Ladies of Legend: Helen and Cassandra

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, 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, 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/Cassandrahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_of_Troy

Trigger warning: references to rape and incest

It all began with Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and the original bad fairy at the christening – or in this case, at the wedding, showing up at the nuptials of Thetis and Peleus to make everyone simultaneously regret not inviting her and remember exactly why they didn’t by riling up the three most powerful goddesses in the Pantheon and starting one of the most famous wars in myth and legend. She brought with her a golden apple (never ever trust a golden apple) with an inscription on it reading ‘for the fairest’. Zeus, who might be all kinds of terrible but was smart enough to realise that was a mess he wanted no part of, hastily foisted the role of judge onto Prince Paris of Troy. Thanks to an ominous prophecy made at his birth, Paris was living as an anonymous shepherd at the time, in ignorance of his birthright. All that was about to change.

The three goddesses who felt the strongest right to the apple were Hera, Zeus’s wife and sister and queen of the gods; Athena, goddess of wisdom and war; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Each offered Paris an appropriately extravagant bribe depending on her governance. Hera promised power and riches, Athena assured him of good fortune in battle, but Aphrodite swore that he would have the most beautiful woman in the world as his own and Paris awarded her the apple – thereby making himself two implacable enemies, and an ally as fickle as she was powerful.

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Ladies of Legend: Morgan le Fay and Morgause

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, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos

Trigger warning: references to rape

There is a tendency, in Arthurian legend, for Igraine’s daughters to be highly variable in number and almost entirely interchangeable in identity, their roles within different versions of the myth generally depending on which woman gives birth to which sons. The Vulgate Cycle, for instance, has a whole crowd of half-sisters, while other versions whittle it down to one or two. The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards credits Morgan le Fay with eight sorceress sisters – Cliton, Gliten, Glitonea, Mazoe, Modron, Moronoe, Thitis and Tyronoe – all living together on the island of Avalon and acting as good fairies at Arthur’s birth. Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies speculates that Morgan le Fay may have originally been a Celtic sea goddess or even a goddess of death. She has associations with the Morrigana, an Irish triple goddess represented by the three warrior queen aspects of Badb, Macha and Morrigan, the latter of whom is also strongly associated with fertility.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, there are three sisters: Morgause (alternatively spelled Margawse) being the eldest, Elaine the middle child and Morgan as the youngest. They were the children of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall and Igraine. When Gorlois was defeated in battle by King Uther Pendragon, Igraine had little choice but the marry the victor. She gave birth to a son, Arthur, who was taken away to be raised with a foster family, his very existence a well-kept secret. Uther then used his newly acquired stepdaughters to secure political alliances, marrying Morgause off to King Lot of Orkney and Elaine to King Nentres of Garlot. At this point Elaine promptly vanishes from the narrative.

Morgan was perhaps too young for marriage at the time because she was sent to a convent for an unexpectedly arcane education, learning the arts of necromancy and sorcery. Other stories have her trained at court by Merlin himself. Eventually, however, she was given a royal marriage of her own and became queen to Uriens of Gore.

Morgause had four sons with Lot – Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth. The only one to inherit any magical tendencies was Gawain, whose strength increased as the sun approached its zenith. When Arthur emerged from obscurity and Uther’s former allies went to war against him, including Lot, Morgause calmly came as a messenger to the embattled young king (with all of her boys in tow, what’s more) and had a month-long fling with him that resulted in a fifth son, Mordred. The relationship appears to have been consensual and mutually misinformed.

When Merlin finally told Arthur the truth, it came with a side serve of apocalyptic prophecy and the two of them threw a full King Herod routine by having all the baby boys born on May Day sent to sea to be drowned. Mordred survived. What’s more, he appears to have been raised by Morgause, because he shows up later in the story as a knight in Arthur’s court, not quite popular but respected and running around with the other Orkney boys. How he got from one point to the other is one hell of a mystery that Malory never explains.

Nentres and Uriens were also aligned against Arthur, though that did not stop Igraine bringing Morgan along when she met Arthur for the first time. Which means that Morgan was present, listening, when Igraine told the court how Uther appropriated her husband’s face in order to rape her.

The fight for the throne was brutal. During the final battle, thirteen kings were killed; among them, Morgause’s husband Lot, brought down by Arthur’s ally Pellinore. This was the beginning of a labyrinthine tangle of messed-up relationships, as Gawain eventually killed Pellinore and the widowed Morgause later took Pellinore’s son Lamorak as her lover.

Arthur held a great funeral, attended by Morgause and her sons, Morgan and her husband Uriens, and their son Ewaine (also spelled Yvain). Eager to connect with his half-sisters on a non-sexual level that is also not a battlefield – this family is such a disaster in so many ways – Arthur entrusted his sword Excalibur into Morgan’s care. Apparently she had a trustworthy vibe or something. Arthur proved once again that he was a shocking judge of people because not only did Morgan plan to use that sword for a double regicide, she had learned enough about Arthur’s personality to arrange it that he took every step into the trap for himself.

Arthur went hunting with Uriens and a knight called Sir Accolon who, unbeknown to the others, was Morgan’s lover and accomplice. The kings and their companion spied a beautiful ship floating in nearby waters and were invited to stay the night aboard by the twelve beautiful women who were its only occupants. However, when Uriens awoke he was in bed with Morgan – and when Arthur awoke, he was in the dungeon of Sir Damas, a knight in the middle of a property dispute with his little brother and who had a habit of kidnapping promising fighters in the hope that one of them would consent to be his champion. Thus far, nobody had. Arthur grimly offered himself on the condition that the other prisoners would be released. He didn’t realise that the messenger girl he was talking to was a servant of Morgan le Fay, or that the sword he went to fight with was not Excalibur at all. Morgan sent Accolon to Sir Ontzlake, Damas’ brother, to volunteer as his champion in the upcoming fight, and he had the true sword.

It’s neatly done. It would have worked beautifully had the Lady Nimue not been among the spectators, because in Le Morte d’Arthur it is she who received the training from Merlin, not Morgan, and after she got rid of him for good, she took over the role of Arthur’s intermittent protector. She forced Accolon to drop Excalibur, so that Arthur could reclaim it. Accolon confessed to everything. Morgan’s plan was to kill Uriens as well, take Accolon as her consort and rule the land herself. I shouldn’t like that. But I sort of do.

Expecting Accolon to have already succeeded, Morgan had moved in for the next kill. She sent a handmaiden for Uriens’ sword so that she could kill her husband with his own weapon – nasty sense of irony that the lady’s got there – but the handmaiden had qualms and woke Uwaine, who was sadly prepared for exactly this kind of situation. “I may say an earthly devil bore me,” he said, catching the sword before his mother could strike. She might be willing to murder her brother and husband in cold blood, but Morgan loved her son and in exchange for his forgiveness, she swore that Uriens would be safe from her. She kept her word, too; as far as Malory tells it, she never made another attempt on her husband’s life.

Arthur was deeply hurt by Morgan’s betrayal. He settled matters between Damas and Ontzlake, and when Accolon died of his injuries, four days after the fight, Arthur sent the body to Morgan as a warning. She hid her grief, planning her vengeance. She went to see Guinevere before Arthur returned to court, acquiring royal permission to travel into the country. Travelling with a company of her own knights, she found the abbey where Arthur was staying overnight and tried to steal Excalibur from him, only to discover he’d taken to sleeping with it in his hand. She settled for snatching the scabbard, which protected its wearer from physical harm. Arthur soon woke and pursued her. Maliciously, she hurled the scabbard into a lake and enchanted herself to disappear into the landscape as a rock until Arthur gave up looking.

After that, Morgan rejoined her knights and travelled on. She encountered one of Arthur’s knights, blindfolded and pushed into a fountain by the man whose wife he was sleeping with. The imperilled knight was Sir Manassen, cousin to Accolon. Morgan turned the tables: it was the other knight who drowned and Manassen was sent back to court unharmed, as a message to Arthur: she saved one of his knights for love of Accolon and with all her magic, she did not fear Arthur. She then turned her attention to building up the defences and devotion of Gore.

Her next attempt to get at Arthur was presented as a truce. She sent a handmaiden with a beautiful cloak as a reconciliation gift, but Nimue was there once again to foil her; she suggested the handmaiden try the cloak on first and the court watched, horrified, as the girl burned alive. Though Arthur did not blame Uwaine for his mother’s actions, the young knight was no longer welcomed at court and when he left, his loyal cousin Gawain went with him. The children of Morgause and Morgan were fiercely clannish. Of course, Morgause decided to be on good terms with Arthur – as he had no children with Guinevere, Morgause’s children were his obvious successors, a good reason if ever there was one to take his side in this unusually bloody sibling squabble. But Morgause never seemed to be on bad terms with Morgan either.

Which is not to say Morgause didn’t have problems of her own. To begin with, her (favourite) son Gareth took it into his head to arrive at Arthur’s court incognito and prove himself as an unknown knight instead of claiming his royal birthright from the get go, so Morgause had to storm over there and tell off Arthur for not keeping a better eye on his nephews – and then she told off her other sons for not recognising their own goddamn brother when he was right under their noses. Upon hearing that the court bully Sir Kay nicknamed her son Beaumains (meaning ‘fair-hands’, this being a way of calling him a freeloader) she tersely retorted that Gareth was ‘fair-handed’ indeed, flipping the insult into a compliment to Gareth’s sense of justice. The adventure ended happily, with three of her sons all getting married at once.

