As this essay on “Le Morte Darthur” seeks to point out, it does not seem to be a mere coincidence that the chapter in “Le Morte Darthur” by Sir Thomas Mallory that deals with Guinevere and Lancelot’s spats also presents yet another case of a woman falling in love with Lancelot and thus one of the themes that forms a perfect thesis statement for “Le Morte Darthur” as a whole arises again.. The Fair Maiden of Ascolot in “Le Morte Darthur” can be seen as a direct contrast to Guinevere in every way and her brief story in this section serves to show that Lancelot is at a crossroads—he could continue on with Guinevere, even though this chapter is the first time she and Lancelot discuss the mounting rumors about their relationship, or he could take the “righteous” road and abandon his adultery and be rewarded with a woman that will be attentive and true.

Along these lines, the Fair Maiden of Ascolot represents everything that Guinevere is not shown to be in this chapter. First of all, she is very submissive and as one of the most important quotes in “Le Morte Darthur” states,  “dud such attendaunce to hym that the Freynshe book seyth there was never woman dyd more kyndlyer for man”. (609) Guinevere on the other hand, is saucy, easily angered, and anything but submissive, especially in this section, and she causes Lancelot sorrow and pain as opposed to the Maiden of Ascolot who waits upon him hand and foot and strives to make him comfortable and happy at all costs.

Another key difference between the two women in “Le Morte Darthur” is respectability. At the beginning of the chapter, Guinevere holds a dinner where a knight is poisoned and the knights immediately think it is her doing. They don’t seem to trust to her in general and as soon as the man is poisoned they all gather force against her without a second thought. Although there is no direct textual evidence for this, it can also be assumed they all know about her relations with Lancelot, which makes them even more inclined to see her as trouble.

The Fair Maiden of Ascolot, on the other hand, is a pillar of virtue; she is dutiful, doesn’t stir up trouble, and this is key—she is respected by a peer of Lancelot’s. On page 611, she is given this description: “There was never chylde nother wyff more mekar tyll fadir and husbande than thys fair Mayden of Ascolot.” Then, directly following these lines, “Wherefore Sir Bors was greatly pleased by her.” After dealing with the angry and demanding Guinevere, this Maiden of Ascolot must to Bors like the obvious choice for Lancelot’s mate. She is subservient and is everything a woman should be (according to these older senses of what a perfect woman is). Although she is clearly less trouble than Guinevere, Lancelot nevertheless persists in denying her love, much to the chagrin of Bors, who can’t seem to see why he wouldn’t want this maiden (especially since he knows of Guinevere’s wrathful nature).

The Fair Maiden of Ascolot is not entirely perfect, however. It is impossible not to conjure up modern terms such as “sociopath” to describe her and there is some suspicion about her that is in a questionable passage on page 607 when Gawain wants to see the shield to determine the identity of the knight. She keeps the shield in her private chamber and asks Gawain “if ye woll come with me ye shall se hit.” There are definite sexual undertones to this statement and her always-present father jumps in the way of her “opportunity” and says to have the shield sent for (as opposed to her taking Gawaine into her bedroom). This passage is striking in a number of ways, any of which could be incorrect, but my feeling is that her father has his own suspicions about his daughter’s lustful nature. It cannot be denied that she is filled with passion, since from our very first introduction to her we know she will die for the love of Lancelot, and perhaps her father thinks she “falls in love too easily” and thus is hesitant to let Gawain enter her chamber.

The Fair Maiden of Ascolot is also prone to dramatics, perhaps more so than other woman we’ve encountered in the book. She swoons at everything as well as bursts into tears at the slightest affront or sight of injury, thus setting her up as being overly emotional. On the other hand, one could also say that Guinevere is set up as being overly emotional as well, since all throughout the chapter she oscillates between anger and repentance of anger. It is possible that Malory wants us to see that women, especially the highly emotional ones, are nothing but trouble and are likely to destroy good knights (or at least put them in precarious positions).

Given these background thoughts about the Fair Maiden, it is important to consider if Lancelot’s treatment of her can be considered to be harsh and uncaring. As a reader, it is impossible to blame him for his frustration. He did not pursue her love, nor did he give her reason to think he would ever submit to her appeals. As her says to Elayne’s father on page 615, “And me repenteth…that she loveth me as she dothe, for I was never causer of hit. For I reporte me unto your sonne, I never erly nother late profirde her bowtne nother fayre behests.” He feels utterly trapped by her love and her attentions and care of him while he is laid up make matters worse since now he “owes” her something. This idea about paying prices to woman who proffer him kindness comes up again when he is prison and the woman bringing him wants him to sleep with her to obtain his freedom. Lancelot makes the decision to kiss her, but that is a temporary fix and he let free with no harm done to his “purity” but in the case of the Fair Maiden, the solutions to the problem are permanent—wither be her lover or marry her.

