Le Morte d’Arthur

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Women: Weakness and Power Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Honor and Chivalry Theme Icon
Jealousy, Competition, and Revenge Theme Icon
Trickery and Mistaken Identity Theme Icon
Journeys and Quests Theme Icon
Women: Weakness and Power Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Le Morte d’Arthur, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Women: Weakness and Power Theme Icon

In many ways, women are left out of the exciting adventures that the knights of the Round Table embark upon throughout Malory’s tale. While their husbands, lovers, and brothers seek glory and honor in combat, they are more likely to stay at home—indeed, when we encounter women it’s most often inside, in domestic settings, and if they are out in the world, it tends to be because they’re in need of rescuing by some errant knight. Many of these knights tend to think of women as potential or actual possessions: they often talk of getting the “right” to a woman, or of “gaining” her, just like a horse or shield. Much of this language, though jarring to a modern audience, would have been quite normal in the historical period of writing. Even so, the apparent powerlessness of women in the book is somewhat deceptive: some women in Le morte d’Arthur also gain agency by seducing men, plotting their downfall, or even using “sorcery” of some kind to get their way.

Guenever and Isoud, for instance, both manage to successfully carry on affairs outside marriage, despite prevailing social and religious customs. For Guenever, it is not necessarily her affair with Launcelot that leads to the kingdom’s downfall (since everyone has always known about it) but rather Agravaine’s insistence on breaking with discretion and revealing that affair to Arthur. Nimue manages to spirit Merlin away into a cave when she grows tired and afraid of him, and Morgane le Fay, as a queen and sorceress, uses a number of plots against far more powerful men. However, “magic” and “sorcery” have an uncertain status when applied to women in the book. Some women, indeed, are identified as enchantresses or witches, but “magic” also seems to be used to describe any woman who manages to assert her will—actions which, when taken by men, are too routine to even be noted. Men in the book can be deeply suspicious of the women in their life, even if (and perhaps especially when) they fall in love with them, fearing that the privileged gender position they enjoy might not be as all-powerful as they’d like.

Women: Weakness and Power ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Women: Weakness and Power appears in each book of Le Morte d’Arthur. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Women: Weakness and Power Quotes in Le Morte d’Arthur

Below you will find the important quotes in Le Morte d’Arthur related to the theme of Women: Weakness and Power.
Book 7 Quotes

I took none heed to your words, for the more ye said the more ye angered me, and my wrath I wrecked upon them that I had do withal. And therefore all the missaying that ye missaid me furthered me in my battle, and caused me to think to show and prove myself at the end what I was; for peradventure though I had meat in King Arthur’s kitchen, yet I might have had meat enough in other places, but all that I did for to prove and assay my friends, and that shall be known another day; and whether that I be a gentleman born or none, I let you wit, fair damosel, I have done you gentleman’s service, and peradventure better service yet will I do or I depart from you.

Related Characters: Sir Gareth (Beaumains) (speaker), King Arthur
Page Number: Vol 1, 251
Explanation and Analysis:

Beaumains has traveled much of the country with the anonymous damsel, attempting to prove himself and help her on her "adventure." Beaumains has conquered a number of knights quite impressively, but has still been subject to the damsel's regular insults and mockery. Finally, the damsel begins to acknowledge that she is somewhat impressed that Beaumains has endured all of this berating so stoically. Here Beaumains attempts to explain himself. He claims that he transferred his anger and frustration towards her onto the men against whom he fought. Indeed, her dismissal of him made him more eager to prove what a strong and chivalrous knight he was. 

For Beaumains, this kind of test is similar to what he put himself through as a menial kitchen boy at King Arthur's court - although he comes from a powerful family, it was important for him to prove his worth on his own, by setting a series of challenges and quests for himself, and completing them under a false identity, without the help of others or his own noble name. As a result, Beaumains has only underlined how he was worthy of great worship all along, even if his true identity remained unknown to others. Finally, he may be frustrated by the damsel, but as a woman she is particularly prized as someone whose admiration and respect he wants to provoke.


