Game of Thrones: The Overthrow of the Patriarchy in Westeros? (An Opinion Piece)

George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is currently one of the most popular fantasy series, both on television and in print, and some have begun to describe the work alongside J. R. R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings and J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter. As with Tolkien and Rowling, Martin borrows readily from medieval history and literature, but somewhat differently; Martin seems at times to invert certain fantasy genre expectations and stereotypes. His fantasy series centers on themes generally associated with modern medievalism, especially issues of rightful rulership, noble lineage, courtly politics, codes of chivalry, medieval warfare, ancient prophecy, arcane magic, mysterious monsters and spiritual mysticism. However, Martin’s somewhat more innovative characterizations and reimagining of traditions are what I have personally found most enjoyable about reading Song of Ice and Fire and viewing Game of Thrones.

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) with her sword, Needle

In particular, I appreciate how Martin highlights the failure of the patriarchy. At the beginning of Game of Thrones (both the book and the film), most of the powerful houses and many of the kingdoms are ruled by strong men—the seven kingdoms and the stormlands under Robert Baratheon, the north under Eddard Stark, the westerlands under Tywin Lannister, the iron islands under Balon Greyjoy, and the Dothraki khalasar under Khal Drogo. Even the exiled Viserys Targaryen held his family’s claim to the iron throne, though he could hardly be considered strong in any sense.

Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide), Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), and Viserys Targaryen (Harry Llyod)

The one possible exception is the queen of thorns, Olenna Tyrell, who is ultimately poisoned by Jamie Lannister after allying with Daenerys Targaryen in season seven, episode three [“The Queen’s Justice”]. Like her grandmother, the thrice-made queen, Margaery Tyrell, also demonstrates her social prowess by navigating courtly politics and leveraging marriage to her advantage, working the system from within. However, Margaery underestimates her enemies and becomes a victim of the wildfire arson of the Sept of Balor, which all but destroys her family, sparing only Olenna who was then safe at Highgarden and beyond Cersei’s reach.

Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer)

By the end of the series, things look quite different. The final contest for the iron throne is staged between two rival queens, Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister. The once exiled Daenerys, having been fostered by the Dothraki, holds perhaps the strongest claim to the iron throne, though Jon Snow’s recently discovered identity certainly complicates the matter of succession as determined by the patriarchal legal traditions of Westeros. Nevertheless, Daenerys has emerged as a conqueror in Essos and returns to Westeros with both armies  and dragons.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark) with her dragon, Drogon.

The Baratheon family is mostly wiped out in the war of five kings (although Daenerys names Gendry Baratheon the new lord of Storm’s End), and the north and riverlands seem to be led by Sansa Stark, despite Jon Snow’s recent title as king in the north. Cersei Lannister retains the iron throne as queen, and she commands her family’s forces as well as the Iron Fleet of Euron Greyjoy and the mercenary guild known as the Golden Company. Asha Greyjoy (or Yara in the films) is also named queen of the iron islands, and she has acted as a leader throughout the series, as has the Dornish matriarch, Ellaria Sand (a character loosely associated with princess Arianne Martell, absent from the films entirely). And, after Ned Stark’s death, Catelyn Stark took command of the north and riverlands alongside her son Robb Stark until the terrible red wedding claims both their lives.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) and Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley)

Other prominent female characters have likewise developed into formidable figures, especially the fearless assassin Arya Stark, who crucially slays the Night King, the mighty knight Brienne of Tarth, and the mystical red priestess Melisandre. The young and fierce Lyanna Mormont also shows her unfailing fortitude, even as she dies heroically during the battle for Winterfell in a David and Goliath allusive scene, in which she destroys an undead giant.

