Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X
"This story, shall the good man teach his son": History and Femininity in François Bourgeon's Les compagnons du crépuscule.
Author: Anke GILLEIR
Abstract (E): Although the visual representation of the past in François Bourgeon's "Les Compagnons du crépuscule" reveals a mainstream graphic novel that adheres to a traditional narrative pattern, a closer look reveals that the story, in spite of the mimetic drawing style, offers several patterns of sense and refuses an absolute interpretation. This undoing of fixed "truths" also applies to the construction of gender. Especially the complexity of the female protagonists and the fact that they are conceived within the power relationships of society subverts the paternalist sexual imaginations and its notions of essentialist femininity.
Abstract (F): Si du point de vue narratif "Les compagnons du crépuscule" de François Bourgeon semblent obéir à une économie du récit bien classique, une analyse plus fouillée de l'album montre qu'en dépit d'un style très mimétique et réaliste, l'auteur parvient à mettre en place une histoire qui se prête aux interprétations toutes faites, surtout en ce qui concerne la représentation de la femme. Ce livre apparemment traditionnel apparaît même comme une contribution importante à la mise en question de l'imaginaire phallocratique et d'une vision figée et essentialiste de la femme.
Keywords: Women studies, Medieval France, Bourgeon
History as a patrilinear narrative
Faced at Agincourt with a French army outnumbering his own, King Henry V reminds his soldiers that their courage will be recorded as a feat beyond oblivion: "Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,/ But he'll remember, with advantages,/What feats he did that day. Then shall our names [...]/Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered./ This story, shall the good man teach his son;/ [...] From this day to the ending of the world." (IV.iii, 18-67) This particular scene in Shakespeare's historical drama Henry V became well-known in the second half of the twentieth century through the 1944 Laurence Olivier film adaptation. Because the motion picture was produced at the time the Allied Forces landed in France, the Shakespearean representation of the famous battle from the Hundred Years' War received a strong contemporary significance. For that very reason Shakespeare's text was also censored while being turned into the film script. The discussion between a few ordinary soldiers about the reality of warfare in the fourth act was omitted: " [...] all those legs, and arms, and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, : we died at such a place9 , swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left." (IV.i, 131-136) Reflections of this kind were not considered expedient at the time and were incompatible with the monumental representation of the past the producers aimed at (1).
Two aspects of Shakespeare's text are of interest from the point of view of our analysis of gender and historical narrative in Bourgeon's graphic novel Les compagnons du crépuscule. First, there is the implication that history, the act of memory and narration, is a patrilinear matter: it is the man who passes on the stories to his son. A question concerns the kind of stories that are passed on as history. For the censuring in Olivier's film adaptation discloses symptomatically how a past can come too close to reality for comfort and has to be repressed. Shakespeare's focus on suffering and on social inequality rather than on heroic individuals seems to anticipate a form of memory that allows for more democratically inspired questions concerning the domains of human life beyond the well explored political spaces in which the majority of people, notably women, were not present.
Both the change in historical topics and the epistemological awareness that history can never be looked at from an absolute angle are present in Bourgeon's three-volume novel that is also set in France during the Hundred Years' War. This temporal setting is indicated explicitly throughout the entire work, as all three parts are introduced in an identical manner by a narrating voice that contextualizes the story as follows:
The narrator's point of view that all wars are alike to those who undergo the violence grasps to a certain extent the fear of the film producers of Henry V in 1944. Moreover the comparison between war and plague bears a resemblance to king Henry's threat to the French ambassador, that his soldiers' dead bodies will "choke [...] your clime,/ the smell whereof shall breed a plague in France." (IV.iii, 102-103) While in Shakespeare's drama the king's rhetoric displays the courage with which he will defend "the cause being just and quarrel honourable" (IV, &, 124), Bourgeon's story leaves little room for the causes of the historical war. Les compagnons pictures a war-weary country and its common people, that, not without irony, cannot even tell the difference between the warring parties. When Mariotte, the main female protagonist, is caught by an angry crowd of villagers who accuse her of belonging to a group of pillagers, the local lord tries to keep the mob under control by asking them to determine first who is responsible for the atrocities "Le Franc ou bien l'anglois?" His question receives no answer:
The constant threat of ferocity hovering over and inflicted upon the population breeds a society in which violence becomes the norm. As "might is right" , the inhabitants of Bourgeon's medieval universe try to save their skins by answering force with force. Against the background of this bleak socio-historical picture, bereft of all stereotype romantic imagery, the question is how the protagonists, "les voyageurs du crépuscule", manage their lives and survive. Especially the representation of women, who are easy victims of war crimes and yet greatly outnumber the male protagonists, proves interesting. However, in order to reply to the question of gender constructions, the generic form of Bourgeon's historical representation has to be considered first.
