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Natures Table


Love, Freedom, and Marital Fidelity in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur by Beverly Kennedy

Sir Thomas Malory has little to say about women in his Morte Darthur, but this is hardly surprising. His decision to retell the entire history of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table necessarily entailed a primary focus upon knighthood (and its principal functions, war and governance), from which women were barred by virtue of their sex. Therefore, the relative lack of interest which Malory shows in women should not necessarily be taken as a sign that he is, as one feminist critic has alleged, “misogynistic” or “homoerotic” (Stiller 94). In fact, if we examine closely Malory’s representation of courtship and marriage — a sphere of human activity within knightly society where men’s and women’s interests and activities converge — we will realize that he is not at all “misogynistic.” On the contrary, he is remarkably sympathetic towards women.


In Malory’s day, young women were expected (and sometimes forced) to marry according to the wishes of their family, even though the Church taught that the sacrament of marriage was not valid unless both parties freely consented to it. This had been the teaching of the Church since the twelfth century (Noonan, Sheehan). Nevertheless, even three hundred years later, among Malory’s social milieu, i.e., the gentry and lesser nobility, families continued to arrange marriages for political and economic benefit, without much regard for the feelings of their children. Contemporary documents like the letters of the Paston family reveal that young woman were much more likely than their brothers to be coerced into marriage (Haskell). In theory, of course, a young woman coerced into marriage could have the marriage annulled. In practice, however, without the help of her family or her new husband, she would find it impossible even to bring her case before the ecclesiastical court.

Late mediaeval romances went much farther than the Church in positively advocating that young people be free to choose their mates for love. Since the late twelfth century and the innovative courtly romances of Chretien de Troyes, mediaeval romances had often made erotic love the basis for marriage, the only major exceptions being the romances of adultery connected with the legend of Arthur: Lancelot and Guinevere (whose adulterous love either Chretien himself or his patron, Marie de Champagne, invented) and Tristram and Isode. It was not until the fourteenth century, however, that poets and romancers began to argue that true love, or “bon’ am our,” ought to be consummated in marriage. This fourteenth-century argument appears to be the consequence of a conscious synthesis: to the courtly values of freedom and fidelity in love was added the Christian value of chastity, thus enabling “fin’ amour” to become “true love,” passionate but also chaste, and so ideally consummated in marriage.

Possibly the earliest expression of this synthesis is to be found in an Anglo-Norman “Art d ’aimer” written either in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. The poet insists that true love is chaste, “Que bone amur ne quert peche” (line 658). No matter how much the lover ardently desires his lady, he must not touch her “S’il ne soit de baisere, / Taunt que il ad esposé” (lines 659-60). For through the sacrament of marriage God makes true lovers “un char et un saunk” and blesses their union. Indeed, there is no better life for lovers than to serve God in this joyous manner (lines 676-83).

Much better known to English readers, however, is the rather different expression of this synthesis in Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale. The Franklin begins his tale by telling briefly of Arveragus’s courtship of Dorigen and her acceptance of him as husband. This happy conclusion then becomes the occasion of some philosophical remarks upon the nature of love in which the Franklin stresses the importance of freedom:

Love wol nat been constreyned by maistrye.
Whan maistrie com th, the God of Love anon
Beteth his wynges, and farewel, he is gon!
Love is a thyng as any spirit free.
Wommen, of kynde, desiren libertee,
And nat to been constreyned as a thral;
And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal. (V. 764-70)

A few lines later, the Franklin pauses to reflect upon the paradox at the heart of the lovers’ marriage: Arveragus, who was Dorigen’s servant in love, is now also her lord in marriage, whereas she, who was his lady in love, is now also his wife. Is it possible for two people to be at one and the same time both ruler and ruled? Yes it is, concludes the Franklin, because their seemingly contradictory roles are in fact “acorde[d]” by “that lawe of love” (798) which decrees that love must be free. With this conclusion, the Franklin goes beyond the notion that young people should be able to freely choose their mates, to the much more radical notion that, if they wish to remain lovers, they must also remain free, unconstrained by “maistrye,” after they are wedded.