Ary Stark (Maisie Williams), Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), Melisandre (Carice van Houten), and Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey)

I am by no means attempting to exonerate Game of Thrones or Song of Ice and Fire from warranted allegations of sexism, and there is surely still much to reflect on and criticize in this regard. More blatantly, it seems that Game of Thrones is distinctly less concerned with issues of race. The films in particular consistently portray the Dothraki as exceptionally savage in a manner that upholds extremely harmful and problematic stereotypes. This characterization is especially troubling considering how in season eight, episode three [“The Long Night”], the Dothraki are essentially sacrificed. The much discussed Dothraki charge into the approaching forces of the Night King was the first and only assault by the living against the army of the dead, and the Dothraki were all but annihilated as a result. Rather miraculously, the one Westerosi knight who rides out with the Dothraki manages to make it back alive.

Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and the Dothraki screamers about to charge

Martin consistently focuses on the gritty human experience, and most of his cultures seem barbaric in one form or another. However, especially in the film, the Dothraki are presented at times in ways that reinforce a stubborn racial bias within the modern fantasy genre. It seemed to me as a reader that in the book series, Song of Ice and Fire, Martin is able to better demonstrate that savagery and the horrors which humans inflict on each other are ubiquitous and extend to every culture—perpetrated by the free folk wildlings north of the Wall, the feudal Westerosi and the pillaging iron islanders, as often as by the Dothraki horde or the ruling class in Slaver’s Bay. Of course, I fully concede that my interpretations of the books and films are necessarily limited and affected by my white male privilege, as it is for the books’ author [George R. R. Martin] and films’ creators [David Benioff and D. B. Weiss]. It nevertheless seems apparent that the various patriarchal systems are the universal root of atrocities in both Westeros and Essos.

Lord of Bones (Edward Dogliani) with wildlings and slaves in Slaver’s Bay

It must be emphasized, as many critics have pointed out, that the film series repeatedly underrepresents persons of color. The only two major non-white characters that make it to season eight are Grey Worm, who leads the Unsullied, and Missandei, who dies at Cersei’s hand this past weekend, after being captured by Euron Greyjoy during season eight, episode four [“The Last of the Starks”]. Both are former slaves from Essos who have become loyal friends and advisors to Daenerys. Missandei’s devotion to the “mother of dragons” costs her life, and I would be rather disappointed, if not surprised, should the same prove true for Grey Worm before the war for Westeros is done.

Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson)

Perhaps as unfortunate as Game of Thrones’ mistreatment of Missandei and Grey Worm is the book series’ numerous characters of color who simply do not feature in the show, including central figures from the Dornish royal family and Moqorro, a powerful red priest from Volantis, who is searching for Daenerys in Martin’s book five, A Dance with Dragons. The film also misses a number of opportunities to cast major protagonists from Essos as persons of color, including Varys, Thoros of Myr and Melisandre, all of whom are played by white actors.

Varys (Conleth Hill), Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) and Melisandre (Carice van Houten)

While Game of Thrones falls woefully short when it comes to fantasy representations of diverse and non-white cultures, and above all underrepresents women of color, it does seems to me that the toppling of the patriarchy by powerful (generally white) women is part of its narrative design. In virtually every case, with the notable exception of Cersei, female rulership is a marked improvement upon the patriarchy that existed prior to women’s rise to power in Westeros. In my opinion, even Cersei seems objectively preferable to her son Joffrey Baratheon, the adolescent-king poisoned by Littlefinger [Petyr Baelish] and Olenna Tyrell at his own wedding.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey)

I hope that the fact that an anti-patriarchal message, however clumsily handled, features so prominently in a mainstream fantasy series may at the very least represent an evolution in contemporary audiences’ expectations and sensibilities. In addition to the series’ function as a literary bridge between the modern and medieval for many readers and students, the bifurcating successes and failures with regard to expressions of feminist and racial attitudes in Game of Thrones make the film a potentially useful teaching tool for illustrating conscious and unconscious misogyny and racism in medievalism and fantasy literature.

Hopefully, they do not blow it and put Jon Snow on the iron throne.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame


Related Online Reading:

Adair, Jamie. “Is Chivalry Death?History Behind Game of Thrones (November 10, 2013).

