Ladies of Legend: Morgan le Fay and Morgause

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, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos

Trigger warning: references to rape

There is a tendency, in Arthurian legend, for Igraine’s daughters to be highly variable in number and almost entirely interchangeable in identity, their roles within different versions of the myth generally depending on which woman gives birth to which sons. The Vulgate Cycle, for instance, has a whole crowd of half-sisters, while other versions whittle it down to one or two. The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards credits Morgan le Fay with eight sorceress sisters – Cliton, Gliten, Glitonea, Mazoe, Modron, Moronoe, Thitis and Tyronoe – all living together on the island of Avalon and acting as good fairies at Arthur’s birth. Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies speculates that Morgan le Fay may have originally been a Celtic sea goddess or even a goddess of death. She has associations with the Morrigana, an Irish triple goddess represented by the three warrior queen aspects of Badb, Macha and Morrigan, the latter of whom is also strongly associated with fertility.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, there are three sisters: Morgause (alternatively spelled Margawse) being the eldest, Elaine the middle child and Morgan as the youngest. They were the children of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall and Igraine. When Gorlois was defeated in battle by King Uther Pendragon, Igraine had little choice but the marry the victor. She gave birth to a son, Arthur, who was taken away to be raised with a foster family, his very existence a well-kept secret. Uther then used his newly acquired stepdaughters to secure political alliances, marrying Morgause off to King Lot of Orkney and Elaine to King Nentres of Garlot. At this point Elaine promptly vanishes from the narrative.

Morgan was perhaps too young for marriage at the time because she was sent to a convent for an unexpectedly arcane education, learning the arts of necromancy and sorcery. Other stories have her trained at court by Merlin himself. Eventually, however, she was given a royal marriage of her own and became queen to Uriens of Gore.

Morgause had four sons with Lot – Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth. The only one to inherit any magical tendencies was Gawain, whose strength increased as the sun approached its zenith. When Arthur emerged from obscurity and Uther’s former allies went to war against him, including Lot, Morgause calmly came as a messenger to the embattled young king (with all of her boys in tow, what’s more) and had a month-long fling with him that resulted in a fifth son, Mordred. The relationship appears to have been consensual and mutually misinformed.

When Merlin finally told Arthur the truth, it came with a side serve of apocalyptic prophecy and the two of them threw a full King Herod routine by having all the baby boys born on May Day sent to sea to be drowned. Mordred survived. What’s more, he appears to have been raised by Morgause, because he shows up later in the story as a knight in Arthur’s court, not quite popular but respected and running around with the other Orkney boys. How he got from one point to the other is one hell of a mystery that Malory never explains.

Nentres and Uriens were also aligned against Arthur, though that did not stop Igraine bringing Morgan along when she met Arthur for the first time. Which means that Morgan was present, listening, when Igraine told the court how Uther appropriated her husband’s face in order to rape her.

The fight for the throne was brutal. During the final battle, thirteen kings were killed; among them, Morgause’s husband Lot, brought down by Arthur’s ally Pellinore. This was the beginning of a labyrinthine tangle of messed-up relationships, as Gawain eventually killed Pellinore and the widowed Morgause later took Pellinore’s son Lamorak as her lover.

Arthur held a great funeral, attended by Morgause and her sons, Morgan and her husband Uriens, and their son Ewaine (also spelled Yvain). Eager to connect with his half-sisters on a non-sexual level that is also not a battlefield – this family is such a disaster in so many ways – Arthur entrusted his sword Excalibur into Morgan’s care. Apparently she had a trustworthy vibe or something. Arthur proved once again that he was a shocking judge of people because not only did Morgan plan to use that sword for a double regicide, she had learned enough about Arthur’s personality to arrange it that he took every step into the trap for himself.

Arthur went hunting with Uriens and a knight called Sir Accolon who, unbeknown to the others, was Morgan’s lover and accomplice. The kings and their companion spied a beautiful ship floating in nearby waters and were invited to stay the night aboard by the twelve beautiful women who were its only occupants. However, when Uriens awoke he was in bed with Morgan – and when Arthur awoke, he was in the dungeon of Sir Damas, a knight in the middle of a property dispute with his little brother and who had a habit of kidnapping promising fighters in the hope that one of them would consent to be his champion. Thus far, nobody had. Arthur grimly offered himself on the condition that the other prisoners would be released. He didn’t realise that the messenger girl he was talking to was a servant of Morgan le Fay, or that the sword he went to fight with was not Excalibur at all. Morgan sent Accolon to Sir Ontzlake, Damas’ brother, to volunteer as his champion in the upcoming fight, and he had the true sword.

It’s neatly done. It would have worked beautifully had the Lady Nimue not been among the spectators, because in Le Morte d’Arthur it is she who received the training from Merlin, not Morgan, and after she got rid of him for good, she took over the role of Arthur’s intermittent protector. She forced Accolon to drop Excalibur, so that Arthur could reclaim it. Accolon confessed to everything. Morgan’s plan was to kill Uriens as well, take Accolon as her consort and rule the land herself. I shouldn’t like that. But I sort of do.

Expecting Accolon to have already succeeded, Morgan had moved in for the next kill. She sent a handmaiden for Uriens’ sword so that she could kill her husband with his own weapon – nasty sense of irony that the lady’s got there – but the handmaiden had qualms and woke Uwaine, who was sadly prepared for exactly this kind of situation. “I may say an earthly devil bore me,” he said, catching the sword before his mother could strike. She might be willing to murder her brother and husband in cold blood, but Morgan loved her son and in exchange for his forgiveness, she swore that Uriens would be safe from her. She kept her word, too; as far as Malory tells it, she never made another attempt on her husband’s life.

Arthur was deeply hurt by Morgan’s betrayal. He settled matters between Damas and Ontzlake, and when Accolon died of his injuries, four days after the fight, Arthur sent the body to Morgan as a warning. She hid her grief, planning her vengeance. She went to see Guinevere before Arthur returned to court, acquiring royal permission to travel into the country. Travelling with a company of her own knights, she found the abbey where Arthur was staying overnight and tried to steal Excalibur from him, only to discover he’d taken to sleeping with it in his hand. She settled for snatching the scabbard, which protected its wearer from physical harm. Arthur soon woke and pursued her. Maliciously, she hurled the scabbard into a lake and enchanted herself to disappear into the landscape as a rock until Arthur gave up looking.

After that, Morgan rejoined her knights and travelled on. She encountered one of Arthur’s knights, blindfolded and pushed into a fountain by the man whose wife he was sleeping with. The imperilled knight was Sir Manassen, cousin to Accolon. Morgan turned the tables: it was the other knight who drowned and Manassen was sent back to court unharmed, as a message to Arthur: she saved one of his knights for love of Accolon and with all her magic, she did not fear Arthur. She then turned her attention to building up the defences and devotion of Gore.

