One of the firmest tenets of adventure fiction right back to our most ancient myths is that when the hero does his deeds and rescues the damsel, he wins the girl. It is an almost-universal trope, from Perseus with Andromeda to James Bond and his heroine-de-jour. Sometimes the hero lives happily ever after and sometimes happily until breakfast, but until the modern age it has been an unchallenged expectation that the hero should have access to his rescued heroine by right of conquest, whether he avails himself of the privilege or rides off into the sunset leaving her yearning. If he saves her, she has to give him her heart - and possibly other parts.
Our modern perspective has evolved. Against that narrative, historical, and even modern social pressure is an understanding of a woman’s right to choose whom she sleeps with. It isn’t decided by her father, or by treaty, or by trial by combat. It isn’t a necessity to secure a strong provider for her and her children. The bravest and strongest are not necessarily the best life partners – or even the best bed partners.
And yet somewhere in our unquestioned cultural expectations, as expressed in much of our literature, there is still the idea that, to put it bluntly, if the hero saves the heroine from being raped by the villain, she ‘owes’ him that which he stopped the bad guy from taking.
This is never less disguised than in Arthurian literature and the fairy tales it has informed. I’m hard-pressed to think of any major heroine from the Matter of Britain who has not been “won” by a hero through deeds of arms, often with a rescue. Gareth saved his Lynette’s kingdom from the terrible Red Knight who sought her treasure and virtue. Tristan rescued Isolde’s father from shame, and then later Isolde from her husband. Even Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot was pushed finally into adultery after his rescue of her from her would-be ravager Meliagrant. Rescue equals bed and may equal marriage.
This offers a problem for contemporary stories featuring Arthurian material. The heroic rescue is so ingrained in the fabric of it that it is impossible to extract without losing a main flavour of the genre. So any use of the trope has to be sensitive to both the original narrative and to modern sensibilities.
The case in point I’ve been wrestling with today is The Knight of the Lion, a Welsh Arthurian tale of Sir Yvaine le Blanche-Mains (the Fair-Handed), and its European counterpart version by Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain. The first part of the plot centres upon a mysterious magic fountain guarded by a black knight. Anyone who uses the fountain causes a supernatural storm and must then fight the champion. Yvaine’s cousin Colgrevance does this and loses badly, so Yvain determines to try the adventure and avenge him.
Yvaine fights and defeats the black knight, giving him a mortal wound, of which the
champion dies within a day. So far so good. But in defeating the black knight, Yvaine must now become the new guardian of the magic fountain, inheriting the black knight’s lands, castle, and, um, widow. Countess Laudine, whom Yvaine first spies as she leads her late husband’s funeral procession, is now encouraged and expected to become his mistress or wife in payment for him taking on her husband’s duties.
The medieval source material has no problem with this. Yvaine is drooling over the widowed Countess as soon as he sees her mourning at the funeral, declaring her the love of his life. European version Laudine requires about two scenes of convincing by her maid that she should go to bed with her husband’s killer. Welsh version Laudine is all for it from the start. In both instances she’s married to Yvaine within the week and they are very happy together. After all, Yvaine is clearly a stronger knight that her previous match, so obviously she would love him more. As Laudine’s maid says in Yvain, “I can irrefutably prove to you that he who defeated your lord is better than he was himself. He beat him…” It’s the Arthurian way.
Women have often been considered as property to be given, purchased, stolen, or won. This has sometimes been codified in law, for example in the Indian concept of a "Rakshasa wedding" or the Norman "Danish marriage" where a woman taken as a prisoner of war became a subordinate sexual chattel of a conqueror's household.
Occasionally a wicked stepmother gets in the way of the process and tries to prevent the lady from succeeding her parents. This never ends well for the stepmother.
I once wrote an essay on the medieval concept of raptio, which was a significantly different crime from how we would define modern rape. Though often transcribed as "rape," raptio is having sexual intercourse with a woman without permission of the male who would grant that permission - usually a father, brother, or husband. The legal principle does not distinguish between whether the female consented or not; the point of law is whether her guardian did. By extension of that principle, a husband cannot rape his wife because he has the right to grant himself permission to have sex with her at any time; a right that was only finally overturned in British law in 1991 and became a crime across the whole US in 1993 (except for South Carolina, where there must be “excessive force/violence… of a high and aggravated nature” for it to be illegal).
There were stiff medieval penalties for raptio, but the emphasis of the redress was about compensating the father, brother, or husband of the woman for the value she had lost. The law also encouraged that where possible the rapist should be expected to marry his victim, which placed her and her fortune permanently under his control. This is the actual historical basis for marriages by force majeure, by which kidnapped heiresses were raped into legal subordinate relationships with their assailant – and of fiction where the heroine must be saved from such a fate.
This kind of thinking permeates the story of The Knight of the Fountain and its variants. The authors do not approve of such behaviour, but they expect that it is so customary as to explain motivations of many of the cast.
In addition to Sir Yvaine’s interactions with Countess Laudine there are several other women who are sexually threatened by villains seeking their bodies and fortunes. Wicked Count Alier is turned down by the Lady of Norison, so attacks and conquers her estates one by one until she is helpless to deny him; except that Yvaine shows up. She offers the hero herself and her estates but is politely declined.
