I’ve always loved this image from the cover of Norma Lorre Goodrich’s book “Guinvere”
I was telling a stranger the other day about my books and he called them “Guinevereian fiction.” I was immediately struck my how apt that phrase is. Yes, what I write is part of Arthurian legend and Arthur is a major character, but the books aren’t about him. They are all about Guinevere.
I’ll admit I’m far from the first author to tackle the subject of Guinevere. Long before me, Persia Woolley, Sharan Newman, Nancy McKenzie, Rosalind Miles, and others decided to tell her story. I’ll admit to attempting two of these author’s works, but by the time I read them, I had such a clear vision of my own story, all I could do was argue with their books because in my mind they were wrong. Needless to say, I didn’t get far in either book, and haven’t picked up any since then.
But what is really neat about Guinevere is that so little is known that each story is different. I really wish I could tell you exactly how mine differs, but we’ll all have to be patient for that. Suffice it to say her lineage, upbringing and relationships with other traditional Arthurian legend characters are all different in my books than in the stories you’ve probably heard. I also think she has a unique personality and outlook on life.
I can hear some of you asking “So what’s the traditional story?” or “What have others done?” Guinevere is quite the busy lady, so here’s a rundown. (If you want a shorter version, check out my post Arthurian Legend 101.) In many traditions, there are two Guineveres (the true and the false), who are sometimes twins, sisters, or lady/serving maid. In Welsh tradition, there are three. But for purposes of this overview, we’ll just assume there’s only one.
Early life – Traditionally, Guinevere is the daughter of Lord/King Leodgrance or Leogden. Nothing is ever said about her mother, siblings or early life. Was she close with them or perhaps abandoned or abused by them? We don’t know. Some fiction writers have had her grow up on Avalon, others make her childhood friends with Elaine, Morgan, Lancelot or even Arthur. Some have given her lovers or even husbands before Arthur. Because tradition tells us almost nothing, authors are free to use her early years to influence the decisions she makes later in life. I’ve done the same thing in my books because all of us are who we are as the result of our experiences.
Queenship – Ah, yes, the be all and end of Guinevere’s life is that she marries Arthur. Most of the time she’s barren, but a few authors give her a child or two, usually sons, who die in childhood, making way for Mordred to lay sole claim to the throne. No wonder so many modern fiction writers, myself included, try to breathe life into other parts of her existence. No woman is defined solely based on who her husband is or whether or not she has children - not anymore.
To me, this picture shows Guinevere at her most powerful, in her role as Sovereignty
It’s interesting to note that in nearly every version of the tale, traditional or modern, Guinevere becomes High Queen, not just Arthur’s royal wife. Whether portrayed as Christian or pagan, in this role she is Sovereignty Herself, the Goddess who bestows (and can take back) all power. So in this reality, it is Arthur who is dependant on Guinevere for his identity as High King.
No wonder she gets kidnapped so much! In almost every story, Guinevere is kidnapped by one or more lords seeking to use her to usurp the throne. The most common culprit is a rebellious Lord named Malegant or Melwas, whose heavily guarded castle is sometimes set on Glastonbury Tor. In some fiction he uses Guinevere only as a bargaining chip, while in others he is outrageously brutal, raping her in attempt to sire a child. Usually, its Lancelot or Arthur who rescues her.
Poor Guinevere. I don’t think I’ve seen any version of the story (at least one where she’s a main character) where she is faithful to Arthur. Lancelot is, of course, her most famous and most popular lover, but other characters including Mordred, Kay, Bedivere or any number of the Knights of Round have been named. Was she simply a randy little lass? Maybe. But this storyline could have come from the Celtic practice of polygamy (which I’ll write more about in the future) or in the idea that as a representative of the Goddess, she could choose her lovers at will. Or it could simply be a morality tale added in the Middle Ages by monks seeking to show wives what evil could befall them if they were unfaithful to their husbands. As I’ve said above, I didn’t get this far in any modern fiction, but my guess is her reasons for infidelity likely were influenced by her relationship with Arthur and other life circumstances, because most people don’t just up and choose to have an affair; usually they will tell you they were driven to it by circumstance.
As if once isn’t enough, some versions have Mordred kidnapping Guinevere after Lancelot rescues her from the stake. Sometimes Mordred marries, rapes or takes her as a lover in a quest to secure his claim on the throne (back to that Sovereignty idea again). Some writers have even made Guinevere a willing party in shacking up with Mordred. Directly or indirectly, this situation usually leads to the battle of Camlann, where both Arthur and Modred die.
Some say Guinevere eneded her life as a nun. I doubt it.
Life after Arthur – Guinevere is traditionally said to either have died of grief after Arthur’s death or lived out her days in a convent. I always thought the convent thing was a sign of penance, but in King Arthur’s Children (to be reviewed here in a few weeks) Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., posits that a convent could have been a safe haven where Guinevere could wait out the battle of Camlann and be either rescued by or safe from the victor. I’ve only ever read one book that explores Guinevere’s life after Arthur, Beloved Exile by Parke Godwin. In it, Guinevere ends up a Saxon slave (I won’t ruin it by telling you how). It doesn’t appear that her owners know who she is or her great value, which to me, would have made the story a whole lot more realistic. I have my ending planned (nope, no slavery here) and I have no doubt it’s different from anything you’ve ever read.
So, what Guinevereian fiction have you read? What parts of the plot did you like? Which parts didn’t work for you? If you were to speculate about her life, what would you say happened to Guinevere throughout the years?