In response to this feeling of “owing” her something, he offers one thousand pounds to her and her future husband. While it is hard not see how this is all he can do since he doesn’t want to marry her, one cannot help but feel sorry for the maiden—here her love is being put into material terms instead of being rewarded on emotional grounds. However, Lancelot is a fair knight that believes in doing right by women, so all he can do offer her some compensation for the kindness she never asked for and while it wasn’t the most romantic solution to problem of this obsessed woman, it was not cruel.

There is an interesting choice of paragraph formation on page 609. Instead of splitting two potential paragraphs, Malory makes them one, assumedly to propose a connection between two different topics. Around line 37, it occurs to Lancelot that now Guinevere will think there is something going on between him and the Fair Maiden: “And than Sir Lancelot compaste in hys mynde that Sir Gawayne wolde tell Quene Gwenevyre how he bare the rede slyve, and for whom; that he wyst well wolde turne unto grete angur. So thys maydyn Elayne never wente frome Sir Lancelot, but wacched hym day and nyght…” In this one paragraph about two completely different ideas, Malory is connecting for us Lancelot’s fear of Guinevere’s perception as well as the fact that the object of the problem is always right there beside him, reminding him constantly of what his lady in Camelot will think of him. This combined paragraph also serves to highlight a possible reason why Lancelot can be seen as being mean to the maiden; since he is worried about Guinevere’s thoughts and her presence only aggravated the situation in his mind.

It truly seems that Lancelot doesn’t wish to do her harm. He knows how she is very emotional and when he finally decides to leave the hermitage where she’s been taking care of him, he sends her out to collect herbs so that he may leave in secret (thus avoiding the hysterics and the pain he knows it will cause her if he has to say goodbye). This plan backfires and his wound re-opens, but still, she doesn’t get the hint that he was trying to get away from her and instead, she takes all her frustrations out of Bors and her brother for trying to get Lancelot to leave before he was ready. It is interesting that she doesn’t scold Lancelot himself, and this is another interesting conflict of personalities between her and Guinevere (as Guinevere would have raised hell with Lancelot if he tried to run off without saying farewell). Of course, after she sees Lancelot’s reopened wound, the Fair Maiden says in one of the important quotes from “Le Morte Darthur” “cryed and wepte as she had been wood.” (612) and there stands Lancelot, feeling guilty as ever and worse, knowing that he’ll be stuck in her presence for even longer.

Lancelot seems to view Guinevere as separate from all other women. She is angry with him at the beginning of the chapter since he is always off fighting for damsels, but he makes it clear that he is just doing his duty. This “otherness” of Guinevere in Lancelot’s mind is highlighted when he first meets the Fair Maiden. When she entreats him to wear the token of her love, the red sleeve, he agrees and states in one of the important quotes from “Le Morte Darthur”, “Never dud I erste so much for a damsel”. (600) The reader is well aware that he would do anything in the world for Guinevere, even at the risk of his own life, but here, we see a rare bit of grumbling from Lancelot about having to perform his role of keeping women safe and happy. Interestingly, he obviously leaves Guinevere (and all he’s done for in the past) out of the equation and doesn’t consider her to be even a “damsel” for some reason—perhaps because she is his love interest. Thus, it would seem that to Lancelot, all women other than Guinevere are somewhat the same—mere damsels and although he will always try to do right by them, they will never be anything more to him than just that.

So though it would seem that Lancelot cannot bring himself to have anything to do with this damsel, one must admit that Lancelot carried out the Maiden’s wishes after her death and without much grumbling. Even still, to a modern reader, morbid circumstances of her boat-ride while dead, with her dressed in her finest gear and looking pretty, perhaps to “remind Lancelot of what he missed out on” is very creepy and disturbed. When thinking about the Fair Maiden, the very fact that she is nuts is enough to make us excuse Lancelot’s curt behavior towards her. While Malory may be offering the readers a chance to compare Lancelot’s love-options, his Lancelot’s decision has been made and we will have to wait to see its conclusion.

Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Representations of Women in Medieval Literature  &   Hospitality in The Odyssey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight