References: Women of Camelot: queens and enchantresses at the court of King Arthur (Orchard Australia, 2000) by Mary Hoffman, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions (Dover Publications, Inc., 1991, originally published in 1907) by Howard Pyle, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2005) by Howard Pyle, The Politics of Myth (Melbourne University Press, 2015) by Stephen Knight, England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York (Amberley, 2015) by Elizabeth Norton, http://www.britannia.com/history/biographies/guinever.html, http://www.kingarthursknights.com/, Bulfinch’s Mythology (Gramercy Books, 2003) by Thomas Bulfinch, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills
Trigger warning: references to rape and incest
Guinevere is the Yoko Ono of myth and legend – the girl who broke up the beloved band of knights, the Pandora of Camelot, the Eve who doomed a golden age through her sin. I can keep producing comparisons for some time, because sexism is not original. She was described by the 18th century writer Thomas Percy as ‘a bitch and a witch/ And a whore bold’ while some writers completely removed her from the narrative. Over the years, Guinevere’s story has overwhelmingly been told by people who do not like her.
According to The Politics of Myth, she was the leader to twenty beautiful maidens and daughter of the giant Gogryfan Gawr/Ogrfan Gawr of Castell y Cnwclas. A Germanic version makes her the daughter of King Garlin of Galore, while Geoffrey of Monmouth gives her Roman lineage. In Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, her father is King Leodegrance of Cameliard, Arthur’s political ally. In the Welsh legends she has a sister, Gwenhwyfach, who marries Arthur’s nemesis Mordred. This ties in to the French romances, in which a ‘false Guinevere’ (half-sister to the true queen) dupes Arthur and his court for two and a half years. The only one not fooled by her is, surprise surprise, Guinevere’s lover Lancelot.
And it can get weirder! One very old and incomplete story has Arthur marry three consecutive women sharing the same name (Gwenhwyfar daughter of Cywryd, Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr ap Greidiol and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Ogrfan Gawr, according to http://www.britannia.com), which suggests that either Arthur had a creepy fixation or that Guinevere may have originally been a triple goddess, manifesting as the maiden, mother and crone. Her name even means ‘white spirit’.
Another ancient incarnation of the queen comes from the Welsh folk story ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, in which her name is Gwenhwyfar/Gwenhwyfar. She is married to the Arthur of that story and valuable enough to him that, when his cousin Culhwch comes to court asking for a favour, Gwenhwyfar is exempt from any arrangement he makes. A wise precaution, since another ancient Welsh legend has Gwenhywfar taken by Melwas, lord of the summer country (though it is unclear whether she left with him willingly or not). In that one, it takes a saint’s intercession to negotiate her return to Arthur.
So Guinevere, like Arthur’s mother Igraine, is a woman of enigmatic heritage – but who is she as a person? It depends heavily on which account you read. Most portray her as a stately but morally unreliable woman, her beauty being her most prominent characteristic. Thomas Bulfinch’s Guinevere watches on as Arthur fights to save her father’s castle, trembling and telling her friends how she hopes to marry him. Howard Pyle introduces her as a beautiful damsel in distress, meeting Arthur first while he’s lying injured then again when he’s disguised by Merlin’s magic and coming to rescue her from an unwanted marriage with Duke Mordaunt of North Umber. Later, Pyle sets her up in a tidy Madonna-Whore paradigm by contrasting the queen against Lancelot’s other lover Elaine (having conflated the two Elaines of Lancelot’s romantic history and conveniently erased all the flaws in both).
To my surprise, it’s Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur that treats Guinevere with the most respect. After their meeting in Cameliard, when Arthur went to support her father against the attacking King Ryence, Arthur describes the woman he means to marry as ‘the most valiant and fairest lady that I know living’. Which implies she did more than look on while her home was under attack. It would be very romantic if Arthur didn’t so badly want the Round Table Leodegrance has in his keeping – once the possession of Uther Pendragon, passed on to Arthur as a wedding gift. Love may be involved but this is a marriage of political symbolism, to better cement the young king’s reign.
