‘Than kynge Arthur and all the kynges and knyghtes kneled downe and gave thankynges and lovynge unto God and unto Hys Blyssed Modir. And evir sir Launcelot wepte, as he had bene a chylde that had bene beatyn!’
In this famous moment from Sir Thomas Malory’s Arthurian epic, commonly called Le Morte Darthur, in a hall packed with his closest friends, fellow knights, and lover, Sir Lancelot weeps like a child. And while this moment is significant for its complex articulation of the breakdown of Arthurian society, this is not the only time that a man who is also a great knight weeps publicly.
King Arthur weeps when the knights depart for the quest for the Holy Grail. Tristan weeps for Isolde. The Knights of the Round Table weep for the dead Elaine of Astolat (later Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot). Gawain weeps for his brother Gareth. Male weeping is ubiquitous in Malory’s world in a way that it is not in either our modern literary or our modern “real” world.
Weeping doesn’t diminish the knight’s masculinity, either. In fact, it confirms it; to feel as fellows with King and brother knights confirms their social place, and their belonging to a community of those whose values are the same, and whose emotions can be performed and confirmed simultaneously. Fellow-feeling, and the outward demonstration of that with tears, is part of what holds the chivalric (and decidedly and emphatically masculine) community of the Round Table together. It is not shocking, in the quotation above, that Lancelot cries, but rather than he cries alone; his fellows do not know what he feels, and cannot know why he feels it.
So, when I wrote Guinevere and Morgan, I was faced with a problem. Men lying on the floor swooning and weeping ‘reads’ very differently in the cultural climate of the UK and US of the twenty-first century. There’s something comically pythonesque to the modern reader, in fact, in the way that Lancelot can’t seem to go more than three pages without bursting into tears. I had to cut it, had to change it, because that amount of weeping would just seem ridiculous to a modern reader.
And it’s a shame; in Guinevere, my narrator and title character performs far more emotions through the body than either Arthur or Lancelot do. And when the men stop weeping, you end up with the uncomfortable dichotomy of the ’emotional’ woman, and the ‘strong and silent’ man. For some reason, we now live in a world where for a man to show emotion is weakness. I don’t know how we came to be here, but I know the problem is bigger than just a literary one. The answer isn’t, of course, for us to all lie weeping and swooning, but I think it’s something that we should all think hard about.