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Perilously Fair:
Reflections on the Ladies of the Lake

[1]5,552 words

The editors of Counter-Currents have recently shared their findings that, among other interesting facts, females make up about one-third of the readership here. There are apparently quite a few Dissident-Right women who swim in our waters, and therefore a need exists for some un-feminist, but “woman-positive” readings that mine our traditional canon and seek to shape the future of femininity.

I don’t usually write about “female things,” and that’s not really on purpose. I find history, war, and a mostly male cast of authors interesting, and I always have. When it comes to rescuing the West, one of our central projects must indeed be about rescuing men and masculinity. But to do that, we need to rescue women and femininity (from feminism on the Left and other negative influences on the Right), too. This does not mean expecting men to be perfect heroes and “masters,” just as it should not mean expecting women to be blemish-free paragons. In the past we recognized that groups had tendencies toward good and bad behaviors, just as individuals had them. Good female qualities — empathy, gentleness, devotion, and concern for social standards — can be twisted into harmful flaws. There were some Western writers and thinkers of the past who, probably due to personal disappointments, were true misogynists. But many “misogynists” simply acknowledged that femininity had a dark side.

In the following essay I intend to meditate on, even celebrate, the Feminine[1] [2] without being fake about it and without putting women “on a pedestal” from which they will always fall — a sin that both feminism and Victorianism have committed in recent centuries. I take as my starting point that essential ingredient from which all of us are made. If there is a more potent and enduring symbol of femininity than water, I don’t know of it. The reasons for this association are many. To name a few: water takes the shape of the cup that contains it, a malleability especially applicable to the Feminine; water has a certain impenetrable mystery to it, hiding the truth from, as much as it mirrors the truth back, to the viewer; and it is as refreshing and cool as it is dangerous, drowning while it carries and buoys. I call the personifications of the Water-Feminine “Ladies of the Lake,” for each character I will describe below fulfilled (or perverted) the female functions of renewer/cup-bearer, guide/revelator, gift-giver, ensnarer, and keeper of the dead. All of these roles a lake — one sequestered, murky, and deep beyond fathom — could play also. The connection has therefore been a natural one.

“Merlin, I have come to warn you! If you go on teaching your Lady of the Lake more of your secrets, she will cast a spell on you . . . and keep you in Fairyland forever,” the old hermit of the woods cried out. But Merlin only turned toward the west and sighed. “I am not meant to wait at Arthur’s court, but I shall be glad to go into some far country . . . and to rest there in the green forests forever” with my Lady, “perilous and fair.”[2] [3]

Ladies of the Lake, Part I: Antigone

The first example might be something of a surprise. Out of all the Graeco-Roman stories, why not discuss Venus emerging from the frothing sea; why not mermaids, or the obvious sirens? Why choose Antigone? It’s mostly because I want everyone to read Sophocles. However, the play and its eponymous heroine are also the perfect vessels, so to speak, to begin our journey.

The final episode in a grand Greek tragedy-trilogy, Antigone closed the curtain on one of the most infamous and ill-starred families in white literature. Antigone of Thebes was the daughter of the deceased King Oedipus. After the latter’s disgrace and death, Creon, his brother-uncle, assumed the monarchy. At this post he was charged with defending the city against her enemies, which included his own nephew and Antigone’s brother, the banished Polyneices. With an invasion force at his back, Polyneices had attempted to overthrow the Kingdom. Having failed, he now lay beyond its ramparts and rotting in the dust, for Creon threatened to execute anyone caught performing for the “traitor” those ritual acts normally accorded to the holy dead. What dragon’s teeth had the seed of Laius[3] [4] sown?

In ancient Greece — and in the larger Indo-European world — caring for the bodies of the dead was of immense importance, a holdover from even more ancient traditions rooted in ancestor-worship.[4] [5] If someone’s family neglected to anoint him with water (sometimes also with wine or oil), sprinkle him with dust, and lament at his funeral pyre, then those impious persons condemned him to unrest, while incurring upon themselves dishonor and the gods’ vengeance. Thus and against her King’s judgment, Antigone resolved to save her brother’s corpse from further ravages of beast and clime.

