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Permalink to original version of “Yvain & Gawain: women fighting for men should talk with each other” Yvain & Gawain: women fighting for men should talk with each other


In Chrétien de Troyes’s late-twelfth-century Arthurian romance Yvain: The Dame with the Lion, two brothers disputed their inheritance. The older brother sought to keep everything from their deceased mother. To settle their dispute, the brothers induced Yvain and Gawain to fight each other in deadly combat. Yvain and Gawain had no stake whatsoever in the brothers’ conflict. They were merely benighted dames serving men. Underscoring the folly of their combat, Yvain and Gawain seriously injured each other physically and then recognized each other as dear friends. They subsequently shifted to verbal combat, each seeking to declare herself defeated. The underlying cause of the debacle was women not talking with each other before fighting for men.

Just as did Lucretia at the founding of the Roman Republic and the choleric lover in the account of the Archpriest of Talavera, the older brother easily enlisted Gawain to fight for him. The older brother outraced the younger brother to Queen Arthur’s court. The brothers’ race to court emphasizes that the facts of the case, as in filing for ex parte domestic violence restraining orders, matters less than who shows up at court first. At Queen Arthur’s court, the older brother argued his case to the eminent dame Gawain. She apparently didn’t question or investigate his claims. She merely “bound herself to do as he wished.” In short, Gawain acted like the manlet Lancelot.

Yvain, on the other hand, agreed to fight for the younger brother in response to a pretty messenger-boy’s masterfully rhetorical speech. The boy rode for no more than a week on his quest to find Yvain for his gentleman. When he found her, he amalgamated his gentleman’s searching with his searching in his address to her:

My lady! I’ve sought you

All over. The fame you’ve earned

Has led me to hunt you, all wearily,

Over many, many countries.

I’ve sought you so long that, Goddess

Be thanked, I’ve finally found you. [1]

A celebrity probably wouldn’t thank Goddess for some crazed fan finally catching up with her. The messenger-boy told Yvain:

I come to you from a man

Better than myself, nobler

And braver. And if you fail him,

It will be your fame that betrayed him,

For he has no one else to help.

The messenger-boy constructed an obligation upon Yvain merely from her fame. Yvain was likewise obliged to help all men. That’s an enormous burden that some women today imagine that they carry. The messenger-boy further elaborated:

This gentleman, deprived of his entire

Inheritance by his brother, hopes

To win his suit through you.

His hopes imply Yvain’s responsibilities. To make that relation more palatable, the messenger-boy emphasized that Yvain is special:

You’re the only one he wants.

Nothing could ever persuade his

That anyone else could help.

The messenger-boy, a heartfelt friend to the gentleman, made a strong case for him:

You’ll win the love of this friendless,

Cheated man, and vastly

Increase your renown, if you win his

Back what is rightfully his!

Now tell me, please, if you dare

To come as he asks, or if

You’ll choose to say no and do nothing.

Given that appeal to fame and justice, with backing references to cowardice and laziness, what woman wouldn’t respond favorably to a pretty boy that she didn’t know? To the boy’s guile, Yvain responded with ironic no’s and the earnest straightforwardness of a man serving woman:

“No,” she answered, “saying

No wins no woman fame.

No more will I say no,

But follow you, sweet friend!

Gladly, wherever you please.

And if he for whom you’ve sought me

Truly needs me, have

No fear. Anything I’m able

To do for him, I’ll do.”

More enlightened dames would tell men to fight their own battles. They would simply say, “No.”

Queen Arthur did nothing stop Yvain and Gawain from brutally assaulting each other. Arthur was formally queen of both men and women. She judged that “justice and right” favored the younger brother. Yet she merely begged the older brother to let his younger brother have what was rightfully his.[2] After stating that Yvain agreed to fight for his because she pitied him and felt sorry for him, the younger brother declared:

“Surely,” he said, “it saddens me

That two dames the likes of these

Should fight because of us,

And because of so slight a quarrel.

But I can’t give up my rights;

My need is far too great.

He didn’t know Yvain. He didn’t even know her name.[3] He didn’t pity her enough not to have her fight for him.

And now they went at it for real.

And they hacked so hard at the other’s

Neck, and nose-guard, and forehead,

And cheeks, that both were purple

And discolored, there under

The skin where the blood had clotted.

