How we explain misogyny in fiction: Malory’s Morte Darthur and Game of Thrones

I spent this past weekend at the Romance in Medieval Britain conference in Bristol, which was one of the nicest conferences I’ve ever attended. We listened to a lot of serious academic papers. But we also did the less serious stuff, including an obligatory moan about the number of mind-numbingly bad articles that seek to validate Game of Thrones with spurious parallels to medieval England*.

George R. R. Martin in happier times. From Robert de Boron's prose Merlin.

George R. R. Martin in happier times. From Robert de Boron’s prose Merlin.

I have been struggling with this issue. I enjoy GoT. I don’t enjoy the standard terminology for explaining away the misogynistic dodgy bits. ‘Sexposition’ casts the nastiest scenes as  mere narrative devices (albeit an unpleasant ones). The term takes agency out of the picture. We’re supposed to place the messy situation where we sympathise with characters whom we know to be propping up Westeros’s thriving brothel culture beyond the reach of analysis. That’s comfortable, but it’s also reductive and silencing.

Yet, an increasing number of people who seem to feel that it’s terribly important to explain away the misogyny in a rigorous, real-world way. The most inane arguments are a straight draw between ‘well, it was all, like, violent and nasty in history too ….’ or ‘but they’re Strong Women so it’s less upsetting seeing them raped/murdered/treated like objects‘.

I’m never quite sure how to respond to this last one, except to gawp a little bit at the levels of (unintentional, I am aware) offensiveness in that argument. What bothers me about these articles isn’t that they’re dubious history or dodgy feminism (though they’re often both), but that they’re trying so hard to insist that we need to be educated in the real, concrete, intellectual arguments in favour of GoT. If you don’t get it, well, you’re just less subtle, less sophisticated.

The parallels between GoT and medieval romance are actually pretty striking, much more so than between the TV show and the Wars of the Roses. We have an icestuous brother and sister … their murderous, throne-stealing offspring … dead warriors who come eerily back to life**… a lot of in-fighting between rival kings … prominent bastard children … lots of men called Sir this and that who carry complicated pictorial banners … oh, and dragons. Yep, full house. And that’s just Malory’s Morte Darthur.

Morally ambiguous and Not Dead Yet: that's pretty much King Arthur.

Morally ambiguous and Not Dead Yet: that’s pretty much King Arthur.

The Morte, if you don’t know it, is a long, rambling, chaotic series of Arthurian stories, mostly translated and partly composed by a prisoner of war at the end of the fifteenth century, and printed by Caxton a little later. The story, like Game of Thrones, starts out looking like traditional fantasy epic: lots of complicated family trees and awkward exposition dialogue, a rape presented as sex, and set-piece battles I skip over feeling vaguely guilty. It veers towards Raymond E. Feist on a bad day.

But, much like GoT, it does get better.  Malory has a thing for delivering revelations with a casual, heartless speed that somehow underlines their poignancy. There’s a scene where Balin, the hero of the early part of the story (spoiler: he dies. Everybody dies) runs through a castle fighting his enemy King Pellam. As he lands a blow on the king, the castle collapses around them and they lie crushed in the rubble for three days:

“And then came Merlin there, and took up Balin, and gave him a good horse, for his own was dead, and told him to ride out of that country. ‘I would have my damosel,’ said Balin. ‘Look,’ said Merlin, ‘where she lieth dead’.” 

'Lo here she lieth dead': Philippa Chaucer's tomb effigy (from Jonathan Hsy's site) http://home.gwu.edu/~jhsy/chaucer-ppp-pch.html)

‘Look where she lieth dead.’ The woman in this effigy is actually Philippa Chaucer, and the picture is from Jonathan Hsy’s information-packed site on Chaucer, Gower, and late-medieval literature.

It’s at this point that Balin finds out that his sword blow has not only wounded his enemy and caused the castle to fall, but has also reverberated through the surrounding country, killing the people, and ultimately setting in motion the search for the Holy Grail, which carried the blood of Christ, to heal the striken king again.

Angel bearing the Grail before the king. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Fr. 1453, f. 283.

Angel bearing the Grail before the king. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS Fr. 1453, f. 283.

This is all beautifully written – and you really need to read it or buy the audio tape (there is one), because it’s great. But you notice that the woman, Balin’s lover, is just so much collateral damage, killed horribly as a result of something even Balin did not intend to set in motion. It doesn’t stop there: Malory’s Guinevere is morally ambiguous at best, and narrowly escapes being burnt alive only to die almost forgotten in a nunnery. Her opposite number (think Caitlyn Stark to Guinevere’s Cersei Lannister … ish …) is Elaine, who acts out every misogynist twit’s favourite cautionary tale that never, ever happened.

Attitudes towards sexual violence in the Morte are, again, disturbingly close to what we see in Game of Thrones. Malory makes rape an essential element of his fiction, which you can’t avoid any more than the ‘sexposition’ of the TV show. For example, there’s the giant rapist of Mont St Michel, who serves as an example of brute force against whom Arthur can show off his strength, landing a blow that “swappis his genytrottys in sondir” (cleaves his genitals apart) and disembowels him. The word ‘genytrottys’ is picked out in gory red on the page, the colour usually reserved for proper names. But Malory doesn’t leave this as a simple issue: rape is a fact of life in the Morte, responsible for the conceptions of both Arthur and (arguably) Lancelot’s son Galahad. The moral status of rapists is ambiguous, and the grey area around the act itself is about a mile wide. 

Now, some would argue this is just a failure to understand historical context. In medieval England, the meanings of the word ‘rape’ include abduction, and even, it’s been suggested, the abduction of a perfectly willing woman against the will of her male relatives. Both Malory and Chaucer were accused of this crime in real life, which makes their prominent stories of Arthurian rape more than a little bit difficult – triggering, even – for students to talk about in class.

This is something that was never acknowledged when I was studying these texts for the first time. In fact, to my shame, I only really thought about how to make it an explicit issue in my teaching when I was preparing for next term’s workshop on tragedy, and came across Liz Gloyn’s insightful post. She writes about how she deals with teaching rape narratives in Classical Literature to classes which, as she points out, are statistically almost certain to contain rape survivors. This made me realize that, while most books I read on Malory and rape are quick to point out the historical differences that allow us to avoid the uncomfortable thought that this author might have been a rapist in the modern sense, they seldom dwell on the other side of the issue. We are in exactly the same situation as modern media, quick to pre-empt the tide (yes, this is sarcasm) of false rape allegations but slow to acknowledge the commonness of the crime.

There’s a worrying situation where people who feel uncomfortable with certain texts or certain authors don’t speak up for fear of sounding like philistines. I’d like to think that most people who write about the sexism in GoT, and most people who work on historical fictions of sexual violence, are aware that these fictional texts can be triggering. But it’s not the fiction that needs explaining away, with neat terms like ‘sexposition’ or with the claim that it’s really a history lesson. What we need to tackle are the expectations around the fiction, that stress historical ‘reality’ or ‘authenticity’ but fall silent before acknowledging the reality of readers’ experiences that form a less comfortable context.

Notes

* Yes, I do know that’s what George R. R. Martin says. No, I don’t think that makes him right.

** Ok, I admit: I’m thinking of Malory’s Sir Colgrevaunce of Gore, and we’ve never been sure if he’s actually dead, or just a continuity error. But I’m sure there are zombies kicking around somewhere, too.