Ladies of Legend: Nimue, Vivian and Ganieda

References: Women of Camelot: queens and enchantresses at the court of King Arthur (Orchard Australia, 2000) by Mary Hoffman, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_of_the_Lake, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, http://www.legendofkingarthur.co.uk/legendary-characters/vivien.htm, http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/women.html#Lake, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/h01.html, The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions (Dover Publications, Inc., 1991, originally published in 1907) by Howard Pyle, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2005) by Howard Pyle, 

The Lady of the Lake is a figure so ambiguous in all ways that there is not even a consensus on whether she is one person or two – or, in true mythical fashion, three. ‘The Lady of the Lake’ is really more a position rather than an individual: she is the keeper and possibly maker of Excalibur, and/or the ruler of Avalon. One of the Ladies of the Lake, Viviane from the Vulgate Merlin, was also Queen of Sicily, where she was worshipped as a goddess. Other names attributed to the Lady of the Lake include Nimue, Vivien, Vivian, Elaine, Ninianne, Nivian, Nyneve and Evienne. One variation of her name, ‘Vi-Vianna’, implies a connection to the Celtic water goddess Coventina, while others suggest links to the Irish goddess Niamh or the Welsh goddess Rhiannon.

There is even a connection to the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana (and therefore to her Greek counterpart, Artemis) in one version of the legend. In this story, Nimue was the daughter of Diones and the goddaughter of Diana. Merlin glimpsed her dancing in the forest and fell in love on the spot. Their wedding was officiated by Diana herself – a startling irony, given that Diana is famously, and sometimes savagely, chaste – promptly followed by Merlin’s imprisonment in a bewitched castle. It doesn’t sound like a great foundation for a marriage, but hey, when it comes to spectacularly terrible relationship breakdowns, the Lady of the Lake is Arthurian legend’s true expert. There is also a version in which she was Merlin’s spurned lover, changing into the shape of a beautiful woman in order to seduce him (which does rather beg the question, what was she before?) only to trap him in amber mid-orgasm. She then transformed into an oak tree around him. That is commitment.

Different versions have her entrap him in a hawthorn tree, beneath a stone, inside a cave or a tower. What remains consistent is this: Merlin fell, and she rose.

The first Lady of the Lake who appears in Le Morte d’Arthur goes unnamed. She gifted Arthur with Excalibur and later came to his court, where she accused Arthur’s knight Sir Balin of killing her brother and Balin accused her of killing his mother – whereupon he promptly beheaded her, much to Arthur’s dismay. It was later that the character of Nimue appeared, as a mystery woman who wandered into Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding feast while looking for her dog, only to be kidnapped by a knight called Sir Hontzlake. Nimue’s cousin, Sir Meliot of Logurs, battled Hontzlake to rescue her, but was outmatched. It was Sir Pellinore who brought her safely back to court, and safe is perhaps not the right word, because Merlin immediately fell in lust with her.

Nimue felt no interest in return, but used his attraction to pump him for knowledge. They were travelling companions, leaving England for the lands of King Ban, father of Lancelot. By the time they returned to Cornwall, Merlin was actively pursuing Nimue for sex and she had no further use for him. She walled him up behind an enormous rock with her magic and left him there, buried alive. It was an act of quite astonishing cruelty.

And then, in so many ways, she became him.

When Morgan le Fay’s lover and conspirator, Accolon, got his hands on Excalibur and attacked Arthur with it, Nimue forced Accolon to drop it, ensuring Arthur won the battle and the sword was restored to him. When Morgan le Fay sent a poisoned cloak as a ‘reconciliation’ gift, Nimue suggested Arthur force the messenger to try it on first, and so the unlucky handmaiden died a painful death instead. A sorceress named Annowre abducted Arthur, hoping to win him with her obsessive love, and would have killed him in the wake of his rejection had Nimue not brought his knights for a timely rescue. She claimed Annowre’s severed head like a trophy.

Nor was her loyalty limited to Arthur. Young Sir Pelleas fell in love with a woman who played with his heart, and Nimue’s way of resolving that situation was to enchant the girl to love him while simultaneously enchanting Pelleas to hate her. Nimue then took the knight as her lover and later, her husband. When Guinevere was accused of murder, Lancelot fought for her, but it was Nimue who cleared her name by identifying the true murderer. And Nimue was there at the very end, one of the sorceress queens who came for Arthur to bear his body away after the final battle.

