wisps of hair and imaginary arrow whip great warrior Alexander

arrow womanThe bold Greek warrior Alexander was struck with love for Sordamour, the niece of King Arthur. Yet he didn’t dare to speak of his love for her. He imagined her as an arrow, especially fashioned for him. He thought of her notch:

The notch at the end of the shaft
And the feathers are so close, if you look
Carefully, that the space between
Is barely a knife blade thick,
So straight and even that it’s easy
To see how perfectly crafted
And without mistake it was made. [1]

Alexander described Sordamour’s eyes as like a pair of glowing candles. She had an eloquent tongue, a limpid complexion, and a lovely nose. Her laughing little mouth contained smooth, even ivory teeth, and her neck was eight times whiter than ivory. Alexander continued in thought:

from the base
Of her throat to the top of her bodice,
I see a bit of covered
Breast, whiter than snow.
There’d be no sorrow left,
Had I seen all of Love’s barb:
I could tell you, then, exactly
How it was made, and of what.
But I haven’t, so it’s not my fault
That I can’t fully describe
What I’ve never fully seen.

Most men find women’s bodies wonderfully crafted. Men shouldn’t be killed for gazing upon a woman’s body. For Alexander, the problem was lack of opportunity. He could imagine Sordamour’s notch and feathers, but not more:

Love has shown me only
Feathers, and the notch in the shaft.
For the arrow was left in its quiver —
That is, in the clothes the girl
was wearing.

If he had more Christian piety, Alexander might have prayed for intercession to Saint Marina, Saint Pelagia, or Saint Mary of Egypt. Alexander, however, found some comfort in a strand of Sordamour’s hair that she wove into a shirt given to him. That strand of hair was all he had to hold:

Lying in his bed, this thing
Which could give no delight delighted
Him, offered him solace
And joy. He held it all night

Such is the fate of men who don’t learn from medieval women’s poetry and medieval Latin love lyrics.

Alexander undervalued himself as a man. After being appreciated as a hero in King Arthur’s court, Alexander sought out Queen Guinevere to propose a marriage between him and Sordamour. When Queen Guinevere proposed to Alexander and Sordamour that they marry, Alexander said:

Your words delight me; I thank you,
My lady, for speaking them. And since
You know my wishes so well,
There’s no reason to hide them.
If I’d the courage, I’d have spoken
For myself, and long ago.
Silence has been painful. Still,
It may well be that this girl
Has no interest in making me hers
Or letting herself be mine.
But all the same, even
if she does not want me, I am hers.

Degrading men bodes poorly for men’s relationships with women. Sordamour and Alexander did marry. He envisioned her as “queen for the chessboard on which he’d be king.” About nine months after their marriage, she gave birth to a son. They had no further children. Alexander died young of a mysterious illness. Sordamour, too sorrowful to live, died shortly thereafter.[2] They probably suffered from sexless marriage.

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès ll. 775-81, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) p. 26. Subsequent quotes (cited by line number and page in id) are from ll. 839-49, p. 28 (from the base…); ll. 850-4, p. 28 (Love has shown me only…); ll. 1632-35, p. 53 (Lying in his bed…); ll. 2305-16, p. 74 (Your words delight me…); ll. 2356-7, p. 75 (queen for the chessboard…).

[2] Lacy concludes:

Chrétien never explicitly condemns courtliness in this romance {Cligès}, or in his others, but the heavily ironic presentation of character and event throughout and the equivocating conclusion of the work must at the very least throw doubt on the value and validity of things courtly.

Lacy (1984) pp. 23-4. The vast majority of modern medieval scholars have failed to condemn unequivocally men-degrading courtly love ideology.

[image] Isis-Aphrodite. Painted terracotta sculpture. Roman Period, 2nd century GC, Egypt. Item 1991.76: Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1991. On view in Gallery 138 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City).


Lacy, Norris J. 1984. “Cligès and Courtliness.” Interpretations / Arthurian Interpretations. 15(2): 18-24.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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