Ahmed, Tufayel. “Why Women Will Rule Westeros When the Show Ends.” Newsweek (June 22, 2016).

Ashurst, Sam. “Game of Thrones: Who’s Got Magical Powers, and What Can They Actually Do?Digital Spy (July 20, 2017).

Baer, Drake. “Game of Thrones‘ Creator George R. R. Martin Shares His Creative Process.” Business Insider (April 29, 2014).

Blaise, Guilia. Games of Thrones Has a Woman Problem (And It’s Not What You Think).” The Huffington Post (May 6, 2017).

Blumsom, Amy. “Arya Stark’s Kill List: Who’s Still Left for Needle in Game of Thrones Season 8?The Telegraph (May 5, 2019).

Bogart, Laura. “Margaery Tyrell is Westeros’ Biggest Badass—and the Show Can’t Handle Her.” AV Club (May 23, 2016).

Bundel, Ani. “What Happened to Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones‘ Season 7? Here’s Your Official Refresher.” Elite Daily (April 5, 2019).

Chaney, Jen. “Has Game of Thrones Solved Its Woman Problem?Vulture (June 6, 2016).

Chang, David. “Game of Thrones Continues Feminist Tone.” The Observer (April 26, 2019)

Chen, Heather, and Grace Tsiao. “Game of Thrones: Who is the True Heir?BBC News (August 29, 2017).

Corless, Bridget. “The Romans, the Walls and the Wildlings.” History Behind Game of Thrones (August 9, 2019).

E., Marjorie. Game of Thrones and the Struggle with Liking Sexist Television.” Femestella (February 18, 2019).

Engelstein, Stefani. “Is Game of Thrones Racist?” Medium. Duke University (April 10, 2019).

Dessem, Mathew. “Here’s Why the Dothraki Attack in Game of Thrones Was So Devastating.” Slate (April 30, 2019).

Dikov, Ivan. “Game of Thrones is Terrific But Why Are Humans So Enchanted With Feudalism?Archaeology in Bulgaria (October 19, 2017.)

Fahey, Richard. “Zombie of the Frozen North: White Walkers and Old Norse Revenants.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. University of Notre Dame (March 5, 2018).

Flood, Rebecca. “George R. R. Martin Revolutionised How People Think About Fantasy.” The Guardian (April 10, 2015).

Gay, Verne. “Game of Thrones: 14 Great Supernatural Moments and Creatures.” Newsday (April 7, 2016).

Guillaume, Jenna. “People Are Calling Game of Thrones‘ Season Eight, Episode 4 the Worst Episode Ever.” Buzzfeed News (May 6, 2019).

Harp, Justin. “Nathalie Emmanuel Says Early Game of Thrones Was ‘So Brutal to the Women.'” Digital Spy (December 4, 2019).

Hawkes, Rebecca. “Melisandre: Everything You Need to Know About the Red Woman’s Shock Return to Save Winterfell in Game of Thrones.” The Telegraph (April 30, 2019).

—. “Game of Thrones and Race: Who Are the Non-White Characters and Where Are They from in the Books and Show?The Telegraph (April 29, 2019).

Heifetz, Danny. “The Dothraki Deserved Better From Daenerys.” The Ringer (April 30, 2019).

Izadi, Elahe. “Sansa Stark Should Sit on the Iron Throne in Game of Thrones— and it Looks Like She Might.” The Washington Post (May 1, 2019).

Khan, Razib. “Is Game of Thrones Racist? Not Even Wrong…Discover (April 21, 2011).

Kim, Dorothy. “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” In the Middle (August 28, 2017).

Lash, Jolie. “Game of Thrones: Is Daenerys Targaryen a Good Ruler?Collider (April 16, 2019).

Liao, Shannon. “Game of Thrones Has Spent Three Years Foreshadowing the Long Night’s Ending.” The Verge (May 1, 2019).