Different translations of Malory’s work imply Nimue may have been two different women, Nimue and Nyneve. This may explain the marriage to Pelleas, who also appears twice-over – Pelleas the young, heartbroken knight, and King Pelleas of Corbenic, father of Elaine, grandfather of Galahad, guardian of the Grail. The Nimue married to Sir Pelleas bore him a son, Guivret. The Lady of the Lake, in her different personas, had another son; after the death of King Ban, she raised Lancelot as her own and taught him the art of chivalry. He was known, because of her, as Lancelot of the Lake.

If Nimue is a figure of wisdom, Vivian is ambition. She appears in some versions of the legend as a separate character, a girl taught – essentially weaponised – by Morgan le Fay. Vivian came to Camelot to study magic with Merlin and who deliberately seduced him into teaching her everything he knew. While her ruthlessness should certainly not be underestimated, there is an astonishing amount of sexism behind the idea that this lord of magic and prophecy was helpless before her; his lust was his blind spot, and she exploited it, in the same way he exploited Igraine’s faith in her husband Gorlois. In some versions, she entombed him. In others, he was her prisoner in a hidden tower.

This Vivian became an enemy of Camelot, cursing Arthur’s knights for her amusement, sending them to their deaths when it suited her. Howard Pyle paints Vivian as a classic temptress, surrounding her with beautiful handmaidens in a hidden castle. She was not an ally to Morgan le Fay; Vivian was entirely her own woman. Neither was she friendly with Nimue, who played a far less morally ambiguous role with Vivian in the narrative.

Of all these sorceresses encircling Merlin and Arthur, there is a third distinct character: Ganieda, Merlin’s twin sister. An alternative spelling of her name is Gwenddydd. In these stories, Ganieda and Merlin’s father was named Morfryn. Ganieda was wife to King Rhydderch, which made her sister-in-law twice-over to Merlin’s wife Gwendoloena. Merlin was a seer and ‘fool’ at Rhydderch’s court. He predicted three deaths for the same boy, which drew scorn from his audience. Merlin went to live in the wilderness, and in time the threefold death came true. The only time he returned to Rhydderch’s court was when his estranged wife remarried; Merlin stabbed her new husband with a pair of antlers.

Ganieda came to live with Merlin after the death of her own husband. She had a house built for them, with seventy doors and seventy windows, through which Merlin could watch the stars and foretell the future. Merlin later sought a cure for his madness in a healing spring, accompanied by Ganieda and the young poet Taliesin. When Ganieda drank the water, she became a powerful seer herself.

Whatever form they take – goddess, enchantress, temptress, mother, sister, queen – the Ladies of the Lake are women who exist outside of boundaries. Theirs is a changeable neutrality; while they each have certain loyalties, in the end they are always their own side. And that is the side that usually wins.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Review – The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

Hodder & Stoughton, 2015

It’s a big universe, but when you don’t want to be found, it can feel very small. Rosemary has given up a lot for her new start aboard the Wayfarer, a ship in the business of building hyperspace tunnels. The eccentric crew, from the chaotic techs to the affectionate AI who keeps everything running, seem only too happy to welcome her aboard. When the Wayfarer is offered an extraordinary opportunity to build a tunnel longer than any they’ve ever built before, to a planet only recently accepted into the Galactic Commons, how could they possibly say no? But a long journey means a long time for secrets to come out, and that’s without really knowing what is waiting for them at the end…

This is Becky Chambers’ first novel and it is a delight. The worldbuilding is fascinating, detailed and original, with an interesting take on the role humans play in a wider galaxy. This is really an ensemble story, alternating between the perspectives of the whole Wayfarer crew, who are a charming motley of personalities and cultures. The plot is a little disjointed, with the chapters feeling more episodic than sequential, and there was one aspect of the ending that I found very frustrating, as the solution felt disrespectful to the characters involved, but this is the first book in a series and therefore I suppose it hasn’t really ended yet. The story continues in A Close and Common Orbit, which I shall definitely be reading.