Her next attempt to get at Arthur was presented as a truce. She sent a handmaiden with a beautiful cloak as a reconciliation gift, but Nimue was there once again to foil her; she suggested the handmaiden try the cloak on first and the court watched, horrified, as the girl burned alive. Though Arthur did not blame Uwaine for his mother’s actions, the young knight was no longer welcomed at court and when he left, his loyal cousin Gawain went with him. The children of Morgause and Morgan were fiercely clannish. Of course, Morgause decided to be on good terms with Arthur – as he had no children with Guinevere, Morgause’s children were his obvious successors, a good reason if ever there was one to take his side in this unusually bloody sibling squabble. But Morgause never seemed to be on bad terms with Morgan either.

Which is not to say Morgause didn’t have problems of her own. To begin with, her (favourite) son Gareth took it into his head to arrive at Arthur’s court incognito and prove himself as an unknown knight instead of claiming his royal birthright from the get go, so Morgause had to storm over there and tell off Arthur for not keeping a better eye on his nephews – and then she told off her other sons for not recognising their own goddamn brother when he was right under their noses. Upon hearing that the court bully Sir Kay nicknamed her son Beaumains (meaning ‘fair-hands’, this being a way of calling him a freeloader) she tersely retorted that Gareth was ‘fair-handed’ indeed, flipping the insult into a compliment to Gareth’s sense of justice. The adventure ended happily, with three of her sons all getting married at once.

Meanwhile, Morgan’s one woman war on Arthur continued undaunted. She started running with a girl gang of fellow queens, including the Queen of Northgalis, the queen of Eastland and the queen of the Out Isles. I swear, I am NOT making this up. They captured Sir Lancelot while he was out questing and tried to make him choose a lover from among them, but he held true to Guinevere and was rescued by another independently-minded handmaiden, the daughter of King Bagdemagus, who is not named by Malory but who Howard Pyle calls Elouise. Morgan preferred to work with women (she was later reputed to have a spy network of up to thirty women across the kingdom) but was prone to overestimating her influence on them.

One woman Morgan was completely disinterested in bonding with was Guinevere, who she appeared to view as nothing more than a weak spot in Arthur’s defences. She knew – well, everybody knew – that Guinevere and Lancelot were lovers, and came up with increasingly ingenious ways to try and drum home the message to Arthur. She sent a horn that could not be drunk from by an unfaithful lady, only for it to be waylaid and given to King Mark of Cornwall’s court instead; she depicted a king and queen on a shield with a knight above them both, imagining the symbolism to be obvious, only for Arthur to dismiss it entirely. He was too familiar with his sister’s traitorous habits to take her word for anything.

Morgan also captured Arthur’s knights whenever she could. One of her female spies tried to talk Sir Tristram and Gawain into an ambush. Though Gawain revealed her as one of his aunt’s servants, Tristram wanted the fight anyway, but (recognising a bull-headed hero when she saw  one) Morgan refuses to send out her knights. She later managed to imprison Tristram and made  him carry the suggestive shield in return for his freedom. That was not enough for her lover at the time, Sir Hemison, who chased after Tristram against Morgan’s advice and was killed in the ensuing fight.

Morgause, meanwhile, was thoroughly enjoying her widowhood with Lamorak. He was a contemporary of her sons, so presumably a couple of decades or so younger than herself, and who was the kind of fiery type who picked fights with anybody who implied Guinevere might be more beautiful than his own regal silver vixen of a girlfriend. He also beat a whole gang of Morgan’s knights to work off some steam. The sex was canonically excellent.

Unfortunately, Morgause’s sons were not on board with her having an active love life. Gawain resented Arthur’s fondness for Lamorak, seeing him only as the man whose father murdered his own, and taking Lamorak as a lover ‘shamed’ Morgause in Gawain’s eyes. All his brothers, apart from possibly Gareth, took the same view. Having intercepted a message that named the time and place for a rendevous, Gaheris stormed in on the lovers and cut off his own mother’s head. Covered in the blood of the woman he loved, Lamorak screamed that he would rather have died in her place, but he was unarmed and could not fight back. Gaheris’ twisted sense of honour would not allow him to kill a naked man and so he let Lamorak go, but the enmity between him and the Orkney brothers was bitter after that and Lamorak was eventually killed by Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Mordred acting as a mob. The only one who refused to be involved was Gareth.

It was a terrible end for a remarkable woman.

Both Arthur and Lancelot were horrified at Morgause’s death and Gaheris was banished from court. The narrative being what it is, Morgan’s reaction is not recorded, but her enmity with Arthur seemed to taper off after that. She went into small-scale acts of evil sorcery with the Queen of Northgalis as her partner. For instance, she allowed King Mark to talk her into using her sorceress connections to find an enemy of his…only to turn around and heal the young knight in question, swearing him to her service. She kept him at the castle of La Beale Regard. The castle’s true heiress soon showed up, brought the knight over to her side, then had the castle razed to the ground, once again proving that Morgan needed to stop underestimating other women.

It was possibly with that in mind that Morgan and the Queen of Northgalis cursed Elaine of Corbin, called the fairest lady in the land, leaving her to boil alive without ever dying until the best knight in the world came to rescue her. It’s a brutal act of spite. Of course, this could also have been an indirect attack on Arthur, as Lancelot’s rape by Elaine ends up triggering great turmoil at court, but predicting all of that might be beyond even Morgan’s talent for scheming.

In any case, Arthur’s court crumbled on its own, first losing many knights to the hopeless quest for the Sangreal before being shaken apart at the foundations when Mordred revealed Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair beyond any chance at denial. It was Mordred who took over the kingdom; it was he who led the final battle against Arthur and struck the blow that would kill him, even as he himself lay dying.

Arthur sent Bedivere, the sole knight remaining at his side, to throw Excalibur into the nearby waters. To Bedivere’s amazement, a hand rose to catch the blade. By the time he carried Arthur down to the water, a barge had arrived at the bank. Nimue was aboard it, and three queens: the Queen of the Waste Lands, the Queen of Northgalis and the Queen of Gore. Arthur laid his head in the lap of his sister and Morgan asked, gently, “Ah dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me?” They disappeared together, across the water to Avalon. Neither were ever seen again.

Morgause and Morgan were ruthless women, in their different ways – Morgause being the pragmatic one, willing to overlook the blood on the hands of the men in her life if she got what she wanted out of it, while Morgan pursued power with a single-minded force of will and fierce cunning. What is so glorious about Malory’s women is that they are, above all other things, people. Their motivations may be obscure, but they are their own selves, making decisions in their own interests. They are not shadowy seductresses stalking the edges of Arthur’s court; these women are queens, and the daughters of a queen. Their lives might be tragedies, but they lived them proudly – the political matriarch and the warrior witch. They are not interchangeable at all.

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!

