Female characters in the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood

In this post you will learn about the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood, two British heroes accompanied by two important female characters.

THE LEGEND OF KING ARTHUR

The legends associated with King Arthur and his  court of Camelot have delighted generations of readers. The tales of King Arthur, from the early middle ages to the present, in folktale, literature, and films, have revealed the interests and values of different social groups through history.

The development of the Arthurian tales is traced from its obscure origins in Celtic Britain, to the romances of the High Middle Ages, to significant works of the later middle ages (Malory), and finally to modern versions of the Arthurian tales in popular literature and films. We will be interested especially in viewing the women’s roles in Arthurian tales assigned by the different communities that produced them.

The most well known woman in the Legend of Arthur is Guinevere, Arthur’s Queen, who is said to have caused the downfall of Camelot. Another is Morgan le Fay, his half sister.

His mother, the often-overlooked Ygraine, appears briefly at the beginning, her only part is to give birth to Arthur. There are also mystical women, such as the Lady of the Lake.

But when the feats are recounted and the stories retold, what do we say of the women in this story? The portrayals of these women tell us much more about the attitude of the storytellers than about the women themselves.

The traditional treatment of women in the Arthurian saga has not been very positive. Guinevere was an adulteress, Morgan Le Fay was a witch, Morgause was an incestuous schemer, and the Lady of the Lake was the leader of a terrible, backward pagan religion. This is, of course, the treatment that has been handed down to us from the medieval writers as a morality play.

But if we go back to the historical writers–the writers who were treating Arthur as a historical character, not a target for pious retribution or moral sermonizing; He was a great warrior and won many great victories. He was a great king who had a great queen, and they both ruled a great kingdom. We find that women do, more or less, have quite an important role to play in the overall health and well-being of Arthur the King.

Why do the women come off so bad in medieval stories? What happened to make the writers change their image of people who were so vital to the story? The same writers who were reading the Bible and discovering that Eve was responsible for all the world’s problems probably thought that they should blame Guinevere for all of Arthur’s problems. Why did Arthur have a bastard son in the first place? Because the scheming Morgause tricked him into it. Why did Morgan Le Fay hate Arthur so? Because she was jealous of the magic wielded by Merlin, Arthur’s advisor. Why was the Lady of the Lake suddenly to be reviled, not revered? Because she was the head of a religion that medieval writers didn’t understand or want to understand.

Activity 1: Analyze the role of  Arthurian women in the Arthurian tales  you know.

  1. What books or films do you know about the legend of King Arthur?
  2. From those books and films, what is the image you have about the main  female characters related to King Arthur?
  3. Would you blame women for Arthur’s troubles or do you think they have an important role  in the story?
  4. If you want to role-play in Arthur’s world, would you choose a female or a male character? Why?
  5. Would a female writer change the understanding of the Arthurian legend? How?
  6. How would a female point of view change your perception of women’s roles in the making and telling of history?

 THE LEGEND OF ROBIN HOOD

Everyone loves Robin Hood and the idea of Robin Hood. He’s easily the most recognizable figure on the planet. There only a few other such universally-recognized characters: Superman, Mickey Mouse. Robin Hood is popular in many forms. There have been dozens of films made since like 1910.

Robin is an egalitarian. Whether he was born of peasant or noble stock makes no difference. Robin treats everyone the same, high and low, as an equal. He’s a thorn in the king’s side because he not only steals the king’s deer and robs his officials, but because he speaks to the king as an equal. Robin even has a woman in his band. Maid Marian is one of the first strong female characters in English literature, riding and shooting and fighting alongside the best of English warriors.

There’s an old saying that behind every great man is a great woman. Meet Maid Marian. She is Robin Hood’s true love and truly a great woman. Local legend says Robin and Marian were married in St. Mary’s church in the village of Edwinstowe.

Marian’s a late-comer to the legend, and she doesn’t appear in many of the traditional ballads. No matter. She has become a very important part of the legend.

Sometimes she’s a Norman noblewoman, daughter of Lord Fitzwalter or Sir Richard at the Lee, a knight who was helped by Robin Hood. She meets Robin when he ambushes a group of Norman knights. However, in other stories, she’s a Saxon who’s known Robin since they were children. Other times she is the ward of the sheriff or Prince John. And her unwanted suitors include the sheriff, Guy of Gisborne and even Prince John. Our hero will have to rescue her from these men. There are times when Maid Marian is merely the hero’s girlfriend. In some tales the happy couple refuse to marry until the Merry Men are pardoned, hence she is called “Maid Marian”.

But Marian is not always a weak character in need of rescuing. Even cloistered away in Nottingham, she acts as a spy, passing information to the rogues in Sherwood. The sheriff only suspects her ties to Robin Hood. And in a time when women were forced into unwanted marriages, Marian chose to love Robin. She’ll also speak her mind. And in many stories, she’s an even stronger character. Sometimes she lives as an outlaw with Robin and is as good an archer and swordsman as he is. In these stories, she’s usually just called Marion or Marian. The maid part of her name is dropped, or she is called Lady Marion instead.

Sadly, some writers at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century weakened Marian. She gets one tiny mention in a classic children’s book. In another book, her fight with Robin ends when she sees blood and faints. Yet another says Robin overcame her easily.

Recent writers have restored Marian to her rightful place in the band. Sometimes she is even the brains behind the Merry Men. In one novel, it’s Marian disguised as Robin Hood who shoots in the famous archery contest for the golden arrow.

Don’t underestimate Maid Marian!

Activity 2: Answer these questions.

  1. What is the image you have about Lady Marian? What are the sources of this image?
  2. What is so extraordinary about the new Marian in the latest film compared to other medieval women, or to other versions in previous films?

 ANALIZING FILM POSTERS

You see film posters everywhere … in the lobby of your local cinema, in magazines, on the Internet, and even on the sides of buses and bus stops. But how much can a poster tell you about the film?

It’s important to remember that film posters are advertisements. The poster may have the film title in a big and bold font. Images of the film’s attractive actors are usually featured. In addition, the actors’ names are probably included somewhere on the poster to remind you that the film has big-name stars. Designs, colours, and fonts are used to appropriately reflect the mood and tone of the film. And the poster probably includes a catchy sentence or slogan that piques your interest and makes the plot seem intriguing.The visual elements on a film poster can convey powerful messages.

Now’s your chance to analyze some film posters about the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood. Write a comparative analysis of the posters, viewing specially the female characters shown on the posters. Refer to the questions for discussion on the following page as you write your analysis.

        

Questions for discussion:

  1. What text is shown on the poster? Is there a catchy slogan? If so, what does it tell you about the story?
  2. What are the characters shown? What do their appearances and expressions convey?
  3. What is the design of the film poster? Does it accurately reflect the moodand tone of the film?  Pay attention to the colour scheme. Pay attention to the colour scheme. Harsh or intense colorus tend to represent a moody or intense film, while comedies and light action films will have brighter, more upbeat colours.
  4. What other images are included? What do you notice about the framing of the images?
  5. Is there any other important information included on the poster?
  6. Share your analysis with your classmates comparing the different portraits of female characters in the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood.

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