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Chicks with Swords: Power and Agency in the Morte D’arthur
Published Online (2011)
Upon first glance, Malory’s Morte Darthur appears to be a boy’s book. It is packed with blood, sword fighting, kings, knights, battles and more battles. The good guys fight the evil guys and rescue the damosels in distress. Overall, the story is concerned with the deeds, whether they be noble or not, of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Because of this preoccupation with knightly deeds, it may be easy to view the women in the novel as very minor characters, existing in the novel only to be prizes, cheerleaders or, alternatively, temptresses. This view may suffice for those who choose to read the novel for plot only; however, it becomes very reductionist when one starts to look at the messages Malory is sending through the text.
Andrew Lynch, in his essay, “Gesture and Gender in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur” says that the “Malorian woman typically has an ancillary function, existing…in the service of a male-centered tale” (286). It is not particularly wrong to say that women have purely functional presences: they have little to no history; some of them are even deprived of a name. They are present very little and speak even less; only when the story requires their presence are they granted a voice. However, this, if anything, only increases their significance. Because women are present only when necessary, even the most trivial details about them are important. They may only be pawns, but they are Malory’s pawns; they are certainly not pawns of the male characters. If anything, the text would suggest the exact opposite. In a patriarchal society, such as that of King Arthur’s court, it is impossible for women to have any kind of political power; they are rendered incapable of action by the culture in which they live.
However, being incapable of action
is not the same as being incapable of decision. Malorian women excel at making decisions: they plot, they scheme, they analyze and, because they cannot be in power themselves, they do the next best thing. Women in the Morte Darthur have the ability to bestow or revoke power from the man of their choosing; this is demonstrated subtly, through the courtly love tradition and more literally, as in the case of both Balin and Arthur himself, through the bestowing of swords. In writing the Morte, Malory arranges it so that when this dynamic is respected, the kingdom thrives. Conversely, when men ignore the importance of women to the kingdom, things begin to fall apart.