“I will bury” Polyneices, Antigone revealed to her sister Ismene, for it would “honour me to die while doing that . . . I shall rest with him, loved one with a pious criminal.” After all, the “time is greater that I must serve the dead than the living,” since in that underworld will I dwell forever. But Ismene grew fearful. They launched into a debate about values that illustrated a very female dilemma, almost as if one mind were split and each side were parrying the other with seemingly irreconcilable aims. Antigone argued for adherence to religious and familial law — to maintain the rites due to one’s dead and thus to avoid personal dishonor, even if it courted death; while Ismene countered with the admonition to obey the King’s law — to maintain the state’s decree addressed to the living, and thus to avoid death and social disgrace, even if it meant abandoning a loved one to be “a pleasing store” for the crows.[5] [6]

[7]

You can buy Tito Perdue’s novel Vade Mecum here [8].

Antigone cursed her as a faithless sister when her sibling continued to try and dissuade her from this fatal course. Shaking her head, Ismene protested, “to act in violation of the citizens’ will — of that I am by nature incapable.” Think but that “ours is a woman’s nature, and accordingly not suited to battles against men; and next, that we are ruled by the more powerful, so that we must obey in these things and in things even more stinging.”[6] [9] It was Sophocles’ genius that he was able to, within the play’s first lines, reveal one of the great and quintessentially female tragedies: the fact that submission to one beloved/respected man has sometimes meant rejecting another beloved or respected man. What was the proper nature of women’s loyalty, of their courage? It was also a very human problem: how could the seemingly powerless oppose the “more powerful?” For Antigone, the answer was simple: defiant martyrdom.

Nevertheless, Antigone would not be acknowledged as one of the greatest dramatic works of all time if King Creon did not also have a compelling point of view. Since he was the guarantor of order and authority — the father-figure writ large — Theban citizens owed him their deference. Was not a “good and willing subject,” that strict observer of his homeland’s statutes, also the kind of man who would “stand his ground where posted, a loyal and brave comrade in the battle line”? Conversely, never has there been a worse evil “than disobedience. This destroys cities; this overturns homes; this breaks the ranks of allied spears into headlong rout.” If any man thinks an individual’s concern “more important than his fatherland, that man, I say, is of no account,” Creon declared.[7] [10] A familiar refrain in our enlightened circles.

So, when a reluctant guard arrived with news that Antigone had indeed tended her brother’s body in violation of Creon’s ruling, the King was just as righteously offended as she. According to the messenger, when the maiden saw that her brother’s “corpse was bare, [she] broke into a cry of lamentation.”[8] [11] She scooped the “thirsty dust in her hands, and from a pitcher of beaten bronze held high she crowned the dead with water, with thrice-poured libations.” Acting as the priestess-cupbearer, Antigone sought to fulfill her oaths that she had long sworn to keep sacred the dead, for “it [was] not in [her] nature to join in hate, but in love.” She then proceeded to, if not hatefully, then spitefully, call the judgment of Zeus down upon her uncle. Infuriated at her willful lack of remorse (perhaps to Creon a worse crime than the actual law-breaking), the King damned her in turn to “go down to hell and love [Polyneices] if [she] must. But while [he] live[d], no woman [would] rule [him]!”[9] [12] It was, of course, Sophocles’ lesson that Creon was “ruled” by his prideful passions, not by the manly reason that the Greeks so prized.

Though Antigone had been promised to Creon’s son Haemon in marriage, the King broke the engagement. She was instead bound to suffer one of the customary punishments of antiquity: live entombment. Creon’s guards led her away in their “hands’ strong grasp, [before she had] enjoyed . . . [a] bridal song and [having] not received any portion of marriage or the nurture of children.” Deserted by friends, in misery she went “living to the hollow graves of the dead.” So were burial and bridal chamber conflated in her unhappy fate — a woman’s worst nightmare. Addressing the Chorus of elders, she said, “Citizens of my fatherland, [watch] me . . . [soak in] my last sunlight, and never again.” No, Hades who lays all to rest leads me “to Acheron [13]‘s shore, though I have not had my due portion of the chant that brings the bride, nor has any hymn been mine . . . Instead the lord of Acheron [14] will be my groom.”[10] [15] Despite her dreadful sentence, Antigone clung to the hope that in the underworld she would arrive to enjoy her family’s warm welcome, for when each of them had died, “with [her] own hands [she had] washed and dressed [them] and poured drink-offerings at [their] graves.” This “Lady of the Lake” resolutely gave her life for the sacrament of water — for the refreshment of souls on their journeys through Pluto’s realm. The dusts waving round and heat beating down on a Theban field of carrion-fodder festering in the Grecian summer Sun would melt into the deep cavern-river lapping at “Acheron’s shore.”[11] [16]