Neither the teachings of the Church nor romances like The Franklin’s Tale could alter the marriage customs of the gentry, however. The Paston Letters suggest that by the late fifteenth century, even though young people of both sexes were influenced by the romantic ideal of marrying for love, their parents still expected to be able to arrange their children’s marriages for profit. In 1469, Richard Calle addressed Margery Paston, as his “owne lady and mastres and spoke of the “greete loue” which had long been between them (No. 861). In 1477, Margery Brews addressed John Paston III as her “welebeloued Volentyne” (No. 416). Both pairs of lovers eventually married, but the contrast between the manner of their marrying is even more instructive than this one romantic likeness in their courtship. Margery Brews was able to marry John Paston only because their respective families finally, and after great difficulty, agreed upon the financial terms of the marriage contract. In contrast, Richard Calle was able to marry Margery Paston only because the young lovers managed to defy Margery’s parents by entering into a valid clandestine union.

Margery was probably only seventeen at the time, but her parents had been looking for a suitable husband for her since she was fourteen. She may well have been aware of, and determined to avoid, what had happened to her aunt, Elizabeth, when she was young. Elizabeth had been coerced into accepting a marriage repugnant to her, by beating, starving, and imprisonment (No. 446). Margery must have realized that her parents would never agree to her marrying Richard Calle, the family’s steward, and so secretly she betrothed herself to him, apparently knowing that words of betrothal spoken in the present tense would create a binding union in canon law.5 Her mother, Margaret Paston, went to the Bishop of Norwich to have the clandestine marriage annulled. But after questioning Margery and Richard separately, the Bishop concluded that their vows of betrothal were indeed sufficient to make a valid marriage. The family were powerless to prevent this unsuitable match, but they made Margery pay a heavy price for her disobedience. They disowned her, refusing ever to see her again, even though they continued to employ her husband as their steward for some years thereafter (Haskell 468).


Original article: Marital Fidelity in Morte D’Arthur

Moby Dick – Chapter 132 – The Symphony

It was a clear steel-blue day. The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep.

Hither, and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea.

But though thus contrasting within, the contrast was only in shades and shadows without; those two seemed one; it was only the sex, as it were, that distinguished them.

Aloft, like a royal czar and king, the sun seemed giving this gentle air to this bold and rolling sea; even as bride to groom. And at the girdling line of the horizon, a soft and tremulous motion—most seen here at the equator—denoted the fond, throbbing trust, the loving alarms, with which the poor bride gave her bosom away.

Tied up and twisted; gnarled and knotted with wrinkles; haggardly firm and unyielding; his eyes glowing like coals, that still glow in the ashes of ruin; untottering Ahab stood forth in the clearness of the morn; lifting his splintered helmet of a brow to the fair girl’s forehead of heaven.

Oh, immortal infancy, and innocency of the azure! Invisible winged creatures that frolic all round us! Sweet childhood of air and sky! how oblivious were ye of old Ahab’s close-coiled woe! But so have I seen little Miriam and Martha, laughing-eyed elves, heedlessly gambol around their old sire; sporting with the circle of singed locks which grew on the marge of that burnt-out crater of his brain.

Slowly crossing the deck from the scuttle, Ahab leaned over the side and watched how his shadow in the water sank and sank to his gaze, the more and the more that he strove to pierce the profundity. But the lovely aromas in that enchanted air did at last seem to dispel, for a moment, the cankerous thing in his soul. That glad, happy air, that winsome sky, did at last stroke and caress him; the step-mother world, so long cruel—forbidding—now threw affectionate arms round his stubborn neck, and did seem to joyously sob over him, as if over one, that however wilful and erring, she could yet find it in her heart to save and to bless. From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.

Starbuck saw the old man; saw him, how he heavily leaned over the side; and he seemed to hear in his own true heart the measureless sobbing that stole out of the centre of the serenity around. Careful not to touch him, or be noticed by him, he yet drew near to him, and stood there.

Ahab turned.



“Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day—very much such a sweetness as this—I struck my first whale—a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty—forty—forty years ago!—ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without—oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!—when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before—and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare—fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soil!—when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts—away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow—wife? wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive! Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!—aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool—fool—old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now? Behold. Oh, Starbuck! is it not hard, that with this weary load I bear, one poor leg should have been snatched from under me? Here, brush this old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep. Locks so grey did never grow but from out some ashes! But do I look very old, so very, very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!—crack my heart!—stave my brain!—mockery! mockery! bitter, biting mockery of grey hairs, have I lived enough joy to wear ye; and seem and feel thus intolerably old? Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. By the green land; by the bright hearth-stone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and my child in thine eye. No, no; stay on board, on board!—lower not when I do; when branded Ahab gives chase to Moby Dick. That hazard shall not be thine. No, no! not with the far away home I see in that eye!”