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Book 9 Quotes

Queen Morgan loved Sir Launcelot best, and ever she desired him, and he would never love her nor do nothing at her request, and therefore she held many knights together for to have taken him by strength. And because she deemed that Sir Launcelot loved Queen Guenever paramour, and she him again, therefore Queen Morgan le Fay ordained that shield to put Sir Launcelot to a rebuke, to that intent that King Arthur might understand the love between them.

Related Characters: King Arthur, Queen Guenever, Sir Launcelot du Lake, Morgan le Fay
Page Number: Vol 1, 464
Explanation and Analysis:

As will be the case for much of the rest of the story, everyone but Arthur seems to know about the love between Launcelot and Guenever, and various characters, out of jealousy or plotting, seek to reveal the truth to Arthur. Morgan, one of these plotters, is motivated by her own lustful feelings for Launcelot (and so she is seemingly jealous of Guenever), and also has long hated Arthur and devised various schemes against him.

Morgan le Fay is one of the consistent villains of the book, but she is also one of the best examples of a powerful, independent woman—she is a queen by her own right, seemingly commands the loyalty of many knights, takes and discards her own lovers without marrying them, and has access to powerful and dangerous magic.

Book 10 Quotes

Sir, she said, wit you well that ye be a prisoner, and worse than ye ween; for my lady, my cousin Morgan le Fay, keepeth you here for none other intent but for to do her pleasure with you when it liketh her.

O Jesu defend me, said Alisander, from such pleasure; for I had liefer cut away my hangers than I would do her such pleasure.

Related Characters: Alisander (speaker), Morgan le Fay
Page Number: Vol 2, 74
Explanation and Analysis:

Morgan le Fay has spirited Alisander away to her castle and has given him a sleeping potion. When he wakes up, he meets the rightful owner of the castle, Morgan's cousin, who shares Morgan's evil plans with Alisander. Alisander is shocked and angry - he vows never to accede to Morgan's desires. While other women in the work are shown to be naturally seductive to men, who fall in love with them without any power over their feelings, Morgan is portrayed as actively scheming in her personal relationships. In a similar way, she renders men powerless against her tricks and schemes, but the power she has over them is described not as romantic but as frightening and suspicious. As a result, Morgan becomes an extreme case of the power women can have over men in general. Despite their relatively marginalized position in a world that values physical strength and a patriarchal royal line, women in this culture are able to exert a certain amount of power in private affairs - something that many men find threatening.

But wit ye well Sir Palomides had envy heartily, for all that night he had never rest in his bed, but wailed and wept out of measure. So on the morn Sir Tristram, Gareth, and Dinadan arose early, and then they went unto Sir Palomides’ chamber, and there they found him fast asleep, for he had all night watched, and it was seen upon his cheeks that he had wept full sore. Say nothing, said Sir Tristram, for I am sure he hath taken anger and sorrow for the rebuke that I gave to him, and La Beale Isoud.

Related Characters: Tristram (Tramtrist) (speaker), Isoud (La Beale Isoud), Sir Gareth (Beaumains), Sir Palomides, Dinadan
Page Number: Vol 2, 166
Explanation and Analysis:

During the tournament, Palomides, who has long been jealous of Tristram because he is also in love with La Beale Isoud, had hatched a plan to dishonor Tristram. He had borrowed a wounded knight's armor and had ridden out to fight against Tristram anonymously, making many at the tournament impressed with his skill. However, Isoud had been watching from a window in the castle, so she saw everything, and found Palomides' behavior shameful.

Now Palomides recognizes that his plan had backfired. Not only did he fail to win Isoud's admiration, but now she actively dislikes him, and Tristram - whom Palomides still admires despite his jealousy - is also irritated with him. Palomides' jealousy mingles with his sense of shame in a way that is so acute that he weeps all night long. Palomides is not even able to hide his feelings: Tristram, Gareth, and Dinadan witness his state of sorrow, and Tristram easily guesses where it results from. Palomides may be a valiant fighter in a tournament, but the opinion of a woman can easily triumph over him in other spheres.