Ladies of Legend: Ragnell and Lyonet

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 Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle: Introduction (from Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, 1995, taken from the University of Rochester website) by Thomas Hahn, http://www.sfsu.edu/~medieval/romances/wedding_rev.html, http://www.eleusinianm.co.uk/middle-english-literature-retold-in-modern-english/breton-lais/sir-launfal, Bulfinch’s Mythology (Gramercy Books, 2003) by Thomas Bulfinch, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin

When I was growing up, I read two books that introduced me to a pair of remarkable women at King Arthur’s court, and I’ve never forgotten them. The first was a picture book called Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady (Walker Books Ltd., 1987) by Selina Hastings, vividly illustrated by Juan Wijngaard. The second is The deeds of the nameless knight (Ladybird Books Ltd., 1977) by Desmond Dunkerley and illustrated by Robert Ayton. There is a certain undeniable romance to the imagery of a knight in shining armour, but up close and personal it can be quite a lot more complicated, and these stories are about women who knew that better than anyone.

The ‘loathly lady’ is a folkloric archetype present in several Arthurian stories, but it takes centre stage in a ballad called ‘The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell’ (also spelled Ragnelle) that survived to the present day in a 16th century manuscript. In this ballad, King Arthur goes out into Inglewood to hunt with his knights but leaves them behind in the pursuit of a fine hart. He succeeds in catching and killing it, only to be caught and threatened with death himself by the vengeful Sir Gromer-Somer Joure, whose lands were given over to Arthur’s nephew Gawain in what admittedly does sound a lot like nepotism. Unarmed, Arthur tries to negotiate with promises of redress, but Gromer-Somer Joure instead sets him a challenge. Arthur must return to Inglewood in twelve months time with the answer to a riddle: what do women everywhere love best? If Arthur has no solution, he will lose his head.

Gromer-Somer Joure is obviously one of those men who believes women possess a hive-mind. His plan hinges upon Arthur’s cast-iron sense of chivalry; once the challenge is accepted, the king can’t simply show up for the meeting with an ambush of knights to ensure it goes his way. He returns to his court at Carlisle in such a low mood that Gawain insists on knowing what is troubling him. He takes an optimistic view of the bargain Arthur has made. At his suggestion, the two men ride off in different directions to try out the riddle on everyone they meet, and compare notes afterwards. Some people think that what women want most is beautiful clothes, while others claim it is courtship or affection, but Arthur is not satisfied with those answers. He decides to return to Inglewood, in the hope of finding some clue.

I don’t know what he was hoping to find, but what he gets is a woman on a white horse, who gives every appearance of having been waiting for him.

According to the translation of the ballad from Medieval Forum (a translation which is taken from Middle English Romances, edited by Stephen H. A. Shepherd) the lady’s face is “red and covered with snot, her mouth huge, and all her teeth yellow, hanging over her lips. Her bleary eyes were greater than a ball, and her cheeks were as broad as women’s hips. She had a hump on her back, her neck was long and thick, and her hair clotted into a heap. She was made like a barrel, with shoulders a yard wide and hanging breasts that were large enough to be a horse’s load. No tongue can tell of the foulness and ugliness of that lady.” Later she is described as having “two teeth on each side like boar tusks the span of a hand: one went up, the other down. Her wide, foul mouth was covered with grey hairs and her lips lay lumped on her chin; no neck could be seen.”

She may not have beauty, but she has plenty of confidence. She offers Arthur the answer to his riddle in return for the promise that Sir Gawain will be her husband. “I am not wicked!” she assures Arthur, but he is deeply unhappy about the whole business and can make no guarantee beyond appealing to his nephew – and while he trusts Gawain will want to help him, he does not want to foist so unappealing a bride on him. “Sir King,” the woman responds, “though I am foul, even an owl may choose its mate. I’ll say no more. I will meet you here when you have made your decision, or else I believe you are lost.”

Farewell, lady foul,” Arthur says bitterly as he turns for Carlisle. “Yes, sir,” she retorts, “there is a bird men call an owl, yet I am a lady.” In medieval bestiaries, the owl is the harbinger of death, making this statement less than comforting. She tells him that her name is Dame Ragnell, ‘who has never yet beguiled man’, a statement I shall assume indicates virginity, though it could also be another attempt at reassurance regarding her motives.

If so, it doesn’t help. Arthur returns to Carlisle feeling trapped and borderline suicidal, but when he tells Gawain of the offer, Gawain replies at once that he would wed Ragnell were she ‘a fiend, or as foul as Beelzebub’ in order to save his king. Arthur goes back to Inglewood less than a week later to accept Ragnell’s terms, with phrasing that emphasises the sexual coercion she has demanded (‘you shall have your desire in the bedchamber and in bed’). It’s a reasonable view to take – Gawain’s consent comes under significant duress, after all – but Ragnell is a woman of her word.

Sir, you will now know, without digression, what women of all degrees want most,” she tells Arthur. “Some men say we desire to be beautiful and that we want to consort with diverse strange men; also we love lust in bed and often wish to wed. Thus men misunderstand women. Another idea they have is that we want to be seen as young and fresh, not old, and that women can be won through flattery and clever ploys. In truth, you act foolishly. The one thing that we desire of men above all else is to have complete sovereignty, so that all is ours. We use our skill to gain mastery over the most fierce, victorious and manly of knights. So go on your way and tell this to the knight, who will be angry and curse the one who taught it to you, for his labour is lost. I assure you that your life is now safe, and remember your promise.”

Arthur goes to meet Sir Gromer, but instead of giving Ragnell’s answer right away, he hands over the massive accumulation of answers collected from around the countryside. If the right one is in there somewhere, Gawain need not marry Ragnell. This hope is in vain. Gromer reaches for his sword and Arthur, despairing, hurls out his last shot. “Here is what all women desire above all things of men…sovereignty, the rule of the manliest men. Then they are happy (so they have taught me) – to rule you, Sir Gromer.”

Burn. Which is literally how Gromer responds. “I hope that she who told you burns in a fire, the old nag,” he snarls, “for she was my sister, Dame Ragnell.” His own rules leave him no choice but to let Arthur go. The king meets Ragnell on his return journey and she reminds him of the marriage he promised her. No small wedding will do, either, and she’s not letting him out of her sight until the vows have been spoken. She enters the court at his side, insisting Gawain be brought to her at once.

The couple are soon betrothed. Looking on, the king and queen and all their court tactlessly bemoan Gawain’s fate. Guinevere tries to talk Ragnell into a quiet, early morning ceremony but Ragnell is set on marrying in the church before everybody and celebrating with a court feast, and her crimson wedding clothes are even finer than the queen’s. She also insists that all the ladies of the surrounding country attend the ceremony. Afterwards, she is seated at the high table and eats enough for six people, using her long nails to tear apart the food. Everyone is shocked at her uncouth manners, but she ploughs on calmly until the end of the meal, when she retires with her new husband to their bedchamber.

