragnall, who has been enchanted, is restored to her true beauty through Gawain's love and understanding.

Elsewhere in the depths of the forest roams the Questing Beast, a creature part lion, part serpent, part goat, which makes a sound as though thirty couples of hounds were in its belly. Arthur first glimpses it as a youth, before he is crowned king and it presages a meeting with Merlin, who appears first as a child, then as an old man, who tells Arthur of his birth and parentage and makes many cryptic references to future events. The Beast, which he does not explain, but we learn that it was born by a woman who had condemned a man to be torn to pieces by dogs, exists only to be sought after, and is followed for many years by King Pellinore. After his death the Saracen Knight Palomides takes up the quest, but seems never to succeed, for this is a wonder out of the Otherworld which cannot be caught or pinned down by any mortal being.

Men and women who have the power to change themselves into animals are not infrequent in the Arthurian forest. In one story, for instance, Arthur follows a strange, composite beast which turns into a venerable, white haired man; (7) in other book, we have one of the earliest tales concerning a werewolf, Bisclavret (8) in which a knight cursed with this affection is first betrayed by his wife and her lover, and then, finally, vilified and returned to his own form after many years in wolf-shape.

In the Welsh story, The Lady of the Fountain (9) we encounter 'the Lord of the Beasts,' who has one foot, one eye and one arm, who commands all the beasts of the forest, who gather about him like a congregation listening to a sermon. And when the knight Kynon asks him what power he has over the animals,

'I will show thee, little man,' said he. And he took his club in his hand, and with it he struck a stag a great blow so that he brayed vehemently, and at his braying the animals came together, as numerous as the stars in the sky, and he looked at them, and bade them go and feed; and they bowed their heads and did him homage as vassals to their lord. (The Mabinogion, 46)

Other knights become attached to a specific beast; Owain to a lion; (10) Gawain to a wondrous mule; (11) or a horse which leads him into strange lands. (12) These are all, to some extent, like the totem beasts of the shaman, which act as guides to the soul in its journeys about the Otherworld. Therefore, there are times when the heroes must let themselves be guided by animals. Perceval has to leave the Grail Castle because he stills his natural inclination which is to ask the Waste Land King what is ailing him. Riding away from the castle the next morning, he lets the reigns hang loose; now the animal has to find the way as ego consciousness has failed. Often in fairy tales there are helpful animals. While the arrogant elder brothers despise, overlook or even mistreat them, the dumb help or rescue them. (13)

According to Heinrich Zimmer, (14) the magic forest is the dark aspect of the world, always full of adventures. Nobody can enter it without getting lost. But the chosen one or the initiate crosses the boundary which separates the sacred from the profane. Passing from one world to another the initiate undergoes a transformation, becomes a different being. Initiation in the forest works a metamorphosis. It is here where man meets his superior self, his totem beast. The forest is the reverse of the house. It contains forbidden, dark things, secrets, terrors. It hides the secret of the adventure of the soul.

The basis of the Grail mystery teaching is that it consists of a series of initiations in the forest. For example, Perceval does succeed in his quest precisely because of his innocence. He goes through all the levels of initiation which lead him through necessary suffering in order to reach the Paradisiacal object of his search, the Grail itself. Actually, the Grail legends symbolize man's personal quest for perfection, his meeting with the self; in this quest the battleground is our own soul, our own inner world.


We have met male and female aspects, fairies and beasts and knights wandering in the wise old man's territory; Merlin is able to integrate the questers with deity, which is the final aim of the Knights of the Round Table. It is here where many knights meet their anima characters or their totem beasts. We find that chivalry itself is informed by love (sometimes very close to the concepts of honor and goodness, some other times mistaken for them), just as love is informed by the service required by all who take the vows of chivalry seriously. Love itself thus becomes an initiation, which is why we find so many of the women who feature largely within the Arthurian cycles to be of the Otherwordly stock. We have seen that many of the heroes, who court or worship or even marry them, share this heritage, too. Therefore, in the end, the worlds are brought together at every level, physical, emotional, and spiritual and, it is up to you to decide/feel/imagine who love more, the knights or the fairies. The last level, the spiritual one, represented by the Quest for the Grail, shows another facet of love.