An unnamed Baron denies his unnamed daughter to the monstrous giant bandit Harpin of the Mountains, but Harpin captures the Baron’s six sons, slaughters two of them, and will kill the others if the daughter is not surrendered to him – not now for his own lusts, but to “give her over to be the sport of the vilest and lewdest fellows in his house, for he would scorn to take her now for himself… She shall be constantly beset by a thousand lousy and ragged knaves, vacant wretches, and scullery boys, who all shall lay hands on her.” Yvaine arrives to overcome the giant but demurs from the Baron’s offer of his daughter as his reward.
The Lord of the town seeks Yvaine’s help, offering his own daughter to the knight as reward. “She was not yet sixteen years old, and was so fair and full of grace that the god of Love would have devoted himself entirely to her service, if he had seen her, and would never have made her fall in love with anybody except himself.” says Chrétien de Troyes of her. In the pattern of many fairy tale quests her father tells Yvaine, “He who can defeat the two, who are about to attack you, must by right receive my castle, and all my land, and my daughter as his wife.” Yvaine slays the imps and sends the captive ladies home with all the riches of their captors.
The problem, from a modern writing perspective, is that all these women are effectively objects, not protagonists. They are the winning tokens in a game of capture the flag with some potential rape attached. One feels that the story included them only to show how bad the villain is and how noble the hero. Otherwise sacks of gold would have served much the same narrative purpose.
Not only is it assumed that noble fathers would naturally bestow their (usually virgin) daughters on a great hero, but that the daughters would naturally obey and go to the bed they are sent to. A rare exception is the one out of fifty of the Thespiads who did not want to sleep with Hercules and who remained as the virgin priestess of his temple thereafter. She is unusual enough to be remarked.
Greek myth also gives us the Danaids, the fifty daughters of exiled Egyptian king Daneus, who were forced by treaty after war into marriage with the fifty sons of his brother Aegyplus. By their father’s command they went to their husband’s beds, but as the men slept after satisfying themselves, each wife drew a bodkin and murdered her husband – also at their father’s command. The exception was Hypermnestra, who pleaded with her bridegroom Lyncaus that she remain a maiden and whose wishes Lyncaus respected. Hypermnestra therefore disobeyed her father and spared Lyncaus, and would have been cruelly punished by Daneus except that Aphrodite intervened. The other daughters took new husbands decided by footraces – really – but were punished in Tartarus by having to fill a leaking bath with sieves of water for all eternity. Lyncaus and Hypermnestra had a long, happy life together, ruled Argos, and founded the line of Argive kings, the Danaid dynasty.
The Classical and medieval assumption of patriarchal of husbandly rights to assign women as bedmates probably most manifests in three tropes: the right of conquest/rescue, the “bestowal” as a favour or to form an alliance, and the payment of a debt or ransom-tribute.
Historically, many powerful men cemented their relationships with allies, rivals, or key subordinates through marrying their womenfolk off. Many such alliances were “sight unseen” until the bride arrived veiled on her wedding day (Henry VIII wanted to send back his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, saying, “She is nothing so fair as she hath been reported”; their marriage was never consummated and was eventually annulled – Anne outlived Henry and all his other spouses). So there are many actual cases of women being major components of political and financial treaties. Wars and marriages were both extensions of diplomacy.
Likewise, there is precedent for the ‘theft’ of women as casus beli far beyond the legendary Helen of Troy. Some ladies of high value, such as tragic and exploited Mary, Queen of Scots, had lives resembling or worse than Penelope Pitstop (given that Penny was never actually raped into marriage by the Hooded Claw).
And then there is the infamous droit de signeur, the “lord’s right” to bed any woman of his dominion, and the right of prima nocte, “the first night”, where a bride must first yield her virginity to her liege lord before sleeping with her husband. Both these practices are now questioned by modern historians as possible fictions from over-imaginative 18th century writers, but there are legendary examples such as King Conchobar in the Irish Ulster Cycle. Cu Chulainn’s refusal to yield up his new wife Emer to Conchobar brought Ireland to the brink of war that required druidic interference to avert.
Two thousand years of European literature are written on a historical backdrop where women might be trade goods. The best female characters are noted because they are remarkable in demanding agency, in being proactive in a society that discourages such initiative in women. The stand-out Arthurian heroines (in the sense of female heroes) are people like Lynette, who does as much to overcome the evil Red Knight as does Sir
Gareth, the hero she recruits; and for her sharp tongue and quick wits she is dubbed the Damosel Sauvage.
This kind of thinking doesn’t translate well to today’s readership. There’s narrative whiplash, a kind of “Wait, she’s doing what?” response that can break suspension of disbelief worse than an attack of dragons. Yvaine, who is generally treated in the Matter of Britain as one of the fairer-minded and kindly of Arthur’s knights (despite being Morgan le Fay’s only child) does not come out of his sudden acquiring of Laudine well when viewed through modern lenses.
But honestly, it isn’t possible to treat this story today without addressing that whole heroine-winning concept, without offering some plausible emotional progression to explain what is otherwise a very cynical or exploitative transaction. Something must be done. Acknowledging the problem is the first step.
I.A. Watson is a novelist and columnist from Yorkshire, England. Amongst his published works are Labours of Hercules (which covers the Thespiads), Women of Myth, and the essay volume Where Stories Dwell (which has much more to say about this). A full list of his fifty or so works is available at http://www.chillwater.org.uk/writing/iawatsonhome.htm