Though praiseworthy for her moral courage, perhaps Antigone was a touch too obstinate. Sometimes, particularly in regards to women, fairer words persuade better than harsher ones. As for her sister Ismene, perhaps she was too willing to conform, too afraid of the consequences risked by rebellion.

If Antigone’s reflected water-light had a sign, it would be a burning, or eclipsed Sun. During the off-stage act around which the plot turned, and as she made ready to pour the holy waters atop Polyneices’ head, the solar disk had “stood bright in mid-sky and the heat began to burn.” Suddenly, a whirlwind lifted from the earth “a storm of dust, a trouble in the sky, and it filled the plain, marring all the foliage” and veiled her actions against the guards’ watchful gazes.[12] [17] The fire of her righteous passion scorched the living, even as her ministrations dampened the foreheads of the dead with a draught of cleansing oblation.

[18]

Antigone pours holy water over Polyneices’ body.

Ladies of the Lake, Part II: Arthurian Myths

I knew before that Arthurian legends were notoriously difficult to untangle. There are so many retellings and translations, and Tennyson’s Arthurian characters often bear only superficial resemblances to Malory’s. But until I decided to write about the Arthurian “Ladies of the Lake,” I had no idea how complicated and contradictory the stories really were. There were multiple magical “Ladies of the Lake” who went by different names: Morgause, Vivianne, Nimuë, Elaine, the “Three Queens,” and sometimes simply “Lady of the Lake.” In turn-of-the-century children’s books written by Howard Pyle and Andrew Lang (among many others), these women’s presences were mostly positive forces — or at least, not bad ones. In earlier versions, however, the Ladies of the Lake were both beautiful and deadly. They appeared at times when men were in need: when Arthur was wounded, when an infant Lancelot sailed by on a reed-boat, when an aged Merlin wanted to retire, when the King required a new sword, etc. This makes sense, because a lake is a calming, cool, and refreshing thing that provides water and respite. Its surface can act as both mirror and portal; can reflect reality and hide it beneath its depths. Therein lies its danger. Watching a childhood friend try to relieve the heat by diving into a dark lake and then impaling himself on a hidden rebar-spear is the most upsetting memory that I have.

Likewise, the Arthurian Ladies of the Lake were ambiguous and hazardous figures, personifications of the natural and preternatural world that transcended a simplistic morality. I will focus on several of these women and combine different sources to capture some coherent shapes, though by its nature water is formless and leaks through the fingers as soon as one cups it between his hands. Which might be the point.

After King Arthur had fought a bloody duel with “the black knight,” King Pellinor, or three ruffians — depending on the source — he lay beside his cloven sword, sorely wounded. Merlin set him atop his horse and led his young charge to a “broad and fair lake” beyond the trees. There, Arthur magically regained his strength and sat up at the sight before him. In the midst of the expanse, smooth as glass, there arose a woman’s arm, “clothed in white samite, that held a fair sword in that hand.” Next, “they saw a damsel walking toward them, her feet seeming to glide effortlessly along the water. “That is the Lady of the Lake,” said Merlin, and “within that lake is a rock, and therein is as [marvelous] a place as any on earth, and richly beseen.”[13] [19] The damsel saluted Arthur and led them to a golden barge. “Wade into the water at your peril,” the Lady warned, “for all those who have tried to take the sword Excalibur have fallen off this ship and drowned.” The hero accepted the risks and rowed toward the white arm and her sword, held aloft as unmoving as an ivory statue. When at last he reached her, he “took the sword by the handle . . . and the arm and the hand went under the water.”[14] [20] Was the arm a physical expression of the Lady’s magic, or did it belong to a wholly separate water-nymph? Perhaps it did not matter, and the lake itself was the Lady that manifested in its different guises.

