In which Chretien de Troyes > modern fantasy in general

One of the things I’ve been doing with my brain in my spare time / while entering things into the government record-keeping system is madly analysing random bits of pop culture from gendered perspectives. I’ve learnt about things like the Bechdel Test; read about your chances of death in the BBC Merlin according to race and gender, and… well, pretty much anything else LJ has decided to teach me.

While archiving a bunch of correspondence the other day, it occurred to me to wonder: why do we so rarely see, in modern fantasy, protagonist groupings where friendships between women are given as much screen-time and weight in plot/character development as are friendships between men or between men and women?

I can think of a lot of modern fantasy, both good and bad, which has strong female characters. However, the most common plot set-ups that I can think of involve:

* A strapping young lad and his best (male) friend(s) or older male mentor(s). Random example: Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy.

* A brave young woman kicking arse and taking names in a male setting. Random example: Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet.

* A lone girl or woman and boy or man on a Dangerous Quest. (There will be Bad Fantasy Sex.) Random example: JV Jones’ Sword of Shadows trilogy (note that I haven’t finished reading yet, and I think when I stopped the characters had parted ways).

* A mixed group of men and women, in which there are usually fewer women than men. There will be a high level of character development through m/f relationships, not all involving sex (there will be lots of Contrasting Gender Roles happening). If the protagonist is male or the book has mixed POV, a substantial amount of plot and character development will occur within homosocial relationships: if the dominant POV is female, it is more common to develop character in the context of heterosocial and heterosexual relationships. Random example: David Eddings’ Belgariad.

* Two or more strong or supposed-to-be-strong female characters who are set up in opposition to each other. Their relationship, or the comparisons the reader draws between them, will be very important to the plot and character development, but they’re not friends or allies; each exists primarily in her own sphere. Random example: Morgan and Guinevere in Mists of Avalon.

Where are the books about girls working together? Why, in a mixed bag of protagonists, are female homosocial relationships always the last thing we hear about? I did a quick and unscientific scan of my brain, and came up with a few books that score highly in this regard: Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic quartet; The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian (granted that the reason Susan and Lucy’s relationship stands out as distinct is that Lewis organises the children’s roles in the adventure by gender); Sara Douglass’ Troy Game series…

and Chretien de Troyes Chevalier au Lion. Ok, Yvain’s our protagonist, and his character development swings on his attempts to balance his homosocial relationship with Gawain against his heterosexual and heterosocial relationships with various women (and his relationship with a lion. WTF IS THAT LION DOING, anyway?). I could go on about this at length. I did go on about this at length and got rather pleasant marks for it, too. But even while sticking almost exclusively with Yvain’s POV, Chretien still manages to pwn most 20th and 21st century fantasy when it comes to strong female homosocial relationships.

We have:

* Lunette/Laudine. We’re left in no doubt that Lunette is the biggest influence on Laudine’s life – and Laudine appears to be the only strong claim on Lunette’s affections. There’s that gorgeous inversion of the courtly blind promise trope, and has anyone pointed out that Lunette’s negotiation of Yvain’s marriage to Laudine is a genderswapped version of the m/f/m triangle, with the man as the token between women?

* The Dame de Norison and her maid – a small-scale reproduction of Lunette/Laudine, delicious triangle dynamics and all.

* The tag-team of Questing Maidens on behalf of the Disinherited Sister.  I can never remember how many of them there were, exactly. They don’t have names and they don’t have direct dialogue, but they’re there and they’re a major plot device. A bunch of women (or was it just two? SOME WOMEN, anyway) recognising that another woman is in trouble, and setting out to fix it. That the only way, within Chretien’s social construct, for them to do so involves going and fetching a man, shouldn’t undermine the fact that they’re a bunch of women actively collaborating in the interests of one of their fellows and putting themselves at considerable physical risk to do so.

And in case we thought that everything was all happiness and roses in female homosocial-land, Chretien goes and adds tensions and misunderstandings to the female homosocial relationships he’s set up: Laudine blames Lunette for her betrayal and throws her out; the Feuding Sisters bicker their way across the narrative climax; and even at Norison (which, for a bunch of reasons I shan’t go into here, I think is meant to function as an example of good and harmonious social relationships, as opposed to Yvain’s unbalanced home situation), the Lady gets temporarily cranky with her maid.

What’s more, female homosocial relationships contribute to the narrative not just as plot devices but as character development. There have been reams of paper spent on the question of Laudine’s motives in first marrying and then re-marrying Yvain – does she love him? Is she manipulated? Does she really care? No matter what the conclusion is, no one can attack this question without examining the relationship between Laudine and Lunette, and the changes in their public and personal relations as evidence for Laudine’s feelings and choices.

But wait, it gets better! Or I think it does. I have a rather hazy thought that I swear I will chase up one day, to the effect that the female homosocial relationships in Le Chevalier au Lion also contribute to male character development. I think we’re supposed to read Lunette/Laudine in particular, but also the women of Norison and the tag-team of Questing Damsels, in contrast to Yvain/Gawain. Which homosocial relationships work to preserve a balanced social order? Which are compatible with balanced and mutually beneficial heterosexual relationships? And which homosocial relationship causes constant discord and demands preference above all other loyalties? I’m not sure if Yvain learns anything from the women around him, but I’m fairly sure the reader is supposed to use the examples of the women in the story to evaluate Yvain’s choices and character development.

In short: Chretien de Troyes > modern fantasy in general. But I’m sure we all knew that already ;).


2 Responses to “In which Chretien de Troyes > modern fantasy in general”

  1. Christa Salyer Says:

    I enjoyed your insights into the relationships depicted in Chretien de Troyes’ work. I just started a blog focusing specifically on Chretien and The Story of the Grail. You might find it interesting. I’m laying the groundwork now, but will be bringing it into the 21st century in the coming weeks.

  2. What would you do if you were not afraid? « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] Comments Christa Salyer on In which Chretien de Troyes > modern fantasy in generalJessica on Young people these days seem to think they invented morbid poetry…Its Only a […]

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