Review – My True Love Gave to Me

My True Love Gave to Me – ed. Stephanie Perkins

Macmillan, 2014

In this collection of winter romances, the holidays bring people together…and break them apart. Whether it’s putting on the dress for a winter party or donning a mask to disappear into a revel, reconnecting with an old love or reaching out to a stranger, this is a time for wishes, and change.

As an Australian, there is something fundamentally a bit disconcerting about Christmas stories set in winter, however used to reading them I am, and of course when it comes to holiday fiction, the level of schmaltz you’re looking for is a variable thing. Some of these stories were definitely too sentimental for my taste, but others had a lovely grounded warmth and sincerity that really appealed to me. While Christmas was the dominant theme, there were a variety of other holidays celebrated throughout the collection. My favourites included Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Midnights’, Kelly Link’s ‘The Lady and the Fox’, ‘It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown’ by Stephanie Perkins (a sequel to which appears in the collection Summer Days, Summer Nights) and ‘Krampuslauf’ by Holly Black.

Review – Big Mushy Happy Lump

Big Mushy Happy Lump – Sarah Andersen

Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2017

In her second book, artist Sarah Andersen explores social anxiety, female friendships, sweater theft, the borrowing of cats and how to avoid responsibility by hiding under a blanket. Including illustrated personal essays and comic snapshots of incredibly relatable problems, this collection is as brutally honest as it is hilarious.

I’d seen Andersen’s comics online before and enjoyed them, and this collection was just as good as I expected. Andersen tackles subjects from a distinctly female perspective, which is very refreshing, and her art style is charmingly bouncy. Her first book was Adulthood is a Myth.

Review – The Westing Game

The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin

Dutton Children’s Books, 2003

Originally published in 1978

The Westing house has stood empty for years. It can be seen from the new apartment complex of Sunset Towers, where the residents of each flat are unaware that they were handpicked to be exactly where they are – unaware that in fact, their new homes are the chosen setting for the eccentric Sam Westing’s last game, which begins at his funeral. His chosen heirs are all in line for a life-changing prize of millions. First, though, they have to solve his clues. With neighbours set at odds and families now rival competitors, the game is about much more than money…and Westing is not a man who ever loses.

The Westing Game is an intricate knot of a mystery, with a strong cast of complex characters. Though the book contains some unfortunate racist and ableist language typical to the time period (and generally within character of those using it), there a deliberate and thoughtful exploration of how people are much more complicated than they may initially come across – in good ways and bad. My one complaint would be that I found the ending just a little bit too glib, but despite that, it was satisfying and a very clever piece of writing.

Ladies of Legend: Hippolyta and Penthesileia

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://tansyrr.com/tansywp/penthesilea/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippolyta A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penthesilea, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otrera

Trigger warnings: references to incest, rape, necrophilia

This post may be slightly influenced by the existence of the Wonder Woman movie, which contains comic book Amazons backflipping off shields and whacking people with axes. It is not faithful to Greek mythology, obviously, nor is it intended to be, but it’s nonetheless a delight to see my ladies of legend on the big screen. Especially when they are setting things on fire.

The Amazons were a race of warrior women, believed to be a real civilisation in ancient times. They originally lived beside the Amazon River, led by their matriarch Lysippe, but Aphrodite took against Lysippe’s son Tanais for favouring war over love. Spitefully, Aphrodite caused him to become obsessed with his own mother. Tanais threw himself in the river, and Lysippe led her family away into the mountains, where they founded the city of Themiscyra.

The set-up of Amazonian society was strictly divided by gender. The Amazons were said to abandon their sons at birth, only keeping the girls. When men were tolerated, they were confined to the domestic sphere and to ensure their obedience, the legs of boys were broken while they were very young. The women fought and ruled. 

The Amazons were supposedly the first to use cavalry in battle. Lysippe and her daughters founded an empire and later Amazonian queens – including Marpesia, Lampado and Hippo – continued that tradition by conquering their way across Asia Minor. At one point they seized the city of Troy, though they were in the end unable to hold it.

They worshipped Ares, the god of war, and the hunting goddess Artemis. They carried bows and half-moon shields, and performed shield dances in Artemis’ honour. It was said that they cut off their right breasts to improve their skill at archery, which I feel only makes sense if your baseline assumption is that archers shouldn’t have breasts at all.