In fact, the Guinevere (spelled Guenever) of Malory has a mixed bag of a wedding any way you look at it. Arthur’s nephew Gawain asks to be made a knight on that day, and since Arthur is in the kind of mood where he’s granting favours all round, his friend Pellinore’s illegitimate son Tor claims a knighthood at the same time. During the wedding feast, a white hart charges through the hall, pursued in succession by a whole pack of dogs, a shouting lady and an unknown knight, precipitating a quest right in the middle of Guinevere’s big day. It’s just rude. Gawain ends up making a terrible mess of his part in the quest and Guinevere lays an ordinance on him to atone for his mistakes by always serving the causes of women. She also passes judgement when Lancelot sends defeated opponents to her for sentencing, decisions in which Arthur plays no part. While this is obviously a gesture of loving fealty on Lancelot’s part, it emphasises Guinevere’s authority as a queen.
She’s also a good networker. Lancelot may be Guinevere’s favourite knight, but she’s fond of Arthur’s foster brother Kay and nobody makes her laugh like Sir Dinadan. She has a fellowship within the Round Table called the Queen’s Knights who bear white shields to show they are in her service. She even has a pen-friendship with the other famously tragic queen of Arthurian legend, Isolde. They write to support each other during difficult times and when an illness prevents them from attending the same tournament, Guinevere eagerly demands details about her friend from the knights who went.
Her relationship with Arthur is, overall, a secure, respectful and professional one, tending towards agreement on important issues – for instance, the two of them are passionately opposed to the Grail quest. When he goes to war shortly after their marriage, she goes with him and chooses to risk crossing dangerously turbulent waters rather than fall into his enemy’s hands. She shows her courage again when, later in her life, she is ambushed by the traitorous knight Meliagrance. “I had lever cut mine own throat in twain rather than thou shouldest dishonour me,” she tells him flatly, but chooses to surrender rather than allow her knights to be killed by Meliagrance’s greater numbers. She not only manages to get a messenger away to fetch help, she is so intimidating that she manages to keep her entire party within her sight at all times while they are held captive, despite it being in Meliagrance’s interests to separate her from them.
Of course, Lancelot comes to the rescue. His arrival frightens Meliagrance into an apology and Guinevere accepts it with the statement “better is peace than ever war”, but then Meliagrance – hoping to distract attention from his own crime – accuses her of unfaithfulness to Arthur and traps Lancelot in an oubliette to prevent him from fighting on the appointed day to clear her name. Lancelot nevertheless manages to escape (with the help of his rather lecherous female guard) and defeat him. When he looks to Guinevere for her orders, Lancelot reads the shake of her head for the death sentence that it is. Guinevere will not tolerate harm done to those she loves.
Which is not to say that her love affair with Lancelot remains a secret, because pretty much everyone except Arthur knows. Lancelot can’t go on a quest without random women bringing it up and trying to change his mind – one even accuses Guinevere of witchcraft, which is an incredibly low blow – and Morgan le Fay tries time and again to wave broad hints under Arthur’s nose, from sending an infidelity-detecting horn (that does not reach its intended target) to a shield that depicts a knight standing upon the heads of a king and queen, lord of them both. This is the only attempt Morgan le Fay makes at interacting with Guinevere in Le Morte d’Arthur.
The truth is, I never cared much either way about Lancelot or about the Arthurian love triangle until I read Malory. Guess what? I became FIERCELY INVESTED.
When Lancelot travels to the Grail Castle, where his presence has been foretold, the sorceress Dame Brisen tricks him into believing Guinevere is in his bed when it is really King Pelles’ daughter Elaine. Upon his return to Camelot, Elaine rapes him a second time. Guinevere walks in on them and believes herself betrayed; Lancelot, unable to accept her subsequent rejection, suffers a breakdown and disappears into the wilderness. Guinevere confides her grief to Isolde and spends a fortune to send out a fellowship of knights out to search for Lancelot, whose sense of self-worth is so broken he ends up sheltering with Elaine. Even there, he commissions a black shield bearing the emblem of a silver queen. Later on, Guinevere turns him away again after Lancelot breaks the habit of a lifetime and wears Elaine of Astolat’s token during a tournament. Guinevere refuses to believe it was worn solely as a disguise.
