More Medieval Than Thou

King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 cover I just got my PDF copy of King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 a few weeks ago. I started browsing it — and I do not understand its problem with women.

Yes, yes, Greg Stafford makes efforts to open up character creation a bit for female characters. Look, I’ve been playing Pendragon for thirty years and I have made female characters under every rule set. Incremental change, yeah, that’s great, but still missing the point.

Arthurian romance and the roman courtois genre largely became popular in its time because women read the stories, or had the stories read to them. Fan favourite Thomas Malory came in on the tail end (no pun intended) in the mid-15th century with Le Morte d’Arthur but the really interesting materials were written long before, and among the authors were women. Marie de France was writing Tristan and Iseult stories in the 12th century, Christine de Pisan wrote Le Livre des Faits d’armes et de chevalerie just before Thomas Malory was born.

King Arthur Pendragon, 1st ed. coverEver since its original 1985 edition, King Arthur Pendragon classifies women characters from Arthurian romance into three tiers. Non-player characters include “ordinary women” and “important women.”

Ordinary women:

“fulfill all non-epic functions without complications. Their anonymous existence is implied or accepted through the feudal world. They remain faceless and nameless. Such women have no individual character sheets; they are all Gamemaster characters. These generally include the unplayed wives of player-knights.”

Important women:

“have some individuality. They usually have names, or are at least known as the daughters of their fathers. [They] are often widows, mothers of vengeful men, heiresses, or healers of note. They are commonly accused of or found to be using minor magic. They are often among the major Gamemaster characters that will interact directly with the player-knights on a regular basis. They generally do not have complete character sheets.”

Extraordinary women can be player or Gamemaster charaters.

Extraordinary women in Malory include Queen Guenever, the beautiful wife of King Arthur and head of the Courts of Love; Queen Margawse, widow of King Lot, a dabbler in witchcraft and the mother of Sir Gawaine and his brothers; Queen Morgan le Fay, the mistress of Faerie, an enchantress supreme who has a passion for Sir Lancelot, hates Guenever, and plots trouble for her brother, King Arthur; Lady Viviane of the Lake, who gives Arthur his sword, Excalibur, and is killed by Sir Balin; and Lady Nimue of the Lake, guardian of the High King’s court against wicked enchantment, once Merlin is gone.

It’s telling that we read this discussion for women’s characters but not men. It illustrates the fundamental thinking: characters are male by default, women are variants. After all, wouldn’t the three tiers — ordinary, important, and extraordinary — apply to male characters?

Moreover, the examples of extraordinary women provided in this discussion are restricted by the filter. The tales that Malory mined also offer Enide from Erec et Enide (Chrétien de Troyes) / Gereint ac Enid (Welsh romances); Iseult/Isolde the Fair, she of Tristan’s longings; Dandrane, Percival’s sister and herself a quester (Perlesvaus); Queen Ygerne/Igraine, Arthur’s mother; Laudine the Lady of the Fountain, and her clever maid Lunete; Olwen, daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden Pencawr; etc. — none of which get airtime in KAP 5.2.

(By the way, the original romances also include a few persons of colour, men and women.)

Finally, we have substantial numbers of women among scholars of the Arthurian cycle (e.g., Fanni Bogdanow, Jill M. Roberts, Christine Ferlampin-Acher, Emma Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz) and among modern-day novelists who based new tales on the legendary characters (e.g., Marion Zimmer Bradley, Kim Iverson Headlee, Patricia Kennealy, Debra Kemp, Gillian Bradshaw.)

My point is, women were a key audience for the source material, were represented among the earliest writers we know of, were present as active characters in the tales, and have since spent a lot of time, effort, talent, study, and ink over these stories. Why is it so hard for a game writer who has been at it for over thirty years himself to notice all these women? To notice that women want to write, read, GM, and play Arthurian romances, not as quest objects or rewards, or as eternal support characters, but as protagonists?

Yes, I know an effort was made. I can’t but notice it since I am graciously told:

Generate a female knight exactly the same way you would a male knight. In the real world, women are statistically smaller and weaker than men by about 15%, but female knights should be allowed to use the same Attributes for men to generate female characters. […]

Oh, thank you, Good Sir! I will be allowed to play my 6th century knight in 15th century armour à la Malory and not be hosed by the game rules for playing a woman? Thank you, thank you!