Meanwhile, Morgan’s one woman war on Arthur continued undaunted. She started running with a girl gang of fellow queens, including the Queen of Northgalis, the queen of Eastland and the queen of the Out Isles. I swear, I am NOT making this up. They captured Sir Lancelot while he was out questing and tried to make him choose a lover from among them, but he held true to Guinevere and was rescued by another independently-minded handmaiden, the daughter of King Bagdemagus, who is not named by Malory but who Howard Pyle calls Elouise. Morgan preferred to work with women (she was later reputed to have a spy network of up to thirty women across the kingdom) but was prone to overestimating her influence on them.

One woman Morgan was completely disinterested in bonding with was Guinevere, who she appeared to view as nothing more than a weak spot in Arthur’s defences. She knew – well, everybody knew – that Guinevere and Lancelot were lovers, and came up with increasingly ingenious ways to try and drum home the message to Arthur. She sent a horn that could not be drunk from by an unfaithful lady, only for it to be waylaid and given to King Mark of Cornwall’s court instead; she depicted a king and queen on a shield with a knight above them both, imagining the symbolism to be obvious, only for Arthur to dismiss it entirely. He was too familiar with his sister’s traitorous habits to take her word for anything.

Morgan also captured Arthur’s knights whenever she could. One of her female spies tried to talk Sir Tristram and Gawain into an ambush. Though Gawain revealed her as one of his aunt’s servants, Tristram wanted the fight anyway, but (recognising a bull-headed hero when she saw  one) Morgan refuses to send out her knights. She later managed to imprison Tristram and made  him carry the suggestive shield in return for his freedom. That was not enough for her lover at the time, Sir Hemison, who chased after Tristram against Morgan’s advice and was killed in the ensuing fight.

Morgause, meanwhile, was thoroughly enjoying her widowhood with Lamorak. He was a contemporary of her sons, so presumably a couple of decades or so younger than herself, and who was the kind of fiery type who picked fights with anybody who implied Guinevere might be more beautiful than his own regal silver vixen of a girlfriend. He also beat a whole gang of Morgan’s knights to work off some steam. The sex was canonically excellent.

Unfortunately, Morgause’s sons were not on board with her having an active love life. Gawain resented Arthur’s fondness for Lamorak, seeing him only as the man whose father murdered his own, and taking Lamorak as a lover ‘shamed’ Morgause in Gawain’s eyes. All his brothers, apart from possibly Gareth, took the same view. Having intercepted a message that named the time and place for a rendevous, Gaheris stormed in on the lovers and cut off his own mother’s head. Covered in the blood of the woman he loved, Lamorak screamed that he would rather have died in her place, but he was unarmed and could not fight back. Gaheris’ twisted sense of honour would not allow him to kill a naked man and so he let Lamorak go, but the enmity between him and the Orkney brothers was bitter after that and Lamorak was eventually killed by Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Mordred acting as a mob. The only one who refused to be involved was Gareth.

It was a terrible end for a remarkable woman.

Both Arthur and Lancelot were horrified at Morgause’s death and Gaheris was banished from court. The narrative being what it is, Morgan’s reaction is not recorded, but her enmity with Arthur seemed to taper off after that. She went into small-scale acts of evil sorcery with the Queen of Northgalis as her partner. For instance, she allowed King Mark to talk her into using her sorceress connections to find an enemy of his…only to turn around and heal the young knight in question, swearing him to her service. She kept him at the castle of La Beale Regard. The castle’s true heiress soon showed up, brought the knight over to her side, then had the castle razed to the ground, once again proving that Morgan needed to stop underestimating other women.

It was possibly with that in mind that Morgan and the Queen of Northgalis cursed Elaine of Corbin, called the fairest lady in the land, leaving her to boil alive without ever dying until the best knight in the world came to rescue her. It’s a brutal act of spite. Of course, this could also have been an indirect attack on Arthur, as Lancelot’s rape by Elaine ends up triggering great turmoil at court, but predicting all of that might be beyond even Morgan’s talent for scheming.

In any case, Arthur’s court crumbled on its own, first losing many knights to the hopeless quest for the Sangreal before being shaken apart at the foundations when Mordred revealed Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair beyond any chance at denial. It was Mordred who took over the kingdom; it was he who led the final battle against Arthur and struck the blow that would kill him, even as he himself lay dying.

Arthur sent Bedivere, the sole knight remaining at his side, to throw Excalibur into the nearby waters. To Bedivere’s amazement, a hand rose to catch the blade. By the time he carried Arthur down to the water, a barge had arrived at the bank. Nimue was aboard it, and three queens: the Queen of the Waste Lands, the Queen of Northgalis and the Queen of Gore. Arthur laid his head in the lap of his sister and Morgan asked, gently, “Ah dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me?” They disappeared together, across the water to Avalon. Neither were ever seen again.

Morgause and Morgan were ruthless women, in their different ways – Morgause being the pragmatic one, willing to overlook the blood on the hands of the men in her life if she got what she wanted out of it, while Morgan pursued power with a single-minded force of will and fierce cunning. What is so glorious about Malory’s women is that they are, above all other things, people. Their motivations may be obscure, but they are their own selves, making decisions in their own interests. They are not shadowy seductresses stalking the edges of Arthur’s court; these women are queens, and the daughters of a queen. Their lives might be tragedies, but they lived them proudly – the political matriarch and the warrior witch. They are not interchangeable at 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: Atalanta

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, 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, A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton

Miss February is Atalanta, a Greek huntress with very terrible luck but a very interesting life. The identities of her parents vary from one iteration of the legend to another – one version has her as the child of Iasus and Clymene, while another names King Schoenus of Boeotia – but regardless of who he really was, her father was a man who wanted a son so badly that when he got a daughter instead, he ordered that she be abandoned on a hillside to die. But Atalanta did not die. She was instead mothered by a bear, who fed and protected her, and was later taken in by a clan of hunters, who taught her all their skill. She molded herself after the tradition of Artemis, goddess of the hunt: beautiful, virginal and tough as nails.

Artemis was also, like nearly everyone in the Pantheon, very easy to offend. When King Oenus of Calydon forgot to make a sacrifice to her in his annual acknowledgement of the gods (an oversight dobbed in by her fellow god Helius) the indignant goddess sent a gigantic boar to ravage the countryside in his kingdom. Oenus sent out a call for the greatest hunters in Greece to kill the monster. Among those who answered was Atalanta. Though some of the other hunters objected to the presence of a woman in their line-up, Oenus’ son Meleager declared that either she competed alongside them or they could all go home. So Atalanta stayed.

Before you go getting the wrong impression, this was not the act of an egalitarian prince who believed in gender equality. Meleager had a crush on Atalanta that was so obvious his uncles immediately started doomsaying over it. This was fair enough – not only was Meleager already married, he was sort of cursed as well. Oenus was the father he had grown up with, but by birth Meleager was the son of the war god Ares. When he was born, the three Fates came to his mother Althaia to prophesise what his life would be. Clotho, spinner of mortal life, predicted he would grow to be a brave man; Lachesis, weaver of life, declared he would become a hero; but Atropos, cutter of life, pointed out a log on the fire, warning that Meleager would live only as long as it took the wood to burn to ash. Althaia immediately snatched the log from the fireplace and hid it away. So Meleager grew up, unaware that his life was literally in his mother’s hands.

During the boar-hunt, Atalanta separated herself from the other hunters. Two centaurs, Hylaeus and Rhaeccus, saw her and decided she would be easy prey. Their mistake. Atalanta calmly shot both her would-be rapists dead and went off to join Meleager. When the boar charged into the trap set for it, all went to chaos as the hunters’ over-confidence and just plain misfortune added up to a scene of carnage. Atalanta managed to land an arrow behind the beast’s ear; Meleager followed her up with a spear to its heart, and presented the dead boar’s pelt to Atalanta in honour of her drawing first blood. It was a well-chosen gift for a girl like that, but riled up his mother’s brothers some more, who thought he ought to have gifted it to them instead, based on social precedence. Meleager expressed his frustration with their attitudes by killing them both.

This, understandably, did not please Althaia, or for that matter her two remaining brothers, who attacked Meleager’s city. His wife Cleopatra managed to talk her husband into taking up arms, even though Althaia had cursed him to be defenceless in this war. When he killed the last two of his uncles, Althaia burned the log and Meleager was struck by a sudden savage pain. He died, just as the Fates said he would. Althaia and Cleopatra both committed suicide and Artemis concluded her revenge by turning nearly all of Meleager’s sisters into guinea-hens.

The outcome of the hunt on Atalanta’s side was an entirely unwanted reunion with her father, whose first words to the daughter he discarded were “My child, prepare to take a husband!” Atalanta had more reasoning behind her choice of a chaste lifestyle than a disinterest in domestic life. She was warned against marriage by the Delphic Oracle. She chose a very pointed way of refusing her father’s plans for her life: any suitor contending for her hand would have to compete against her in a foot race. If the suitor won, Atalanta would marry him. If the suitor lost, she would shoot him.

Here’s the thing. Atalanta was really good at running.

She kept to her word – any suitor who could not match her, and none could, lost his life – but that didn’t stop the queue of candidates. Eventually her cousin Melanion (or in some versions, a man called Hippomanes) tried his luck. Before the race, he prayed for help from the goddess of love and Aphrodite favoured him (mostly out of pure annoyance at Atalanta’s stubborn refusal to fall in love) with a gift of three golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, instructing Melanion to let them fall during the race.