Gawain has his back to her when she speaks to him directly for the first time in the ballad. “Since we are married, show me your courtesy in bed,” she says. “…If I were beautiful, you would do differently…But for Arthur’s sake, kiss me at least. I pray you honour my request; show me how you can do.”

He turns around, determined to fulfill his vows, and finds a beautiful woman he doesn’t even recognise sitting on the bed. She lightly mocks his confusion; it is, of course, Ragnell. In this form he kisses her with enthusiasm, but she soon interrupts. “Sir, you must make a choice, as my beauty will not last. You may have me fair at night and foul at day in everyone’s sight, or fair during the day and foul at night. You must choose one or the other; which would you prefer to save your honor?”

Gawain is torn. Unable to decide which course would be best, he leaves it up to her. “Whatever you wish, I put it in your hand,” he tells her. “My body and goods, heart and every part of me is all your own to buy and sell, I vow before God.”

That is the right answer – a) because it’s not his body to make decisions about, and b) because it is the solution to Ragnell’s curse. She was enchanted by her necromancer stepmother to remain hideous until the best knight in England not only married her, but gave her rule over him. Which sounds pretty kinky, actually, especially when they spend the rest of the night ‘mak[ing] much joy’ (a.k.a., having excellent sex) and stay in bed until midday. By that point, Arthur grows concerned enough to come check on them. He fears that Ragnell has devoured his nephew; then Gawain opens the door to reveal Ragnell in her nightdress, red-gold hair falling down to her knees. “This is my wife, Dame Ragnell,” Gawain says smugly, “who once saved your life.” He tells her story, and interestingly it is Guinevere’s relief that is highlighted.

The wedding is celebrated all over again with considerably more gusto. Now that Ragnell has a pretty face, her deeds look good too. Guinevere declares her the most beautiful woman in the hall (a sentiment agreed upon by the queen’s ladies) and swears to love her forever for saving Arthur’s life. Ragnell sweetly promises her obedience to Gawain. As they’ve now promised obedience to each other, I’m not entirely sure how any disagreement in their marriage is going to get resolved, but they make it work. She gives birth to a boy, Gyngolyn, who later becomes a knight of the Round Table like his father, and becomes a fixture at court. Gawain is so besotted he gives up jousting to spend more time with her. Ragnell also convinces Arthur to reconcile with her brother, presumably returning Gromer’s lands.

Sadly, Ragnell lives only five years into her marriage. It’s unclear what she dies of, other than a narrative dead-end. She does not appear in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, though her brother and son both do. Howard Pyle’s adaptation of this story lets her live, but turns Gromer-Somer Joure into a sorcerer acting out of pure spite and Ragnell into a nameless Lady of the Lake, from the same faerie otherworld as Nimue. This version of Ragnell saw Gawain once upon a time and cooked up a plan to compel him into marriage. In this version, the ugliness is a disguise to test Gawain’s strength of character. Without the need to break a curse, her behaviour is alarmingly manipulative and her character a lot less likeable.

Gawain has four brothers, according to Le Morte d’Arthur. The youngest is Gareth. When it is his turn to go to Arthur’s court, he shows up unarmed where the court is in residence at Kynke Kenadonne, with a dwarf in his service and the bold request of three favours from the king without introducing himself or giving Arthur any reason to indulge him. Fortunately, Gareth is a) adorable, and b) good at timing, because Arthur considers no Pentecost feast complete without something strange and wonderful occurring, and Gareth’s demand for a year’s lodging at court fits the bill. Arthur agrees to give Gareth his way and leaves his seneschal Kay to handle the details.

Kay does not approve of Gareth. He sees him as a freeloader and nicknames him ‘Beaumains’, meaning ‘fair-hands’. Gawain doesn’t recognise his brother (exactly how long has it been since the last family reunion?) but takes Gareth’s side anyway. So does Lancelot, because his role in Le Morte d’Arthur is to be everybody’s big brother whether he’s related to them or not. Gareth refuses to accept more than Kay will grant him, however; he sleeps on the floor with the kitchen boys and bides his time.

He accompanies Arthur’s court to Carlion. At the feast of Whitsuntide, a young woman enters the great hall with a challenge for the knights: her sister’s castle is under siege from the Red Knight of the Red Lands and she is in desperate need of a champion. As the woman will give neither her name nor the name of her sister, she gets little interest from the court. Gareth is indignant on her behalf and comes forward to claim the quest. That counts as his second favour from Arthur. His third favour is asking for Lancelot to knight him. Realising she’s getting a kitchen boy when she needs a hero, the young woman storms out. Gareth puts on his own armour and follows her.

Kay follows him, as outraged as the lady, though with significantly pettier cause. He plans to teach Gareth a lesson by unhorsing him. Lancelot, who joins the veritable procession wending its way out of Carlion, watches as Gareth unhorses Kay, takes his shield and spear, and gives over Kay’s horse to the dwarf who accompanies him. Gareth even manages to hold his own against Lancelot in a subsequent joust, well enough that Lancelot would have to exert himself properly in order to win, which he is not willing to do. Assured that his identity will remain a secret, Gareth reveals his real name to Lancelot and is knighted by him.

That doesn’t impress the lady whose quest he has taken. She insults him thoroughly, but he follows her anyway. Gareth’s family is full of very persistent people and he is no exception. He comes upon a knight besieged by six thieves, all of whom Gareth overpowers; the grateful knight invites them to stay the night in his castle and the lady insults her unwanted champion again by refusing to sit beside him. Gareth fights again when challenged by two violent knights at a river crossing, a victory the lady ingeniously passes off as luck. It’s rather harder to ignore Gareth’s skill when he kills Sir Percard of the Black Lands and claims his armour, but the lady can certainly disapprove of his actions. And loudly express her utter exasperation that this boy will not go away.

This is adventurous country, ruled by another large family of brothers. Gareth’s next opponent is Sir Pertolepe of the Green Lands, and Gareth only spares his life when the lady very grudgingly asks for his mercy. In an astonishing display of ‘no hard feelings!’, the defeated knight puts them up for the evening and once again the lady will not sit with Gareth. She warns him that they are soon to travel through the Pass Perilous and he should turn back while he still can. He politely refuses. Gareth is always scrupulously polite with her, and she is always abominably rude. This hot temper leads Malory to call her ‘the savage damsel’.

They come to a tower owned by Sir Perimones, yet another brother of the Black Knight. The lady hopes that this time Gareth will be defeated, but no such luck. She’s once again obliged to ask mercy on behalf of his opponent and makes up for her disappointment by redoubling her efforts to take the gold medal of bad manners off Sir Kay. She leads the way to the city of, yep, ANOTHER BROTHER, this family is vast, where she pokes at Gareth with doubts about his strength. He remains courteous and calm. Suddenly, the lady’s vicious bravado crumbles. She apologises for her jibes. Gareth tells her “all your evil words pleased me”, like the beautifully trained prince that he is.