—. “Daenerys vs. Cersei: Who Has the Resources to Win the Final Game of Thrones?The Verge ( April 29, 2019).

—. “Game of Thrones’ Greatest Hero is Still Olenna Tyrell.” The Verge (July 24, 2017).

Lomuto, Sierra. “Public Medievalism and the Rigor of Anti-Racist Critique.” In the Middle (April 4, 2019).

London, Lela. “What Are the Seven Houses in Game of Thrones and Who Rules Westeros?The Telegraph (May 6, 2019).

Majka, Katie. “Fight Like a Lady: The Promotion of Feminism in Game of Thrones.” Fansided: Winter is Coming (May 7, 2018).

Michallon, Clémence. “Game of Thrones: George R. R. Martin Explains How Arya Stark’s Character Was Inspired by Feminism and the Sexual Revolution.” Independent (April 22, 2019).

Miller, Julie. “Which Historical Event Inspired Game of Thrones‘ Shocking Death Last Night?Vanity Fair (April 14, 2014).

Nelson, Isis. “White Saviorism in HBO’s Game of Thrones.” Medium (August 1, 2016).

Nkadi, Ashley. “Why Is Society Intent on Erasing Black People in Fantasy and Sci-Fi’s Imaginary Worlds?The Root (November 9, 2017).

Pavlac, Brian A. Game of Thrones Versus History: Written in Blood. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2017.

Philippe, Ben. “Missandei, Grey Worm, and Game of Thrones‘ Racial Blind Spot.” Vanity Fair (April 22, 2019).

Pitts, Kathryn. “Women of Color in Game of Thrones: A Show of Underrepresentation.” Sayfty (April 7, 2017).

Plante, Corey. “Why Grey Worm Will Probably Die in Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 4.” Inverse (May 4, 2019).

Reisner, Mathew. “Game of Thrones Meets International Relations: A Match Made in Heaven?The National Interest (April 3, 2019).

Renfro, Kim. “Fans are Furious Over This Game of Thrones Plotline, and It’s Not Hard to See Why.” Business Insider (April 25, 2016).

—, and Skye Gould. “Why John Snow Has Always Been the ‘Rightful Heir’ to the Iron Throne.” Insider (August 29, 2017).

Robinson, Garrett. “Fantasy Genre Hates Women.” Medium (February 4, 2016).

Robinson, Joana. “Game of Thrones: Why the Latest Death Stings So Much.” Vanity Fair (May 5, 2019).

Romano, Aja. “Game of Thrones‘ Missandei Controversy, Explained.” Vox (May 6, 2019.)

Romero, Ariana. “Your Guide to Game of Thrones‘ Most Pressing Prophecies.” Refinery29 (April 3, 2019).

Rossenberg, Alyssa. “The Arguments about Women and Power in Game of Thrones Have Never Been More Unsettling.” The Washington Post (August 9, 2017).

Ruddy, Matthew. “10 Reasons Why Cersei Lannister is the Strongest Character on Game of Thrones.” Screenrant (April 29, 2019).

Rumsby, John H. “Otherworldly Others : Racial Representation in Fantasy Literature.” Masters Thesis: Université de Montréal (2017).

Ryan, Lisa. “Brienne of Tarth Finally Gets What She Deserves.” The Cut (April 22, 2019).

Schuessler, Jennifer. “Medieval Scholars Joust with White Nationalists. And On Another.” New York Times (May 5, 2019).

Sturtevant, Paul B. “You Know Nothing About Medieval Warfare John Snow.” The Public Medievalist (May 2, 2019).

Thomas, Ben. “The Real History Behind Game of Thrones, Part 3: Slaver’s Bay.” The Strange Continent (May 4, 2019).

Thomas, Rhiannon. “In Defense of Catelyn Stark.” Feminist Fiction (August 9, 2012).

Thompson, Eliza. “A Guide to the Many Religions on Game of Thrones.” Cosmopolitan (July 13, 2013).