Atalanta mocked the apples when she saw them, but when he dropped them she could not help being distracted by their beauty and stopped to pick them up. It took all three apples, one dropped right up against the finishing line, for Melanion to outrace her. He definitely cheated. Atalanta married him anyway and for a time it seems that they were happy together. Later, though, while out hunting, they passed a temple – sacred to Zeus in some versions, in others to Cybele – and Melanion persuaded Atalanta to have sex with him inside it. Of course, this brought on divine fury and the lovers were transformed into lions. In Cybele’s version, she compounds the curse with the indignity of using the couple to pull her chariot. Aphrodite’s hand may have been involved in the fulfillment of the prophecy – she’s a goddess who likes her thank-yous to be fulsome, and Melanion was a little too absorbed in a success that wasn’t actually his own.

There are other legends in which Atalanta bore a son, Parthenopaeus, to either Meleager or Ares, and left the boy on the same hillside where she herself was abandoned. Like his mother, Pathenopaeus survived and went on to make a name for himself as a warrior.

Atalanta’s story is a tragedy, in the sense there is not a happy ending. But I’m not sure that, for a woman as fierce and independent as Atalanta, becoming a lioness would be such a dreadful fate. Whether her body was flesh or fur, she’d always be a hunter.

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: Cerridwen

Resources: The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, The Fairy Bible (Godsfield Press, 2008) by Teresa Moorey, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creirwy

Welcome back to Ladies of Legend, a blog series exploring the identities of mythic women. Kicking off 2017 is Cerridwen (also spelled Caridwen or Keridwen), a Welsh goddess of the Underworld turned Arthurian-era witch.

She’s described as dark-haired and stocky with pale skin and black eyes. Legend has it that she lived in a mansion in the middle of Lake Tegid in Penllyn, Wales, with her husband Tegid Voel and their three children. The eldest son, Morvran, went on to be an advisor at King Arthur’s court; the middle child, Creirwy, grew into a reknown beauty; but the third child, Avagddu, worried Cerridwen immensely. He was apparently ‘the ugliest man in the world’, which is a subjective title if ever I heard one and also a really bad basis for judging a person’s future prospects. Some versions of the legend have the brothers as one and the same person, just to add to the general confusion in the family.

Anyway, Cerridwen was afraid that her son’s looks would preclude him from success at court, so she decided to gift him with such overwhelming intelligence that he would leave everyone who met him in awe. To this end she searched through her spellbooks and began work on a potion called Greal, to bestow inspiration and knowledge on its drinker.

It was a fiendishly difficult concoction to make. For one thing, it would have to be kept boiling for a year and a day exactly. Cerridwen’s time was much too valuable to slave over a potion for that long so she brought in a blind man called Morda to tend the fire and kidnapped a child called Gwion Bach to stir the cauldron. That left Cerridwen with the task of collecting all the (many) necessary herbs. These were not ingredients that you could stock up on in advance, oh no, this was the recipe from your worst nightmare. Everything had to be harvested under the correct astrological influence. No wonder there were not magically-imbued geniuses wandering all over the place.

One day while Cerridwen was out and Gwion was stirring the potion, three scalding drops spat out and landed on his hand. He instinctively sucked his burned finger and therefore accidentally imbibed the inspiration and knowledge intended for Avagddu. Spell complete, the cauldron cracked in half and the now-poisonous potion spilled into the nearby river, ending the lives of a lot of innocent horses.

Gwion was gifted with a flash of blinding insight, but it really shouldn’t have taken a magic potion to realise that Cerridwen would be really, really pissed off at him. Sensibly, he fled. Cerridwen took her rage out on poor Morda first, whacking him hard enough to pop out one of his eyes, but she quickly accepted that it was all Gwion’s fault and went after him instead. Having been granted a brand new skill set of sorcerous powers by his taste of the potion, Gwion tried to escape by changing his shape. First he became a hare, then a trout, then a bird – but Cerridwen was quick to follow as a bigger, fiercer predator. In desperation, Gwion became a grain of wheat amidst many other grains of wheat, clearly hoping for a ‘needle in a haystack’ situation. No such luck. Cerridwen turned herself into a hen and ate him up.

That was not the end of it. Cerridwen fell pregnant and in time Gwion was reborn as the beautiful, golden-haired Taliesin. Her original intention was to kill him, thereby reclaiming the potion, but once the baby was born Cerridwen could not bring herself to go through with it. She just…wrapped him in leather and threw him into the sea instead. Which is totally not the same thing as trying to kill him! Being a hero of legend, he of course survived, was taken in at the court of King Gwyddno Garanhir, and became a very famous bard.

I cannot, in any of the sources I have read, find out what happened to Cerridwen after Taliesin’s birth; the legend switches allegiances to him and leaves her in shadow. Cerridwen is associated with the sow (there being a longstanding Celtic tradition of pigs symbolising the Otherworld) and is said to travel on the back of a giant crow. Some sources parallel her to the Irish fire goddess Brighid (later Christianised as Saint Brigit) who is the patroness of poets, but she’s also compared to the Roman harvest goddess Ceres, which casts Creirwy as ‘the British Proserpine’. For all that, though, Cerridwen is still a woman – a witch, sorceress, goddess – of the Underworld. Her daughter must come by a little darkness naturally.

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: Maid Marian

References: “Robin Hood”, Fact or Fiction (Channel 4, originally aired 18/10/2003), Robin Hood and His Merry Men (Ward, Lock & Co., Ltd, publication date unknown) by E. Charles Vivian, Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (Dean & Son Ltd., publication date unknown) by author unknown, http://www.boldoutlaw.com

Maid Marian is not the hero of this story. She didn’t even appear in it at the start – Little John has a longer history in the ballads about Robin Hood than she does – and her role varies from one version to another. I’m going to start with a pair of storybooks, to show how different her narrative can be depending on who is telling it.

Version A is from Robin Hood and His Merry Men. In this one, Maid Marian is a young heiress, the daughter of the Norman knight Sir Richard of Lea. She is described as being ‘slim and fair…with great blue eyes and hair of gold’. When her mother dies, Sir Richard decides to channel his grief into (period appropriate xenophobia) patriotism by joining King Richard the Lionheart on Crusade. To finance his journey and thus speed up his departure, Sir Richard borrows five hundred marks from Hugo de Rainault, the very wealthy abbot of the Abbey of St. Mary’s, at a rate of fifty marks interest per annum and with his manor house staked as surety. He also leaves Marian under Abbot Hugo’s guardianship.

Sir Richard promptly dies at sea.

Except, not really – he survives the shipwreck and washes ashore near home, where he is found and taken to the abbey. Hugo sees an opportunity to loan out his cake and eat it too. His local ally is the notorious baron Isambart de Belame, a man so hated by the local people that his castle is known as ‘Evil Hold’ and who is perfectly happy to throw the dazed, wounded Sir Richard into his dungeons, to be kept a prisoner until the four years of the loan have expired and Hugo can legally claim the manor. Richard has no idea where he is, only ever seeing Isambart’s friend Roger the Cruel.

Meanwhile, Marian is placed with the Abbess at Kirklees. Hugo intends to make a nun of her, thereby getting the rest of her inheritance for the church (read here: himself). Unfortunately for him, his habit of taking other people’s land has finally backfired. Robin of Locksley, a Saxon freeman with a defiantly philanthropic bent, flouted the game laws that declare all deer the property of the king – not by killing the beast himself, but by defending the starving serf who did it – and Hugo’s enthusiastic enforcer Guy of Gisborne seized the excuse to crack down on him. Robin turned outlaw.

The thing is, he’s really, really good at it and gains followers fast. The road through Sherwood Forest, which is the main route into Nottingham, is no longer safe, so Hugo has to strike a deal with Isambart for a squad of men to go clear Robin’s gang out of the forest. What Isambart, already once widowed, wants in return is a wife and Hugo concedes to his demand for Marian’s hand in marriage. Marian herself, still under Hugo’s guardianship, does not get a say; if she did, it would be a definite no.

Isambart sends his men, but it doesn’t do the least bit of good against Robin, who is a master strategist at guerilla warfare. Hugo tries to renege on his deal but can’t afford to make an enemy of Isambart and reluctantly dispatches the eternally incompetent Gisborne to go fetch Marian from Kirklees. Of course, they have to travel through Sherwood. Robin is fiercely indignant on Marian’s behalf, despite her being a total stranger to him, when his spies tell him who she is expected to marry, and he ambushes the party on their way through the forest.

Gisborne is more than willing to abandon his charge to the outlaws. Disgusted, Robin packs him off with his men, before turning to the problem of what to do with Marian now. She points out that if she goes back to Kirklees, Hugo will just figure out another way to send her to the man she describes as ‘the fiend who rules Evil Hold’. Having taken a strong fancy to Robin – well, he did just rescue her, plus he effortlessly bested Guy of Gisborne in a showy sword duel, he’s made a pretty good first impression – she asks to remain in Sherwood and pay for the shelter when she comes into her inheritance. Her skills with medicine will be put at the outlaws’ disposal and she offers to cook and sew for them as well. Little John immediately takes her side, pointing out that Will Scarlett’s wife already lives in the camp.

Robin, as taken with Marian as she is with him, proposes to make her Queen of Sherwood, and they are married by Friar Tuck. Marian never does end up doing any of the cooking, Tuck handles that himself, but she is an instant hit with the outlaws. Robin later helps another woman out of an unwanted wedding, barging into the church where Eleanor of Warsop is about to be married off to the elderly (but very wealthy) Sir Ralph. Robin pushes aside her bridegroom, her father and the priest so that he can personally give her away to Alan of Meden Dale, the sweetheart of her choice. The young couple become frequent visitors to Sherwood.