I shipped these two so hard when I first encountered this story, you have no idea. Alfred Tennyson did too, in his poem Gareth and Lynette.

Gareth fights Sir Persant on general principle. It takes him a little longer to get the upper hand but he wins this battle too and the lady asks for Persant’s life without nudging. Progress! Like the other brothers, Persant offers hospitality in defeat. He also sends his eighteen-year-old daughter to Gareth’s bed to see what kind of a man he’s dealing with, which is just hideously creepy. Gareth wakes up in confusion, asking for his unexpected visitor’s name and marital status. Learning that she did not come to him of her own free will, he is appalled at her father’s behaviour, kisses her kindly and sends her away.

It turns out that Persant, terrible parenting aside, is at least better acquainted with the local nobility than his brothers. He knows the lady travelling with Gareth – her name is Linet, and her sister is Lady Liones of the Castle Dangerous. I’m going to use the alternative spellings of their names, Lyonet and Lyonesse. They have a brother called Gringamore who will not appear until later, and a niece called Laurel who is presumably his daughter. Just so you know, I shall be calling this the Dangerous family, because they kind of are.

Persant is aware that the Castle Dangerous has been under attack for two years, a siege deliberately extended so that the Red Knight can draw in more knights to humiliate and destroy, but is unwilling to extend any help himself. Gareth is horrified to discover the bodies of the Red Knight’s defeated opponents hung in the trees around Lyonesse’s castle, a goad and a warning to all newcomers. Not to mention a reminder to the besieged citizens of exactly how much peril they are in. He proves once more that he is a goddamn prince by sending his servant to alert Lyonesse to the arrival of a new champion and she sends the travellers to a nearby hermitage where they can rest in safety.

Lyonet warns Gareth not to enter into a fight until noon, as the Red Knight only gets stronger over the course of the day. It’s an interestingly similar gift to Gareth’s brother Gawain, who grows stronger through a specific set of hours during the morning. Unafraid, Gareth insists on fighting anyway.

Lyonet points out her sister standing at a window in the castle and even at that distance Gareth is struck by Lyonesse’s beauty. The Red Knight takes objection to his staring, claiming Lyonesse as his lady; Gareth sharply points out that Lyonesse obviously disagrees. The ensuing battle is brutal. It goes on all day, stretching out beyond the point of exhaustion. Gareth takes strength from Lyonesse’s beauty, but it’s Lyonet’s well-timed jab of loud mockery that gives him the energy to win the battle.

Of course, the Red Knight immediately produces a sob story about a girl he once loved whose brother was killed by Gawain or Lancelot (he doesn’t even know which one) and he insists this siege was all about getting revenge for her. Gareth places the decision about his fate in Lyonesse’s hands. The Red Knight, whose real name is Sir Ironside, is permitted to keep his life, but ordered to make amends and to beg forgiveness from the knights he wanted to harm.

With the siege finally ended, Lyonet tends Gareth’s injuries and even Ironside’s, which is very generous of her under the circumstances. Once he’s been cleaned up, Gareth goes to speak to Lyonesse, but she has pulled up her drawbridge. Every bit as prickly as her sister, she will not have him as her own until he’s spent a year proving himself to be a great knight. Hurt and confused, Gareth takes shelter in a cottage in the woods – but worse is still to come. I did say these siblings were Dangerous. Lyonesse sends her brother to kidnap Gareth’s servant so that they can question him and ascertain Gareth’s identity. The servant doesn’t go quietly, waking Gareth, who pursues Gringamore to his castle but not in time to pursue him inside.

The servant is menaced by the Dangerous sisters. He tells them everything they want to know about Gareth’s heritage, and also warns them that Gareth won’t leave until he’s been rescued. Lyonesse instructs her brother to let Gareth in, to placate him with feasting and revelry. Gringamore is supportive of his sister’s love life and happy to let her play out her weird games, including a brief attempt at pretending she’s somebody else. That plan doesn’t even last until the end of the evening; after spending a bit of time with Gareth, Lyonesse realises that he’s a delight and they are betrothed on the spot.

She promises to come to his bed later on, and Lyonet’s sense of propriety is offended. She employs ‘subtle crafts’ – a phrase that here evidently means serious sorcery – to conjure a mannikin knight, sending it to interrupt her sister’s rendevous by stabbing Gareth in the leg. He beheads the knight but passes out from loss of blood. Gringamore is shocked by the incident; Lyonet calmly puts her creature back together and shows no remorse whatsoever. The same thing happens the next time Lyonesse attempts to sleep with her fiance, causing Gareth to reopen the original wound.

Meanwhile, all Gareth’s defeated opponents have shown up at Arthur’s court to swear their loyalty, causing quite a stir. An even bigger stir is raised when Gareth’s mother arrives to find out how her youngest boy is doing. On finding out that her eldest son didn’t recognise his little brother, and that Arthur let Gareth go haring off on a ridiculous quest with a girl who wouldn’t give her name, Morgause is righteously furious. Then she hears Kay’s nickname for Gareth and remarks crisply that her son is ‘fair-handed’ – meaning just and good-hearted – indeed. It’s very awkward for pretty much everyone who is not Morgause.

Arthur does know who the women involved in this quest are now, thanks to the parade of defeated knights. He sends for Lyonesse. Her response is to invite him and his court to a grand tournament at the Castle Dangerous. She provides no explanation for anything at all. Gareth is wild to compete and prove himself. Lyonet displays her unusual skill set once again by healing him with a highly effective salve, and as entrants begin to stream into the Dangerous lands, Lyonesse prepares him for battle.

She owns a ring with two remarkable properties: it can disguise the wearer, and ensures they will lose no blood. I don’t know what use Malory imagined a wealthy lady would have for such a ring, but it sounds like an excellent contraceptive device, and though she’s willing to loan it to her lover for the duration of the tournament, she wants it back afterwards.

Lancelot is among the arriving competitors. Magic ring notwithstanding, he recognises the boy he knighted and chooses not to joust with him, so as not to risk humiliating him in front of his lady. Gareth’s servant is less discreet. Wanting Gareth’s skill to be acknowledged by the rest of the tournament, he suggests Lyonesse’s ring be returned and Gareth hands it over, unthinking. Everyone can now see him as he is. Gareth handles this very maturely by going to hide in the forest.

He’s too tired to make it back to the castle and so takes shelter at the home of a duchess. She lets him in out of loyalty to King Arthur, though her husband does not share the sentiment. Among a number of adventures the next day, including the rescue of no less than thirty widows from a villainous Brown Knight, Gareth encounters and defeats the duke, sending him in penance to Arthur.