One of the most famous Amazon queens was Hippolyta. She was the daughter of Ares and Otrera, who was daughter of the east wind and a queen of the Amazons herself. It was, in fact, a family of queens – Hippolyta’s sisters Antiope and Melanippe ruled with her over the three principal cities of their land, and her other sister Penthesilea became her successor after Hippolyta’s death.

As a symbol of her authority, Hippolyta wore a golden, jewel-encrusted girdle, a gift from Ares himself. One day the Princess Admete, daughter of King Eurystheus, decided she would quite like to own that magical girdle, and as her father just so happened to have the hero Heracles in his service at the time, the odds of her getting her wish were quite high. Heracles was undertaking labours as a penance for killing his family. The labours usually involved killing other people. Nobody has ever claimed the Pantheon are consistent in their morality. Heracles brought a band of warriors into Amazonian territory to either convince or force Hippolyta to give up her treasure.

At first, it seemed Hippolyta might give up the girdle of her own free will, after she took a fancy to Hercules’ muscle-bound body. So the goddess Hera, who compelled Heracles to start his twelve labours and work for King Eurystheus in the first place, decided to stir up some trouble. She disguised herself as an Amazon and spread a rumour that Heracles and his warriors had really come to kidnap Hippolyta. The queen’s warriors attacked.

In one version, Heracles gave up his pretence at diplomacy, killed Hippolyta and seized the girdle. In another, Melanippe was the sister held captive by Heracles, and the girdle was a ransom Hippolyta paid to get her back. In a third, Hippolyta fought Heracles, and died rather than surrender.

Theseus of Athens (killer of the Minotaur, future king, reliably a cad towards women) was present in Heracles’ company of warriors. Among the plethora of alternate stories is one in which Theseus declared a passionate love for Hippolyta and took her away with him to Athens. They had a son together, Hippolytus. When Theseus decided, inevitably, to put Hippolyta aside and marry Ariadne’s sister Phaedra instead, the outraged Amazons descended upon the wedding party. During the confusion, Penthesileia delivered Hippolyta an accidental killing blow. There is also an account in which Heracles and Theseus are not involved at all; Hippolyta was hunting deer with Penthesileia when the gods sent a capricious wind, and Penthesileia’s spear struck her sister instead.

One thing is certain: Hippolyta died, and Penthesileia inherited her crown.

Penthesileia was a great archer (the trick to it being that she cut off both her breasts). She was also credited with inventing the battle-axe. The fact that Hippolyta’s death was an accident did not stop the Furies from pursuing her killer, so Penthesleia took refuge in the city of Troy. During the war with the Greeks, she fought to defend the city. So formidable a warrior was she that even Achilles fell back when she took to the field.

In the end, he was the one who killed her. Just to make the whole thing unbearably creepy, he fell in love with her the moment he stabbed her, and in one version, had sex with her corpse. A Greek warrior called Thersites then gouged out her eyes, and Achilles responded to the desecration by punching him so hard he died. Thersites’ cousin took revenge on Achilles by throwing Penthesleia’s body in a river.

She was buried eventually – in one account, by Achilles, in another, by the grateful Trojans. Achilles made sacrifices to Apollo, Artemis and Leto in penance for Penthesleia’s death.

As with so many women of myth and legend, Hippolyta and Penthesleia’s stories have sad endings. But myths, you know, have a special immortality: with every different version that is told, they live again. And so the Amazons are reborn, battle-axes and all.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Ladies of Legend: Isolde

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iseult, http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/tristan.html,

Trigger warning: references to rape

Well, it’s probably still Tuesday somewhere. This is over two weeks late – sorry! – but as I’ve been sick for about a month straight, anything I get done at this point is getting counted as win.

When it comes to famous tales of tragic love, June’s Lady of Legend is up there with the big guns. ‘Tristram and Isolde’ are two names bound together in the same way as ‘Lancelot and Guinevere’, and in fact predate them, being originally separate from the Arthurian cycle. There are two distinct versions of their legend: the early romances and the Prose Tristran. I shall begin with the Prose.