Another friend of Robin’s, Will Scarlett, is captured by Isambart. Disguised, Robin tricks his way into Evil Hold and distracts Isambart’s knights with weaponised beehives – I did say he’s really, really good at this – while he breaks open the dungeons. Among the escaping prisoners is Sir Richard at Lea, who politely and very formally thanks Robin for deliverance and helps him get Will to safety.

Robin is shocked to learn he just rescued his father-in-law. Marian is overjoyed and though he has doubts about Robin’s side of the law, Sir Richard is too grateful to make an issue of it.

Being something of a local hero, Robin follows up the attack on Evil Hold by going to the aid of a Saxon nobleman under threat from pirates. While Robin is away, however, Isambart strikes. Another escaped prisoner turns traitor against the outlaws, leading Isambart’s men to the forest camp. It is burned to the ground and Marian is brought back to Evil Hold, where Isambart tries to compel her into signing away her lands to him. Marian, however, is made of stern stuff. Tied to a chair, captive to the man who made her believe her father was dead, she refuses to give up her inheritance.

Robin is quick to come after her. Accompanied by a mystery knight in black, who insists on helping out, Robin uses the keys he stole to slip in a back entrance. He frees Marian and sends her across the moat to safety while the battle rages. The knight in black – who is none other than King Richard in disguise – kills Isambart in a duel and Robin, implacable in his fury, burns the place to the ground. An eye for an eye.

He then turns his attention to Abbot Hugo. Sir Richard at Lea goes to the abbey to plead for more time to repay his loan, but he has the money – Robin is a generous friend – and it’s entirely a charade to prove to King Richard (once again disguised) how bad the situation is. Abbot Hugo is put on notice. Sir Richard reclaims his lands. Robin, pouncing on Hugo as he travels through Sherwood, reclaims his money, plus some nice fabric that he thinks Marian will like.

Though Robin is pardoned by King Richard and made warden of Sherwood, the change of status doesn’t last long. The king leaves the country and the Sheriff of Nottingham, who is Hugo’s brother, gets Prince John’s permission to declare the whole band outlawed again. Bitterness builds and builds until it all comes to a head in a vicious run of confrontations that leaves both the Sheriff and Gisborne dead at Robin’s hand and Abbot Hugo too frightened to keep up the feud.

But Isambart’s crony Roger the Cruel survived the fall of Evil Hold and he never lets go of the grudge. Many years pass. Roger is an old man when he finally comes to Abbot Hugo with a plan. Masquerading as a peasant, he talks a trusted pedlar into taking him to the camp, intending to return with armed men – but Marian sees him, and recognises him. When she starts to cry out a warning, Roger stabs her.

Her scream brings Robin to her side. He shoots down Roger and takes Marian in his arms, though they both know there’s nothing he can do. She’s quite peaceful, telling Robin that there is no better way to die than ‘in the heart of the greenwood with [his] arms round her, and the evening light fading’.

The outlaws never recover from the loss of their queen. Robin can’t bear to go on living the same way without her; he settles each of his people with the wealth they’ve accumulated and travels aimlessly about the country with Little John, reminiscing on good times past. When Robin falls ill, he goes to Kirklees Abbey, where the Abbess Elizabeth is his aunt and he thinks he will be safe. He is not. Hugo has got to her; under the pretence of healing, she bleeds Robin to death.

Little John realises what she’s doing too late to save Robin’s life. Towards the end, Robin dreams of Marian and asks for his bow, shooting an arrow through the window and asking to be buried where it lands. Marian’s name is his last word.

Version B is from Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and introduces Marian earlier in the story, meeting Robin while they are still children. She is not Sir Richard of Lea’s daughter in this one; she is Robin’s cousin Will’s cousin – presumably not on the same side of the family as Robin – and comes to stay with them at Gamwell Hall. She likes to play with the boys, proving to be a good archer herself. They remain good friends even as Robin’s confrontational personality earns him the enmity of the Sheriff of Nottingham. He has to take to the forest, where he rapidly gathers a circle of friends and insists on them all wearing poncy green uniforms.

Not that he has a monopoly on resisting authority. There’s a battle at Gamwell Hall when the squire is accused of shooting the king’s deer and the people there put up a fight against the Sheriff’s men. Marian’s father is staying at the Hall at the time and is killed. Squire Gamwell manages to keep his lands and adopts Marian, but that safety is only temporary. The next time Squire Gamwell is attacked, he is killed too, and Guy of Gisborne claims the hall. To Robin’s alarm, Marian vanishes entirely and when he goes to confront Gisborne, she’s nowhere to be found. He’s terrified that she died in the attack.

Fortunately, she was away with Will Gamwell, visiting relatives. Upon their return, they quickly see how bad things are and take refuge with Robin. He’s delighted and relieved to see them, and when he sees how happy Marian is in Sherwood, he asks her to marry him. Their wedding is rudely interrupted by the Sheriff’s men, who are quickly repelled by Robin’s outlaws.

Robin continues to antagonise the Sheriff, more for fun than anything else. He wins a silver arrow at the Sheriff’s shooting contest, eluding the trap set for him, and gives the prize to Marian as a gift. He also intervenes when Marian learns from Alan-a-Dale that Lady Ellen is going to be married against her will and Marian gets really indignant on Ellen’s behalf.

When doing random acts of social justice gets a little old, Robin and Marian take a trip to the seaside, where Robin’s cover as a fisherman gets called by their elderly hostess. She needs someone to stand up to the fishermen crewing her dead husband’s boat, who cheat her of her rightful share in the catch. Robin is terrible at fishing but good at fighting pirates and bestows half the booty of his victory on the old lady. Marian finds these antics rather amusing.

King Richard also finds him amusing, and admirable enough to pardon and take into his service. Patriot that he is, Robin is happy to go, but court life proves toxic and on a visit to Sherwood his men ‘kidnap’ him so that he need not go back. He and Marian live long and happily in the forest, until he decides – please note, he decides – that she should go into a nunnery, because she’s getting too old to live this way. He stays in Sherwood. At last he calls Little John and they set off for Kirke Hall Priory to see her. It’s too late; saddened to be away from the greenwood, she died three months after her arrival. Robin dies there of old age, in Marian’s former room.

Of course, this kind of legend has countless variations. Sometimes Marian is the daughter of Lord Fitzwalter, other times she is the ward of the Sheriff of Nottingham or Prince John. Some stories have her as Norman while in others she is Saxon. One ballad introduces her as Robin’s sweetheart who dresses as a boy to come into the forest and find him. Both disguised, they don’t recognise each other and engage in a sword fight so fierce that Robin, acknowledging her as his equal, calls for peace between them and asks her to join his band. She knows him by his voice and kisses him delightedly. They feast together to celebrate and she becomes as trusted a lieutenant to him as Little John.

The earliest ballads of Robin Hood don’t actually come from Nottingham, but from Barnsdale in Yorkshire. In those stories the famous outlaw is a violent and unpredictable yeoman instead of a rebellious, idealistic nobleman. Among the variety of historical candidates that exist for a real-life Robin Hood, there’s a 14th century forester called Robert Hood from Wakefield who was married to a woman named Matilda. She joined him in the forest when he was outlawed. Many stories of Robin Hood have him betrayed by an aunt or a female cousin – Matilda’s cousin Elizabeth de Stanton was prioress of Kirklees in 1346.

Whoever really inspired the character of Marian, if in fact it was just one woman, she has gained a foothold that is no longer easy to dismiss in this very masculine legend. While her place in it varies from one version to another, and her relationship with Robin ranges from chastely long-distance to a full partner in crime, she is always – in spirit, if not in name – the Queen of Sherwood.

This is the last Lady for 2016 but I’ll be returning next year with more remarkable women of myth and legend!

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: Pandora and Psyche

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, The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes From Around the World (Kingfisher, 1998) ed. Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherine Headlam, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Hedone.html

Trigger warnings: dubious sexual consent, attempted suicide

The first thing you need to understand for any of the following information to make sense is that gods and goddesses are usually, not to put too fine a point on it, mean. The Greek Pantheon are no exception. They do what they want and if there is even a rumour that someone is better at anything than they are – better at weaving, at music, at winning the subjective mess that is popular beauty standards – they will come and make their competitor’s life absolute hell. Because they CAN. They also have a petty point-scoring system among themselves that leads to vicious pranking; for instance, that little business of the war on Troy.

The Pantheon are a younger generation of gods, preceded by the Titans, and the two battled it out for who would rule. Zeus, the leader of the Pantheon, came out on top and settled in by demanding animal sacrifices from humanity as a part of their worship. The Titan Prometheus was tasked with cutting up the first sacrifice so that Zeus could decide which bits he wanted, and was so artful in his arrangement of the dismembered animal that Zeus ended up picking the bones and the humans were left with all the edible pieces. Zeus retaliated by outlawing fire on Earth. Prometheus, ever the rebel, stole fire right out of Mount Olympus and returned it to humanity, spreading it so far and wide that nobody would be able to take it away again.

Zeus took a subtler approach on his next attack. He had his son Hephaestus, god of smithing, create the shape of a beautiful woman – one source says of clay, another of metal. Zeus then brought her to life. She was a blank canvas for the other gods to bestow traits upon, including beauty, grace, intelligence and persuasiveness, cunning, deceit and a powerful sense of curiosity. In other words, a multi-faceted human. She was named Pandora (in another version, Anesidora) and sent down to earth to be the bride of Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother. She brought with her a container – a box or a jar locked up with a key that was placed into Pandora’s keeping. The gods told her that if she was to live happily, she should never open the box.