Straight afterwards another knight rides up to challenge Gareth. They fight with a surprising amount of ferocity for two people who have literally no idea who each other are. At last Lyonet rides up to them on a mule and orders the fight to a halt; the unknown knight is Gawain. Why is he riding around the countryside, picking fights with random people? Because he’s Gawain, and he is like that. Most of Arthur’s knights are, actually. The two brothers embrace and Lyonet patches Gareth up yet again. Just in time too, because Arthur and Morgause arrive on the scene next. Lyonet leaves them all to have a family reunion while she goes off to update her sister.

Hearing that Gareth wants to marry Lyonesse, Arthur offers his castle at Kynke Kenadonne to host the wedding. The Dangerous sisters are introduced to Gareth’s brothers and apparently Lyonet hits it off well enough with Gaheris that she marries him on Michaelmas Day, the same day Lyonesse marries Gareth. Another of Morgause’s sons, Agravaine, marries Lyonet’s niece Laurel. The only one of Morgause’s sons left unmarried by the end of the day is Mordred.

All the knights Gareth defeated show up at the wedding to offer their well-wishes and a tournament is held to celebrate, but Lyonesse doesn’t want her new husband jousting so she has Arthur disallow all married men from competing.

Ragnell, Lyonet and Lyonesse are all forceful, confident women who have an absolute certainty that they will get what they want. They are not always kind, but they are protective wives and true allies to those who earn their loyalty. It is a delight to me that they all become sisters-in-law, and I am convinced they would be very good friends.

Other wives and girlfriends of the Round Table include:

– Enid, the daughter of Earl Ynywl of Cardiff and wife of Sir Geraint. Her story comes from the Mabinogeon. Geraint pursued a knight who had insulted one of Guinevere’s ladies, and in defeating him, managed to restore the lost fortune of Enid’s father. Geraint took her to the court of King Arthur, where Guinevere welcomed her with open arms, dressed her in her own clothes and generally behaved like Enid was her long lost little sister. When Geraint was obliged to leave court to attend his father’s lands, Guinevere worried over what entourage to send with her favourite. By this point Geraint had made quite a name for himself both in battle and tournaments, and as he grew comfortable in his position, he spent much more time with his wife.

This inspired scorn from his court – shock! horror! A manly man choosing to spend time with his wife, whatever next! – and upon hearing the rumours as an accusation from her father-in-law, Enid wondered what she was supposed to do about it. Geraint heard her voice these concerns aloud and misinterpreted her anxiety as evidence of infidelity. He then dragged her off on a ridiculous quest along the most dangerous roads in his lands, forbidding her to speak to him and risking her actual life in confrontations with armed robbers, two lecherous earls and marauding giants. Enid was an obedient, peaceable woman, but quietly ignored her husband’s extraordinarily unreasonable requirements to save his life over and over again until finally it dawned on him that she was actually brilliant, not to mention obviously faithful, and they went home.

– Guimier, the daughter of the King of Cornwall, sister to Sir Cador and wife to her brother’s best friend, Sir Caradoc. Caradoc’s sorcerous father Eliaures cursed him by affixing an enchanted snake to his arm, the creature sucking his life away until he was down to skin and bone. As his betrothed, Guimier came to tend him, but the only way to heal Caradoc was to risk her own life: she had to lure the snake with the promise of her own fresher blood and hope that her brother killed it before it reached her. Fortunately, he did.

A ballad called ‘The Boy and the Mantle’ shows a glimpse at her married life, when a malicious young boy came to test the virtue of the ladies at Arthur’s court with a magical mantle that only the ‘purest’ of women could safely wear. This, incidentally, was not a ballad written by someone who liked Guinevere. Guimier was safe because her only ‘sin’ was to kiss Caradoc (in the ballad, spelled Cradock) once before they were married, so the mantle fit.

Tryamour, a faerie princess who married Arthur’s steward, Sir Launfal. This story is the fourteenth century English adaptation of an earlier Breton poem, and it takes a very dim view indeed of Guinevere. She’s said to have a string of lovers straight after her marriage to Arthur, and deliberately slighted Launfal for no apparent reason. Launfal left court to see to his father’s funeral and decided to just stay away, since the atmosphere was so poisonous, but quickly burned through his disposable funds and fell into poverty. A kind female friend lent him a horse, allowing him to retreat for a while into the woods. There he met the blonde, grey-eyed, exceptionally beautiful Dame Tryamour in her rich, ‘eastern’ style pavilion. She greeted him half-naked on a bed, called him her darling, and he fell for her on the spot.

Aware of his difficult straits, she offered him wealth and success in return for a vow of fidelity and his promise that he would not boast about her to anyone. She even gave him her horse Blaunchard, her servant Gyffre, and her standard of three ermines. Launfal happily accepted. They spent the night having great sex and Tryamour assured him that she would come to him whenever he was alone.

He was generous with his newfound fortune, and a tournament was held in his honour, allowing him to display his skill. With the aid of Gyffre and Blaunchard, he defeated even the vicious Sir Valentine. Hearing of Launfal’s impressive deeds, Arthur called him back to court. Being in possession of only the vaguest character and no consistency within this story, Guinevere attempted to seduce him. Launfal was goaded into referencing the superior beauty of his lover; in revenge, Guinevere claimed to Arthur that he tried to seduce her. Launfal defended himself well enough on that charge, but Arthur demanded he produce the beautiful lover of his boast or be executed. His promise having been broken, Launfal’s gifts had all vanished, but Tryamour came to save him regardless. She breathed into Guinevere’s face, blinding her, and took Launfal away with her to live on the island of Olyroun – better known as Avalon.

Maledisant, a character from Le Morte d’Arthur whose story bears a strong resemblance to that of Lyonet: she came to court carrying a large black shield and a sword, seeking a knight to bear them in her service. Breunor le Noire, nicknamed ‘La Cote Male Taile’ by Kay for his ill-fitting coat, had just earned his place among Arthur’s knights by saving Guinevere from an unexpected lion. When Maledisant disdainfully rejected Kay’s offer of help (which he immediately pretended he didn’t give), Breunor insisted on taking the shield and refused to be put off by her sarcastic remarks about his appearance. He spent half the quest getting defeated by Arthur’s more experienced knights and getting mocked by Maledisant, and then Sir Mordred joined them just to make the situation even more uncomfortable.

They stopped at the Castle Orgulous, where both knights were overcome by superior force and Breunor was shown to safety by a sympathetic lady. Maledisant, assuming him to be dead, called him ‘my foolish knight’ and when he caught up with her and Mordred, she wouldn’t immediately believe that he fought in the castle at all. He proved that he did, and she sulked. Lancelot, hearing of Maledisant’s challenge at court, did his big brother thing again by going after Breunor to be sure he was all right. Mordred quickly departed. Lancelot soon left on his own business as well; Breunor and Maledisant continued on to the Castle Pendragon, where they were captured. Lancelot came back to rescue them because he is pretty much the perfect human. With his victory, he freed thirty knights and forty ladies being held prisoner; even the defeated lord of the castle, Sir Brian, felt less bad about being beaten when he found out his opponent was Lancelot and Maledisant apologised for insulting Arthur’s greatest knight. She even toned down her criticism of Breunor for his sake, and Lancelot nicknamed her the damsel ‘Bienpensant’, meaning ‘right-thinking’ (but also ‘conformist’).