The arm would reappear at the end of Arthur’s life as he lay dying of his wounds. Sir Bedivere, at his master’s insistence, hurled the sword back into the lake from whence it came all those years ago. As it had before, the white “samite-clad” hand emerged from the deep and caught it by the hilt before it could pierce the surface, then slowly, slowly, both blade and lady descended forever from view. Out of the mists sailed toward Arthur and Bedivere that same golden barge “with many fair ladies in it,” all in black hoods, and among their number was a Queen. They all “wept and shrieked when they saw” Arthur lying in his grievous state. Carry me to the boat, Arthur told Sir Bedivere, “and so” the loyal knight “did softly.” Arthur was thus received “with great mourning . . . and in the Queen’s lap he laid his head.” She cried, “Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold.”[15] [21] At last, they rowed from the land toward undying Avalon, and Bedivere saw them no more.

Within this composite story were features similar to that of Sophocles’ Antigone. These women were closely connected to the King and to the city of Camelot, but their concerns transcended the secular world of men. Just as Antigone ventured out beyond Theban walls, so the Ladies kept themselves apart, living away and hidden from the eyes of most. Their concerns were spiritual and their care was for the injured, or dying. All were benedictors whose gifts were for warriors and whose medium was water. Antigone descended into an underground cavern, then her spirit fled to the underworld itself; that fae arm of Arthurian fame lived too beneath the depths, and the ladies who claimed Arthur’s body took him to an isle reserved for the glorious dead. All of these, of course, were symbols of the womb, a hollow grave where everyone must eventually return.

Then, there was Nimuë (also called Nianna or some version of Vivianne), Merlin’s Bane. According to most sources on the matter, Nimuë was one of the Ladies of the Lake, interested in augmenting her power and learning all of the wizard’s secrets. Old men often have a regrettable, if understandable, blindness when it comes to younger women, and Merlin was no exception. Weaving webs of subtle sorcery, Nimuë “ever sought to work the charm upon the great enchanter of the time, as fancying her glory would be great according to his greatness whom she quench’d.”[16] [22] Thus there fell on Merlin “a great melancholy.” She lured him to a fountain beneath a tree and began to sing and dance for him. By and by Merlin grew more and more weary, until at last he closed his eyes. Nimuë stopped her spell, and looking at him in the moonlight, her “eyes were more like green water than ever.” The leaf shadows darkened and the mist thickened so that Nimuë laughed, for it “reminded her of her own lovely lake.” Gathering her “gleaming robes,” she slid away like a silver shadow, “back to her own enchanted waters.”[17] [23] Merlin, she left sleeping under the tall green tree.

Nimuë symbolized another side of the Feminine — one whose naturally seductive and beguiling qualities submerged victims; the cup of benediction and/or rejuvenation was more a cup of “sleeping-death,” designed not to free souls, but to entrap them — to entomb them in order to satisfy Nimuë’s insatiable appetite. But we cannot call her “evil” exactly, for she was more a force of nature than an agent of darkness, possessed of a cheerful amorality. I suspect that she was also meant to evoke the decaying power that pining for one’s lost youth has upon even the wisest. This Lady of the Lake, too, was a keeper of the dead.

If the Arthurian Ladies of the Lake had a water-reflected sign, it would be the Moon: that cyclic symbol of femininity that illuminates the night with an ethereal white beam, as it simultaneously casts deeper and darker shadows upon the land and through the leaves.

[24]

Nimuë, streaming hair and blue gown like a waterfall spilling down, enchants Merlin to sleep.

Ladies of the Lake, Part III: Snow White’s Evil Queen

Perhaps the most memorable subverter of the feminine traits embodied in the Ladies of the Lake — cup-bearer, nurturer, gift-giver, revelator, etc. — was Disney’s villain, “the Evil Queen.” When Snow White premiered in 1937, the Queen’s icy character delighted audiences. Her robes billowed black and purple behind her, the back of her throne the animators framed in a golden and fanned imitation of feathers, and her cowl lent her a silhouette reminiscent of a bird’s head. When seated upon her throne, the effect was, of course, to make the Queen look like a peacock.

[25]

You can buy Tito Perdue’s novel Materials for All Future Historians here [26].