Prometheus, sensibly, did not trust anyone who had Zeus pulling their strings, but Epimetheus had been given this beautiful woman as a gift (as a thing, not a person) and he decided to keep her as his wife. There are shades of Blodeuwedd in this. By all accounts, the couple were happy at first, but there was that box in their house. Pandora could not stop thinking about it. She thought it was unjust of the gods to give her something they didn’t want her to use (well, she wasn’t wrong) and eventually gave in to her curiosity, opening it up to see what lay inside.

There’s some disagreement on what exactly that was. One version has it that she was right, the box was full of wonderful gifts that escaped the second the lid went up and were therefore lost; the better known story is that the diseases and disasters of the world spilled out and were anything but lost, spreading to the far corners of the world like a vicious mirror of Prometheus’s gift. Only one good thing was in Pandora’s box: hope. That, she kept.

She had one child, a daughter called Pyrrha. When Zeus decided he no longer liked this miserable world that he’d brought about and sent a flood to wash the slate clean, Pyrrha and her husband (also cousin, being the son of Prometheus) Deucalion were among the few to survive. One story has it that Zeus was impressed by their goodness and spared them; another has it that Prometheus warned Deucalion in time, which I personally find more credible. Pyrrha helped repopulate the world by transforming stones into women, but she also had six blood children of her own and one of her daughters was given Pandora’s name.

Zeus is touchy about sacrifices. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is touchy on the subject of beauty. When a doting mother was unwise enough to remark aloud that her youngest daughter was more beautiful than Aphrodite, the goddess’s followers turned around and started worshipping the human princess Psyche instead and Aphrodite was livid. She sent her son Eros to take revenge on her behalf by piercing the girl with a divine arrow that would cause her to fall in love with a terrible candidate and make a disastrous marriage. Eros screwed it up by getting distracted by Psyche’s lovely face and literally shot himself in the foot, falling desperately in love with the girl his mother wanted him to destroy. If you can call that experience love, which I feel very dubious about.

Psyche did not even want to be worshipped. It was weird, and uncomfortable, and really lonely. Her two older sisters married and left her behind, as Psyche was so high on the general population’s mental pedestal that nobody dared try for her hand. Her anxious father consulted the oracle of Apollo on where to find Psyche a husband and was told to take her to the top of a steep mountain, where she would be claimed as the bride of a monster so terrifying that even Zeus would fear him.

NEVER CONSULT AN ORACLE. They are the actual worst.

Instead of just letting their daughter live the single life for the rest of her days, Psyche’s parents escorted her to the mountain in tears, fully expecting to never see her again. She was left alone with her terror. Instead of a monster, however, she was caught up by a gentle wind which carried her to the foot of the mountain and into a palatial house. It was beautiful but empty. Disembodied voices and hands tended to her needs, bringing food and playing music. Thoroughly bewildered, she went to sleep, having seen no trace of the prophesied monster.

She was woken in the middle of the night by someone – or something – climbing into her bed. That is straight up nightmare material right there, and it was pitch black, she couldn’t see a thing. Her ‘husband’ (please note, Psyche had not agreed to any part of this arrangement) did not say who he was or why she was there. Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies discreetly skims over the details, but it’s very clear what happened: they had sex in a situation where consent was seriously compromised and the stranger left before it got light.

The first night set a pattern. The owner of the beautiful house came to her each night in darkness and never let her see his face. At length they had an actual conversation, with him informing her that her sisters were scaling the mountain to seek her out. Can I just pause there for a moment to acknowledge how brave those women were? They thought their sister had married a monster. They didn’t know if she was even still alive, but they were willing to risk their lives to find out. Psyche’s husband did not want her to let them in but of course she did, asking the obliging wind to carry them safely to the palace. Here, sexism takes over the narrative. We’re expected to believe that the devoted sisters who dropped everything to find Psyche switched over into rabid jealousy as soon as they saw her jewels and lovely clothes. Apparently wanting to know what kind of a man their little sister had married, and being appalled when she couldn’t tell them because she didn’t know, is unreasonable.

They pointed out that she was prophesied to marry a terrible monster, could she really be sure she hadn’t? Who else would refuse to let his own wife see his face? Upon hearing that Psyche had fallen pregnant, they warned her that her monster-husband probably wanted to eat her and the baby at the same time, and told her she should kill him. Convinced by their arguments, Psyche concealed a lamp and a knife in her room. That night, once her husband had fallen asleep, she lit the lamp and saw him for the first time.

It was, of course, Eros. Aphrodite’s son had the form of a beautiful youth and even in bed, kept his bow and arrows close by. As Psyche held the lamp over him, marvelling, she scratched herself on one of the arrows and doomed herself to eternal insta-love. She leaned in to kiss him. The lamp tipped, dripping burning oil on Eros’s bare shoulder, and he flew (literally flew) from the room in a panic. Psyche clung on to him as long as she could, before she lost her grip and tumbled to the ground.

Eros went home to his mother. He knew she would be outraged that he’d decided to sleep with Psyche instead of obeying Aphrodite’s orders to ruin her life (though…you know, her life with him wasn’t great. There’s an argument about semantics to be made there) but apparently a drop of hot oil was too much for his immortal body to handle and he needed his mother to heal him. Psyche was left alone on the mountainside with the crashing weight of realisation that Aphrodite herself would soon descend in a maternal rage. Psyche decided to skip to the finish line and tried to drown herself in a river, but the river god recognised her as the bride of Eros and wouldn’t let her die. She then prayed to the goddesses Hera and Demeter for help. Neither was willing to offend Aphrodite for Psyche’s sake.

Aphrodite duly arrived and started flogging Psyche for the crime of not implicitly trusting her extremely untrustworthy son. But where’s the fun in sticking to physical pain when you can throw in some psychological torture too? She decided to set Psyche tasks that were impossible for a mortal to achieve, then use the failures as an excuse to beat her again. That’s Aphrodite for you.

For the first task, she mixed together grains, beans and seeds and scattered them on the hearth of Aphrodite’s own palace. If Psyche could not separate them all by nightfall, she would be whipped. Psyche tried, but knew she would fail and started to cry. Fortunately for her, an ant noticed her distress and rallied an army of tiny helpers to aid Eros’s bride. When Aphrodite returned, the task was done.

Not that it stopped her coming up with a new one just as difficult – the next day Psyche was sent to take a handful of golden wool from a flock of sharp-horned, poison-toothed sheep. Hovering on the edge of their meadow, Psyche was warned by a nearby reed (yes, an actual reed) that the gold fleece grew burning hot under the sun and riled up the sheep into a ferocious temper. If she went to them after dark, and gathered the wool from thorns and briars instead of the sheep themselves, she would complete the task unharmed.

Psyche followed that advice. Aphrodite was furious. She ordered Psyche to go to the Styx, the river of the dead, and bring back water from its source – not just that, but water taken from the middle of the river, meaning Psyche would have to wade in. Psyche reconsidered plan A, suicide, which would be a lot easier in this particular locale. As she ran towards the dragons that guarded the river, however, Zeus (in the body of an eagle at the time) spied her and flew down to help, having received Eros’s support in an awkward love affair. He filled the jug for her, so that she could return with it to Aphrodite.

Who sent her straight back to the Underworld, to call upon its queen and ask for some of her beauty. It was against all the rules for a mortal to go into the realm of Hades and Persephone and come back alive, but when a despairing Psyche climbed to the top of a tower, planning to jump and just end all of this misery once and for all, the tower itself spoke up to protect her. If she took two barley cakes and two coins, she could bribe both the ferryman Charon and the three-headed dog Cerberus to let her in. She also had to ignore all pleas for help, refuse any food or drink except for bread and water, and sit upon the ground even if she was offered a throne.

Psyche followed these instructions. Aphrodite sent phantoms to beg her for help, hoping to make Psyche drop the barley cakes, but she ignored them and reached Persephone, who gave her the box without complaint. I’d love to know what Persephone actually thought about this situation and whether she was secretly rooting for Psyche to win or just hoping that Aphrodite would stop complaining if she helped out this one time.

The last test was of Psyche’s will. She had been warned not to open the box, but longed for a god-like beauty to win back Eros and gave into temptation. The box, however, did not contain beauty. It was all a scheme between goddesses. Psyche breathed in a rush of air from the underworld and collapsed, dying.

While she was suffering through Aphrodite’s tasks, Eros was recovering from the burn. Finally fully healed, he came for her just in time, carrying her to Mount Olympus where Zeus gave her ambrosia – the food of immortality. It made Psyche the goddess of the soul and gave her the wings of a butterfly. When her daughter Hedone was born, she too was a goddess, joining the family business as the representative of sensual pleasures.

Male rule-breakers get to be tricksters and heroes. The thieving and deceit of Prometheus helped humanity survive, and his eventual imprisonment and torture only made him a more beloved figure. When the women of mythology break the rules, though, they might not even get the agency of being wicked – they’re just foolish girls who should have known better. The message is very clear: take what you’re given with grace or it will be taken away, ask no questions, expect nothing better than obedience. Even modern books of mythology perpetuate this idea. The truth is, these women were set up very deliberately to fail. Why give a gift, then forbid the receiver to touch it? How can you ask a girl to trust you when you won’t even show her your face?