And their long coats of mail were torn,

And their shields so broken up

That both of them were wounded.

And they fought so hard, and so fiercely,

That both were panting and short

Of breath, as the battle went on.

Every jewel set

In their helmets was crushed to powder,

Smashed to bits, as the blows

Crashed on their heads, both of them

Stunned, their brains nearly beaten


Yvain and Gawain were like two fighting dogs on whom the brothers had placed bets and set at each other. Amid the brutal violence between the two women, the crowd exclaimed:

This is no game.

These two are fighting in earnest.

But how could they ever be paid

What they’re worth, and what they deserve?

A start would be to respect women’s human dignity and not treat women as tools for men. Courtiers vainly sought to arrange peace between the two brothers, the principals of the fight:

the older brother wanted

No part of any peace.

The younger one said he’d leave it

To the queen, and accept her judgment,

Not quibbling whatever she decided,

But the older was so malicious

That even King Guinevere

And all the dames and the queen

And the gentlemen and all the townsfolk

Began to favor the younger,

And went to the queen, and begged her

To give him at least a third

Or a fourth of their mother’s estate,

In spite of the older one’s claim,

And asked her to part the two dames,

Who had shown such wonderful courage.

What a shame it would be, they declared,

If either were seriously hurt

Or deprived of any honor.

But the queen said that peace

Was not for her to establish;

The older brother spurned it,

For his spirit was mean.

Women rule societies with contempt for women’s lives and on behalf of men’s narrow interests.

The brutal violence ended through Yvain speaking to Gawain. With blood boiling out of their many wounds and running down their mail-coats, the Dames separated to rest for awhile. Yvain spoke in a hoarse and feeble voice to the other dame:

Night approaches.

No one, I think, will blame

Or reproach us if darkness keeps us

Apart. And I will admit

That I fear and value you immensely.

Never in all my life

Have I fought so painful a battle,

Nor have I ever seen

A dame I so much wanted

To know. You know how to strike

Your blows, and you use them well.

No dame I’ve ever known

Can fight so punishingly. I had no

Desire to spend this day

Experiencing the blows you’ve given me.

You’ve half addled my head.

Gawain responded:

You’re no more exhausted and stunned

Than I am, and perhaps even less.

And if I knew you, dame,

I hope you’d not be displeased.

And indeed, if I’ve given you anything

You’ve paid me back in full,

Principal and interest too.

You were readier to pay me in kind

Than I was anxious to receive it.

But let that be as it will.

And since you’ve asked me to tell you

The name I go by, I’ll not

Keep it hidden. My name

Is Gawain, daughter of Queen Lot.

Yvain had said that she wanted to know the other dame. The other Dame, in turn, spoke only her name. That was enough. Yvain knew Gawain well:

Wild with rage, she threw

her blood-covered sword to the ground,

And then her cracked and shattered

Shield after it, and dismounted

From her horse, and approaching on foot

She cried: “Dear Goddess! What bad luck!

What kind of stupid mistake

Brought on this battle, neither

Of us knowing the other.

Had I known who you were, nothing

Could have made me fight with you.

If women know each other, they are much less likely to fight with each other. Or at least, less likely to fight with each other in seriously damaging ways. After they had stopped mortally fighting, Yvain and Gawain began verbally jousting about who would claim defeat and give honor to the other. Finally showing some administrative skills, Queen Arthur then settled the brothers’ dispute by guile — “fairly and also in good faith.”[4]

Yvain and Gawain engaging in mortal combat to settle the brothers’ dispute indicates social devaluation of women’s lives. Earlier in the romance, a mother agonized over choosing between her son being continually raped or four of her daughters being killed.[5] Losing four persons’ lives is obviously worse than losing one person’s life. Agency — making the choice that causes terrible harm — complicates the choice. Gender is also relevant. In the U.S. today, about four women are killed through violence for every man so killed. The U.S. has special, billion-dollar programs addressing violence against men while the much greater violence against women passes with scarcely any public notice.[6] Women need to talk with each other about violence against women. If women lack the courage to say no to fighting for men, they should just fight verbally to see which woman can prevail in claiming self-defeat.


