Once upon a time I did a Masters in Medieval Literature about the concept of the hero in The Matter of Britain under the excellent supervision of the wonderful Felicity Riddy. It didn’t cover King Arthur, but it did include characters who were extremely famous for several centuries, but who have dropped off the current radar – King Horn, Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick – also the baffling anti-hero Richard the Lionheart. If you are into the Marvel and DC films, you will probably find the stories familiar. I wanted to subtitle the chapter about Richard: ‘Don’t make me angry – you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’. Guy of Warwick is disconcertingly like Captain America, and Bevis is probably closer to the Green Arrow, but you get the point. Secret identities, trials of strength, exile and return in disguise, dramatic captures and suffering, frequent rescues of the beloved, restoration of order, happy ever after.
We came to the conclusion that these are maturation stories – how to grow up and take your place in the world. I started reading Jung, and realised that his take on the process was very different from the old romance writers. In Jung’s world, a boy (don’t get me started about his take on women) first learns how to operate and succeed in the social and material spheres, building a career, establishing himself in society, and then tackles the inner work of building intimate relationships or spiritual maturity. For the medievals, the work of growing up came first, love and mature relationships within the family are part of the process, and social and personal success, symbolised by kingship, comes as a reward for self-mastery.
I haven’t thought about this much over the last thirty years, but it has been forcibly brought to my attention lately. The concept of kingship as theatre and sleight of hand, while actual power becomes harder hold to account, has been forced on us over the last few weeks, and it isn’t particularly interesting. We are plagued with a breed of politicians who do not recognise the need to regulate their own desires and behaviour. Demands are made of us to pledge loyalty to people who do not recognise the responsibility and mutuality of relationships. This is not sovereignty as any other society defines it. It is the politics of the playground. But the concept of ‘sovereignty’ (abused as it has been by the brexit debate) has something to offer.
In folktales and ballads of the ‘loathly lady’ type, we see the trope of ‘sovereignty’ as the woman getting her own way. If she is indulged and obeyed, she becomes beautiful and loving, and the treatment is often comic. But it has a more positive aspect. Loathly lady stories show a demand for women to be respected as autonomous human beings, with the rights to judge situations, pursue desires, set boundaries and make decisions, even in marriages which may have been undertaken as a political expedient or acquisition of power. The loathly lady doesn’t have to conform to conventional standards of beauty or manners. She doesn’t have to apologise for having needs. But she is able to negotiate.
The maturation processes of women may not be as different from those of men as Jung thought, but they do often have different arenas to learn in. We might learn to be loathly ladies rather than kidnapped princesses, and I’m thinking about it, particularly as I share The Well of the Moon more widely, which has a fair few of them in it. And we might think a bit more about what we mean by sovereignty in most of our relationships, remove it from the sphere of narcissistic testosterone-fuelled ‘heroes’ and claim it for ourselves, personally and politically.