For an it happeth an envious man once to win worship he shall be dishonoured twice therefore; and for this cause all men of worship hate an envious man, and will shew him no favour, and he that is courteous, and kind, and gentle, hath favour in every place.

Related Characters: Queen Guenever (speaker), Sir Palomides
Page Number: Vol 2, 172
Explanation and Analysis:

Guenever has been recovering from sickness at a seaside castle when Bleoberis and Ector de Maris leave the tournament and come find her, telling her about everything that has happened there. Guenever’s statement critiques the behavior of Palomides in particular, but it is also a general declaration regarding the unsuitability of envy for a chivalrous knight. Competition and revenge may be central aspects of this society, but even though it is justifiable to desire to avenge one’s losses, what is not defensible is to sulk about those losses or to actively act jealous and upset rather than graceful. In some ways, then, this taboo is about appearances more than true feelings – but this doesn’t mean that the taboo is any less powerful. Indeed, actions like those of Palomides can, according to Guenever, cast unforgivable shame on a knight, causing him to be shunned by others. Guenever’s statement also underlines the portrayal of women as subtle, careful judges of behavior and of the correct way to live and act.

Book 13 Quotes

My sin and my wickedness have brought me unto great dishonour. For when I sought worldly adventures for worldly desires, I ever enchieved them and had the better in every place, and never was I discomfit in no quarrel, were it right or wrong. And now I take upon me the adventures of holy things, and now I see and understand that mine old sin hindereth me and shameth me, so that I had no power to stir nor speak when the holy blood appeared afore me.

Related Characters: Sir Launcelot du Lake (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Holy Grail (Sangreal)
Page Number: Vol 2, 270
Explanation and Analysis:

Half asleep, Launcelot has seen a knight be blessed by the vessel of the Holy Grail, but a voice has told him to leave this place, since he is not worthy to achieve the Sangreal himself. Now, Launcelot seems to have a total epiphany regarding his prior actions. He recognizes that, although he is perhaps the greatest knight of the Round Table, his motivations have been worldly, if not selfish. He has pursued triumph and glory for his own interests, rather for the inherent goodness of the challenges themselves. As a result (and because of his affair with Guenever), he has been physically barred from even remaining close to the holy vessel.

Launcelot’s epiphany underlines the complexity at the heart of the book’s attitude towards chivalry, fighting, and spirituality. Winning at tournaments and triumphing over enemies is shown to be a good in itself, a source of great honor for knights; however, the book also signals that there is a greater good in being holy and selfless and acknowledging a religious rather than earthly hierarchy. It is in this latter category that Launcelot has failed, showing his only weakness. His love for Guenever is alternately portrayed as chivalrous and as weak or wrong, since it is an adulterous love. Without definitively abandoning this love, it is difficult to see how Launcelot will fulfill the terms of his vow to be a better person—at least according to the dogmatic Christian rules of the Sangreal.

Book 18 Quotes

For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May, in something to constrain him to some manner of thing more in that month than in any other month, for divers causes. For then all herbs an trees renew a man and woman, and likewise lovers call again to their mind old gentleness and old service, and many kind deeds that were forgotten by negligence. For like as winter rasure doth always arase and defase green summer, so fareth it by unstable love in man and woman. For in many persons there is no stability; for we may see all day, for a little blast of winter’s rasure, anon we shall deface and lay apart true love for little or nought, that cost much thing; this is no wisdom nor stability, but it is feebleness of nature and great disworship, whosomever uses this.

Related Characters: Queen Guenever, Sir Launcelot du Lake
Page Number: Vol 2, 425
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the few points in the book when the narrator does not closely follow the actions of the main characters, and instead takes the chance to express some opinions and beliefs of his own. We have learned that the court has been at peace through Easter and into May, and it is suggested that this calmness stems from the very nature of the spring season—but also that spring will lead to the end of such peace. The narrator grafts an understanding of romantic love onto the cyclical aspect of the seasons: during the winter, love can grow dangerously cold or unstable just like the weather. However, in the spring, the season of rebirth, lovers recall the vows they made to each other and remember the proper way to treat each other. In terms of the story, however, the problem with this "season of love" is that it rekindles the romance between Launcelot and Guenever—the love affair that will eventually bring down Arthur's kingdom.

