70 pages 2 hours read

John Steinbeck

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1976

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Symbols & Motifs

Damsels Initiating Quests

In chronicles that celebrate the exploits of warriors, the novel features a surprising number of damsels. Many of these young women remain unnamed, but they all fulfill the same role—initiators of quests. Some are good, some evil, some simply decorative, but they all further the plot by drawing some hapless knight into an adventure.

Balin only retrieves his second sword because a damsel has brought it to Camelot at the request of the lady Lyle of Avalon. The damsel warns of dire consequences if the sword is not returned to her, but Balin fails to heed her warning. His subsequent quest for redemption is the result of his initial interaction with the sword-bearing girl. Arthur’s wedding feast is disrupted by a damsel on horseback who demands the return of her hunting dog just before being abducted by an unknown knight. This event leads to no less than three separate quests by banquet attendees. The damsel is revealed to be the formidable Nyneve, who later captivates Merlin.

In the tale of Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt, three damsels offer to lead the knights on separate quests. They give valuable guidance and instruction along the way. Damsels also abound in Lancelot’s story to such a degree that he complains about the number of distressed females he meets: “It appears that there is no damsel in the world without a problem whose solution requires the jeopardy of my life” (257-58).