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: 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!

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.