[(essay date summer 2007) In the following essay, Howey examines how Marjorie Richardson's story "Launcelot's Tower" and Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables re-interpret Arthurian legend in order to identify how their heroines view gender roles depicted in traditional romance stories.]
Literature for young people abounds in retellings of and allusions to literary "classics." As John Stephens and Robyn McCallum argue, retellings "serve to initiate children into aspects of a social heritage, transmitting many of a culture's central values and assumptions" (3), including assumptions about gender. Stephens and McCallum suggest that retellings are generally conservative--the weight of tradition constrains the ways in which new meanings might be constructed from old stories (21). However, retellings also "have the potential to disclose how old stories suppress the invisible, the untold, and the unspoken" (22); parody, for example, plays with the conventions of a pre-text, thereby making those conventions more visible and opening a space where cultural values and assumptions can be challenged. Marjorie Richardson's story "Launcelot's Tower" and L. M. Montgomery's novel Anne of Green Gables have child characters who read, imitate, and yet rewrite Arthurian pre-texts; through the adventures of these children, the authors parody canonical Arthurian works and consequently raise questions about women's roles in traditional romance narratives. Richardson's and Montgomery's texts thus demonstrate the potential of "reading" in the sense of a critical and imaginative activity and model reading as an opportunity for individuals to make, and not just receive, meaning.
In both Richardson's story and Montgomery's novel, red-haired girls pretend to be Elaine of Astolat (the Lily Maid), a character most well known from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Richardson's and Montgomery's characters, however, end their games by rejecting Elaine's passivity in favor of determined, life-saving action. Both girls have read Arthurian texts, choose to play games based on those texts, and ultimately create new meaning from them. Richardson's Susan Briggs and Montgomery's Anne Shirley imitate Elaine and thus certain conventions of appropriate feminine behavior, but because they then reject Elaine as an icon of femininity, the texts create a site where cultural values surrounding gender roles and appropriate behavior can be reinforced but also contested. For girl readers in particular, they provide models of ways to read against cultural texts; they also suggest the power of readers--even child readers--to construct meaningful self-narratives.
The Authors and Their Readers
"Launcelot's Tower" and Anne of Green Gables were both published around the turn of the century: Richardson's story in the November 1891 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine and Montgomery's novel by L. C. Page in 1908. The site of publication gave both a certain cultural capital and wide circulation. As Elizabeth C. Saler and Edwin H. Cady describe, St Nicholas "was ... a deliberately literary magazine, firmly intended to introduce children to good reading--classic and contemporary" (162). The magazine's prose selections included realistic fiction, historical fiction, adventure stories, natural history, fairy stories, folklore (including Native American tales), and summaries of famous...