Women in Arthurian legend have a certain tendency to come in threes. The ancient Welsh myths reference three different Guineveres; in Le Morte d’Arthur, Igraine has three daughters; and in the story of Tristram(/Tristran) and Isolde (alternative spellings include Iseult, Iseo, Yseult, Isode, Isoude, Izolda, Esyllt and Isotta) there are three royal women bearing the same name. The heroine is Isolde the Fair, who was named for her mother, Queen Isolde of Ireland. The third Isolde is Isolde’s rival in love, a woman she never met. For their stories to make sense, you need a little background on the man who spectacularly screwed up all of their lives; and for him to make sense, you need some background on his mother.

Tristram (also known as Tristran) was the son of King Meliodas of Liones and Elizabeth of Cornwall, the sister of King Mark. According to Le Morte d’Arthur, Elizabeth was pregnant with Tristram when a sorceress kidnapped her husband and imprisoned him. Elizabeth went to get him back. She never reached Meliodas; she went into labour in the forest and died there. Tristram’s name means ‘sorrowful birth’. He was found by his father’s barons, who would have killed him for the power if not for Elizabeth’s companion, a lady-in-waiting so persuasive she got a majority vote for Tristram’s continued survival. The same lady-in-waiting brought the queen’s body home to her husband, who was released from his prison by Merlin (too late to be of any use; that’s Merlin for you.)

It was not a good start.

When Tristram was seven, his new stepmother tried to win a crown for her own children by poisoning him, and it was only through Tristram’s pleading for her life that she was kept from the pyre. After that, bizarrely, it was Tristram who had to leave home. He went to France for his education, which was very thorough and knightly. And fortuitous, because his uncle Mark was in a spot of financial and political bother. Cornwall traditionally owned truage to Ireland, but had not paid up in seven years. King Anguish of Ireland, upon being told he was never going to get his money, decided to settle the question with a duel of champions and sent his brother-in-law Sir Marhaus to Cornwall. This being Isolde’s uncle. Do you see how this gets very messy very quickly?

Marhaus arrived outside Tintagel Castle and Mark regretted all his life choices, as nobody at his court was willing to fight a celebrated knight from the court of Arthur himself. Tristram, full of youthful fervour, asked his uncle to make him a knight in order to take on the duel. While he was busy getting ready for his big Knightly Moment, he received word from King Faramon of France’s daughter, who fell in love with him during his time abroad. Tristram was not interested, and the poor girl died of sorrow.

And Marhaus didn’t even want to fight Tristram, he thought he was too young and tried to send him home. The battle that eventually ensued was brutal. Marhaus received such terrible head injuries that he ceded the field, returned to Ireland and died there with a piece of Tristram’s sword embedded in his skull. His sister kept that fragment after Marhaus’ death, and ached for revenge. Her daughter did not have an uncle any more, so that Tristram’s could escape his debt.

Tristram did not escape the duel without injury. Marhaus’ spear was poisoned and in consequence, Tristram’s wounds would not heal. A ‘wise lady’ advised that Tristram seek help in the land of the venom’s origin. Having no better ideas, that was what he did. Which is how he ended up outside the castle of King Anguish, Queen Isolde and their very beautiful, reknown surgeon of a daughter. Surgeon being Malory’s word, by the way.

Tristram’s skilful harping caught the attention of the court. He called himself ‘Tramtrist’, because that’s just what he’s like as a person. Pretending he was injured fighting on behalf of a lady, he finangled his way into Anguish’s circle of knights and into the care of Princess Isolde, who cleaned his wound properly. In return he taught her to play the harp. There was flirting of the courtly, deceptive variety. Isolde, however, already had a serious suitor at court: Sir Palamides the Saracen. Like Marhaus, Palamides was a knight of King Arthur’s court, and he was head over heels for Isolde, sending her gifts every day, even planning to convert to Christianity for her sake.

For all that, Isolde was not interested in him. With Tristram more or less recovered from his injuries, she urged him to compete in an upcoming joust. Palamides was an excellent jouster, but Tristram was the Hero of the Story and therefore not only defeated his rival, he forced him to give up the trappings of war for a whole year and give up on his courtship of the princess. Which one would assume was her intention.

She was certainly delighted by his victory. Together, she and the queen prepared a bath for him. Unfortunately, Tristram left his sword in his chambers; the same sword he used to kill Marhaus, with a tell-tale piece missing. Queen Isolde put two and two together, and came up with rage. She picked up that sword and marched off to run Tristram through with it.

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