And then the section goes on to inform us that female knights should be called “Sir”, not “Lady” or “Dame” because that’s something entirely different. Really! I assume that Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, at whose court author Marie de France sat, was called “sir” when she rode in armour with the Second Crusade?

[See also examples in http://www.tor.com/2017/02/23/five-amazing-women-warriors-of-the-middle-ages/]

Pendragon 5.2 does not in fact prevent you from playing a woman knight, nor add stat penalties. It’s just sanctimonious in a “We really should penalize you, but we’re so nice,” begrudging kind of way; and erases important female characters and authors from its discussion.

Greg Stafford answers a straw(wo)man version of the issue in his short essay “This is a Sexist Setting.” However, he phrases it as if the setting had an objective external existence and he was its defender. It’s important here to be clear on what “the setting” is. Are we talking about:

  • The fictional setting of the entire body of writing that is classified as Arthurian romance, from Taliesin to Sir Thomas Malory?
  • The historical context the stories are purportedly set in, around a late 5th century/early 6th century warlord?
  • The historical setting at the time the stories were told and written, primarily from the 10th through 15th centuries?
  • The fictional setting strictly as represented by Malory — who wrote at the end of the Arthurian romance period of peak popularity and furthest from the era it covers?
  • The fictional setting as presented in the various editions of the King Arthur Pendragon role-playing game, from 1985 through 2016?

My complaint is that showing women as full and empowered characters in Arthurian romance should not be an afterthought, but a key piece.

I’m tired, exhausted of the backhanded gifts, the grudging concessions, the caveats, the faux “realism,” the obliviousness to the existing, long-standing participation and contribution of women. Why are you trying to open the door as little as possible rather than throwing them wide open? Why do you not see the ample precedent you have in and around the source material to justify erring on the side of openness?

Pop Culture Arthurian Legend

Bernard Cornwell: The Winter KingThis month’s reading in my Goodreads book club is Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King. I won’t be reading it; I don’t have time because of my writing schedule, and also because although Edmund has been after me since 1997 to read this book which he really loved, I never got past the first chapter because it just wasn’t grabbing me.

In fact, I’ve yet to finish any Cornwell novel; I failed on the Sharpe novels (though I saw a number of the British television versions starring Sean Bean, but still wasn’t that interested), and I loved The Archer’s Tale exactly as much as my attempt to read the first Thomas Covenant novel, and for the same reason. After the latter book, I decided I wasn’t going to try any more of his books.

Monty Python and the Holy GrailStill, there is plenty of pop culture material around the Arthurian legends; on the Goodreads discussion, Rachel started a thread on other uses of the legend in fantasy and science fiction books. I’ll be brief and picky here because there is so much material.

There are so many movies based on the Arthurian cycle that Wikipedia has a whole page to tally them, as well as one to list other works based on the material. The ones I remember best are:

  • Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981). I hate that movie so much, but lots of my friends adore it.
  • Monty Python’s and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, 1975). I still love it, so that’s three reasons in  a row for readers to hate me.
  • The Sword in the Stone (Walt Disney, 1963). I was enough of a geek even at ag4e 10 to pooh-pooh it because it was departing from the legends, particularly regarding the character of Merlin…
  • Indirectly, I suppose we could add Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1989).  Another one I still love.

Prince Valiant RPGThe Arthurian legend was also pillaged in individual episodes of Babylon Five, Doctor Who, Star Trek: Deep Space 9, etc.

Pendragon RPG coverFor my fellow role-players, here are three games of note:

  • Pendragon (written by Greg Stafford), a game which is now in its fifth edition. I was never in love with the system but it works. The source material is very good, and it has in fact been used to play specifically with the flavour found in Cornwell’s The Winter King.
  • Prince Valiant, the Story-Telling Game (written by Greg Stafford), based on the Prince Valiant comic books by Hal Foster. Out of print but still found used on eBay or in used book stores, and well worth the purchase.
  • CAMELOT Trigger (written by Rod Wieland), a setting for the Fate Core system found in Evil Hat Productions’ recently published Fate Worlds Volume 2: Worlds in Shadow. A re-telling as a solar system-spanning epic with giant mech suits.