But nothing can keep them apart for long. It is arguable that Arthur and Guinevere’s marriage only functions because Lancelot is there. When she is accused of murdering a knight with a poisoned apple, Arthur doesn’t believe for a moment that she is guilty, but it is Lancelot who fights for her (and his foster mother, the sorceress Nimue, who eventually clears her name). What’s more, Arthur fully expects Lancelot to take the role of queen’s champion. When Guinevere is abducted by Meliagrance, the messenger she sends goes straight to Lancelot and he throws aside courtly pride, riding in a lowly woodcutter’s cart after his horse is killed, doing whatever he can to reach her faster.
Then there’s all the little details. Lancelot talks about her in his sleep. He recognises her cough. They would rather be with each other (or with Arthur) than anyone else, and it’s just really, really adorable. And yes, for the record, it is a bad thing that Guinevere cheats on Arthur. But Arthur is hardly an angel in this regard himself – while there’s no evidence he ever cheated on Guinevere, he did sleep with the very married Morgause as a young man, a decision he only regretted when he found out she was his sister. Of course, by then it was too late, because Morgause gave birth to Mordred and Mordred is a truly terrible person.
He recruits his half-brother Agravaine to help expose Guinevere’s infidelity. Lancelot fights his way out of the trap they set – killing thirteen of the fourteen knights sent to capture him, including Agravaine, and injuring Mordred – but Guinevere believes it will make the situation worse if she escapes with her lover and chooses to remain behind. Enraged, Arthur betrays her in turn and sentences her to be burned at the stake. It may be the traditional law of the land, but it is nevertheless a choice; his eldest nephew Gawain tries to talk him out of it, and though Gawain’s younger brothers Gareth and Gaheris are forced to attend the execution, they go unarmed as a protest.
Lancelot swore to Guinevere that ‘while I am living I shall rescue you’. He keeps his word. Slashing his way through former friends to reach her before the pyre is lit, he unknowingly kills Gaheris and Gareth. Overwhelmed by grief and rage, Gawain demands Arthur go to war against Lancelot. Even after the Pope intercedes, ordering that Arthur take Guinevere back and make peace with Lancelot, Gawain continues his war-mongering – because it was never about Guinevere. He holds no grudge against her whatsoever.
Which doesn’t mean she’s not dealing with plenty of the consequences. Left behind in England while Arthur and Gawain take their war to Lancelot’s ancestral lands across the Channel, she’s in a crushingly vulnerable position and the terrifyingly ambitious Mordred knows it. He claims to the country that their king is dead and takes the crown for himself, then tries to take Guinevere as well. She responds with such skilful diplomacy that he lets her travel to London to make ‘wedding preparations’ – whereupon she seizes the Tower of London and nothing Mordred throws at the siege can get her out. She once again declares she would rather die than live under the control of a man she despises.
Getting word of Mordred’s takeover, Arthur immediately returns. Gawain is killed in the first battle; though word is sent to Lancelot, the war is over by the time he arrives. Arthur and Mordred have died at each other’s hands and Guinevere, overcome by grief, has retreated into the abbey at Almesbury. She blames herself and Lancelot for what happened to the realm and though it breaks her heart to do it, she sends him away. Her life becomes one of religious contemplation. Of course, she rises to the position of abbess pretty much straight away.
Less than a decade later, Lancelot has a vision that she is dying and hurries to the abbey. She prays to die before he reaches her – she never could resist him, after all – and gets her wish. Respecting her wishes, as he always has, Lancelot buries her beside Arthur at Glastonbury (or at least, the corpse believed to be Arthur’s) and grieves so desperately over the two of them that he dies himself only six weeks later.
People generally agree that Guinevere brought about the fall of Camelot through her affair with Lancelot. People are generally wrong.
You can blame Mordred, who pretended to love Arthur then stole everything from him out of an insatiable drive for power. You can blame Gawain, who became so fixated on vengeance that he would not see reason. You can blame Arthur himself, who would have stood by and watched his wife burn. You could – and I do – blame Merlin and Uther Pendragon, for their deceit, laying cracks in Camelot’s very foundations.
But the truth is? Golden ages do not last. That’s what makes them golden, the sepia tint of hindsight, and there’s always blame enough to go around when something good is lost, however inevitable it may be. Guinevere made her mistakes. She paid for them. And she is so, so much bigger than them. She was a courageous and capable queen; hot-tempered, generous and loyal. And, as Malory said, “while she lived she was a true lover, and therefore she had a good end.”
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!