Unlike at other moments in the book, here women are not shown to be more scheming and treacherous than men: instead, both men and women are portrayed as similarly vulnerable to weakness, but also similarly capable of regaining strength and honor. However, the narrator also seems to suggest that the problems of love have something unexpected and uncontrollable about them, merely developing as a result of greater forces than the lovers themselves.

Book 21 Quotes

Through this man and me hath all this war been wrought, and the death of the most noblest knights of the world; for through our love that we have loved together is my most noble lord slain.

Related Characters: Queen Guenever (speaker), King Arthur, Sir Launcelot du Lake
Page Number: Vol 2, 523
Explanation and Analysis:

Launcelot has pursued Guenever who, after learning of the death of Arthur, has shut herself into a convent. Here Guenever is forced to reckon with her profound responsibility for the disintegration of the kingdom and the death of her husband. This is the first time, indeed, that she truly comes to terms with the implications of her adulterous love for Launcelot, a love that had long seemed able to coexist with her responsibilities and proper place as queen. The book has refrained from explicitly judging or condemning the affair between Guenever and Launcelot, although various characters have not refrained from doing so (even if usually for their own benefit or in their own interests). By putting an expression of regret into Guenever’s voice, the narrator continues to espouse more of an ambivalence than a condemnation. However, there is no doubt that Guenever feels deeply ashamed of her actions, as well as struck by the tragic power of love, which has wrought such destruction.

Then Sir Launcelot saw her visage, but he wept not greatly, but sighed.

Related Characters: Queen Guenever, Sir Launcelot du Lake
Page Number: Vol 2, 526
Explanation and Analysis:

Even after Guenever, having recognized the destructive power of her affair with Launcelot, had chosen to live in a convent rather than go away with him, Launcelot had not failed to be loyal to her. Now, at her death, Launcelot makes one last pilgrimage to his former lover in order to see her body and to carry it to be buried next to Arthur’s.

Throughout the book, many knights have expressed sorrow, pain, and anger loudly and with great fanfare, weeping and tearing at their hair and in general calling great attention to their feelings. It thus makes for a powerful contrast and telling change that Launcelot does not weep at his sorrow – instead, he merely sighs. Although a sigh might seem to express less emotion than tears, for Launcelot the sigh bears within it the burden of his responsibility and guilt for the destruction and death he has caused, and also for the love that has been called the most powerful in the kingdom. While Guenever was alive, Launcelot could at least share the responsibility with her, even if the two of them remained apart until her death. Now, however, only he is left alive and thus entirely alone with the remnants of the once great King Arthur’s court and Round Table. The sorrow he feels is shown to be too great even for tears.

Thou Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, that thou were never matched of earthly knight’s hand. And thou were the courteoust knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrad horse. And thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman. And thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword. And thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights. And thou was the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies. And thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.

Related Characters: Sir Ector de Maris (speaker), Sir Launcelot du Lake
Page Number: Vol 2, 530
Explanation and Analysis:

As Launcelot had paid a visit to Guenever’s body to honor her at her burial, so too does his brother Sir Ector de Maris make his own pilgrimage to see Launcelot’s tomb and to honor his life. Ector’s words serve to recall Launcelot’s greatness – even if this greatness was marred at the end of his life by guilt and tragedy – through a series of superlatives, from “most curious” and “truest” to “meekest” and “gentlest.” Launcelot’s might, of course, largely lay in his powerful skill in jousting and in his chivalry among other knights. But Ector also acknowledges his qualities off the battlefield, at peacetime and among friends. Ector even suggests that his relationship with Guenever had much that was defensible and honorable about it, since his love for her was so powerful and he remained loyal to her at all costs. Ector’s final declaration thus underlines all the paradoxes and contradictions of Launcelot’s life, as the knight fought valiantly to fulfill the values of honor and chivalry, even as these values sometimes contradicted those of loyalty and love.