Tucker, Christina. “Last Night’s Episode of Game of Thrones Was a Failure to Women.” Elle (May 6, 2019).

Vineyard, Jennifer. “Lyanna Mormot, Giant Slayer, Never Expected to Last This Long.” The New York Times (April 30, 2019).

—. “Game of Thrones: Grey Worm’s Fate Surprised Everyone But the Man Who Plays Him.” The New York Times (April 29, 2019).

—. “Game of Thrones: Why Do the Wildlings and the Night’s Watch Hate Each Other So Much?” Explainers (June 8, 2014).

Waxman, Olivia B. “Game of Thrones is Even Changing How Scholars Study the Real Middle Ages.” Time (July 14, 2017).

—. “An Exclusive Look Inside Harvard’s New Game of Thrones-Themed Class.” Time (May 30, 2017).

Weeks, Princess.”Game of Thrones Delivers Its Worst Episode of the Season While Screwing Over Its Female Characters.” The Mary Sue. (March 6, 2019).

—. “We Need to Talk About How Game of Thrones Treats the Dothraki.” The Mary Sue. (April 29, 2019).

Yadav, Vikash. “A Dothraki Complaint.” Duck of Minerva (April 27, 2012).

Yglesias, Matthew. “Game of Thrones‘ Dany/Dothraki Storyline Doesn’t Make Any Sense.” Vox (June 3, 2016).

Young, Helen. “Game of Thrones‘ Racism Problem.” The Public Medievalist (July 21, 2017).

The Dothraki and the Scythians: A Game of Clones?The British Museum Blog (July 12, 2017).

Game of Thrones‘ Red Wedding Based on Real Historical Events: The Black Dinner and Glencoe Massacre.” Huffington Post. (June 5, 2013).

Huns, Mongols and Dothraki.” Tower of the Hawk (April 7, 2015).

The Iron Islands and the Viking Age: Gods, Wives, and Reavers.” Tower of the Hawk (April 7, 2015).

Love, Fear and Humanity and the Ballad of Grey Worm and Missandei.” Watchers on the Wall (February 15, 2018).

Women Reading Silence in a Time of Social Fracture

In the thirteenth-century Roman de Silence, patriarchal inheritance laws of the land drive a young girl’s parents to make a choice: lose their lands and leave their daughter without an inheritance or raise her as a boy.[1] Thus, the child (aptly named Silence) grows up to become one of the greatest knights of the realm. In a society that values masculinity, the female characters in the story strive to assert their voices in a world dominated by men’s discourse. The story begins as a traditional chivalric romance, with Silence’s mother Eufemie (whose name means ‘use of good speech’ (cf. euphemism)) and father Cador struggling, in the passionate heat of their courtship, to say what they feel. When Silence reaches puberty, and Cador stresses the necessity of maintaining a masculine identity, Silence, whose body has become the locus for a battle between the personified forces of Nature and Nurture, is left with little choice but to acquiesce. Later, living quite successfully as a man and the most valued knight of King Evan’s (spelled, in various ways, Ebain in the original) court, Silence faces the unwanted sexual advances of King Evan’s wife, Eufeme (whose name means ‘alas! woman’), at which point, things begin to unravel. Unable to voice an essential, personal truth and trapped by the confines of traditional gender roles, Silence ultimately is left silent in a story that is both beautiful and devastating. In 2017, revisiting this story of a transgender protagonist, sexual harassment (and assault), that which is spoken, and those who are silenced, I knew that the time was ripe for introducing my students to Silence.

f. 203r of the Roman de Silence (ff. 188r-223r). Nottingham, University of Nottingham, MS WLC/LM/6. Reproduced by kind permission of Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham.[2]
At the Hockaday School in Dallas, Texas—an all-girls college preparatory school—my Upper School students are women who similarly are trying to find and use their voices in a time (both developmentally and historically) when they are confronting fractured messaging about women’s roles in the social and political spheres. I teach Arthurian stories in British and world literature courses and in a senior seminar on King Arthur. Whenever I teach Arthuriana in my classroom, these students, who are becoming well-versed in the language of feminism, race-theory, social dynamics, and identity, consistently impress me with their ability to discuss diversity with sensitivity and passion. This year, I decided to assemble a focused reading group outside of class for students, enthusiastic volunteers from all levels in the Upper School (freshmen through seniors), to study the Roman de Silence. Like Silence, the students in our group are women growing up and trying to assert their own voices in a world that often tries to silence them. They were so proud to make their voices heard through this project.