Coming to the border with the land of Surluse, Breunor finally got his chance to shine, defeating Sir Plaine de Force and Sir Plaine de Amours before collapsing in front of their brother Sir Plenorious, who generously conceded that Breunor was already wounded and took him inside his castle to recover. Lancelot overcame Plenorious to soothe Breunor’s pride and defeated three more brothers in the family to boot. He then tried to give the land he won to Breunor, but Breunor would not take it, so Lancelot organised for him to have Castle Pendragon instead. At the next Pentecost feast, both Breunor and Plenorious were made knights of the Round Table and Breunor married Maledisant, who was henceforth known as Beauvivante.

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!

Ladies of Legend: Guinevere

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!

Ladies of Legend: Igraine

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 (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, http://www/kingarthursknights.com, http://arthurianadventure.com/, http://kingarthur.wikia.com

Trigger warning: references to rape and incest

My reading of Arthurian legend over years has been less than comprehensive, so 2016 is the year of Round Table Ladies as I research the women involved in these stories, and it has been so worth it because I never knew how many there WERE. I am beginning with a woman kept separate from the bulk of the myth but without whom the key players in Camelot would never have existed: she is Igraine, mother to King Arthur and Morgan le Fay.

In ancient Welsh legend, she is the daughter of Gwenn and Amlawdd Wledig. She may have had up to four sisters – Goleuddydd, Ysbaddaden, Thywanwed and Gwyar – and four brothers: Llydadrudd Emys, Gwrfoddw the Old, Gweir False-Valor and Gweir White-shaft. Also known as Eigyr, Igrayne, Ygerna or Ygraine, the one constant in her story is that she is Arthur’s mother. The Vulgate Cycle gives her three different husbands, the first being Hoel, with whom she had two daughters (one named Blasine); the second was Gorlois, with whom she had three more girls (one named Hermesent). Cador of Cornwall is introduced in another legend as the son of Gorlois, so he may have been Igraine’s child too. Igraine’s third husband was Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth gives her a daughter by him too, Anna, who in that version becomes the mother of Gawain and Mordred.

Igraine’s family tree, to put it another way, is a mess. And it only gets more chaotic from there!

The Arthurian legend as told by Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur does not mention Hoel. In Malory’s version, Igraine is the Duchess of Cornwall, wife to Duke Gorlois. She has three daughters with him: Morgause/ Morgawse, Elaine and Morgan. (Please note: this is not the Elaine who dies for love of Lancelot, or the one who bears his son, there are so many Elaines in Arthurian legend and Lancelot is the kiss of death to them, but fortunately this one appears to have steered clear of him. I’ll talk more about the sisters in a later post.)

Igraine is an exceptionally beautiful woman, not that the term ‘beautiful’ means very much in myth and legend because really every heroine is almost contractually obliged to be the loveliest woman in the room; it is, however, enough to attract the attention of King Uther Pendragon. He summons Igraine and Gorlois to his court in the hopes of seducing her. She could not be less interested. Explaining the situation to her husband, she convinces him to slip away during the night and they return to Cornwall.

Uther doesn’t take well to being refused. He starts a damn war. Gorlois is besieged at Castle Terrabil while Igraine goes to Tintagel. The wizard Merlin is sent for and the way in which Malory describes his arrival makes subsequent events even more awful, because Uther’s man comes across him while Merlin is disguise as a beggar and does not recognise him. Merlin chooses to reveal himself and take Uther’s side in the whole nasty business. He offers to deliver Igraine to Uther in exchange for the child she shall conceive, and disguises the king as Gorlois so he can deceive his way into the duchess’s arms. Seeing his enemy depart from the gates of Terrabil, Gorlois rides out to fight.

Igraine only discovers later that her husband was killed three hours before a man with his face came to her bed.

There is no one left to fight for her and only bad options  left to make peace; Uther quickly compels her into marriage, making her his queen. Soon after, her eldest daughter Morgause marries King Lot of Lothian and Orkney and her second daughter Elaine marries King Nentres of Garlot. The youngest of her girls, Morgan le Fay, is sent to be educated in a nunnery – where, according to Malory, she takes up necromancy. Those are interesting nuns. Morgan later marries yet another king, Uriens of Gore.

It is only when Igraine is heavily pregnant that Uther confesses his deceit. Malory describes her reaction as ‘great joy’, because what woman would not want to be tricked into sex with a man she’d already refused, then have the resulting baby promised away to her rapist’s enabler? Uther enforces Merlin’s terms, taking Igraine’s son from her straight after the birth, compounding the violation. She’s not even allowed to give him a name.

The boy is of course Arthur. He is fostered with a knight called Sir Ector and grows up without any contact with his birth parents. Two years after the birth, Uther Pendragon falls ill and his enemies press the advantage. Merlin rouses the king out of bed with a pep talk about how his presence is vital on the battlefield, and maybe he’s even right, because Uther’s men drive back the Northern army. The victory, however, comes at a price: when Uther gets back to London, he’s too sick to even speak. Merlin manages to prod him into naming Arthur as his successor just before his death, but no one has ever heard of this promised prince before, least of all Arthur himself.

Which leaves all the powerful men of the realm eyeing each other and the throne with worrying interest. Having created the problem, Merlin is the one to solve it. He has the Archbishop of Canterbury summon all the lords to witness a Christmas miracle. Upon a huge stone stands a steel anvil, and embedded through the top of that is a beautiful sword with a challenge written in gold upon the blade: Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England. A festival of jousting is held as everybody awaits the revealing of the sword’s rightful owner. Among the lords coming to compete is Sir Ector, accompanied by his son Kay (newly made a knight) and the younger boy Arthur.

Kay realises he has lost his sword. Sent home to retrieve it, Arthur finds the house emptied as everyone has gone to watch the jousting. Even as a boy, Arthur is not the type to take defeat easily; he goes to the church and pulls Merlin’s sword free with barely any effort so that his brother can fight. Quick to realise the opportunity he’s been given, Kay tries to claim the sword and the crown that comes with it, but Ector gets to the truth of the matter. He confesses to Arthur that he is not in fact his birth father, that Arthur was delivered to him as a baby by Merlin.

The Archbishop accepts Arthur’s claim; the lords are much less convinced. They don’t want to be ruled by some unknown boy. Time and time again the noblemen of the realm attempt to pull the sword free but the only one who can make it budge is Arthur. Merlin, you’ll note, has vanished again. He does that a lot. Finally the common people insist Arthur must take the throne, and he is made a knight by the Archbishop. The groundswell of popular support means nothing to the neighbouring kings, who refuse to accept Arthur’s overtures of friendship. Only when Arthur is actually under siege does Merlin reappear to announce his true birthright. It eases their main grievance, that Arthur is not of royal blood, but they still will not accept his rule.