At the beginning of the film, young Snow White sang into a wishing well, her voice and goodness echoing upon the water. And lo! a handsome prince appeared in the reflection behind her shoulder, almost as if she had conjured him with magic. Meanwhile, the jealous Queen who had watched the exchange chanted into another kind of reflecting pool: her magic mirror, from which her voice conjured the disembodied death-mask of a slave normally hidden behind the glass. “Mirror, Mirror on the wall,” she recited, “who is the fairest in the land?”

Upon learning that her young step-daughter Snow White had surpassed her in beauty, the Queen became murderous. In one of the greatest animated scenes of all time, she descends the castle’s stairs as if she were a vengeful fury, beautiful and terrible, spinning down the whirlpool of a well and emerging into an underworld of dungeons. To fashion a disguise for herself, the Queen concocted a cup of wrath whose contents were: “mummy dust, to make [her] old; to shroud [her] Queenly raiment, black of night; to age [her] voice, an old hag’s cackle; to whiten [her] hair, a scream of fright; a blast of wind to fan [her] hate; a thunderbolt to mix it well!”[18] [27] She put the cup to her lips, drank a draught from its contents, then transformed into a nightmarish peddler-woman. And she wasn’t finished, for then she proceeded to make a gift for Snow White. Not a gift of a magic sword or healing balm or salvific libation, but a false gift: a poisoned apple.

The Evil Queen was a perverse version of Antigone and of the Arthurian ladies, for she too was a keeper of the dead, if a particularly awful one. As a widow, she honored her husband’s memory by making his surviving daughter’s life one of drudgery and danger; a nurturing mother she was not. The Queen had no room in her heart for anyone but herself and her own overwhelming vanity. Cloaked as the old hag, she passed a skeleton whose bony arm lay outstretched between his prison’s bars, pale as the one covered in soft flesh and lake-water and holding Excalibur. “Have a drink!” she sneered, as she kicked the cup that stood just out of his reach. That poor hero had not managed to grasp his prize from the Lady in time.

If the Evil Queen had a reflected water sign, it would be a black hole — one with no reflection at all, but of an unlight, dark as the pitch of her magic potions. Those who are envious crave beauty, just as they hate it; they seek light, just as they abhor it. And so they do the only thing they can do: consume and blot out what it is they desire. The Evil Queen was the personification of the Dark Feminine, of the Black Lady of the Lake.

Ladies of the Lake, Part IV: Galadriel

A more benign (but still mirror-obsessed) Lady from another twentieth-century traditionalist imagination was Tolkien’s elven Queen, Galadriel. “Will you look into the mirror?” she asked the Ringbearer as he approached her, drawn by a power, ancient and hypnotic. The Fellowship of Nine (minus one) had successfully, but costfully crossed the Misty Mountains by a long and underground tunnel. Now they had arrived, weary and heartsick, at the Golden Wood of Lothlorien, home to Galadriel and her Silvan elves. “By strange paths has this Company been led,” Boromir, the young knight of Gondor groused, “and so far to evil fortune . . . And now we must enter the Golden Wood, you say. But of that perilous land we have heard in Gondor, and it is said that few come out who once go in; and of that few none have escaped unscathed.”[19] [28]

Indeed, when at last the Company came into the elven Queen’s presence, the Lady was clothed all in white — “a shining star by day.” With a penetrating stare, deep as the ancient seas, “she held them in her eyes, and in silence looked searchingly at each of them in turn.” Few could “long endure her glance.”[20] [29] Was this fairy Queen friend or foe? For a time, the answer was unclear. Perhaps lured by the mystery of her nature — in the way that darkened bodies of water always beckon discovery and submergence — Frodo followed her “down a long flight of steps” and into a deep green hollow. A “murmuring silver stream . . . issued from the fountain on the hill,” while at the base of a tall branching tree “stood a basin of silver, wide and shallow.” Beside it there was a gleaming pitcher. With ethereal grace, Galadriel filled the pitcher with water from the stream, poured the water into the basin, then breathed upon it. When the ripples had subsided and died into stillness, she finally spoke, “[Behold] the Mirror of Galadriel . . . I have brought you here so that you may look in it, if you will.”