As Robert Sorlin points out in his essay on the significance of historical films, it is now generally known that history is in fact a society's memory and that historical accounts cannot be detached from the condition of the society in which they are written. (2000, 34) "Out of the almost infinite mass of incidents [...] a certain number are identified and described, and in this way become fixed as events [...] the memory of which will be passed down and adopted by later generations." (Sorlin 2000, 35) Narratives that deal with historical material, whether these are "real" or "fictional" events, should therefore always be understood as products of the age in which they were written/produced. From this point of view the question concerning the falsification of the historical "truth" becomes subordinate to the question of how the past is represented, which seems to be of more significance especially for historical narratives that are not strictly considered scientific. Stanley Kubrick's 1957 Paths of Glory, for example, is only loosely based on historical facts, yet its message about the futility of war and monolithical hierarchy was considered powerful enough in France to have it banned from public screens for a long time.
The awareness that there are many sides to the story about the past has not only influenced the work of historians, but also inspired authors of fictional historical novels, who "invent alternate versions of history, which focus on groups of people who have been relegated to insignificance by official history." (Wesseling 1991, viii) Especially postmodern authors, Wesseling argues, do not simply "alter history at random" , thus merely using historical costumes for the expression of easily recognisable emotions, but rather "rewrite history from the perspective of the losers of historical struggles for power" , and as such reveal an emancipatory involvement (1991, viii). The political significance of these alternative versions of the past has been revealed in particular by historical movies, at least those that do not totally obey market-oriented restrictions. In his essay on the significance of "historiophoty" and its relation to historiography, Hayden White in this sense draws the attention towards feminist filmmaking, which has not only accurately pictured the lives of women in the past, but also increased the awareness of the dominantly patriarchal character of conventional historical representation (1988, 1199).
Mimetic drawings and insolvable plots
It may seem somewhat far fetched to associate François Bourgeon's Les compagnons du crépuscule with the writing strategies of a handful of postmodern authors or even more with the subversive potential of avantgarde feminist historical films. Although Bourgeon produced this piece of work during the eighties, the high days of postmodern literature, his historical story is not preceded by eclectic citations from Tarrantino and Derrida, it has no prologue in which an editor introduces the story to follow as based on a lost manuscript found in a franciscan library, its language is not an anachronical combination of several discourses presenting a sample of elegant postmodern parlando and any parodying of the epic mode is lacking (Köhler 1998, 849). Quite on the contrary, for as became clear already from the voluminous historical graphic novel that preceded Les compagnons, Les passagers du vent, published in the seventies, Bourgeon's style of drawing and narrating reveals a mainstream author (2). But in spite of his continuation along a well-known and indeed extremely popular line of realistic story-telling and visual representation, Bourgeon's work is not immersed in a 'nostalgic style' that creates a universe utterly remote from contemporary thought and situations (Baetens 2000, 93). Set in the eighteenth century and dealing with France's history of social inequality, slavery and colonisation Les passagers du vent reveals a strong social awareness and thus anticipates quite a number of aspects that characterize the medieval world of Les compagnons du crépuscule. Both stories adhere indeed to a traditional narrative pattern, represent a tale with a beginning, middle and end and feature a number of individuals against a common background (Rosenstone 2001, 55). Yet what distinguishes Les compagnons from Bourgeon's first major historical novel is that it narrates a story by offering several patterns of sense to the reader and refuses an absolute interpretation that may be considered as the 'truth' .