The course was structured informally as a reading group, meeting once a week over lunch in my classroom. We had about thirty students participating in one way or another throughout the semester with a core of about a dozen who attended regularly. I initially planned for about eight meetings. We read 1,000 lines a week of Sarah Roche-Mahdi’s facing-page translation, moving fairly slowly through the text.[3] While this pace allowed us to dive more deeply into Silence during our meetings, we decided that we wanted to continue the conversation outside of class through an online discussion board using our school’s learning management system. This included topics such as “Silence’s Birth and Youth,” “Silence, the Minstrels, and Eufeme,” and (because I teach teenage girls) the spirited catch-all, “Things That Have Us Shook.”

My goal with this reading group was, in part, to take young, pre-college students and turn them on to that undeniably electric attraction so many of us feel when we study the Middle Ages. In part, I also wanted them to get fired up about how little has changed since thirteenth-century France in conversations about identity and politics. It was serendipitous, then, that a month before our first meeting, TIME magazine named the “Silence Breakers” its “Person of the Year,” celebrating women for breaking their silence in the face of sexual harassment and assault. The weekend before our first meeting, celebrities in the film and television industries at the Golden Globe Awards coordinated the launch of the #TimesUp movement (building on the momentum of the #metoo movement, which had been gaining significant traction through the winter). Women who had been silenced by their abusers and the systems that protected them were speaking out—breaking their silence, just as our Silence could not. My students were incensed and energized—you have to work in a girls’ school to understand it—it was in the air and in many of the conversations they were having with each other and begging to have with me. Silence, then, was a fitting literary entrée into the conversation.

The Roman de Silence explores some challenging topics, including sexual harassment, consent, gender dynamics (including transgender issues and the politics of gender), Nature vs. Nurture, and a problematic narrator. Because I was working with students of a wide range of ages (the kids in my group ranged from ages 14-18), I wanted to be sensitive to that dynamic. We decided it was necessary to establish a common language, most important to the students, agreeing on what gender pronouns to use in reference to Silence, the main protagonist, and Heldris, the ostensible author and narrator.[4] One of the biggest (and coolest) challenges with the Roman de Silence is the dexterity with which Heldris moves back and forth between genders in reference to Silence, sometimes even within the same sentence. Heldris, too, is ambiguous in gender, so how were we to refer to our author/narrator? In the end, the students decided together that they would use the gender neutral “they” in reference to both, which provided a sometimes stumbling, but always insightful frame for our discussions. It matters, they learned, which pronouns we choose when referring to Silence and to Heldris.

Silence Dressed as a Young Boy. Nottingham, University of Nottingham, MS WLC/LM/6, f. 203r. Reproduced by kind permission of Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham.

Early in the story, Heldris establishes their authority by claiming that they will write the story in French based on their reading of a “Latin version” of unclear origin:

I’m not saying there isn’t
a good deal of fiction mingled with truth,
in order to improve the tale,
but if I am any judge of things,
I’m not putting in anything that will spoil the work,
nor will there be any less truth in it,
for truth should not be silenced. (1663-8)

So, very quickly, my students had to figure out how to hold these two things in tension: how can truth and fiction coexist? First, we have an author who is grounding themselves in textual authority (Latin, no less!). On the other hand, that author freely admits that, just as one might a bland soup, they have spiced up the tale by mixing in fiction “in order to improve” it, but in a way that will not spoil the work or make it less truthful. This metaphor of cooking (which seems to lie just below the surface of Heldris’s words) helped my students, but it also sowed the seeds of doubt for some—how reliable was this narrator? Whose side were they on?