With an equal measure of fear and curiosity, the hobbit leaned up to gaze into the basin. At first, “the water looked hard and dark. Stars were reflected in it . . . Then he gave a low gasp,” for suddenly they all blinked out, and “as if a dark veil had been withdrawn, the Mirror grew grey, and then clear.”[21] [30] Startling visions swam before his eyes.

The resemblance between this essay’s other Ladies of the Lake and Galadriel are obvious. She, too was both a feared and admired spirit who lived away from towns and cities, choosing to dwell in an enchanted forest. Her magic came chiefly through her association with water, for she wore Nenya, a Ring of Power signifying that element. She, too possessed a mirror of revelation, and she, too gave gifts of renewal and hope. Of the fallen wizard Gandalf, she mourned and ordered haunting elvish lamentations sung in his honor. But as perfect as she may have seemed to the eyes of men, Galadriel had a more sinister side. As one of the fallen elves exiled from Valinor, home of the gods, she shared in the sin of pride and a lust for power. Why remain in paradise where one could never be more than a vassal eclipsed by the mightier light of the Valar? No, Galadriel wanted her own kingdoms to rule, free as she wished to do what she willed. And of the One Ring, she harbored a secret longing for its promise of terrible dominion. “All shall love me and despair!”[22] [31] Ah, that deepest desire of the Feminine so clearly spoken aloud; it resonates.

If the reflected water-light of Galadriel had a symbol, it would be a star, for of all light, the elves loved starlight most of all. Her gift to Frodo the hobbit was a crystalline glass that held the water kindled by the light of Eärendil.[23] [32]

[33]

The Mirror of Galadriel

Ladies of the Lake, Part V: Beatrice

[34]

You can buy Tito Perdue’s novel Love Song of the Australopiths here [35].

While Galadriel was a powerfully good, if imperfect, heroine, then Dante Alighieri’s vision of his beloved Beatrice in earthly Paradise was both powerfully good and spotless — the ideal Lady of the Lake and a foil, perhaps, of the Evil Queen. Having braved Hell and Purgatory with his elder guide Virgil, Dante climbed shaken and thirsty atop a hill over whose rise lay the Garden. Coming upon a lake’s shoreline, he looked into the middle distance, where he saw “within a cloud of flowers that rose like fountains from the angels’ hands” a lady. A horseless chariot pulled her and her waving companions across the water’s surface. A crown of olives “wreathed her immaculate veil, her cloak was green, [and] the colors of live flame played on her gown.” Dante felt his soul tremble in her presence, “stupefied by the power of holy awe.” When the sound of his name fell from her lips, the “half-veiled” lady “fixed” Dante with a stare from across the stream — a stare that, like Galadriel’s, was too piercing to meet. As a man would be “blinded by the light when he has looked directly at the sun, just so [Dante] found that [he] had lost [his] sight.”[24] [36] After all these years, it was his beloved Beatrice.

Unable to take it, he swooned and awoke to another lady kneeling beside him. Under Beatrice’s watchful gaze, the angel drew him into the stream “up to [Dante’s] throat, and pulling [him] behind her, she sped on over the water, light as any boat.” Reaching the opposite bank, “the sweet lady” dipped him into the sacred waters and “made [him] drink” — a ritual re-baptism that purified his soul. Four new maidens then appeared (as in the Arthurian myths, there seemed to be an endless supply of them frolicking about). Each raised a white arm and “so joined hands above” him as if they were at a saint’s festival. “Here we are nymphs,” they sang to him in dulcet tones. “Ere Beatrice went to earth, we were ordained her handmaids,” they continued, leading him on. Eyes still averted from his Beloved, Dante accepted Beatrice’s reproach for having lost sight of the Truth, of having wandered from the straight path toward God. His final ordeal was Beatrice’s command that Dante drink from the holy waters of the River Eunoë,[25] [37] whose cool sip made him forget all sin and error. At last, Beatrice removed her veil, and Dante rose, “pure and perfect” as she, “and ready for the stars.”[26] [38]

As a Lady of the Lake, Beatrice assumed the traditional role played (in some cases invertedly) by each previously discussed character: She was a guide, purifier, gift-giver, and priestess, taking on the qualities of the Virgin Mother, herself. As a cup-bearer, she restored Dante to the state in which he should have been were it not for the Fall, thereby correcting the mistake made by the First Mother and suffered by all. For Dante, Beatrice had never really been a mortal woman, but was instead the ideal Feminine whom he’d always worshiped from afar — even (especially) in Paradise. If Beatrice’s reflected light had a symbol, no doubt it would be the glorious, ascendant Sun in its heavens — the complement of Antigone and the opposite of the wicked Queen.