But Pandora and Psyche are not foolish, or failures. They are survivors of cautionary tales meant to crush female curiosity.

If you want to live outside the box, you have to open it first.

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: Ragnell and Lyonet

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, 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 Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle: Introduction (from Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, 1995, taken from the University of Rochester website) by Thomas Hahn, http://www.sfsu.edu/~medieval/romances/wedding_rev.html, http://www.eleusinianm.co.uk/middle-english-literature-retold-in-modern-english/breton-lais/sir-launfal, Bulfinch’s Mythology (Gramercy Books, 2003) by Thomas Bulfinch, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin

When I was growing up, I read two books that introduced me to a pair of remarkable women at King Arthur’s court, and I’ve never forgotten them. The first was a picture book called Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady (Walker Books Ltd., 1987) by Selina Hastings, vividly illustrated by Juan Wijngaard. The second is The deeds of the nameless knight (Ladybird Books Ltd., 1977) by Desmond Dunkerley and illustrated by Robert Ayton. There is a certain undeniable romance to the imagery of a knight in shining armour, but up close and personal it can be quite a lot more complicated, and these stories are about women who knew that better than anyone.

The ‘loathly lady’ is a folkloric archetype present in several Arthurian stories, but it takes centre stage in a ballad called ‘The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell’ (also spelled Ragnelle) that survived to the present day in a 16th century manuscript. In this ballad, King Arthur goes out into Inglewood to hunt with his knights but leaves them behind in the pursuit of a fine hart. He succeeds in catching and killing it, only to be caught and threatened with death himself by the vengeful Sir Gromer-Somer Joure, whose lands were given over to Arthur’s nephew Gawain in what admittedly does sound a lot like nepotism. Unarmed, Arthur tries to negotiate with promises of redress, but Gromer-Somer Joure instead sets him a challenge. Arthur must return to Inglewood in twelve months time with the answer to a riddle: what do women everywhere love best? If Arthur has no solution, he will lose his head.

Gromer-Somer Joure is obviously one of those men who believes women possess a hive-mind. His plan hinges upon Arthur’s cast-iron sense of chivalry; once the challenge is accepted, the king can’t simply show up for the meeting with an ambush of knights to ensure it goes his way. He returns to his court at Carlisle in such a low mood that Gawain insists on knowing what is troubling him. He takes an optimistic view of the bargain Arthur has made. At his suggestion, the two men ride off in different directions to try out the riddle on everyone they meet, and compare notes afterwards. Some people think that what women want most is beautiful clothes, while others claim it is courtship or affection, but Arthur is not satisfied with those answers. He decides to return to Inglewood, in the hope of finding some clue.

I don’t know what he was hoping to find, but what he gets is a woman on a white horse, who gives every appearance of having been waiting for him.

According to the translation of the ballad from Medieval Forum (a translation which is taken from Middle English Romances, edited by Stephen H. A. Shepherd) the lady’s face is “red and covered with snot, her mouth huge, and all her teeth yellow, hanging over her lips. Her bleary eyes were greater than a ball, and her cheeks were as broad as women’s hips. She had a hump on her back, her neck was long and thick, and her hair clotted into a heap. She was made like a barrel, with shoulders a yard wide and hanging breasts that were large enough to be a horse’s load. No tongue can tell of the foulness and ugliness of that lady.” Later she is described as having “two teeth on each side like boar tusks the span of a hand: one went up, the other down. Her wide, foul mouth was covered with grey hairs and her lips lay lumped on her chin; no neck could be seen.”

She may not have beauty, but she has plenty of confidence. She offers Arthur the answer to his riddle in return for the promise that Sir Gawain will be her husband. “I am not wicked!” she assures Arthur, but he is deeply unhappy about the whole business and can make no guarantee beyond appealing to his nephew – and while he trusts Gawain will want to help him, he does not want to foist so unappealing a bride on him. “Sir King,” the woman responds, “though I am foul, even an owl may choose its mate. I’ll say no more. I will meet you here when you have made your decision, or else I believe you are lost.”

Farewell, lady foul,” Arthur says bitterly as he turns for Carlisle. “Yes, sir,” she retorts, “there is a bird men call an owl, yet I am a lady.” In medieval bestiaries, the owl is the harbinger of death, making this statement less than comforting. She tells him that her name is Dame Ragnell, ‘who has never yet beguiled man’, a statement I shall assume indicates virginity, though it could also be another attempt at reassurance regarding her motives.

If so, it doesn’t help. Arthur returns to Carlisle feeling trapped and borderline suicidal, but when he tells Gawain of the offer, Gawain replies at once that he would wed Ragnell were she ‘a fiend, or as foul as Beelzebub’ in order to save his king. Arthur goes back to Inglewood less than a week later to accept Ragnell’s terms, with phrasing that emphasises the sexual coercion she has demanded (‘you shall have your desire in the bedchamber and in bed’). It’s a reasonable view to take – Gawain’s consent comes under significant duress, after all – but Ragnell is a woman of her word.

Sir, you will now know, without digression, what women of all degrees want most,” she tells Arthur. “Some men say we desire to be beautiful and that we want to consort with diverse strange men; also we love lust in bed and often wish to wed. Thus men misunderstand women. Another idea they have is that we want to be seen as young and fresh, not old, and that women can be won through flattery and clever ploys. In truth, you act foolishly. The one thing that we desire of men above all else is to have complete sovereignty, so that all is ours. We use our skill to gain mastery over the most fierce, victorious and manly of knights. So go on your way and tell this to the knight, who will be angry and curse the one who taught it to you, for his labour is lost. I assure you that your life is now safe, and remember your promise.”

Arthur goes to meet Sir Gromer, but instead of giving Ragnell’s answer right away, he hands over the massive accumulation of answers collected from around the countryside. If the right one is in there somewhere, Gawain need not marry Ragnell. This hope is in vain. Gromer reaches for his sword and Arthur, despairing, hurls out his last shot. “Here is what all women desire above all things of men…sovereignty, the rule of the manliest men. Then they are happy (so they have taught me) – to rule you, Sir Gromer.”

Burn. Which is literally how Gromer responds. “I hope that she who told you burns in a fire, the old nag,” he snarls, “for she was my sister, Dame Ragnell.” His own rules leave him no choice but to let Arthur go. The king meets Ragnell on his return journey and she reminds him of the marriage he promised her. No small wedding will do, either, and she’s not letting him out of her sight until the vows have been spoken. She enters the court at his side, insisting Gawain be brought to her at once.

The couple are soon betrothed. Looking on, the king and queen and all their court tactlessly bemoan Gawain’s fate. Guinevere tries to talk Ragnell into a quiet, early morning ceremony but Ragnell is set on marrying in the church before everybody and celebrating with a court feast, and her crimson wedding clothes are even finer than the queen’s. She also insists that all the ladies of the surrounding country attend the ceremony. Afterwards, she is seated at the high table and eats enough for six people, using her long nails to tear apart the food. Everyone is shocked at her uncouth manners, but she ploughs on calmly until the end of the meal, when she retires with her new husband to their bedchamber.

Gawain has his back to her when she speaks to him directly for the first time in the ballad. “Since we are married, show me your courtesy in bed,” she says. “…If I were beautiful, you would do differently…But for Arthur’s sake, kiss me at least. I pray you honour my request; show me how you can do.”

He turns around, determined to fulfill his vows, and finds a beautiful woman he doesn’t even recognise sitting on the bed. She lightly mocks his confusion; it is, of course, Ragnell. In this form he kisses her with enthusiasm, but she soon interrupts. “Sir, you must make a choice, as my beauty will not last. You may have me fair at night and foul at day in everyone’s sight, or fair during the day and foul at night. You must choose one or the other; which would you prefer to save your honor?”

Gawain is torn. Unable to decide which course would be best, he leaves it up to her. “Whatever you wish, I put it in your hand,” he tells her. “My body and goods, heart and every part of me is all your own to buy and sell, I vow before God.”

That is the right answer – a) because it’s not his body to make decisions about, and b) because it is the solution to Ragnell’s curse. She was enchanted by her necromancer stepmother to remain hideous until the best knight in England not only married her, but gave her rule over him. Which sounds pretty kinky, actually, especially when they spend the rest of the night ‘mak[ing] much joy’ (a.k.a., having excellent sex) and stay in bed until midday. By that point, Arthur grows concerned enough to come check on them. He fears that Ragnell has devoured his nephew; then Gawain opens the door to reveal Ragnell in her nightdress, red-gold hair falling down to her knees. “This is my wife, Dame Ragnell,” Gawain says smugly, “who once saved your life.” He tells her story, and interestingly it is Guinevere’s relief that is highlighted.

The wedding is celebrated all over again with considerably more gusto. Now that Ragnell has a pretty face, her deeds look good too. Guinevere declares her the most beautiful woman in the hall (a sentiment agreed upon by the queen’s ladies) and swears to love her forever for saving Arthur’s life. Ragnell sweetly promises her obedience to Gawain. As they’ve now promised obedience to each other, I’m not entirely sure how any disagreement in their marriage is going to get resolved, but they make it work. She gives birth to a boy, Gyngolyn, who later becomes a knight of the Round Table like his father, and becomes a fixture at court. Gawain is so besotted he gives up jousting to spend more time with her. Ragnell also convinces Arthur to reconcile with her brother, presumably returning Gromer’s lands.

