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The Female Voice

This entry is part 2 of 9 in the series The Fairy Tale Project

Though in many ways women have traditionally been placed in subservient roles, they have still found a way to have their voices heard – some by using their feminine wiles and others appealing to the compassionate side of the men around them. As we see with the character of Philomela is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she uses her skill as a weaver to tell the story that she cannot. After being raped and subsequently mutilated (having her tongue cut out) by Tereus, Philomela takes to her loom to slowly tell her story. This is a great example of perseverance. It demonstrates the tenacity that many woman show in the face of great challenges.

In Lanval, we see a woman using her wealth and attractiveness to control a knight of King Arthur’s court. She gives him everything he could ever desire with the stipulation that he not tell anyone about her. This was a strange request and one that ultimately proved impossible for Lanval to keep. As Lanval begins to spend his new found wealth, the people of the court begin to take notice of him, including the queen. When she tries to seduce him, he refuses her saying that he has a woman who is far fairer. The queen believes he is lying and accuses him of being gay. After speaking to her husband, Lanval is put on trial. Ultimately, the woman from the meadow appears to prove he is telling the truth and Lanval is excused to go away with her. This story demonstrates the power that women have over the men in their lives – both the queen and the woman in the meadow.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale – Chaucer

Again we see how women take control in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. As the story begins, we learn of a rapist who is set to be executed until the queen steps in and delays his punishment. She stipulates that he must find out what women want most and he only has a year to do it. So, the knight sets out on an adventure – asking every woman he finds what they want. When the year is close to ending, he still feels like he doesn’t have a good answer. Then, he comes across a group of women and as he gets closer all but one disappear. So, he takes the opportunity to ask this remaining woman – who happens to be very old and ugly – what it is that women want. She agrees to tell him, but she has a condition. In his desperation, the knight agrees to abide by whatever she wants. The old lady tells him that what all women want is to control their men. When the knight appears before the queen, she agrees that he has given her the correct answer and his life is spared. This, however, is not the end of the story. The stipulation that the old lady put on this agreement was that the knight marry her. After a lot of moaning and hiding, the knight ultimately complies. Seeing how unhappy the knight is about the marriage, the old lady asks him if he would prefer an old, ugly wife who is loyal or a young, beautiful one who is treacherous. Faced with this option, the knight simply tells the old lady that she is in charge of that decision. Apparently, this was the right answer, because she then transformed herself into a young, beautiful woman – thereby proving what she had initially said which is that women just want to be in control.

Perhaps the ultimate example of a controlling woman is the story of “Ardour”. In this poem, we see winter personified as a beautiful, but deadly woman. The men of the town spend a great deal of time trying to woo her, thereby bringing on spring, but only one initially succeeds. Ardour then becomes very suspicious of the men and turns more brutal. Ultimately, there came a time when she dominated all of the seasons and nothing but winter existed. In the end, the King’s son was able to subdue her, but only by giving his own life. Perhaps Keats would have agreed with the sentiment expressed in The Wife of Bath’s Tale – woman ultimately just want to control men.

We further see the control that women have over men in both Keats’, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and in “The Song of Wandering Aegnus” by Yeats. As in Lanval, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, features a knight meeting a woman in a meadow. She enchants him to the point where he is miserable and can think of nothing other than her. Conversely, the story of “The Song of Wandering Aegnus” concerns an older man telling the story of a girl that somehow slipped away. She appeared magically after transforming from a fish he had caught. Now he is determined to find her – to kiss her – to take her hand and walk with her. This proves the power of lost or unrequited love.

In each of these tales, we see that these women are strong and capable of speaking their minds and often getting their own way. We see the ultimate power that they have over men.

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