Saturday, January 26, 2013

Lady of The Lake - A England Review

One of the things I love the most about mythology and folklore is the way they illustrate just how pervasive and incredibly old a lot of archetypes and tropes are, particularly in relation to women. I know rather more than I really should about all sorts of different folklore, and one of my favourite things to do with this knowledge is to find patterns that can be seen across different cultures. I have a confession to make though - I've always shied away from the Arthurian legends. They're just so....messy. The lore is made up of poems, and stories, and songs, and all of them have so many different versions that it's really more like a genre than a narrative as such. I can rattle off Swedish lore about women who turn into birch trees, but until recently I couldn't have confidently named more than three characters in the Arthurian stories, and one of them was King Arthur. Which is a bit sad, considering my entire family on my mothers side are so utterly English it's hard to believe they're real.

However, once I came across marvelous indie nail polish maker A England, I decided I was obviously going to have to do some research in order to do these gorgeous polishes justice. I know you all like the pretty pictures, but I know you like the wordy parts as well, and I would feel bad showing something so lovely and not knowing anything about the characters they are named for.

So today, we're going to learn about The Lady of The Lake, in between pictures of this stunningly soft lavender holographic polish. If you're just here to find out whether it's any good or not, the TL:DR version is that is very, very good. It's beautiful, easy to use, and wears for ages, and you should totally go and buy it.

Two coats, under a lamp. Just look at how awesomely beautiful this is. Plus it's a worksafe holographic!
I love taking this out in the sun. BLING!
 Unfortunately, for those of us paying it Australian pesos, it's actually quite expensive to get it straight from the creator, which is always my preferred way. However, Ninja Polish carry them for $10US, so that could be a more economical option, depending on postage. In the end though, as frugal as I am, I really feel like these polishes are worth the price. You don't have to use a million coats, they're so shiny you don't even really need a top coat, and they really are hardwearing. I deem them, Worth It.
Now, if you're interested in some context and good ol' fashioned book learnin', settle in and get comfy.

Once I started bugging my historian friends about why the Arthurian legends were so damn confusing, they explained that there were actually good reasons these stories don't have a cut and dried "official" version. What would later become the Arthurian legends were originally told orally by traveling entertainers before being recorded in writing, and due to the nature of medieval storytelling, especially for an audience, the stories were tinkered with pretty much every time they were performed. Imagine the way modern TV reality producers try and follow every whim of the audience, but add in the extra pressure that if your audience wasn't happy, not getting paid was the best possible outcome. If you were performing for a notoriously psychopathic warlord, you'd cut short all the bits with the girls in them and make the battle scenes as gory as possible. If you were telling them for a court of incredibly bored medieval ladies, then you'd ramp up the romance and make the bits describing how handsome Lancelot was longer, while brushing over the battles. This meant that by the time the stories got to the stage of being written down, the "true" version was already a very muddy concept. In between written editions, the stories went back around the storytelling circuit again, and so a lot of details changed considerably in between versions.

"Tell us the bit about Anastasia's inner goddess again!"

Depending on which version you're reading, the Lady Of The Lake was given credit for a number of different key actions in the stories - giving Arthur his sword, imprisoning Merlin for a hundred years, raising Lancelot, all sorts of exciting things. She was also given a by a bunch of different names by different writers - Nimue, Viviane, Elaine etc etc - and at one stage even became two separate characters. Nimue, the "good" fairy was given all the nice actions that had been associated with the Lady of the Lake, like giving Arthur his sword; Morgue the "bad" fairy was blamed for all the less pleasant things, like fucking over Merlin.*

For the sake of simplicity (and I know I'm missing a lot of detail here, but I hope my medievalist friends will forgive me) let's concentrate on the two actions that are most commonly attributed to the Lady (or Ladies) of The Lake, and try not to get too mired in when or why they were split, or reintegrated. The two acts I find most interesting are the "good" act of giving Arthur his sword, and the "bad" act of fucking over Merlin. These two things quite neatly sum up the ever-infuriating madonna/whore complex - an idea that can be seen throughout the entire history of folklore, but was first specifically named by Freud, and that still crops up rather more than I would like. It's basically a way of viewing women that means they can only be one of two things: entirely selfless, pure, and good; or alternatively selfish, cruel, heartless, and slutty.

Woman as Savior, Nurturer, Mother, Virgin

The Lady of The Lake giving Arthur his sword is a great example of the "woman as savior and/or teacher" trope, the idea that women only exist to make men better. Without Excalibur, Arthur is just a pretty neat guy. With the great sword by his side, he becomes King of Everything (more or less), and he has the Lady of the Lake to thank. While it seems like a relatively harmless stereotype, this one just fucking BUGS me like you would not believe. I remember trying to watch Before Sunrise with my boy, because he loves it, and exploding into righteous rage as soon as it was over because all I could see was an hour and a half of how women are these magical beings with no internal world who only exist to make men better, to help them towards their true potential. Popular culture is FULL of examples like this (look up "manic pixie dream girl" for a start), but this idea is hardly new - you can actually see it in one of the oldest recorded stories we have, that of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. For those of you not as into Sumerian mythology as me, Gilgamesh was a wicked awesome king, who happened to be really lonely. He found Enkidu in the forest as a totally wild creature, unable to interact with society. He takes him back to the city, and hands him over to the city's priestess prostitute Shamhat for a week. Bada bing bada boom, suddenly Enkidu sees the light and decides being civilised is actually pretty awesome, and he and Gilgamesh go on to have one of the greatest bromances of all time. But Shamhat? Never mentioned again. She is only mentioned in reference to her capacity to make Enkidu a better man.

