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By Bridgette Da Silva
|"Morgan le Fay" by Anthony Frederick|
Fortunately, Morgaine had been exposed to a counterstory in Avalon, an isle off the coast of Britain where women worship a Mother Goddess and take on leadership roles. Spirituality expressed in visions was encouraged there, so Morgaine's ability was embraced.
Goddess worship in itself carried dynamics not found in Christian worship. In Christianity, women serve a male God. But the women of Avalon learned to accept their womanhood, for what could be so wrong with it if their very Goddess was female? Certainly the Goddess was not ashamed of her femaleness, so why should mortals be ashamed of being born female? They are born in the Goddess's image. Christian women more often than not, in traditional master narratives in the fifth century A.D., were taught to be feel shame about having a female body. The first woman, Eve, had cast humankind out of paradise, thus Christians took that to mean that all women would be easily tempted into evil and would be more predisposed toward tempting men the Woman as Temptress motif. Not so in Avalon.
As for beauty, in Avalon little emphasis was placed on appearance; no particular set of features was valued over others. The priestesses dressed in simple robes. All in all, the women of Avalon were introduced to conceptions of womanhood, spirituality, and beauty that were not available on mainland Britain that allowed them a greater sense of power. This worldview undermined traditional master narratives by providing women an alternative, more positive way of looking at themselves.
Despite this, Morgaine could not shake the oppressive master narrative concerning beauty. It becomes all the more important to her when she falls in love with Lancelet, who seems interested in her as well. That is, until he meets Gwenhwyfar, a woman who certainly fit the blonde haired, blue eyed standard of beauty in Britain.
And so the identity-constituting narrative that Morgaine lacked beauty was formed. This torments her throughout the novel. It affects her sense of self and is the only narrative that forces her to think of herself in negative terms. Thus Morgaine's identity was influenced by three factors: her acceptance of her womanhood, acceptance of the Sight, and self-loathing due to her appearance. For the first two, she was exposed to counterstories that allowed her to value these aspects of herself. The women of Avalon had identified the oppressive master narratives and gave the pagan women a healthier sense of self. They also tried their hardest to bring that counterstory into the rest of Britain, but to no avail. Nelson points out that for a counterstory to be optimally successful, it must be embraced by the dominant group in society. Those from Avalon never reached that point. However, they did repair the damaged narratives of the women who came to Avalon from Christian Britain. Even Morgaine eventually repaired her damaged identity. After living outside of Avalon for years, she finally adopted the counterstory that Avalon had supported all along: she was beautiful even though she did not conform to the rest of Britain's traditional standards of beauty.
Gwenhwyfar's identity is, in part, influenced by Lancelet. She lived in a convent the day she met him, when she crossed into Avalon through the mists. Right away it is clear that Lancelet will tug at her traditional Christian loyalties.
By the time that she and Lancelet meet again, Gwenhwyfar has already become much more affected by oppressive master narratives than Morgaine, having internalized the values of patriarchal Britain. We see that her father is fond of calling her demeaning names and that he expects her to serve him. She comes to judge herself as negatively as her father does.
And yet, after spending time with the charming Lancelet, she begins to feel more empowered: "For the first time she felt pretty and bold and brave" (pg. 256). It is clear that both have feelings for the other, but her father won't hear of a marriage between them. Part of the patriarchal master narrative makes women the property of men, and at that time, Gwenhwyfar was literally the property of her father, to be used to make alliances through arranged marriages. He is ambitious and plans for her to marry Arthur, and so dismisses her fear of such a marriage. In the end he fully convinces her that he is doing it for her own good, and she thus has no reason to complain. As a result of his constant patronizing, Gwenhwyfar learns to dismiss her own feelings when they conflict with those of the powerful men in her life or the master narratives they uphold. She also comes to see herself through others' eyes. Rather than define herself, she allows others' interpretations of her to predominate.
