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
Women: Weakness and Power Quotes in Le Morte d’Arthur
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then Sir Launcelot saw her visage, but he wept not greatly, but sighed.
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.