Defend or Die: The Women of Camelot
“The Lady of Shalott” and “The Defense of Guenevere” are Victorian era poems of the Arthurian tradition that focus on female characters that are negatively affected because their desires cannot be met without social repercussions. The two poems are similar because they are about women who are trapped by the expectation that they will take a passive role in their own lives. Both Guenevere and the Lady of Shalott are expected to ignore their feelings of attraction and sexual desire because the role of women does not include having their own opinion, particularly when it comes to men. Breaking away from this social expectation can lead to a woman’s death, as it does with the Lady of Shalott and almost does with Guenevere. The Lady of Shalott and Guenevere play almost opposite roles in these poems which can be seen through their actions within the poem, past actions, and social position.
They say “your actions define you” and that could not be truer of Guenevere and the Lady of Shalott (a.k.a. Elaine). Guenevere is active in the poem from the beginning as she stalls for time so that she can be saved. Elaine doesn’t have any action until the last section of the poem when she finally “came and found a boat” (Tennyson line 123) but the act of putting the boat in the river is her last act. As Gribble points out when describing Elaine’s situation, she “is sealed off from the outside world with all the authority of a fairy-tale” so she has no method for self expression other than her weaving or any interaction with the outside world until she runs away (1).
Guenevere and Elaine’s past actions, or lack thereof in Elaine’s case, are the cause of their major problems within the poems. Guenevere obviously should not have had her affair and Elaine should have pushed her boundaries in little ways before she took off after Lancelot. We all know the hole Guenevere dug for herself, but Elaine’s passivity dug a hole just as deep. Because Elaine never attempted to make her own decisions is was more difficult for her to weigh the options when it came to Lancelot. That’s not to say its Elaine’s fault that she is so emotionally repressed because her passivity comes from “[accommodation] to an oppressive social environment” (Gribble 7). Elaine needed more interaction with the outside world, even if it was through her window, but her entrapment kept her from learning even the most basic worldly skills that she needed to survive.
The main difference between their actions within the poems is that Guenevere is active throughout but Elaine starts out passive and, after a peak of action, she returns to her previous passivity. Guenevere, once she gets going, doesn’t stop until her mission is accomplished. After Elaine finally breaks out of her room and gets in the boat, she gives up and dies before she has accomplished her goal of meeting Lancelot. Guenevere tries to escape death by “[speaking] out at last with no more trace of shame” (Morris line 59). Elaine, on the other hand, does nothing as “her blood was frozen slowly” (Tennyson line 147). Guenevere’s actions are described as brave while Elaine lies in a boat and sings a sad song:
“Though still she stood right up, and never shrunk,
But spoke on bravely, glorious lady fair!”
(Morris line 55-56)
“Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Thro’ the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot;
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,”
(Tennyson line 136-143)
The difference between their positions in society is where it gets really interesting since it has nothing to do with their personal choices or their personalities. As queen, Guenevere is in the best position in Camelot which should give her some extra privileges, and it definitely does, but she is still in danger because of her affair. The poem shows that because she is a woman, even one as high up the social ladder as the queen, she is not allowed the sexual freedom that is allowed to men. Guenevere stands up for herself because she knows that she doesn’t deserve death for her affair, but to conservative readers in the Victorian era, she must have come across as extreme.
This is probably how some Victorians picture Guenevere in Wilson’s poem:
On the other hand, Elaine is a young noble girl who is naïve about how the world works to the point where she can’t handle the effects of her own choices. She fits perfectly in the role of an innocent, unmarried girl which is exactly what her society wants from her. Once she slips out of that role, she is finished in the eyes of the rest of Camelot. Her death becomes a symbol of her destroyed innocence because she ran away, but she didn’t even meet Lancelot. Elaine’s one social misstep cannot be forgiven so she dies, but Guenevere, even though she committed a more serious crime, survives to the end of her poem because her social position lends her some protection.
Overall, the two women are meant to portray the same double standard, but Elaine is written from Tennyson’s more conservative perspective while Wilson takes liberties with Guenevere’s story to make a social commentary. The two authors seem to be in agreement that women are given the short end of the stick both in medieval times and in the time they were writing these poems.
Gribble, Jennifer. The Lady of Shalott in the Victorian Novel. Macmillan, 1983.
Morris, William. “The Defense of Guenevere.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited Damrosch, David and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. 4th ed. Vol. 2B. Pearson Education, Inc., 2010, p. 1667.
Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited by Damrosch, David and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. 4th ed. Vol. 2B. Pearson Education, Inc., 2010, p. 1181.
Townsend, F H. “The Misfortunes of Elphin and Rhododaphne.” The Misfortunes of Elphin and Rhododaphne, 1897, p. 127, d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/image/townsend-this-slap-was-recorded.