As Nelson argues, without social and material support, women are at the mercy of society's master narratives. Morgaine has found such support in Avalon, but Gwenhwyfar has not. She is forced to leave the convent, despite her wishes, and is forced into marriage with a stranger, despite her wishes. Furthermore, the narratives of women she learned while in the convent exist simultaneously with those she learns in her father's household, so that they legitimate and reinforce each other. This is most easily seen in Gwenhwyfar's self-talk as she tries to stifle her anger at the fact that she is helpless to decide her own fate:
She wanted to be a nun and stay in the convent . . . but that was not suitable for a princess; she must obey her father's will as if it were the will of God. Women had to be especially careful to do the will of God because it was through a woman that mankind had fallen into Original Sin, and every woman must be aware that it was her work to atone for that Original Sin in Eden. (pg. 268)
After Gwenhwyfar is welcomed as Arthur's wife and queen, it appears that she has three important commitments in her life: one is her love and loyalty to Christian values (as defined in the fifth century A.D.), the second is her duty to Arthur, and the third is her love and loyalty to Lancelet. Unfortunately for Gwenhwyfar, the first two commitments utterly conflict with the third. Her commitment to the maintenance of the master narratives of pious Christian woman and loyal wife of her King are in direct opposition to her commitment to Lancelet. In fact, it drives her to madness, expressed in an increasing fanaticism about Christianity.
Like Morgaine, Gwenhwyfar maintains a negative self-narrative fraught with self-deception. Her mind is so weighed down by it that she associates her inability to produce an heir with a moral failure on her part. She projects her feelings of hurt and inadequacy onto Arthur, assuming that he feels the anger she feels about failing her duties as queen. She concludes that Arthur never wanted her in the first place and believes that he thinks her as useless as she feels.
Evidence suggests Arthur thinks of her in a more flattering light. Yet due to oppressive master narratives and the narrative of worthlessness she created to help explain them - confirmed by her inability to carry out her duties as queen - she believes Arthur thinks her worthless too. Her first person narrative is self-deceiving.
The institutions that upheld patriarchy, such as the Church, damaged her identity by curtailing her agency. It disallowed her the one thing in the world she wanted: sexual autonomy. In promoting the master narratives that said that women were mere temptresses and channels through which the devil could work evil, the church encouraged Gwenhwyfar and other women to think of themselves in such a way. Nelson argues that:
Oppression often infiltrates a person's consciousness, so that she comes to operate, from her own point of view, as her oppressors want her to, rating herself as they rate her [. . .]. If a counterstory moves her to see herself as a competent moral agent, she may be less willing to accept others' oppressive valuations of her, and this too allows her to exercise her agency more freely. (pg. 7)
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in a small section of the novel involving a discussion of women and harps. A courtier mentions to Morgaine that he would not let his daughter play the harp as she does, because it might encourage her to step out of her place (pg. 288). The harp is an instrument of agency. Indeed, Gwenhwyfar replies that she was beaten once for touching one. She has never had that opportunity to learn to play the harp, which could have helped produce an empowering counterstory. Playing the instrument would have allowed her the chance to think of herself outside of the master narrative that imprisoned women within narrowly defined roles. But the impulse to develop this counterstory was beaten out of her. We know that her father did not want her to buy into a counterstory that would allow her to develop agency.
In addition to growing up in Avalon, being allowed to sing and play an instrument afforded Morgaine the opportunity to develop a counterstory. Gwenhwyfar has never been introduced to one, to the benefit of patriarchal Britain, represented by her father. Morgaine may have had issues with feeling ugly, but in Avalon she was allowed the ability to develop skills that women on the mainland were not. Harp-playing was a counterstory that allowed her to see herself as more than just an object of beauty.
In the end, Gwenhwyfar is forced to give Lancelet up. Not only has her identity and sense of agency been damaged by years of oppressive master narratives, but those narratives - the most damaging being the one that associates her barrenness with her "evil" desires for Lancelet - play a part in her leaving the court forever. She, a woman with the highest post in the land, is unable to escape pernicious master narratives by creating a subversive counterstory. Her story ends in sadness and tragedy. Morgaine, on the other hand, has access to such a counterstory and is able to change her understanding of herself. She is given social and material support, and comes out of a society, even one so used to damaging women's self-narratives, with her own positive counter-narrative intact.
Whether Marion Zimmer Bradley intended to or not, by exposing the West to her version of the King Arthur myth, she also presented a possible counter narrative that women could adopt in their own lives. In providing a positive counter narrative for Morgaine, readers are exposed to a new narrative that challenges patriarchal notions of womanhood, normality, and beauty. In showing how patriarchal master narratives damaged Gwenhwyfar, Bradley invites modern audiences to think about the ways patriarchy finds its way into their own self-narratives.