Berthelot, Anne (1997), King Arthur, Chivalry and Legend, (An Anthology of Medieval Texts), London: Thames and Hudson, New Horizons, Ltd.

Chaucer, Geoffrey (1969), Povestirile din Canterbury, Translated by Dan Du(escu, Bucharest: Editura pentra Literatura Universala.

Chretien, de Troyes (1987), Arthurian Romances. Translated by D. D. R. Owen, London: J. M. Dent, London.

--(1987), Yvain, the Knight of the Lion. Translated by D. D. R. Owen, London: J. M. Dent, London.

France de, Marie (1986), Lais. Translated by G. S. Burgess and K. Busby. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

Geoffrey, of Monmouth (1975), Vita Merlini. Translated by John J. Parry. Chicago: University of Illinois.

Loomis, Roger Sherman (1983), The Development of the Arthurian Romance. New York: Norton.

Malory, Thomas (1968), The Morte Darthur. Edited by D.S. Brewer, Edward Arnold, London.

Matarasso, P. (1969), The Quest of the Grail. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

Matthews, John (1993), The Elements of the Arthurian Tradition. Salisbury: Element Books.

--(1990), Gawain, Knight of the Goddess, London: Aquarian Press.

Zimmer, Heinrich (1994), "Lancelot," Regele si Cadavrul. Bucharest: Humanitas.

Way, G.L. (1975), Fabliaux or Tales. London: Rodwell.

**** (1967), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Translated by Marie Borrof, W.W. Norton & Co. New York.

*** (1997), The Mabinogion. Translated by Lady Charlotte E. Guest, The Folio Society, London.


Spiru Haret University


(1.) Marie, de France (1997), Lais, in Anne Berthelot, King Arthur, Chivalry and Legend, (An Anthology of Medieval Texts). London, Thames and Hudson, New Horizons, Ltd., 48.

(2.) id., 26.

(3.) id., 42.

(4.) The Mabinogion, 46.

(5.) Chretien, de Troyes (1987), Arthurian Romances. Translated by D. D. R. Owen, and J. M. Dent, London, 8.

(6.) Way, G. L. (1975), Fabliaux or Tales, London, Rodwell, 87.

(7.) John, Matthews (1990), Gawain, Knight of the Goddess, London, Aquarian Press, 59.

(8.) The etymology of the word animal is interesting. Webster's shows that it is Latin in origin and derives from 'animalis' meaning living, as well as from 'anima' meaning feminine of 'animus,' breath, soul. Of the same root is the word 'to animate' meaning to energize, to fill with breath, soul.

(9.) Heinrich, Zimmer (1994), "Lancelot" Regele si Cadavrul. Bucharest, Humanitas, 189.

(10.) Loomis, R. S. (1983), The Development of Arthurian Romance. New York, Norton, 43.

(11.) Matarasso, P. (1969), The Quest of the Grail. Penguin Books, Hardmondsworth: 56.

(12.) Five is the number of the center, of harmony and of balance. Five symbolizes manifestation of man in the full maturity of his physical and spiritual development.

(13.) Three is regarded as a fundamental number, expressive of an intellectual and spiritual order. Three is also the perfection of divine unity to Christians, God being One in three Persons, the Great Triad. Two is the symbol of confrontation, conflict and recoil and it denotes either balance achieved or hidden threat. It is the figure which epitomizes all ambivalence and split personality. It is the first to separate and it separates most radically--creator and creature, male and female, matter and spirit and so on--and it is the source of all other divisions. Two symbolizes dualism. Two gives expression to a hostility which from being hidden becomes manifest.

(14.) Loomis, R.S. cited work: 47.

Anca Magiru is an Assistant Professor of ESP at Spiru Haret University, the School of Law and Public Administration in Constanta. Her research interests include: American and British legal systems, law and/in literature. Recent publication: Magiru, Anca (2010), American Criminal Law, An Introduction for Law Students of English. Doctoral thesis: (2006) The Morte D 'Arthur: A Myth and Its Metamorphoses. She was a Fulbright Scholar at St. Mary's University School of Law, San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A., 2008-2009. The title of her Fulbright research project was: American Criminal Law, Literature and Journalism: A Recent Interdisciplinary Approach.
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Author:Magiru, Anca
Publication:Journal of Research in Gender Studies
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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