So, just to make this point crystal clear, Merlin has told his king’s enemies the truth of Arthur’s parentage, but Arthur, his sisters and MOTHER all remain in the dark. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, MERLIN.

It takes years of warfare and a great deal of bloodshed for Arthur to secure his throne. During that time he meets and has a consensual fling with King Lot’s wife, who we know is also his sister Morgause. It’s only then, when it’s rather too late to benefit anybody except as humiliating hindsight, that Merlin chooses to tell Arthur who his birth parents really are. At once Arthur sends for Igraine, who comes to court with her youngest daughter Morgan le Fay. There is a feast of welcome, but during the festivities one of Arthur’s most favoured knights rises to accuse the widowed queen of – wait for this, it’s bloody priceless – treason, because she never told the world of her son’s birth and is therefore apparently to blame for the wars Arthur has fought to become king. The knight making this accusation is Sir Ulfius, the very same man who was sent to find Merlin for Uther’s deception – a man who knows DAMN WELL what a ghoulish lie was inflicted on Igraine. Her response to him in Malory is such a glorious smackdown that I have to quote it in its entirety:

“I am a woman and I may not fight, but rather than I should be dishonoured, there would be some good man take my quarrel. More, Merlin knoweth well, and ye Sir Ulfius, how King Uther came to me in the Castle of Tintagel in the likeness of my lord, that was dead three hours before, and thereby gat a child that night upon me. And after the thirteenth day King Uther wedded me, and by his commandment when the child was born it was delivered unto Merlin and nourished by him, and so I saw the child never after, nor wot not what is his name, for I knew him never yet…Well I wot, I bare a child by my lord King Uther, but I wot not where his become.”

Ulfius, not nearly shame-faced enough, admits the fault lies more with Merlin than Igraine, and the sorcerer in question displays his usual sense of timing by introducing her to Arthur in front of the full court. The young king eagerly embraces his mother and they cry together, overwhelmed by the moment of reunion. The celebratory feasting lasts for eight days. Hopefully nobody ever tells her about what he did with Morgause.

Of course, that’s hardly the end of family tragedy. Morgan becomes Arthur’s most dedicated enemy; Morgause’s cheerful brood of Orkney boys are all doomed to violent deaths and Mordred, the son she had with Arthur, will be the one to kill his king.

So where is Igraine while all this is happening? Not in Tintagel, that’s for sure – in Le Morte d’Arthur it’s taken over by giants to form a silk sweatshop, and at an undefined point after that it becomes the home of King Mark. In some early stories, Mark is Igraine’s nephew, but in Malory there’s no obvious family connection and no reason to think Igraine is living in Cornwall. An alternative ending in the French Vulgate Cycle sees her in the Grail Castle – presumably keeping well out of the way of her warring children – while in Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, le Conte du Graal, she is discovered in an enchanted castle well after her supposed death. The enchanter may have abducted her, but there are hints she may have gone with him willingly. Was he yet another husband in her long and eventful life?

Igraine is a woman of many myths. She is more than a wife, more than a mother, more than a queen. She was wronged, but could not be silenced; she outlived her conquerer and disappeared into a nebulous future all of her own, separate from the struggles of her children. Her daughters are fiercely independent and steadfast in pursuit of their own happiness; her son and grandsons are all attracted to strong-minded women, without whom Camelot would not have become great. That’s a legacy to be proud of.

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!

An Update at the Crosspost

It’s that time again! That is, that time when I look at my blog and realise there is a significant thing I’ve failed to write about, which this time means Contact. Which happened around a month ago. Better late than never!

To have a big speculative fiction convention in Brisbane was a delight to me, and to have the Aurealis Awards ceremony somewhere I could attend it in the same year I was shortlisted for two categories was an incredible piece of luck. I ended up winning neither category – take a look at the list of amazing winners here – but I got to sit next to Juliet Marillier and talk about history and fairy tales and scary landscapes, and meet editor extraordinaire Tehani Wessely in person for the first time, and so many other incredibly clever people. I am running out of superlatives for how much fun I had.

In fact, during the one day of Contact I was able to attend, there was a LOT of talking. I attended most of the panels and had a fantastic time listening to interesting people discuss everything fandom – there was even a woman with a harp playing filk, including a ballad about a witch who might have been a centaur? I don’t know and don’t care, it was brilliant.

Also in March, my baby niece went on her first Easter egg hunt, which was unutterably adorable.

Lately I’ve been reading Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as research for ‘Ladies of Legend’, which has been a huge eye-opener – how did the Arthurian legends ever get reduced to ‘knights in shining armour saving damsels’ when so often, the damsels save them? How did I never find out until now that Morgana had a crew of sorceress queens to hang out with, and that Guinevere and Isolde were penpals? Anyone who stands still long enough in my general vicinity is sharing in my discoveries.

If you follow me on Tumblr, you’ll know this has led to my fangirling over armour and lady knights. I don’t actually post much of my own work on Tumblr, but as I’ve only recently started ‘Ladies of Legend’, I’ve decided to cross-post them. A Lady will go up each Friday until I catch up to the main blog, beginning tonight with Fair Janet.

Oh, and I almost forgot: thanks to my much more technologically literate siblings, my computer disaster has been resolved and I now have reliable internet access, which is driving home to me just how long it’s been since I’ve had reliable internet access, and I might be revelling a little bit.

Review – The Sword in the Stone

The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King No.1) – T.H. White

HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2008

Originally published in 1938

Growing up in the castle of the Forest Sauvage, the boy known as the Wart and his foster brother Kay are expected to learn about everything from literature and geography to hawking and swordplay. One day the Wart loses a hawk and finds a tutor – and the wizard Merlyn, it turns out, takes an unconventional approach to teaching. He’d rather turn the Wart into a bird than explain the anatomy of one, and prefers going to see a real giant rather than just hearing stories. But the biggest adventure of all is one the Wart could never have imagined.

This is the first book in T.H. White’s classic children’s series, which somehow I completely missed reading while growing up. Since I am researching Arthuriana this year for Ladies of Legend, it seemed a good time to read The Sword in the Stone. For some reason I didn’t expect it to be quite so silly – it took me a little while to fall into T.H. White’s world, but his breezily cheerful anachronisms and adorably ridiculous cast of characters made it easy to see why The Sword in the Stone is so beloved. There is a bit of racism, mostly the casual use of outdated terminology in a patronising or parochial way – including one very weird distortion of the word ‘Ethiopian’ in a totally inappropriate context – but the story was considerably less sexist than I expected.

The series continues with The Witch in the Wood. I’m undecided on whether I’ll keep reading – it’s hard to see how you could sidestep the bloody baggage of the legends, making them child-friendly, and still keep the spirit of them – but at the same time, I admit I’d kind of like to see him try.