Although most people think of mythology as a stable source of meaning for a given culture, legends are in fact quite fluid. For the West, few myths illustrate this capacity more effectively than that of King Arthur. The large-scale progression of modern Arthurian retellings has echoed the growing respect for women’s experiences and voices in recent history. The earliest Arthurian tale used by modern writers as source material is Thomas Malory’s medieval Le Morte d’Arthur, which emphasizes masculine chivalry and battle and refuses women the ability to gain power except through men. Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, written in the Victorian era, in some ways supports doctrines of female domesticity, but also subverts them with a more egalitarian stance. The Once and Future King, composed from the 1930s to the 1950s by T. H. White, is actually less tolerant of women’s rights; it allows men to overcome the false idealization of war as heroic, but reinforces domestic ideals for women. Finally, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s 1982 The Mists of Avalon brings women’s lives to the forefront of the legend in a reflection of gains made by the second wave of feminism. Overall, although the Arthurian saga’s progress toward recognizing women’s experiences has been uneven, it has transformed along with other cultural norms from gender stereotypes to respect.
Hometown: Kingsport, Tenn.
Major: Double major in English Literature and Writing/Communications
Senior Study Title: “Shifting Mythology: The Transformation of Gender in Modern Arthurian Retellings”
Advisor: Dr. Susan Schneibel
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, a modern retelling of the Arthurian legend, has been Caroline Redmond’s favorite novel since high school.
So it’s no surprise that the English literature and writing/communications major wanted to incorporate the 1982 novel into her Senior Study.
In fact, she was so sure that she wanted to write about the novel in depth that she began the reading and research process during the summer of her sophomore year.
“The Mists of Avalon is one of the most recent and feminist versions of the Arthurian legend – I knew I wanted to write about it in depth,” Redmond said. “Also, because this novel is a science fiction/fantasy book, it is not commonly discussed among literature scholars, and I liked the idea of being able to contribute something new to the conversation.”
Knowing this interest, Redmond consulted with several English professors, who provided her with suggestions of other similar novels to consider.
For her Senior Study, Redmond analyzed the transformation of the representation of female gender roles in modern King Arthur novels. In addition to The Mists of Avalon, Redmond studied three other novels: Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, first published in 1485; Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, published between 1856 and 1885; T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, written between 1938 and 1941 and published in 1958.
“Although most people think of mythology as a stable source of meaning for a given culture, legends are in fact quite fluid,” Redmond wrote in her Senior Study. “For the West, few myths illustrate this capacity more effectively than that of King Arthur. The large-scale progression of modern Arthurian retellings has echoed the growing respect for women’s experiences and voices in recent history.”
Throughout her 115-page Senior Study, Redmond not only analyzed female gender roles as they are represented in the novels but also in the historical time periods during which the novels were written.
Redmond’s advisor, Dr. Susan Schneibel, said she was not surprised at Redmond’s interest in pursuing a gender studies approach in her research.
“But I was intrigued to learn of her intention to examine the fluidity of myth in relation to the Arthurian legend and, in particular, to the portrayal of women as it corresponds to changing cultural circumstances,” said Schneibel, professor of comparative literature and chair of the College’s Division of Languages and Literature.
In her study, Redmond concluded that the development of the Arthurian legend has led to a greater emphasis on the voice, community and perspective of the women of the legend.
“What each of these case studies in the Arthurian myth illustrates is that just as culture changes over time, legends meant to appeal to that culture change, as well,” Redmond wrote in her Senior Study. “The Arthurian legend has shifted and transformed from one in which male-male relations, chivalry, and military escapades were central to a myth that values women’s experiences enough to allow them full reign in narrative voice and subject matter. These enormous changes illustrate that flexibility, rather than stability, is perhaps the most important quality of the King Arthur stories and of mythology in general.”
Redmond said the most challenging aspect of her Senior Study was the amount of research she had to complete.
“Not only did I have to trace scholarly discussion of the four (rather large) novels I chose, but I also had to research female gender roles throughout history in much detail,” Redmond said. “As you can imagine, women’s issues and rights have gone through radical changes since the 15th century to today, so the very breadth of my study was quite challenging. I really had to refine my research strategy, being thorough in my seeking out sources and diligent in my note-taking.”
Schneibel agreed that Redmond was challenged by both of the scope of the topic and the amount of research she had to assimilate into her analysis. She said she recommended Redmond’s Senior Study for the library’s permanent collection because “it is simply the most extensively researched study I have seen in my [27-year] tenure at Maryville College.”
“Caroline was able to find, analyze and synthesize tremendous amounts of research into her argument, and she is also able to present her research in an accessible and perfectly lucid prose style,” Schneibel said.
Redmond said Dr. Schneibel was “an incredible advisor,” helping her find other novels to analyze, giving her advice on scholarly sources to locate and critiquing drafts of Redmond’s thesis chapters.
“She certainly helped me significantly, but she was also keenly aware that I had to take ownership of my Senior Study and direct my own research,” Redmond said.
Schneibel said she, too, was stretched. While she is not a medievalist, she studied Le Morte d’Arthur in graduate school and had read The Mists of Avalon, so she had a foundation in the original text and a knowledge of a modern retelling of the legend.
“I had a notion of the two poles in relation to this topic, but I learned alongside Caroline to understand how the role of women in these works changed over time and reflected the cultural circumstances in which they were written,” Schneibel said.
Redmond said she feels that her Senior Study has prepared her for future academic and professional challenges “in a way that no other experience could.”
After graduation, Redmond plans to enroll in the University of Tennessee’s master’s degree program in information sciences, where she hopes to specialize in academic libraries.
“I am confident that I will be able to tackle graduate school because of the reading, research and writing skills my Senior Study has helped me to develop,” Redmond said. “Maryville’s curriculum is certainly research-heavy in general, but having to create a single project of such bulk is a great illustration of just how much I’ve learned and grown as a student.”
Redmond’s academic achievements were recognized on April 16, during the College’s annual Academic Awards Ceremony. She received four awards, including the Edwin R. Hunter Award for Excellence in Research in English or American Literature, which goes annually to the senior judged to have produced the most outstanding Senior Study in English or American Literature.
Redmond said her future career goal is to become an academic and information science professional in a higher education library. Eventually, she would like to become a librarian at a small liberal arts college like Maryville College, “helping students learn the ins and outs of research.”
“Although my Senior Study is not explicitly related to this career goal, many of the skills it helped me develop are also vital to librarianship,” Redmond said. “For instance, the ability to critique books, research in depth and synthesize data into larger frameworks are necessary in creating and maintaining library collections. Having gone through this research process will also enable me to help other college students as they embark on similar theses or smaller papers.”