Sadly, Ragnell lives only five years into her marriage. It’s unclear what she dies of, other than a narrative dead-end. She does not appear in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, though her brother and son both do. Howard Pyle’s adaptation of this story lets her live, but turns Gromer-Somer Joure into a sorcerer acting out of pure spite and Ragnell into a nameless Lady of the Lake, from the same faerie otherworld as Nimue. This version of Ragnell saw Gawain once upon a time and cooked up a plan to compel him into marriage. In this version, the ugliness is a disguise to test Gawain’s strength of character. Without the need to break a curse, her behaviour is alarmingly manipulative and her character a lot less likeable.

Gawain has four brothers, according to Le Morte d’Arthur. The youngest is Gareth. When it is his turn to go to Arthur’s court, he shows up unarmed where the court is in residence at Kynke Kenadonne, with a dwarf in his service and the bold request of three favours from the king without introducing himself or giving Arthur any reason to indulge him. Fortunately, Gareth is a) adorable, and b) good at timing, because Arthur considers no Pentecost feast complete without something strange and wonderful occurring, and Gareth’s demand for a year’s lodging at court fits the bill. Arthur agrees to give Gareth his way and leaves his seneschal Kay to handle the details.

Kay does not approve of Gareth. He sees him as a freeloader and nicknames him ‘Beaumains’, meaning ‘fair-hands’. Gawain doesn’t recognise his brother (exactly how long has it been since the last family reunion?) but takes Gareth’s side anyway. So does Lancelot, because his role in Le Morte d’Arthur is to be everybody’s big brother whether he’s related to them or not. Gareth refuses to accept more than Kay will grant him, however; he sleeps on the floor with the kitchen boys and bides his time.

He accompanies Arthur’s court to Carlion. At the feast of Whitsuntide, a young woman enters the great hall with a challenge for the knights: her sister’s castle is under siege from the Red Knight of the Red Lands and she is in desperate need of a champion. As the woman will give neither her name nor the name of her sister, she gets little interest from the court. Gareth is indignant on her behalf and comes forward to claim the quest. That counts as his second favour from Arthur. His third favour is asking for Lancelot to knight him. Realising she’s getting a kitchen boy when she needs a hero, the young woman storms out. Gareth puts on his own armour and follows her.

Kay follows him, as outraged as the lady, though with significantly pettier cause. He plans to teach Gareth a lesson by unhorsing him. Lancelot, who joins the veritable procession wending its way out of Carlion, watches as Gareth unhorses Kay, takes his shield and spear, and gives over Kay’s horse to the dwarf who accompanies him. Gareth even manages to hold his own against Lancelot in a subsequent joust, well enough that Lancelot would have to exert himself properly in order to win, which he is not willing to do. Assured that his identity will remain a secret, Gareth reveals his real name to Lancelot and is knighted by him.

That doesn’t impress the lady whose quest he has taken. She insults him thoroughly, but he follows her anyway. Gareth’s family is full of very persistent people and he is no exception. He comes upon a knight besieged by six thieves, all of whom Gareth overpowers; the grateful knight invites them to stay the night in his castle and the lady insults her unwanted champion again by refusing to sit beside him. Gareth fights again when challenged by two violent knights at a river crossing, a victory the lady ingeniously passes off as luck. It’s rather harder to ignore Gareth’s skill when he kills Sir Percard of the Black Lands and claims his armour, but the lady can certainly disapprove of his actions. And loudly express her utter exasperation that this boy will not go away.

This is adventurous country, ruled by another large family of brothers. Gareth’s next opponent is Sir Pertolepe of the Green Lands, and Gareth only spares his life when the lady very grudgingly asks for his mercy. In an astonishing display of ‘no hard feelings!’, the defeated knight puts them up for the evening and once again the lady will not sit with Gareth. She warns him that they are soon to travel through the Pass Perilous and he should turn back while he still can. He politely refuses. Gareth is always scrupulously polite with her, and she is always abominably rude. This hot temper leads Malory to call her ‘the savage damsel’.

They come to a tower owned by Sir Perimones, yet another brother of the Black Knight. The lady hopes that this time Gareth will be defeated, but no such luck. She’s once again obliged to ask mercy on behalf of his opponent and makes up for her disappointment by redoubling her efforts to take the gold medal of bad manners off Sir Kay. She leads the way to the city of, yep, ANOTHER BROTHER, this family is vast, where she pokes at Gareth with doubts about his strength. He remains courteous and calm. Suddenly, the lady’s vicious bravado crumbles. She apologises for her jibes. Gareth tells her “all your evil words pleased me”, like the beautifully trained prince that he is.

I shipped these two so hard when I first encountered this story, you have no idea. Alfred Tennyson did too, in his poem Gareth and Lynette.

Gareth fights Sir Persant on general principle. It takes him a little longer to get the upper hand but he wins this battle too and the lady asks for Persant’s life without nudging. Progress! Like the other brothers, Persant offers hospitality in defeat. He also sends his eighteen-year-old daughter to Gareth’s bed to see what kind of a man he’s dealing with, which is just hideously creepy. Gareth wakes up in confusion, asking for his unexpected visitor’s name and marital status. Learning that she did not come to him of her own free will, he is appalled at her father’s behaviour, kisses her kindly and sends her away.

It turns out that Persant, terrible parenting aside, is at least better acquainted with the local nobility than his brothers. He knows the lady travelling with Gareth – her name is Linet, and her sister is Lady Liones of the Castle Dangerous. I’m going to use the alternative spellings of their names, Lyonet and Lyonesse. They have a brother called Gringamore who will not appear until later, and a niece called Laurel who is presumably his daughter. Just so you know, I shall be calling this the Dangerous family, because they kind of are.

Persant is aware that the Castle Dangerous has been under attack for two years, a siege deliberately extended so that the Red Knight can draw in more knights to humiliate and destroy, but is unwilling to extend any help himself. Gareth is horrified to discover the bodies of the Red Knight’s defeated opponents hung in the trees around Lyonesse’s castle, a goad and a warning to all newcomers. Not to mention a reminder to the besieged citizens of exactly how much peril they are in. He proves once more that he is a goddamn prince by sending his servant to alert Lyonesse to the arrival of a new champion and she sends the travellers to a nearby hermitage where they can rest in safety.

Lyonet warns Gareth not to enter into a fight until noon, as the Red Knight only gets stronger over the course of the day. It’s an interestingly similar gift to Gareth’s brother Gawain, who grows stronger through a specific set of hours during the morning. Unafraid, Gareth insists on fighting anyway.

Lyonet points out her sister standing at a window in the castle and even at that distance Gareth is struck by Lyonesse’s beauty. The Red Knight takes objection to his staring, claiming Lyonesse as his lady; Gareth sharply points out that Lyonesse obviously disagrees. The ensuing battle is brutal. It goes on all day, stretching out beyond the point of exhaustion. Gareth takes strength from Lyonesse’s beauty, but it’s Lyonet’s well-timed jab of loud mockery that gives him the energy to win the battle.

Of course, the Red Knight immediately produces a sob story about a girl he once loved whose brother was killed by Gawain or Lancelot (he doesn’t even know which one) and he insists this siege was all about getting revenge for her. Gareth places the decision about his fate in Lyonesse’s hands. The Red Knight, whose real name is Sir Ironside, is permitted to keep his life, but ordered to make amends and to beg forgiveness from the knights he wanted to harm.

With the siege finally ended, Lyonet tends Gareth’s injuries and even Ironside’s, which is very generous of her under the circumstances. Once he’s been cleaned up, Gareth goes to speak to Lyonesse, but she has pulled up her drawbridge. Every bit as prickly as her sister, she will not have him as her own until he’s spent a year proving himself to be a great knight. Hurt and confused, Gareth takes shelter in a cottage in the woods – but worse is still to come. I did say these siblings were Dangerous. Lyonesse sends her brother to kidnap Gareth’s servant so that they can question him and ascertain Gareth’s identity. The servant doesn’t go quietly, waking Gareth, who pursues Gringamore to his castle but not in time to pursue him inside.

The servant is menaced by the Dangerous sisters. He tells them everything they want to know about Gareth’s heritage, and also warns them that Gareth won’t leave until he’s been rescued. Lyonesse instructs her brother to let Gareth in, to placate him with feasting and revelry. Gringamore is supportive of his sister’s love life and happy to let her play out her weird games, including a brief attempt at pretending she’s somebody else. That plan doesn’t even last until the end of the evening; after spending a bit of time with Gareth, Lyonesse realises that he’s a delight and they are betrothed on the spot.

She promises to come to his bed later on, and Lyonet’s sense of propriety is offended. She employs ‘subtle crafts’ – a phrase that here evidently means serious sorcery – to conjure a mannikin knight, sending it to interrupt her sister’s rendevous by stabbing Gareth in the leg. He beheads the knight but passes out from loss of blood. Gringamore is shocked by the incident; Lyonet calmly puts her creature back together and shows no remorse whatsoever. The same thing happens the next time Lyonesse attempts to sleep with her fiance, causing Gareth to reopen the original wound.

Meanwhile, all Gareth’s defeated opponents have shown up at Arthur’s court to swear their loyalty, causing quite a stir. An even bigger stir is raised when Gareth’s mother arrives to find out how her youngest boy is doing. On finding out that her eldest son didn’t recognise his little brother, and that Arthur let Gareth go haring off on a ridiculous quest with a girl who wouldn’t give her name, Morgause is righteously furious. Then she hears Kay’s nickname for Gareth and remarks crisply that her son is ‘fair-handed’ – meaning just and good-hearted – indeed. It’s very awkward for pretty much everyone who is not Morgause.