I know that whole bit about behind every great man yada yada, but this trope just makes me so, so angry. It just feels so...dismissive. It supports the view that women's ambitions not only don't matter, but they don't even exist. It drives me CRAZY. If I was Nimue, I would have kept the damn sword myself and become a great and terrible Queen. But, you know, that's me.

Woman as Temptress, Betrayer, Whore
Anne Berthelot makes some fascinating observations about the overall patterns of stories about Merlin in the arthurian genre, in her article Merlin and the Ladies Of The Lake. she points out that Merlin is almost always portrayed as invunerable - except when it comes to women. Just like the Witch King of Angmar, he can be harmed by no man, but has some serious weaknesses when it comes to women. There is actually a part of his story where he runs off to be a wild man in the woods, and according to prophesy, can only be captured by a woman. Luckily it's a woman pretending to be a man who is sent after him, so this story ends surprisingly quickly. But later when he comes up against Morgue/Morgana/the "evil" version of the Lady of The Lake, he gets himself in big trouble - the super short version is that she convinces him to teach her all his magic, and once she has all his learnings, imprisons him for a hundred years in a tree. Merlin insists he knew she was going to do it all along, and let her because of some predestiny nonsense, but then he would say that.
The trope of woman as betrayer is so very old, and so very pervasive. Just take a quick look through the Bible to see how fond Christian writers are of it - Samson and Delilah, Lilith and Adam, Lot's wife...the list goes on and on. Cressida is also an interesting example - in the middle of the Trojan war she agrees to marry a Trojan dude, Troilus, but once she's sent off to the Greeks as part of a hostage exchange, she happily hooks up with a Greek soldier. Of course, no time or energy is given to the idea that maybe she wasn't actually that into the trojan guy in the first place, or maybe she hooks up with a Greek to make being a hostage a little bit more bearable. No, she is flippant and false, the perfect example of how women will change their minds the moment you turn your back. You don't even want to get me started on the sheer overwhelming mass of folklore that warns of beautiful young women who will lure you into the forest/river/snow and then kill you. Yuki Onna in Japan, Huldra in Scandinavia, Phi Song Nang in Indonesia - practically every culture has at least one story like this. The upshot of all these cultural messages is that women cannot be trusted. They will betray you. They are inconstant, and mercurial, and you can't trust them as far as you can throw them. This sort of nonsense is one of the reasons I can't stand shows like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars are of no interest to me whatsoever. They perpetuate the idea that women can never really be trusted by setting up glamorous, wicked "bitch" characters, who are also usually quite ambitious, against the "nice", demure, constant characters, who only want people to get along and don't really want anything for themselves. It demonises ambition, and creates ridiculous stereotypes about the way women actually work that encourage people not to take them seriously. You don't want to give that women a promotion - she's only going to change her mind. You can't listen to her when she says she doesn't want kids - you know how women are. If you have a partner, and also a female friend, of COURSE she is trying to steal them from you. It's horseshit, and it drives me nuts.

But enough ranting - I actually think this polish is an interesting visual representation of both these ideas. The colour is so soft, and gentle, and the sparkle so demure under indoor lights that it's totally safe for an office, and it evokes a lovely sense of quiet femininity. But then you take it out in the sun, and all these sharp, steely flecks of holographic glitter jump out, giving it a much harder feel.  It's nice to see these ideas put together for once, instead of perpetuating this ridiculous either/or idea.

Also, it's really pretty :)

*There is a lot of discussion in Arthurian circles as to whether Niviane and Morgue were actually the same character who was then split, or two different characters entirely, with Morgue developing from a previous version of Merlin's sister. Personally, from what I've read, it seems most likely these Niviane and Morgue were split down Christian morality lines from the same original character. But this is not really what we would call a "fact", more an opinion.


  1. Noice work! I should point out, though, that the Biblical examples you gave aren't exclusively Christian; they apply to all three Abrahamic religions.

    The woman as vehicle/catalyst business is deeply annoying. I hate it how female loved ones are often killed to direct the hero to his mission or convince him of its merit (thanks, Braveheart, Gladiator and more -

    Also, I like shiny grey-purple glitter. <3

    1. Man, I can't believe I forgot fridging! Ah well, it probably deserves a post of it's own anyway. Also, good catch on the Abrahamic/Christian point. I did not know that, and will amend.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks :)

    1. You are most welcome. I'm glad people enjoy some words with their pretty pictures sometimes :)

  3. I loved this! You bring up some really interesting points, especially about the image of woman as betrayer. I am writing my dissertation on women who bridged cultures and religions and how their interactions were represented. I'm focusing on the image of the woman as poisoner, in many ways the ultimate female betrayer- after all, Eve gave Adam something dangerous to eat!

    1. I'm so glad you liked it! I was terrified I would have a gang of furious medievalists on my ass for doing such an abridged version :)
      Woman as poisoner would be a fascinating paper to read - there is SO MUCH to say. Don't forget Pandora - EVERYTHING is her fault.

  4. i'm new to your blog but i have got to say, it is one of the neatest and funnest blogs i've run across in some time!

    1. Thank you so much! I'm really glad you're enjoying it :D


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