When he glanced up again, he noticed at her side a much older lady, as warty and wrinkled as the ugliest toad that ever lived. A strange pair, Gawain thought: one a wretched old hag with an evil eye, a hairy chin and a warty nose, the other a paragon of beauty with a face like an angel. But I must not let my mind think on her any further. You’re in a chapel, Gawain, and she’s another man’s wife.*
It’s been fifteen years since I read anything about King Arthur and his knights of the round table. Still, I love tales of adventure, of conquest and victory, and so do Oldest and Middle. This week, I found myself reading aloud the above adaptation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and was stunned to note that the only female characters in the entire story were either lovely young seductresses or ugly, evil old ladies. In every other scene was the most repetitious description of these women: “the ancient crone,” “the hideous old hag.” As for the “lovely lady.…Her kiss was so inviting, so tantalizingly tender. ‘Oh, Gawain,’ she breathed, ‘forget you are a knight just this once. Forget your chivalry and your honor.'"
“It was lucky for Gawain that she had reminded him at that moment of his knightly virtues. ‘Dear Lady,’ he said, desperately trying to reign himself in. ‘You have a gentle lord as a husband, who has shown me nothing but the greatest hospitality and friendship. I would not and I will not ever cheat him or dishonor him. We can talk of love all you want, lady, but that is all.’”
First, I was trying not to choke while I read this aloud and second, trying to edit the dialogue on the fly, not wanting to risk the girls catching on to the meaning of Gawain "forgetting himself" while in the embraces of this temptress.
Third, I shouldn't be surprised. The whole evil/ugly/old v. lovely/pretty/young/irresistible female dynamic has been Disney-fied since the middle of the twentieth century. King Arthur after all is just closer to the origin. And speaking of origins, in church on Sunday, our pastor was talking, metaphorically, about taking a good path in life. He mentioned this illustration from Proverbs, in which the writer warns his offspring not to be led astray into a path of destruction, toward which the woman in chapter 7 lures him:
"Come, let's drink deep of love till morning; let's enjoy ourselves with love! My husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey. He took his purse filled with money and will not be home till full moon. With persuasive words she led him astray; she seduced him with her smooth talk."
There it is, a scene written right into Sir Gawain's story.
In case the reasons for my distress are not apparent, let me speak clearly: It's a shame that such timeless ethics (follow a righteous path/don't sleep with other people's wives and husbands) are presented in ways that underscore the stereotype of woman=seductress/tempter/evil/path to destruction, yet I understand that the biblical writer is presenting an ultimate ethic (make good, moral choices; bad things probably will happen when you sleep with someone else's spouse) via example that is nuanced with a cultural-bound world view and aimed at a particular audience of young men.
I get it. I'm just thinking of my girls, who are already trying to insert themselves into the biblical narrative, who already ask, "will women be rewarded too?" in response to the Sunday School memory verse that says God will reward each "man" for his righteousness. These girls will read Proverbs someday, and do a lot of hermeneutical wrangling in order to get at the ultimate ethic, not to mention dismantling the portraiture of their gender so often portrayed in scripture as conniving, immoral, dangerous, and promiscuous.
They're also trying to insert themselves into King Arthur. Into Roman history and battles. We have two Mycenaean shields in the basement, two Roman signums for battle, two double-headed war axes drying and ready to assemble tomorrow. I'm just sayin', I know that somewhere in their copious minds they are reconciling their love of action and adventure and goodness and ethics with the portrait always before them of the dainty/lovely/tempting/dangerous lady, trying to figure out who they are and who they're going to be.
*Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as told by Michael Morpurgo