Arthur does know who the women involved in this quest are now, thanks to the parade of defeated knights. He sends for Lyonesse. Her response is to invite him and his court to a grand tournament at the Castle Dangerous. She provides no explanation for anything at all. Gareth is wild to compete and prove himself. Lyonet displays her unusual skill set once again by healing him with a highly effective salve, and as entrants begin to stream into the Dangerous lands, Lyonesse prepares him for battle.

She owns a ring with two remarkable properties: it can disguise the wearer, and ensures they will lose no blood. I don’t know what use Malory imagined a wealthy lady would have for such a ring, but it sounds like an excellent contraceptive device, and though she’s willing to loan it to her lover for the duration of the tournament, she wants it back afterwards.

Lancelot is among the arriving competitors. Magic ring notwithstanding, he recognises the boy he knighted and chooses not to joust with him, so as not to risk humiliating him in front of his lady. Gareth’s servant is less discreet. Wanting Gareth’s skill to be acknowledged by the rest of the tournament, he suggests Lyonesse’s ring be returned and Gareth hands it over, unthinking. Everyone can now see him as he is. Gareth handles this very maturely by going to hide in the forest.

He’s too tired to make it back to the castle and so takes shelter at the home of a duchess. She lets him in out of loyalty to King Arthur, though her husband does not share the sentiment. Among a number of adventures the next day, including the rescue of no less than thirty widows from a villainous Brown Knight, Gareth encounters and defeats the duke, sending him in penance to Arthur.

Straight afterwards another knight rides up to challenge Gareth. They fight with a surprising amount of ferocity for two people who have literally no idea who each other are. At last Lyonet rides up to them on a mule and orders the fight to a halt; the unknown knight is Gawain. Why is he riding around the countryside, picking fights with random people? Because he’s Gawain, and he is like that. Most of Arthur’s knights are, actually. The two brothers embrace and Lyonet patches Gareth up yet again. Just in time too, because Arthur and Morgause arrive on the scene next. Lyonet leaves them all to have a family reunion while she goes off to update her sister.

Hearing that Gareth wants to marry Lyonesse, Arthur offers his castle at Kynke Kenadonne to host the wedding. The Dangerous sisters are introduced to Gareth’s brothers and apparently Lyonet hits it off well enough with Gaheris that she marries him on Michaelmas Day, the same day Lyonesse marries Gareth. Another of Morgause’s sons, Agravaine, marries Lyonet’s niece Laurel. The only one of Morgause’s sons left unmarried by the end of the day is Mordred.

All the knights Gareth defeated show up at the wedding to offer their well-wishes and a tournament is held to celebrate, but Lyonesse doesn’t want her new husband jousting so she has Arthur disallow all married men from competing.

Ragnell, Lyonet and Lyonesse are all forceful, confident women who have an absolute certainty that they will get what they want. They are not always kind, but they are protective wives and true allies to those who earn their loyalty. It is a delight to me that they all become sisters-in-law, and I am convinced they would be very good friends.

Other wives and girlfriends of the Round Table include:

– Enid, the daughter of Earl Ynywl of Cardiff and wife of Sir Geraint. Her story comes from the Mabinogeon. Geraint pursued a knight who had insulted one of Guinevere’s ladies, and in defeating him, managed to restore the lost fortune of Enid’s father. Geraint took her to the court of King Arthur, where Guinevere welcomed her with open arms, dressed her in her own clothes and generally behaved like Enid was her long lost little sister. When Geraint was obliged to leave court to attend his father’s lands, Guinevere worried over what entourage to send with her favourite. By this point Geraint had made quite a name for himself both in battle and tournaments, and as he grew comfortable in his position, he spent much more time with his wife.

This inspired scorn from his court – shock! horror! A manly man choosing to spend time with his wife, whatever next! – and upon hearing the rumours as an accusation from her father-in-law, Enid wondered what she was supposed to do about it. Geraint heard her voice these concerns aloud and misinterpreted her anxiety as evidence of infidelity. He then dragged her off on a ridiculous quest along the most dangerous roads in his lands, forbidding her to speak to him and risking her actual life in confrontations with armed robbers, two lecherous earls and marauding giants. Enid was an obedient, peaceable woman, but quietly ignored her husband’s extraordinarily unreasonable requirements to save his life over and over again until finally it dawned on him that she was actually brilliant, not to mention obviously faithful, and they went home.

– Guimier, the daughter of the King of Cornwall, sister to Sir Cador and wife to her brother’s best friend, Sir Caradoc. Caradoc’s sorcerous father Eliaures cursed him by affixing an enchanted snake to his arm, the creature sucking his life away until he was down to skin and bone. As his betrothed, Guimier came to tend him, but the only way to heal Caradoc was to risk her own life: she had to lure the snake with the promise of her own fresher blood and hope that her brother killed it before it reached her. Fortunately, he did.

A ballad called ‘The Boy and the Mantle’ shows a glimpse at her married life, when a malicious young boy came to test the virtue of the ladies at Arthur’s court with a magical mantle that only the ‘purest’ of women could safely wear. This, incidentally, was not a ballad written by someone who liked Guinevere. Guimier was safe because her only ‘sin’ was to kiss Caradoc (in the ballad, spelled Cradock) once before they were married, so the mantle fit.

Tryamour, a faerie princess who married Arthur’s steward, Sir Launfal. This story is the fourteenth century English adaptation of an earlier Breton poem, and it takes a very dim view indeed of Guinevere. She’s said to have a string of lovers straight after her marriage to Arthur, and deliberately slighted Launfal for no apparent reason. Launfal left court to see to his father’s funeral and decided to just stay away, since the atmosphere was so poisonous, but quickly burned through his disposable funds and fell into poverty. A kind female friend lent him a horse, allowing him to retreat for a while into the woods. There he met the blonde, grey-eyed, exceptionally beautiful Dame Tryamour in her rich, ‘eastern’ style pavilion. She greeted him half-naked on a bed, called him her darling, and he fell for her on the spot.

Aware of his difficult straits, she offered him wealth and success in return for a vow of fidelity and his promise that he would not boast about her to anyone. She even gave him her horse Blaunchard, her servant Gyffre, and her standard of three ermines. Launfal happily accepted. They spent the night having great sex and Tryamour assured him that she would come to him whenever he was alone.

He was generous with his newfound fortune, and a tournament was held in his honour, allowing him to display his skill. With the aid of Gyffre and Blaunchard, he defeated even the vicious Sir Valentine. Hearing of Launfal’s impressive deeds, Arthur called him back to court. Being in possession of only the vaguest character and no consistency within this story, Guinevere attempted to seduce him. Launfal was goaded into referencing the superior beauty of his lover; in revenge, Guinevere claimed to Arthur that he tried to seduce her. Launfal defended himself well enough on that charge, but Arthur demanded he produce the beautiful lover of his boast or be executed. His promise having been broken, Launfal’s gifts had all vanished, but Tryamour came to save him regardless. She breathed into Guinevere’s face, blinding her, and took Launfal away with her to live on the island of Olyroun – better known as Avalon.

Maledisant, a character from Le Morte d’Arthur whose story bears a strong resemblance to that of Lyonet: she came to court carrying a large black shield and a sword, seeking a knight to bear them in her service. Breunor le Noire, nicknamed ‘La Cote Male Taile’ by Kay for his ill-fitting coat, had just earned his place among Arthur’s knights by saving Guinevere from an unexpected lion. When Maledisant disdainfully rejected Kay’s offer of help (which he immediately pretended he didn’t give), Breunor insisted on taking the shield and refused to be put off by her sarcastic remarks about his appearance. He spent half the quest getting defeated by Arthur’s more experienced knights and getting mocked by Maledisant, and then Sir Mordred joined them just to make the situation even more uncomfortable.

They stopped at the Castle Orgulous, where both knights were overcome by superior force and Breunor was shown to safety by a sympathetic lady. Maledisant, assuming him to be dead, called him ‘my foolish knight’ and when he caught up with her and Mordred, she wouldn’t immediately believe that he fought in the castle at all. He proved that he did, and she sulked. Lancelot, hearing of Maledisant’s challenge at court, did his big brother thing again by going after Breunor to be sure he was all right. Mordred quickly departed. Lancelot soon left on his own business as well; Breunor and Maledisant continued on to the Castle Pendragon, where they were captured. Lancelot came back to rescue them because he is pretty much the perfect human. With his victory, he freed thirty knights and forty ladies being held prisoner; even the defeated lord of the castle, Sir Brian, felt less bad about being beaten when he found out his opponent was Lancelot and Maledisant apologised for insulting Arthur’s greatest knight. She even toned down her criticism of Breunor for his sake, and Lancelot nicknamed her the damsel ‘Bienpensant’, meaning ‘right-thinking’ (but also ‘conformist’).

Coming to the border with the land of Surluse, Breunor finally got his chance to shine, defeating Sir Plaine de Force and Sir Plaine de Amours before collapsing in front of their brother Sir Plenorious, who generously conceded that Breunor was already wounded and took him inside his castle to recover. Lancelot overcame Plenorious to soothe Breunor’s pride and defeated three more brothers in the family to boot. He then tried to give the land he won to Breunor, but Breunor would not take it, so Lancelot organised for him to have Castle Pendragon instead. At the next Pentecost feast, both Breunor and Plenorious were made knights of the Round Table and Breunor married Maledisant, who was henceforth known as Beauvivante.

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!