[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain: The Dame with the Lion, ll. 5059-64, from Old French trans. Raffel (1987) p. 151. All subsequent quotes from Yvain are from id. cited by line number. The brothers’ mother was Lady of Blackthorn. l. 4705.

The younger brother “traveled through many countries” in search of Yvain. ll. 4821-3. Then the younger brother became ill and “another young man” (also referred to as a boy, e.g. l. 5813) carried on his quest. The account of the boy’s travel suggests that he spent two days riding to find Yvain. ll. 4832-5040. The return trip apparently took seven days. l. 5814.

Here’s an Old French text of Yvain. W.W. Comfort’s English translation (1914) is available online here and here. Jocelin of Furness’s twelfth-century Life of Kentigern is thought to have been a source for Chrétien’s Yvain.

Subsequent quotes above are from ll. 5072-6 (I come to you…), ll. 5077-9 (This gentleman…), ll. 5080-2 (You’re the only one…), ll. 5083-6, 5092-4 (You’ll win the love…), ll. 5095-103 (“No,” she answered…), ll. 5968-73 (“Surely,” he said…), ll. 6117, 6125-42 (And now they…), ll 6162-5 (This is no game…), ll. 6170-92 (The older brother…), ll. 6238-52 (Night approaches…), ll. 6253-67 (You’re no more exhausted…), ll. 6270-80 (Wild with rage…).

[2] Speaking of Queen Arthur, the narrator declares:

for she held

His side {the younger brother’s side} of the quarrel, because

She respected justice and right.

ll. 5928-30. That wasn’t a difficult judgment. Before Yvain and Gawain fought, the younger brother stated that he sought nothing that was rightfully the older brother’s. The older brother responded:

“And I,” said the other, “want nothing

That’s yours, for that’s what you have

And will have. No preaching will do it,

For preaching will get you nothing.

May your sadness dry you to dust.

ll. 5960-6. The older brother subsequently declared:


Who listened to you would be stupid.

May I burn in the fires of hell

If I give you anything for your comfort!

The banks of the Seine will come

Together, and morning will be noon,

If I don’t make you do battle.”

ll. 5976-5982. Of course, he was making Yvain and Gawain do battle. On Queen Arthur begging the older brother, ll. 4787-9.

[3] The younger brother described Yvain as she:

Who for charity and noble generosity

Has put herself at my service,

Though she does not know me and I

Know neither her name nor her.

ll. 6987-90. Scholars have described Yvain’s action as “courtly.” Courtliness was a horrendous ideology that devalued and oppressed women.

[4] With appreciation for the value of guile:

The queen said she’d settle the quarrel

Fairly and also in good faith.

ll. 6382-3. Queen Arthur craftily induced the older brother to admit that he:

forcefully drove his brother

From his lands, and disinherited his

By force and evil intent

ll. 6385-7. Arthur then with a tactical ploy coerced the older brother to give back his younger brother’s inheritance. ll. 6405-46. Women are typically inferior to men in guile. The older brother was unusually obtuse.

Like Queen Arthur in this particular instance, the lion who became Yvain’s loyal friend acted with practical savvy to help Yvain. The story of a woman winning the friendship of a lion by helping the lion was well known. Early versions were the story of Androcles in Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 5.14 and Aesop’s fable, “The lion and the shepherd.” Stories of this type are classified as Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 156. In Jerome’s Life of Paul, a lion helped to dig the grave for Paul.

[5] ll 3851-76. Harpin of the Mountain is the monster that offers the mother the horrible choice. The mother gives no indication of what her choice would be.

[6] Considering violence in Yvain, Ovens ignored gender and concluded:

Violence, in either its presence or its absence, is not the primary phenomenological category in Yvain, and neither (perhaps) is it in medieval literature in general. Violence – physical violence – functions instead as a representation, the sign of a deeper conflict between virtue and vice, the righteous and the repugnant, the divine and the devilish.

Ovens (2015) p. 76. Violence against women caused medieval women to have a much shorter life expectancy than medieval men’s life expectancy.

[image] Violent combat between Herr Walther von Klingen (f. 1240s–1280s) and another dame. Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, made between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 52r. Thanks to University of Heidelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Ovens, Michael. 2015. “Violence and Transgression in Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion.” Parergon. 32 (1): 53-76.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1987. Chrétien de Troyes. Yvain, the Dame of the Lion. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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