This refusal of order and straightforward intelligibility is somewhat at odds with the visual representation of the past. The medieval world visualised in Les compagnons du crépuscule is of such ethnographical accuracy that shortly after the publication of the last volume a substantive study on the sources François Bourgeon used for both images and story was published (Thibaut 1992). This careful investigation reveals that in creating historicized images Bourgeon left as little as possible to imagination and drew upon all possible sources on medieval civilisation. The complete temporal succession from the first volume of the story onwards can be reconstructed and even the different positions of the moon throughout the narrated time are shown to tally with the historical temporality (Thibaut 1992, 148-152). In film theory such a painstaking reconstruction of the past is considered problematic, for the typical realist historical film underscores the "myth of facticity" and thus reinforces the idea that "things are history rather than become history because of what they mean to people of a particular time and place" (Rosenstone 2000, 57). Thus the "baleful Hollywood corollary" is sustained: if the costume is right, anything can be said about the past (idem). Yet Bourgeon's ample use of historical and ethnographical sources as well as his artistic craftsmanship do not necessarily make him a :"naive" author. The fact that he is at pains to insert his story into a pre-existing body of knowledge (Rosenstone 2000, 62), indeed easier to achieve in the genre of the graphic novel than in film, makes the story-elements that undo this idea of a univocal mimetic narrative all the more interesting.
A strange paradox, for example, arises from the fact that this historical authenticity is juxtaposed to the occurrence of myth and the supernatural. This is most obvious in the second volume, Les yeux d'étain de la ville glauque, where the evil is incarnated in parallel images: on the one hand pillaging soldiers on their way into the next battle of the Franco-English war, on the other hand the "Douards", monsters that live in a mysterious swampland city and keep in slavery another mythical species that call themselves "Lutins". More striking than the fact that even for the creation of the mythical dimension in his story Bourgeon has gone back to several medieval mythical sources, including those of his own Breton culture, is the fact that the mythical universe surrounding the protagonists very much parallels their own world in which physical violence and oppression are omnipresent. The status of the mythical discourse within the realist one is unclear. The glaucous city, the parallel other world, always appears in the form of a dream out of which the protagonists eventually wake. Nevertheless, these dream sequences become a narrative of their own and are part of the protagonists' quest. This makes it impossible to tell, for example, whether Yuna, a young girl who at some point joins the "compagnons du crépuscule" on their journey, is really killed by one of the monsters, has merely become the victim of a gang of soldiers or has simply escaped with the knight's favourite horse. The first solution is visually more prominent, the second, Yuna raped and murdered, is indicated indirectly by means of an unclear drawing in the background which shows a group of horsemen who drag the body of a young woman behind them. The third is the knight's own guess. The question whether this phantastic dimension is "true" or not and how it should be integrated into the "real" historical narrative does not seem to be the point. The blurred boundary between the imaginary and the real occasionally appears as a challenge to the obstinate search for a rock-bottom historical truth considered a necessary part of realist icons.
The ambiguous status of the mythical appears as a mise-en-abyme to the entire narrative structure, which ultimately reveals more blanks than explanations. The fact that there is no omniscient narrator is symptomatic. All past events that are of importance to the present story are related to the reader - as well as to the different fictional characters that join in the story at a later point - by different protagonists. Their versions are fragmented tales that bear the mark of the person who narrates them and their sum does not form a complete whole. This makes it difficult if not impossible to infer an absolute "truth" and even the main story eludes all attempts at a disciplined paraphrasing. Les compagnons deals mostly with the destiny of a knight-errand, who appears to be responsible for the violent death of his beloved lady, Blanche Malaterre. The knight, consumed by social frustration, had become a mercenary during the war, gathering a gang of soldiers with whom he conquered the cities and castles of lords who had once humiliated him. In his quest however his soldiers also sieged and pillaged the city in which his beloved lived, who was tortured and put to death without his knowledge. After being confronted with this atrocity, he fell into a long illness during which Blanche's dead godfather appeared, summoning him to enlist in the battle against evil, called "la force noire". The knight tells his story to his two fellow-travelers Mariotte and Anicet and their reactions reveal how much "truth" depends on personal background: the latter is shocked, calls himself a good christian and wants to have nothing to do with things that sound like sorcery. Mariotte, who is an outcast from the village community Anicet belonged to, feels acquainted with the existence of appearances that cannot be understood in a rational manner. She communicates effortlessly with the knight's world and makes his quest against the "black force" her own. Yet there are not only different forms of understanding, there are also different interpretations of Blanche's death, each one subverting the other and none of them qualifying for the authentic version. Neyrelle, Blanche's eldest sister claims the murder was part of a conspiracy of Noal, husband to the second sister Carmine. Noal's aim was to eliminate Carmine after her youngest sister was killed and then marry the eldest in order to beget and unite the three inheritances. There are elements in the story that indicate that Neyrelle, the dark-haired Malaterre, is the "black force" the knight has to fight and that she is in fact responsible for the death of her youngest sister, merely using the knight. Yet, Neyrelle also plausibly recounts her own version of the past.
