Macho Men and Powerless Women in Arthurian Literature

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Sheri L. Bett
ENG403 – Dr. Donna Bussell
May 4, 2012
Final Paper
Macho Men and Powerless Women in Arthurian Literature
Arthurian literature focuses on the valiant and just people and gives great insight into chivalry and what that meant—how people lived by it—in this era. It is about truth and justice, undying love, sacrificing for the King, and bravery and courage whenever honor was at stake. Although these times were dark, and often barbarically bloody, they had clearly defined roles put upon men and women alike. Men were to be both chivalrous and ruthless all in the name of the King. Women held less value but were often used as pawns for men to bargain with and use as they needed without the need for agreement from the woman. Due to these high standards and customs, there were often times that both men and women felt emotionally imprisoned or they were physically imprisoned with no apparent chance of redemption. But in true Arthurian style, the main characters were always given hope that their impossible situation could change in the end. According to The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend, Arthurian romance literature of this era focused on the binary opposition of the love a man has for a woman and the bond he has to his fellow men—“Arthurian romances focus on the conflict between romantic love and macho fellowship” (13). This fellowship is clearly shown in Chaucer’s, The Knight’s Tale, when the main characters, Palamon and Arcite, are allowed their freedom from the king who imprisoned them for life after they prove their manhood through a series of macho challenges and betrayals in order to win the love of a woman who does not even know they exist. While the men of the Arthurian era were often given a second chance at freedom after proving their chivalry and honor, women were powerless at attaining their freedom, as was the custom of the times, and were treated merely as property of the men. Arthurian authors followed a specific structure or formula in their writings that gave way to the rituals and customs of the roles of men and women from this era. They followed certain protocols, if you will. Such as, there is always a king to honor—although he may not be honorable himself. There has to be a conflict upon which a person of power forces another person of lesser or no power to do something corrupt or immoral. Of course, there also has to be a damsel in distress, a love triangle or some sort of infidelity, a hero, and a resolution to a problem after barbaric battles and unnecessary deaths take place—this resolution brings peace and happiness to the end of the story. In addition to these pieces of the Arthurian story structure, religion—orthodox Christianity and magic are essential to the plot—“magic is a fundamental part of the Arthurian legend” (CCAL, 14). Immoral times were abounding in this literature and the reader expects betrayal, infidelity, treason, and killings all in the name of chivalry…and typically over ownership of land. Often characters were tested in their faith or loyalty and beseeched on a quest to gain trust. The last important aspect of writing Arthurian style is the setting. Settings are dramatic with plenty of pomp and circumstance—symbols of swords, gowns, crowns, elaborate clothing, low class on dirt and upper class in gold paint a picture for the reader that these times are to be properly revered. And, of course, an Arthurian text has to end with a resolution to the problem and everyone finding their place once again—a happy ending. Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, is an example of a story that follows the Arthurian style of writing and boasts of the conflict between being a macho man and attaining the love of your life—“And therefore man’s law and such decrees are broken for love every day by everybody” (Chaucer, 65). In this story, the main characters, Arcita and Palamon, are imprisoned for life but find their love for a woman they have only seen out their...
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