Choosing to use the singular “they” in reference to Heldris throughout our discussions ended up highlighting (sometimes rather strikingly) the author’s problematic position of authority. When divorced from gender identifiers, assumptions students might otherwise have made about Heldris’s opinions or positions suddenly unraveled, making them much more complex (and perhaps for my students, more frustrating). One minute, Heldris seems so intimately conversant in the effects of sexual harassment on a female victim. The next, they’re condemning women wholesale for their tendency to manipulate men with their tears. When we removed our essentialist biases about how women write or men write (and where their sympathies lie as writers), we found ourselves so much less sure about how to understand Heldris’s position.

Here’s an example from the online discussion board “Things That Have Us Shook.” We had been reading about Silence’s prowess at tournaments and on the battlefield. Heldris describes Silence as “a second Alexander,” running through a heroic catalogue of their clothes and especially helmet (like the shield of Achilles). Eufeme, who at this point already has attempted to sexually assault Silence once, will soon begin plotting to do so again, despite Silence’s revulsion of her:

Student A: What does it suggest about sexuality if Silence has been raised as male for all intents and purposes and yet is not attracted to women? It seems like an extremely progressive idea that even today older generations seem to have trouble grasping.

Student A later explained in our meeting that she was trying to think through the idea that a male-presenting person, raised with all the trappings and cultural baggage of a man, might be, if not attracted to women, presumably attracted to men. For this student, this allowed for fluidity among gender and sexuality that really struck her and made her feel like Heldris was pushing some boundaries in exciting ways. Then, her peer responded thus:

Student B: I actually didn’t read it as a progressive idea, as the phrasing of the encounter between Eufeme and Silence seemed to imply that Silence was not attracted to Eufeme because they (Silence) were biologically female. In this context, the book could be interpreted as hetero-normative, because despite Silence being raised as male, their “true nature” as female means Silence cannot be attracted to women. I guess it really depends on what Heldris thinks Silence identifies as (I personally think Silence is bi-gender, but Heldris seems to be on the side of Nature).

This sparked a lively group discussion about Heldris’s “allegiances,” as the students called them. Silence is the best at combat—as a woman, they can do everything men can do (and better!), but Heldris still will make snide comments about women and point back to the Nature vs. Nurture debate. Then again, Heldris so carefully plays with Silence’s pronouns in a way that seems to suggest, in Student A’s words, “maybe Heldris chose to switch pronouns when Silence felt more in tune with one gender over the other.” This seems so sensitive and gentle that when at other points Heldris makes blanket statements about the failings of women, such statements felt particularly brutal to my students. While the students loved the debate between Nature and Nurture—so dramatic, so steeped in stereotypical gender norms, and so very relevant to cultural discussions we’re having today—they had difficulty figuring out just where Heldris fell on the debate.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing the threats and execution of both sexual and deadly violence on women’s bodies. It took us a full meeting, for example, to begin to unknot King Evan’s dismissal of Eufeme’s accusations of sexual assault against Silence (fabricated as they were). When the king says to his wife, “So let’s pretend it didn’t happen. Just think of it all as a dream, sweetheart. / Nothing happened, nothing’s wrong, nothing should come of it” (4245-7), we couldn’t help but think about Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and so many others, and the many men who worked behind the scenes to enable their predation. When Heldris says of women who are trying to avenge the wrongs done to them: “When she is told to keep quiet, / she tries all the harder to make noise” (4270), we couldn’t help but hear the “Silence Breakers.” When King Evan has Silence stripped of all their clothes in front of the court, exposing King Evan’s limited understanding of truth and forcing Silence, in quiet dignity, to speak their own and then fall silent, my students mourned the loss of Silence’s ability to own and live their identity. In the end, Nature’s victory rung so terrifying (in all its objectification of Silence) that we were reminded of the recent horror film Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele (as though Silence had been sent to the “sunken place” and were watching their life, silently, from afar). This is part of what inspired my students to want to dramatize the story in film.