Mariotte and Carmine: the complexity of "femininity"
The refusal of an authoritative version of the story applies equally to the secondary narrative strains in Les compagnons. Bourgeon's graphic novel thus consists of versions, impressions, dreams, fantasies, lies and memories thus expressing that a "truths" is always someone's story. From this perspective, the representation of the gendered characters, especially of the female protagonists, proves interesting, for their constructions reinforce the subversion of "simple" conceptions and add to the story's awareness of essentialist liabilities. The large number of women in Les compagnons seems strange in a story that deals with warfare, knightly duties and the struggle for power and control. In Bourgeon's clear historical setting this marked presence of women clashes with a traditional, masculine-oriented representation of the past (Becker, Bovenschen, Brackert et al. 1977, 25). On the other hand, the fact that women figure more prominently than men in a visual narrative seems to be of little emancipatory value, for, as feminist art history has shown since the early seventies, the representation of women and feminity is part of the bourgeois cultural ideology that has dominated Western civilisation since the eighteenth century. This holds especially for the female nudes, which, as Griselda Pollock indicates, traditionally signify both "natural harmony" and, within the heterosexual masculine matrix, erotic pleasure. In either way, female agency is eliminated in the dominant representations of women that are "circulated through the interrelating institutions of culture, schools, advertising, films, television, photography, fine arts literature, journalism and so forth" (Pollock 1987, 90) and that have attracted feminist criticism and artistic attempts to "decolonize the female body." (Pollock 1987, 132-138).
At first glance Bourgeon's representations of female protagonists seem to underscore the traditional male "voyeuristic" image. His fictitious universe displays quite a number of beautiful women who undress at various stages. Yet his images of femininity deviate strongly from those ceaselessly produced by, for example, Milo Manara, who brings forth nothing but soft-pornographic images of women, rehearsing endlessly paternalist sexual imaginations. In Les compagnons du crépuscule the female protagonists are conceived in a framework of the power relationships of society and as such qualify for a different interpretation (Pollock 1987, 93).
Notions of feminine essentialism disappear as the women in the story reveal striking differences due to their different social backgrounds, degrees of learning, ages, ethnic origin, personal biographies. In the remainder of this essay, I shall focus on some of the female protagonists, thus arguing for the feminist potential of Bourgeon's story that attributes to the fictitious female protagonists a complexity that undermines the fixation of women as biological entities.
The stereotypical image of woman as either a natural or a mysterious being (and as such often considered as a threat to civilisation, Bovenschen 1979, 63-150; Gilbert & Gubar 1979, 28) is at first sight reinforced by the lay-out of the last volume. The first and the last pages of Le dernier chant des Malaterre display full page images of two female protagonists, both young women, Mariotte and Anais. Mariotte is sitting cross-legged in the pouring rain on the grass, her chest is bare and she looks aside at the reader, apparently little disturbed by the weather conditions. The combination of her half naked body in natural surroundings suggests woman as a natural creature, temptress by nature and thus partly unaware of the erotic power she exercises over the viewer (3). Behind her, we see the stone sculpture of a mermaid. This reference to a leitmotiv of the story, does not only reinforce the image of the temptress, but interestingly also touches upon the problem of women as objects of male imagination and the consequences thereof for their positions in society. The same accounts for Anais on the back cover, where we see the silhouette of a young woman with an aquiline nose and dark hair, features that can easily be recognized as typically Jewish. Her physical femininity is stressed only by the curve of her breast under her loose clothing. She leans against a wall under a starry sky, which refers to her ability to read the future in the stars and to interpret various phenomena as symbols of destiny. Mariotte appears as the natural being, Anais as the mysterious. Yet throughout the story both women are presented as acting individuals who do not correspond to the significations of the images of traditional femininity shown on the cover.