“Oh, my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! grand old heart, after all! why should any one give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! let us fly these deadly waters! let us home! Wife and child, too, are Starbuck’s—wife and child of his brotherly, sisterly, play-fellow youth; even as thine, sir, are the wife and child of thy loving, longing, paternal old age! Away! let us away!—this instant let me alter the course! How cheerily, how hilariously, O my Captain, would we bowl on our way to see old Nantucket again! I think, sir, they have some such mild blue days, even as this, in Nantucket.”

“They have, they have. I have seen them—some summer days in the morning. About this time—yes, it is his noon nap now—the boy vivaciously wakes; sits up in bed; and his mother tells him of me, of cannibal old me; how I am abroad upon the deep, but will yet come back to dance him again.”

“’Tis my Mary, my Mary herself! She promised that my boy, every morning, should be carried to the hill to catch the first glimpse of his father’s sail! Yes, yes! no more! it is done! we head for Nantucket! Come, my Captain, study out the course, and let us away! See, see! the boy’s face from the window! the boy’s hand on the hill!”

But Ahab’s glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil.

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths—Starbuck!”

But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.

Ahab crossed the deck to gaze over on the other side; but started at two reflected, fixed eyes in the water there. Fedallah was motionlessly leaning over the same rail.

From Gutenberg: Moby Dick

In Search of Meaning

If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.

Source: C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”, as quoted in “From Atheism to Christianity: A Personal Journey“, by Philip Vander Elst.

Shapeshifting in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature

Roda da Fortuna
Revista Eletrônica sobre Antiguidade e Medievo
Electronic Journal about Antiquity and Middle Ages

Lyonel D. Perabo

Shapeshifting in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature
Cambiante en la literatura nórdico-islandesa antigua


This article aims to cast a light upon the colorful yet largely unknown shapechanging motifs found in Old Norse-Icelandic literature as well as in related literary works conceived from Classical times until the middle of the 16th century. This essay analyzes the different sub-types of supernatural transformations and which kinds of texts they most commonly appear in and will posit as to their potential origins, genesis, and development within the context of Medieval Norse-Icelandic literature.


In the past couple of years, the study of magic and supernatural elements in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia seems to have blossomed. All the while numerous key-studies were published within academia, the image of the pagan Viking made new inroads in popular culture. During this period, modern medias such as HistoryChannel series Vikings (2013-), Bethesda’s top-tier video-game Skyrim (2011) or Dreamworks’ movie franchise How to Train Your Dragon (2010-) all reached mainstream recognition due in no small-part to their interpretation of Norse supernatural motifs. At the same time in academia, influential works on the subject such as Francois-Xavier Dillman’s Les magiciens dans l’Islande ancienne (2006), Clive Tolley’s Shamanism in Norse myth and magic (2009) or Stephen Mitchell’s Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages (2011) cast a new, highly analytical light on the subject of magic and the supernatural in the Viking Age. The present paper aims to follow step by focusing on a much more specific aspect of magic and sorcery in the Norse Middle Ages, namely the way shapeshifting is depicted in Old Norse-Icelandic literature. For the purpose of this article, Norse-Icelandic literature will be defined as referring to the literary corpus of Medieval Scandinavia. In addition, supplemental sources not originating from Scandinavia might be brought up as well in order to strengthen the understanding of specific Norse-Icelandic motifs. Finally, while the main focus of this paper will be put on narratives that revolve or feature individuals affected or engaging in shape-shifting, other peripheral motifs such as the relation between specific populations and various animals will also be brought to help further explain possible interpretations of shape-shifting motifs in Old NorseIcelandic literature. It should be noted, however, that sentient animals like the magical ox Harri in Laxdæla saga and supernatural humanoids born of sorcery like Ögmundr in Örvar-Odds saga will not be discussed in the present article as it is believed that such figures fall outside its scope. This article will be constructed as to begin with an analysis of the different terms used in the corpus to describe shapeshifting before presenting the three main narrative sub-categories that feature such elements. However, before looking at actual shape-shifting narratives, one needs to focus one’s attention on the vocabulary surrounding this motif and how it might affect the depiction and understanding of said motif.


Original article: Shapeshifting in Old Norse-Icelandic Literature