I said previously that I had planned for this group to last about eight weeks. Most of these meetings focused on close, textual analysis and consideration of other primary and secondary texts. During one meeting, I brought in a .pdf of a working draft of Regina Psaki (University of Oregon) and Bonnie Wheeler’s (Southern Methodist University) new prose translation of the Roman de Silence. Wheeler said of the translation: “Gina and I originally conceived of this project as one that would be in print but have now decided to make it open-access on-line so that it can be used in classrooms without adding to student book costs. Thus we don’t want it included in course packets, etc., for which students are charged.” They asked a few colleagues (including myself) who teach at different levels to do beta testing, and their goal is to produce a parallel text/translation, including links to important essays on the poem. If all goes well (and they find a great tech-helper), we should expect to see it available by spring 2019. In the meantime, my students were delighted to engage with (and even provide suggestions for) this fantastic translation-in-progress.

About six weeks in, my students decided that they wanted to produce a film trailer for a movie about Silence (it was a group filled with budding actors, costume designers, creative writers, and film makers) and began making plans in a Google doc for a culminating project. They spent about four weeks on this and developed a draft for a script. What was most interesting was how they thought through the rhetoric, purpose, and audience of a film trailer and struggled with what scenes to preview and how best to problematize Heldris (who would provide the extradiagetic voiceover). In the end, they ran out of time (with graduation looming on the horizon), but during our final meeting (lucky number 15), they were determined to come up with some kind of project nevertheless. Therefore, they created a Twitter handle, which this year’s students will now run. So feel free to check out @heldriscornwall on Twitter for some fun memes, surveys, retweets, and recommended reading![5]

Jennifer Boulanger, Ph.D.
The Hockaday School

 

[1] Our only copy of the text is in University of Nottingham, MS Mi.LM.6, which now has a new shelf mark as part of the Wollaton Library Collection: MS WLC/LM/6. A catalogue record can be viewed here: http://mss-cat.nottingham.ac.uk/DServe/record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=wlc%2flm%2f6. Further manuscript bibliography can be found here: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/collectionsindepth/medievalliterarymanuscripts/wollatonlibrarycollection/wlclm6.aspx. The manuscript was unknown until 1911 when it was discovered at the Elizabethan manor house of Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire in a crate labeled “unimportant documents.” See pp. 221-36 of the Report on the Manuscripts of Lord Middleton Preserved at Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, compiled by W. H. Stevenson for the Historical Manuscript Commission (London, 1911).

[2] Images can also be viewed here: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/heritage-digitisation/gallery.aspx.

[3] See Heldris de Cornuälle, Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance, ed. and trans. Sarah Roche-Mahdi (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1992).

[4] The name Heldris de Cornuälle translates to Heldris of Cornwall, but it could also be Heldris of Cornouaille, the medieval name for a region in south-west Brittany, the southern part of the modern-day département of Finistère. It is probably an Arthurian-sounding nom de plume of sorts. We know nothing about the author. The language in the manuscript is a mix of Francien and Picard dialects of Old French, meaning that the manuscript was likely brought from France to Nottingham, possibly during the Hundred Years’ War (Roche-Mahdi xxiii).

[5] For further reading, Arthuriana has dedicated two full volumes to the Roman de Silence (7.2 and 12.1). More recently, see: Katie Keene, “‘Cherchez Eufeme’: The Evil Queen in Le Roman de Silence,” Arthuriana 14.3 (Fall 2004): 3-22; Heather Tanner, “Lords, Wives, and Vassals in the Roman de Silence,” Journal of Women’s History 24.1 (Spring 2012): 138-159; Jane Tolmie, “Silence in the Sewing Chamber: Le Roman de Silence,” French Studies 63.1 (January 2009): 14-26.