Mariotte, the red-haired young woman who becomes one of the knight's servants in the first novel, belongs to the lowest level of society. A cast-out of the local village community, who consider her and her grandmother as witches, Mariotte is the proverbial scapegoat. The first images of Les compagnons show her as the victim of a cruel joke of the village youngsters, who push her into a brook and hurl stones at her. Although it is obvious that any contemporary reader will consider Mariotte a beautiful person, in her own universe her looks are noticed only by those who are not blinded by superstition. The local lord of the mobbing villagers who want to burn her finds her, to the great distrust of his people, "mignote", Neyrelle, Lady of the town of Montroy addresses her as "bel enfant", Aymon, novice and man of letters, falls in love with her. Mariotte is at different stages shown as a nude. As she is routed by the villagers, she runs through the open country naked and she also reveals her naked body for lady Carmine, who wants to paint her portrait. Although she grew up being called "la roussotte, la renarde", she is vain and wants to be courted like all other girls of her age. She has, in other words, incorporated the gender-matrix of her time. Yet her nakedness signifies different things. The isolated picture of her naked running body reminds of Manara's images of women, but in the context of the story, it expresses that she is a victim of people who have reduced her status as a person to that of an animal about to be slaughtered. The sentence from which she tries to escape reveals the reason for her nakedness and the standards of the extremely violent world she lives in:
Her undressing in Carmine's room reinforces the complex signification of the female body in Les compagnons. Carmine, Blanche's second sister, bears an extreme likeness to Mariotte. The first time the two women meet, they are both shocked by the similarity of their appearances. Yet the doppelgänger-motive functions well, for both women prove opposite characters. Whereas Mariotte is illiterate, cannot even tell what age she is exactly, Carmine is a scholar and an artist. The contrast between their world views is symbolized by their different temporal awarenesses: after the example of "San Gottaro de Milan, qui possède une horloge à cadran [...]" (Malaterre 94) Carmine believes in the importance of mechanical clocks that divide all hours and days into equal parts. Mariotte, who lives according to seasonal time, is baffled: "C'est idiot! ... Au fil des saisons, les durement des heures se move et se déplace!" Because of her knowledge Carmine is ahead of her contemporaries: "Il n'y a guère plus que les moines, les paysons ... et les servantes, pour vivre à l'heure canoniale. Bientôt le monde entier divisera le temps comme les astronomes et les marchands." (94) From her superior position she manages to grasp Mariotte's character according to the social hierarchy of their world: "Mais je dois t'ennuyer avec mon bavardage... Les filles de ton rang n'ont de plaisir que de leur ventre." Mariotte acknowledges that this is indeed her aim in life, but considers it as part of a larger destiny: "L'avenir de l'homme est aussi dans mon ventre." On the level of the plot, the difference between the two women with the same looks constitutes an essential part of the intrigue, or, like so many discursive and visual elements in Les compagnons, at least seems to do so. Mariotte for example supposes that her likeness to Carmine has made the knight accept her as a servant. She thus considers herself part of the knight's destiny, yet the knight himself never mentions anything about it. Mariotte also fears that Carmine will abuse their similar appearances for her own purposes and although as a reader one is made to believe so - their likeness must implicate something - eventually nothing of the kind happens.