Conclusion

No flesh-and-blood woman could possibly achieve the power of Galadriel, or the beatitude of Beatrice (and thankfully, could not sink to the dark sorcery of Snow White’s Queen). What we can do is rediscover the timeless forms of femininity so memorably shown in their raw state within the pages of our Western stories. To argue that they cannot be adapted to fit our modern world is to admit that we can look forward to nothing better than the trash that passes for a fairy-tale now; that we can expect nothing worthier than the perversions of traditional female (and male) characters shown in recent children’s books and television shows, cursed with surfeits of bad taste and shortages of creativity. Worse, they’re all so predictable.

I prefer the never-bland company of the Lady of the Lake, unpredictable as the subtle whorls and glimmering eddies winding about her figure. Is the chalice she hands me like the one taken by Sir Pellias, whose strength returned after she brought forth “an earthen crock filled with water from a magical fountain?” Might I, too feel “light as air” and refreshed of a soul “dilated with pure joy?”[27] [39]

Or perhaps the jugs that she and her handmaids offer will be more like the glasses, heady and choice, that once put Arthur into a deep and dreamless slumber aboard a “beautiful little ship,” all covered with golden silk? Upon awakening, could I find myself, as the champion of Camelot did, “not in a pretty bed-chamber, but in a dark place,” filled with much weeping? “What is this? Where am I?” Might a sweet and remorseless voice answer me back, “you are in prison, as are the rest of them”?[28] [40] After all, who can say what may happen of ladies who come bearing gifts and wearing their beguiling smiles?

NB: If you enjoy stories like those mentioned in this essay, try some modern classics written by Tito Perdue [41], an author with a wonderful and traditionalist sensibility, who loves brave men and beautiful women.

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Notes

[1] [43] By “the Feminine” I mean an abstract archetypal spirit that manifests in individual women to a greater or lesser degree, but is not the same as “a woman,” or even “womanhood.”

[2] [44] Elizabeth Lodor Merchant, King Arthur and His Knights (Philadelphia: John C. Winston, Co., 1927), 166-67.

[3] [45] Oedipus’ murdered father.

[4] [46] For more on the subject of ancestor-worship, see Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges’ book The Ancient City (Perth, Aus.: Imperium Press, 2018).

[5] [47] Sophocles, Antigone [48], Sir Richard Jebb, ed. (Perseus Classics Online, 2022).

[6] [49] Ibid.

[7] [50] Ibid.

[8] [51] As we shall see, “wailing women” was a literal and expected fact of life in olden days; the practice of the mourning lament has mostly disappeared in Western countries.

[9] [52] Ibid.

[10] [53] In the play, Antigone compared her plight to that of “Tantalus’ daughter,” Niobe, who lost all of her children due to the gods’ anger at her excessive pride in them. Driven mad by her inconsolable grief, Niobe fled to the mountain-caverns, where she turned into a statue that wept from its stone eyes forever.

[11] [54] Antigone.

[12] [55] Ibid.

[13] [56] Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur [57], 8-9.

[14] [58] Ibid., 8.

[15] [59] Ibid., 41.

[16] [60] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King [61].

[17] [62] King Arthur and His Knights, 169-70.

[18] [63] A quotation from the 1937 film.

[19] [64] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 352.

[20] [65] Ibid., 354, 369, 372.

[21] [66] Ibid., 376-77.

[22] [67] Ibid., 381.

[23] [68] The name of the most beloved star of the elves, and one with a storied history in Tolkien’s mythology.

[24] [69] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, John Ciardi, trans. (New York: New American Library, 1970), 695-6.

[25] [70] A river created by Dante to be the fifth and final river of the dead separating him “from the perfect stars.”

[26] [71] Ibid., 707, 726.

[27] [72] Howard Pyle, The Story of Arthur and His Knights (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1905), 275.

[28] [73] Maude L. Radford, King Arthur and His Knights (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1903), 32.