From the perspective of gender construction, however, the resemblance of the two female protagonists is even more interesting. The visual similarity of the two women reinforces, or doubles, mainstream Western standards of femininity, yet Bourgeon's representation is not exhausted by the image. Corresponding to the ambiguous story concept as a whole with its unexpected combination of mimetic drawings and its insolvable plots the spectator's enjoyment of the feminine image is a misleading surface. Underneath their appearances one finds two persons that are poles apart. Mariotte represents to a large extent the characteristics signified by the full page image at the outset of the last part of the story, she qualifies indeed as a "natural being" , for she is not educated, not particularly bright, she does not understand Anais' symbolic language nor Carmine's learned discourse, she wants to please men and her aim in life is to be loved. Carmine spends her life reading and studying, wants to visit "les belles villes pour rencontrer les maîtres des grandes universités", she is haughty and slightly paranoid, her social status lifts her above the worries and ambitions of her mirror image Mariotte. The difference between the two similar images is also reinforced by the fact that Mariotte, socially inferior, serves as a model for Carmine, which touches upon another theme that has been discussed in feminist art history for a long time. The relationship between painter and model is traditionally a male-female one, expressing the ideology of the "phallic and creative power" (Betterton 1987, 224) of the male artist and the female "passive material to be posed and manipulated, subject to the transforming power of the artist." (idem) The exposure of Mariotte's naked body to the gaze of the artist matches the traditional gender matrix. Yet the person posing is not a mere model that can be reduced to her body and its obvious significations as a nude. Although she is not a complex woman, the reader has become acquainted with her as a person full of emotions that vary from genuine anger to shameless sensuality. She is engaged in social relationships with very different people and although she does not really evolve as a character, the events provoke a certain maturing process. The modelling constitutes, in other words, only a fragment of her existence, by which she cannot be fixed anymore by that stage in the story. She poses as a nude but her nakedness, that certainly does confirm existing iconographic codes, does not undo the many other images of her, showing her in unelegant positions or pulling faces, a form of mimicry she practices quite often. By being an artist who desires to paint her model, on the other hand, Carmine slips into a traditionally male role. Her artistic aspirations complete the picture of a universalist scholar and transgress the normal gender expectations according to which High Art and Science are strictly male domains. Carmine owes the fact that she can develop her artistic and scholarly talents to her social status that allows her to be interested in aspects of life beyond the level of mere survival and distinguishes her from a person like Mariotte. Same sex and same outward looks are shown as having no implications.
Neyrelle and the
This disturbance of traditional gender patterns revealed by Bourgeon's female protagonists is also carried on in the protagonist Neyrelle. Her status as the eldest of the Malaterre sisters and as a widow endows her with the highest social rank of all fictional characters in the story. She is master of the town of Montroy and all those who live within city and castle walls, male and female, owe her obedience. Neyrelle's image is that of the ruling master. Her behaviour is peremptory, her demeanour authoritative, she tolerates no impertinences. Her character is to a large extent created by rumours. She is said to have poisoned her husband and to have let him die in agony while spending the night with a young lover. Servants rumour how she insulted her godfather, who offered her too modest a present: "Humiliée par la modestie de l'offerenande, Dame Neyrelle eut grand ire contre son bon parrain. Elle dit des mots qu'on ne doit jamais dire, tant et si bien que le seigneur s'en fut, loin de castel Montroy." (87) As a consequence, it is said, the godfather, who had designed his blazon corresponding to the colours of his three godchildren, the white-haired Blanche, red-haired Carmine and dark-haired Neyrelle, had the sabre removed from his armour. Neyrelle, it seems, exercises the role of the demonic female. Accused of all possible crimes against the standards of femininity - attracting lovers, killing her husband instead of giving birth to his children, ruling mercilessly, judging right and wrong, conspiring against those whom she fears, showing disloyalty to her family, behaving extremely proud -, she appears to be the opposite of the familiar image of the "angel in the house" (Gilbert & Gubar 1979, 39).
This is underscored by her appearance: tall, richly dressed and above all dark-haired. The first time Neyrelle is visualized, her dress and especially headdress bear a strong resemblance to the Walt Disney image of the "egotistic, assertive and plotting" (Gilber & Gubar, 43) queen of Snow White. Yet Bourgeon's graphic novel does not allow for clichés of good and bad. Although Neyrelle sacrifices her sister Carmine when she feels betrayed by the knight, the 'true story' about Neyrelle's other crimes is never made clear to the reader as it depends on the gossip of her servants, who are also revealed as superstitious and extremely narrow-minded. It is interesting that the woman whose image is created by the imagination and stories of those around her should add to her coat of armour three mermaids. She thus revives an ancient apocryphal story according to which the Malaterre count a mermaid among their ancestors. Neyrelle's act is remarkable for two reasons. By adding these symbols to the blazon of her former husband she draws upon the maternal family lineage and inverts the traditional law of patrilinial succession. She reinforces her status as a local ruler and establishes her authority not by following in the footsteps of her former husband, but by founding a new, explicitly female identity. Her use of a mysterious female creature as a symbolic sign of identification, moreover, reveals her awareness of the performative power of mystifications of femininity. The real life impact of cultural typologies that associate women with mystery and witchcraft is made explicit. Again this act of contempt is only possible because of her superior social position which lifts her above otherwise easily made accusations to lower-class women who appear suspect to a community and are in constant threat of being eliminated, as were Mariotte and her grandmother. Bourgeon's Les Compagnons visualizes a historicized universe populated by female protagonists who, apart from their obvious feminine looks, subvert essentialist images of so called feminine characteristics.
The undoing of masculinty
The male characters to a certain extent sustain this impression. Parallel to the fact that women bear 'masculine' traits (pride, authority, scholarship) the identification of the male protagonists also subverts straightforward gender patterns attributed to the different sexes.
The example par excellence of masculinity is the knight, whose outspoken manly appearance underscores the allegory of knightly bravery in shining armour. He seems to represent the ideal of the knight errand who fights the forces of evil and protects the poor and defenceless. These masculine ideals are however revealed as highly problematic in Les compagnons, for nothing but the knight's ambition and sense of competition caused the death of the person he loved. No matter what the exact story about Blanche's death is, the knight destroyed his own happiness, because he sacrificed his love to his hurt pride and feelings of revenge which brought about nothing but death and destruction. As a torment of Tantalus he spends the remainder of his days trying to undo what cannot be undone. The image of man as the conquering hero and creator is subverted, it is shown as sterile and destructive.
The second main male character is the knight's servant, Anicet. A beautiful boy by western standards he appears as an outspoken cowardly character from the outset of the story. He is introduced as the one throwing stones at Mariotte and calling her a witch. When by coincidence they both become the knight's servants, he deserts Mariotte at the first possible opportunity and lets her get in the hands of an angry mob. He falls asleep during his night watches, dreams of escaping from his master yet is too afraid to do so, betrays his fellow-travellers, hurts the weaker. Anicet attracts women's erotic attention because of his dark-haired blue-eyed appearance in a world full of ugly people. But while he greatly enjoys this privilege of the beautiful, he also becomes their object. Notably Anais plays games with Anicet, seducing him one day into sleeping with her and publicly chasing him off the next, inverting the role of male hunter and female prey. Throughout the whole story Anicet tries to imitate his knightly master, which is visualised in several pictures where, at different occasions, he puts on the knight's helmet and asks the women who watch him what he looks like. Their reply is always the same: "une casserole" (a saucepan). This game of travesty reveals that the knight cannot be imitated. The fact that his armour is made to measure and only fits him and not his servant, expresses that being a knight is not only a matter of outward appearance. Moreover, the fact that this particular knight represents a problematic masculine role model makes the male-male identification even more questionable.
The only positive male protagonist is Luce, the elderly leader of the comedians, who bears : feminine9 characteristics. From the point of view of sexual attraction he appears as a "neutral" person, not only because of his advanced age but also in a symbolical way, since he is introduced as the person who prevents Mariotte from being raped by his fellow traveller Gerson. Luce - the name is both male or female - has in fact spent his life helping others: he saved his bear from the hands of hunters, he plucked Gerson from the gallows without even asking him why he had been convicted, he saved Anais as a baby from a Jewish family during a pogrom and brought her up as his daughter. Luce shows a sense of compassion that is traditionally considered as maternal. Yet as so many other gendered features in the representation of the different characters in Les compagnons this one is distributed to the "wrong" sex and thus subverts clichéd constructions of femininity and masculinity.
Bourgeon's complex historical graphic novel ends with an epilogue in which the surviving protagonists as well as the narrative construction of the story are presented. The survivors of the catastrophic destruction of Neyrelle's town and castle are shown as spending the night in open air. They have become troubadours and will in the future narrate the story of the knight's destiny and the fall of the house of Malaterre to the people. The entire story is presented as a tale, associated with a narrative tradition, punctuated with personal imagination, told by both women and men. Although the reunification of Mariotte with her beloved transmits the rather naive "amor vincit omnia" -message, Bourgeon's deconstruction of fixed gendered characteristics throughout the novel as well as the narrative complexities provoke a reading of Les compagnons du crépuscule that goes beyond the surface of a mere reification of the past by means of realistic images, mirroring nothing but the readers' exptectations.
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